As Paul Reubens fidgeted in his comfy chair on Nov. 18's Late Night With Conan O'Brien hair shorn back to a suitable Pee-wee stubble and eyes alive with the bizarro wonder that made him an '80s ubiquity something odd transpired. In the midst of recounting recent stories of awkward celebrity at the Los Angeles DMV and occasionally fluttering about with Pee-wee vocal affectations, a dark pop-cultural shroud was miraculously lifted, and the world seemed to slip comfortably back into his tight-fitting gray suit, red bow tie-and-lipstick shtick. Seemingly out of nowhere, Pee-wee Herman was reborn.
The Tourette's-addled renaissance in question comes just in time, not coincidentally, to promote the insanely complete DVD release of all 45 episodes of CBS' highly rated late-'80s Saturday-morning confection, Pee-wee's Playhouse an 18-hour giggling party for the clinically deranged … and the rest of us.
"There is nobody who doesn't like that show," gushed Conan with talk-show host glee, steering clear of any of that pesky controversy and diving deep into the shallow end of Pee-wee love. The curse is clearly over; no longer strictly existing at the butt, the jokes have turned back in Reubens' favor.
We love him. So why don't we marry him?
But, even more than the show, the sudden reappearance of Pee-wee signals the imminent corporate relaunch of a lovable novelty character of uncommon charm, one that meant more to the cultural equilibrium than anyone could have suspected at its, or his, outset. Just ask any mildly creative person in his or her early 30s, and you're bound to get a "mekka-lekka-hi, mekka-heiney-ho" in agreement, or at least a nasal "hah hah." Pee-wee's insanity was infectious and his irreverence subversive, connecting a generation's disenfranchised preteens into a conga line of obnoxious extroversion. Uncool became the new cool, and in his wake, SpongeBob hardly seems a worthy rival.
With two screenplays currently in the works one a stab at Pee-wee and celebrity downfalls (hmm), the other a cinematic re-creation of the Playhouse the impossible has been given a license to flourish. Even Eminem's guilty here, spoofing the Wee in his latest Yankovic-ish video attempt, "Just Lose It." The fruit, so to speak, couldn't be riper for the picking. That's right, boys and girls, Miss Yvonne could come knocking at the door with a lit-up beehive 'do at any moment. Get out of bed, there'll be no more napping …
At 52, Paul Reubens has traveled quite a distance to get back to where he started. Having created his Pee-wee ruse while slumming it with the notorious Los Angeles Groundlings troupe in the '70s (and reportedly rooming with none other than Elvira, Mistress of the Dark … imagine that bathroom), Reubens courted notoriety by playing a slightly sweatier version of his current iconic image to adult crowds coming off as a children's television host with less than honest intentions. His groundbreaking HBO special in 1981 introduced the Pee-wee mystique to a large section of cornfed, cable-buying middle America. Inside jokes were launched willy-nilly, and everybody's favorite misbehaving malcontent became a household name.
By the time Pee-wee made his film debut in 1985 in the stolen-bicycle caper Pee-wee's Big Adventure the '80s market was ripe for silly overstatement. Cyndi Lauper was queen, Pee-wee was king and Bette Midler reinvented herself as a drag mother with battery-powered spinning hair at the MTV Awards. Emo Philips and Julie Brown were making comedy careers out of spectacular emotional instability. America was going crazy.
From there, Reubens became a triple threat: His "Surfin' Bird" from the ill-fated Funicello masterwork Back to the Beach hit radio, his Playhouse show launched in '86, and his screen oeuvre expanded to include the film Big Top Pee-wee, a nod to his Sarasota roots and circus ambitions. Cher, Charo and Little Richard guested on his 1988 Christmas special (also recently released by Image Entertainment). To complete the takeover, there were Pee-wee lunch boxes, Pee-wee dolls, Pee-wee Halloween costumes and a bevy of concerned parents.
Sitting through all 18 hours of the Playhouse DVDs a task not advised for those weak in the funny bone or prone to seizures or fashion disasters it's easy to see why: why they were concerned, and why they needn't be. Amidst giant foil balls, lessons on making ice-cream soup (simple, really) and the scream-when-you-hear-it secret word of the day, Reubens laced his pseudo-educational comedy with a fair amount of nudge-nudge camp, often hamming to the camera with an eye to the adults.
"I'm trying to make a decision about something," he vamps in one episode, while a buff, shirtless Latino man Tito, the Playhouse lifeguard bends over the water cooler in front of him. Trying, indeed. In another episode, Tito (shirtless again, except for a Pee-wee jacket) stands behind Pee-wee, pretending to be his arms. "We were just playing the hands game!" jokes Pee-wee, implying a salacious reach-around but sanitizing it for the preschool set. Such bits combined equal parts of the raised eyebrow of John Waters and the low sideburns of Captain Kangaroo. "I hope I'm not going to Uranus!" Pee-wee jokes in a make-believe spaceship. Really.
Meanwhile, careers were being launched. Among the Playhouse gang were none other than Laurence Fishburne (Cowboy Curtis), Phil Hartman (Captain Carl) and even Calvert DeForest, aka Letterman regular Larry "Bud" Melman. William Marshall (Blacula) was King Cartoon. And Mark Mothersbaugh, Danny Elfman and Todd Rundgren were on hand for soundtracking. An uncredited Cyndi Lauper even sang the theme. This was no small affair. But it was a weird one.
Then it all went south. Way south. Reubens was arrested for self-pleasuring at a Florida adult theater in 1991, and suspicions of his sexuality (beyond his hand) smacked up against his growing empire all, predictably, was lost. For the past decade, his presence has been that of a mild legend, a reinvention in greasy-haired seediness culminating in an acclaimed performance in the Johnny Depp vehicle Blow, playing, er, a gay hairdresser. Then it happened again. This time, in November 2002, Reubens was arrested for possession of child pornography, fined $100 and encumbered with an informal three-year probation. A hand-slap, sure, but a loud one.
Whatever the motivations behind Reubens' Herman, the product itself is as timeless as any in the American comedy canon. The fact that he's still interested, and that we are, is testimony enough to that. Will he make it back in one piece? Connect the dots, la la la la.
Welcome back, Pee-wee Herman. All is forgiven.