Paul Reubens: actor and comedic genius
Paul Reubens (August 27, 1952) is an American actor, writer, film producer, game show host, and comedian, best known for his character Pee-wee Herman. Pee-wee became an instant cult figure and for the next decade Reubens would be completely committed to his character, doing all of his public appearances and interviews as Pee-wee.
Reubens was born Paul Rubenfeld in Peekskill, New York, and grew up in Sarasota, Florida, where his parents, Judy (Rosen) and Milton Rubenfeld, owned a lamp store. His mother was a teacher. His father was an automobile salesperson who had flown for Britain’s Royal Air Force and for the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II, later becoming one of the founding pilots of the Israeli Air Force during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Paul has two younger siblings, Luke (born 1958), who is a dog trainer, and Abby (born 1953), who is an attorney, and board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.
Reubens spent a significant amount of his childhood in Oneonta, New York. As a child, Reubens frequented the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, whose winter headquarters was in Sarasota. The circus’s atmosphere sparked Reubens’ interest in entertainment and influenced his later work. Reubens also loved to watch reruns of I Love Lucy, which sparked in him the comedic desire to make people laugh. At age five, Reubens asked his father to build him a stage, where he and his siblings would put on plays.
Reubens attended Sarasota High School, where he was named president of the National Thespian Society. He was accepted into Northwestern University’s summer program for gifted high-school students and also joined the local Asolo Theater and Players of Sarasota Theater, appearing in several plays. After graduation, he attended Boston University and began auditioning for acting schools. He was turned down by several schools, including Juilliard, and twice by Carnegie-Mellon, before being accepted at the California Institute of the Arts and moving to California, where he worked in restaurant kitchens and as a Fuller Brush salesman.In the 1970s, Reubens performed at local comedy clubs and made four guest appearances on The Gong Show in skits he called The Hilarious Betty and Eddie, as well as Suave and Debonair, featuring John Paragon who would later play the genie Jambi at Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
He soon joined the Los Angeles–based improvisational comedy team The Groundlings and remained a member for six years, working with Bob McClurg, John Paragon, Susan Barnes, and Phil Hartman. Hartman and Reubens became friends, often writing and working on material together. In 1980, he had a small part as a waiter in The Blues Brothers.
His iconic character of “Pee-wee Herman” originated during a 1978 improvisation exercise with The Groundlings, where Reubens came up with the idea of a man who wanted to be a comic, but was so inept at telling jokes that it was obvious to the audience that he would never make it. Fellow Groundling Phil Hartman would afterwards help Reubens develop the character while another Groundling, John Paragon, would help write the show. Despite having been compared to other famous characters, such as Hergé’s Tintin and Collodi’s Pinocchio, Reubens says that there is no specific source for “Pee-wee” but rather a collection of ideas.
Pee-wee’s voice originated in 1970 when Reubens appeared in a production of Life with Father, where he was cast as one of the most obnoxious characters in the play, for which Reubens adopted a cartoon-like way of speaking that would become Pee-wee’s trademark speech pattern. Pee-wee’s name resulted from a one-inch Pee Wee brand harmonica Reubens had as a child, and Herman was the surname of an energetic boy Reubens knew from his youth. The first small gray suit Pee-wee ever wore had been handmade for the director and founder of the Groundlings, Gary Austin, who passed it on to Reubens, while “someone” handed him the “little kid bow tie” before a show.
Reubens auditioned for Saturday Night Live for the 1980–1981 season, but another actor who was a close friend of the show’s producer and had the same acting style as Reubens, got the position. Reubens was so disillusioned by the blatant nepotism involved, that he decided he would borrow money and start his own show in Los Angeles using the character he had been developing during the last few years, “Pee-wee Herman”.
With the help of other Groundlings like John Paragon, Phil Hartman and Lynne Marie Stewart, Pee-wee acquired a small group of followers and Reubens took his show to The Roxy Theatre where The Pee-wee Herman Show ran for five sellout months, doing midnight shows for adults and weekly matinees for children, moving into the mainstream when HBO aired The Pee-wee Herman Show in 1981 as part of their series On Location. Reubens also appeared as Pee-wee in the 1980 film Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie. Although it was Reubens in the role of Pee-Wee, the end credits of the movie billed him as “Hamburger Dude.”
Reubens’ act had mainly positive reactions and quickly acquired a devout group of fans, despite being described as “bizarre”, and Reubens being described as “the weirdest comedian around”. Pee-wee was both “corny” and “hip”, “retrograde” and “avant-garde”.
When Pee-wee’s fame started growing, Reubens started to move away from the spotlight, keeping his name under wraps and making all his public appearance and interviews in character while billing Pee-wee as playing himself; Reubens was trying to “get the public to think that that was a real person”. Later on he would even prefer his parents be known only as Honey Herman and Herman Herman.
In the early and mid-1980s, Reubens made several guest appearances on Late Night with David Letterman as Pee-wee Herman which gave Pee-wee an even bigger following. During the mid-1980s, Reubens traveled the United States with a whole new The Pee-wee Herman Show, playing notably at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Caroline’s in New York City and, in 1984, in front of a full Carnegie Hall.
The success of The Pee-wee Herman Show prompted Warner Bros. to hire Reubens to write a script for a full-length Pee-wee Herman film. Reubens’ original idea was to do a remake of Pollyanna, which Reubens claims is his favorite film. Halfway through writing the script, Reubens noticed everyone at Warner Bros. had a bike with them, which inspired Reubens to start on a new script with Phil Hartman. When Reubens and the producers of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure saw the young director Tim Burton’s work on Vincent and Frankenweenie, they chose Burton to be the film’s director. The film tells the story of Pee-wee Herman embarking on nationwide adventure in search of his stolen bicycle. The movie went on to gross $40,940,662 domestically, recouping almost six times its $7 million budget. At the time of release in 1985, the film received mixed reviews, but Pee-wee’s Big Adventure developed into a legendary cult film.
After seeing the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, the CBS network approached Reubens with an ill-received cartoon series proposal. In 1986, CBS agreed to sign Reubens to act, produce, and direct his live-action children’s program, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, with a budget of $325,000 per episode, the same price as a prime-time sitcom, and no creative interference from CBS; although CBS did request a few minor changes throughout the years. After casting actors like Laurence Fishburne and S. Epatha Merkerson, production began in New York City.
The opening credits of the show were sung by Cyndi Lauper, though in the credits she is listed as “Ellen Shaw.” Lauper explained the situation in Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir: “[Pee-wee] wanted me to sing the theme song. I told him I would, but I couldn’t have it under my name, because I was going to put out True Colors, which had a serious tone. In our superficial world, people couldn’t accept both at the same time. So I sang the theme song using the pseudonym ‘Ellen Shaw.’ And then Paul sent me back a tape that was so hilariously funny, of me singing the theme with him in between saying, ‘Oh no! My career is ruined, oh no!’ He’s a nut. I love him.”
Playhouse was designed as an educational yet entertaining and artistic show for children and, despite being greatly influenced by 1950s shows Reubens watched as a child like The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, The Mickey Mouse Club, Captain Kangaroo and Howdy Doody, it quickly acquired a dual audience of kids and grownups. Reubens, always trying to make of Pee-wee a positive role model, was after making a significantly moral show, one that would teach children the ethics of reciprocity. Reubens believed that children liked Playhouse because it was fast-paced, colorful and “never talked them down”; while parents liked the Playhouse because it reminded them of the past.
In 1986, Reubens (billed as Paul Mall) was the voice of the ship’s computer in Flight of the Navigator. In 1987, Reubens provided the voice of REX, the main robot in the George Lucas produced Disneyland attraction, Star Tours, and reprised the role of Pee-wee Herman in cameo appearances in the film Back to the Beach and TV show Sesame Street, the latter of which made a cameo in Playhouse.
Right after the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure Reubens began working with Paramount Pictures on a sequel entitled Big Top Pee-wee. Reubens and George McGrath’s script was directed by Grease director Randal Kleiser. Though still hilarious and undeniably Pee-wee, the film was not as successful as its predecessor, receiving mild reviews and doing just over one third as well in the box office, earning only $15 million.
Pee-wee’s Playhouse aired from September 13, 1986, until November 10, 1990. Reubens had originally agreed to do two more seasons after the third, and when CBS asked Reubens about the possibility of a sixth season he declined, wanting to take a sabbatical. Reubens had been suffering from burnout from playing Pee-wee full-time and had been warning that Pee-wee was temporary and that he had other ideas he would like to work on. The parties agreed to end the show after five seasons, which included 45 episodes and a Christmas Special (which is, quite simply, awesome). Playhouse garnered 15 Emmy Awards, all of them in the Creative Arts Emmy Award category.
Reubens had not always thought of his character as one for children, but sometime during the mid-1980s, he started forming Pee-wee into the best role model he possibly could, making of his show a morally positive show that cared about issues like racial diversity. Reubens was also careful on what should be associated to Pee-wee. Being a heavy smoker, he went to great lengths never to be photographed with a cigarette in his mouth, even refusing to endorse candy bars and other kinds of junk food, all the while trying to release his own sugar-free cereal “Ralston Purina Pee-wee Chow cereal”, a project that died after a blind test. Kids, however, ate up the Pee-wee Herman image.
With his positive attitude and quirkiness, Pee-wee became an instant cult figure, earning a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame by 1989, and successfully building a Pee-wee franchise, with toys, clothes and other items generating more than $25 million at its peak in 1988. Reubens also published a book as Pee-wee in 1989 called Travels with Pee-Wee.
CBS aired reruns of Playhouse until July 1991, when circumstances prompted them to pull from their schedule the last two remaining reruns. Fox Family Channel briefly aired reruns of Playhouse in 1998. In early July 2006, Cartoon Network began running a teaser promo during its Adult Swim lineup. A later press release and many other promos confirmed that the show’s 45 original episodes would air nightly from Monday to Thursday starting on that date. Playhouse attracted 1.5 million viewers nightly. In 2007, TV Guide named Playhouse one of the top 10 TV cult classics of all time. Several children’s television personas cite Pee-wee Herman as an inspiration, including Blue’s Clues’ Steve Burns and SpongeBob SquarePants‘ Stephen Hillenburg.
Pee-wee’s small glen plaid suits seemed ridiculous during the 1980s, but since the late 1990s have made him a “style icon”, with fashion houses and designers like Christopher Bailey, Ennio Capasa, Miuccia Prada, Viktor & Rolf, and Thom Browne creating cut tight suits with high armholes and short trousers that have been compared to Pee-wee’s.
In July 1991, Reubens was arrested in Sarasota, Florida after visiting an adult movie theater. A detective had been in the theatre observing patrons, and Reubens was approached as he was leaving the theatre and charged with allegedly masturbating during the film. The arrest was widely covered, and Reubens and his character both became the subject of ridicule by many in the public.
Though Reubens released a statement denying the charges, he was coerced into pleading no contest. In an attempt to minimize damage, the plea agreement kept the charge off Reubens’ permanent record and obligated him to spend 75 hours performing community service, making an anti-drug public service announcement that he would write, produce and finance.
Despite the negative publicity, many artists who knew Reubens, such as Cyndi Lauper, Annette Funicello, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Valeria Golino, spoke out in his support. Other people who knew Reubens, such as Playhouse production designer Gary Panter, S. Epatha Merkerson, and Big Top Pee-wee director Randal Kleiser, also spoke in support. Reubens’ fans organized support rallies after CBS canceled the reruns, picketing in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. The TV news magazine A Current Affair received “tens of thousands” of responses to a Pee-wee telephone survey, in which callers supported Reubens by nine-to-one.
Reubens, who for years would not give interviews or appear on talk shows, did make a subsequent public appearance as Pee-wee at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards, where he asked the audience, “Heard any good jokes lately?” He received an ecstatic standing ovation when entering the stage.
During the 1990s, Reubens kept a low profile, dedicating himself to writing and collecting a variety of things, “everything from fake food, to lamps”, although he did do some dubbing and took small parts in films such as 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (portraying the Penguin’s father), and 1996’s Matilda and Dunston Check In. In 1993, he voiced the character “Lock” in another one of Burton’s productions, The Nightmare Before Christmas. (Reubens would again voice “Lock” for the video game The Nightmare Before Christmas: Oogie’s Revenge in 2004.)
During the mid-1990s, he played a recurring role on the TV series Murphy Brown. The role earned him positive reviews and his first and only non-Pee-wee Emmy nomination, for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series. He appeared six times on the show between 1995 and 1997. Afterward, Reubens began working on an NBC pilot entitled Meet the Muckles, a show that would be based on You Can’t Take It with You. The project got stuck in development hell, and was later dropped when Reubens’ ideas grew too elaborate and expensive, although Philip Rosenthal blamed NBC’s negative response on Reubens being on a “blacklist.”
By 1999, Reubens had given several interviews as himself and made public appearances while promoting the movie Mystery Men, the first being on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 1999. He also starred in Dwight Yoakam’s Western South of Heaven, West of Hell, playing as a rapist and killer. In 2001, Reubens had his first extended television role since Playhouse, as the host of the short-lived ABC game show You Don’t Know Jack, based on the game of the same name. It was cancelled after six episodes due to low ratings.
A turning point for the actor was when he played a flamboyant hairdresser turned drug dealer in Ted Demme’s drama Blow, which starred Penélope Cruz and Johnny Depp. His performance was praised and he began receiving scripts for potential movie projects.
Reubens dated actress Debi Mazar in 1993 after he started attending film premieres with her. Reubens has since credited Mazar with helping him immensely in ending the depression he had been struggling with since his 1991 arrest.
In 2002, he moved to Florida to care for his terminally ill father in Florida, who died in February 2004 of cancer.
Late in 2002, while filming David LaChapelle’s video for Elton John’s This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore, Reubens learned that police were at his home with a search warrant, acting on a tip from a witness in the pornography case against actor Jeffrey Jones, finding among over 70,000 items of kitsch memorabilia, two grainy videotapes and dozens of photographs that the city attorney’s office characterized as a “collection of child pornography.” Kelly Bush, Reubens’ personal representative at the time, said the description of the items was inaccurate and claimed the objects were “Rob Lowe’s sex videotape, and a few 30- to 100-year-old kitsch collectible images.” Reubens, caught up again in having to confront unfair charges, voluntarily turned himself in to the Hollywood division of the LAPD and was charged with possession of obscene material improperly depicting a child under the age of 18 in sexual conduct. The district attorney looked at Reubens’ collection and computer and found no grounds for bringing any felony charges against him. However, city attorney Rocky Delgadillo, who was jockeying for a political career and needed his name in the public eye, brought misdemeanor charges against Reubens on the last day allowed by the statute.
Reubens was represented by Hollywood criminal defense lawyer Blair Berk, and in December he pleaded not guilty. Rubens’ public statement on these charges was clear and concise: “One thing I want to make very, very clear, I don’t want anyone for one second to think that I am titillated by images of children. It’s not me. You can say lots of things about me. And you might. The public may think I’m weird. They may think I’m crazy or anything that anyone wants to think about me. That’s all fine. As long as one of the things you’re not thinking about me is that I’m a pedophile. Because that’s not true.”
In March 2004, child pornography charges were dropped in exchange for Reubens’ guilty plea to a lesser charge. Reubens later stated that he was a collector of many kinds of vintage items, which included various forms of erotica. He said that what the city attorney’s office viewed as pornography, he considered to be quirky, kitsch art. Being an avid collector, Reubens had often purchased bulk lots, and one of his long-time vintage magazine dealers declared that “there’s no way” he could have known the content of each page in the publications he bought and that he recalled Reubens asking for “physique magazines, vintage 1960s material, but not things featuring kids.”
Despite the attempts to slander his name and career, Reubens carries on with dignity and humor. He has made cameos and guest appearances in numerous projects. He played Rick of the citizen’s patrol on the popular Comedy Central series Reno 911!, which gained him a small role in the 2007 film Reno 911!: Miami. That same year he appeared in the second music video version of The Raconteurs song Steady, As She Goes. The video has the band engaging in a comical soapbox car race, with Reubens playing the bad guy who sabotages the race. In 2007, Reubens attended his own tribute at the SF Sketchfest, where he talked about his career with Ben Fong-Torres. He also signed with NBC to make a pilot on a show called Area 57, a sitcom about a passive-aggressive alien, but unfortunately it was not picked up for the 2007–2008 season. Reubens did however appear on the hit NBC series 30 Rock as an inbred Austrian prince, a character Tina Fey created for him. He also made three guest appearances on FX’s series Dirt. This time he was recommended for the role by Dirt star and close friend Courteney Cox. Cox’s husband, David Arquette, would then cast Reubens for his directorial debut, the 2007 film The Tripper.
Reubens’ work throughout out the first part of the 21st century has included: dubbing/making cameos in a series of Cartoon Network projects such as the 2006 television film Re-Animated, the animated cartoon series Chowder, Tom Goes to the Mayor, and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!; appearing in the role of Oscar Vibenius in the series’ 7th and 9th episodes of Pushing Daisies; a PSA for Unscrew America, a website that aims to getting people to change regular light bulbs for more energy-efficient ones in the form of CFLs and LED; working on David O. Russell’s Nailed and Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime; voicing Bat-Mite in the Batman: The Brave and the Bold episode Legends of the Dark Mite; and in 2015 he appeared in the highly successful, dark, and nearly perfect program Blacklist.
In January 2009, Reubens hinted that negotiations were under way for his stage show to come back, and in August the return of The Pee-wee Herman Show was announced. Reubens said he felt Pee-wee calling, “I just got up one day and felt like I’m gonna come back, that was it.” The show is also a way to “introduce Pee-wee to the new generation that didn’t know about it”, preparing the way for Reubens’ main project, the Playhouse movie. Before this project began, Reubens’ present age and shape had been pointed out as a possible issue, since Pee-wee’s slim figure and clean skin have been one of his trademarks. But after appearing for the first time since 1992 as Pee-wee at Spike TV’s 2007 Guys’ Choice Awards, Reubens had remained optimistic and had jokingly said he’s no longer nervous about being young Pee-wee again thanks to digital retouching.
The show was originally scheduled to begin November 8 and continue until the 29th at the Music Box Theater in Hollywood. Due to high demand, the show moved to Club Nokia @ LA Live and was scheduled to run between January 12, 2010 and February 7. To promote the show Reubens once again gave interviews in character, appearing as a guest on The Jay Leno Show, The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien (as well as O’Brien’s subsequent Legally Prohibited Tour) and Jimmy Kimmel Live! among others. A Twitter account, a Facebook account and a new website were made for Pee-wee after the show changed venues.
On November 11, 2010, the show relocated to New York for a limited run at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, selling over $3 million in advance tickets. An extra performance was taped for the HBO network on January 6, 2011 and debuted March 19. On January 15, 2011, Reubens appeared on Saturday Night Live as Pee-Wee in an extended and well received segment depicting Andy Samberg and Pee-wee getting drunk, taking a ride on a mechanical bull, doing the tequila dance and ambushing Anderson Cooper in an alleyway with a chair.
In June 2010, various film news sites reported that Paul Reubens was working with Judd Apatow on a new Pee-wee Herman feature film. As all good things take time, finally in February 2015, Netflix acquired the rights to produce a new Pee-Wee film entitled Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday with Apatow and Reubens producing the film, John Lee directing, and Reubens and Paul Rust writing the screenplay. The film was released on March 18, 2016 on Netflix to very positive reception and rave reviews.
Reubens has mentioned he has plans for a museum, which would contain many of the Playhouse sets and props he still owns. – To keep up with the latest in the life of this brilliant mind, be sure to see any or all of the following: