In Pee-wee Herman, Joy and Fun Got Flat-Out Weird

Paul Reubens committed to profound silliness without ever going mean or dark — though some peers were disappointed that he focused on one character.

By Jason Zinoman

Of all the great flesh-and-blood cartoons of 1980s popular culture — Hulk Hogan, Madonna, Mr. T — the one easiest for small children to relate to was Pee-wee Herman. He made the same kind of obnoxious jokes we did (“I know you are but what am I?”), in a similar, if more overtly nasal, squeak while capturing an un-self-conscious exuberance that felt deeply familiar.

That’s how it felt. In reality, Pee-wee Herman was nothing like us at all, a dreamy man-child in a red bow tie whose sugary smile could curl into a punky scowl. A singular piece of comic performance art for a mass audience, Pee-wee Herman stood out in every form he appeared in, from improv theaters to late-night talk shows to the movies to Saturday morning television.

That this character could be so easy to identify with and so singularly, slyly alien at the same time is the stupendous magic trick of his creator, Paul Reubens, a true original who died on Sunday at 70.

The first time I saw him do Pee-wee was on “Late Night With David Letterman,” where he was one of the oddballs the show’s executives would spotlight when they couldn’t book real stars. Unlike Brother Theodore, Harvey Pekar or Andy Kaufman, Pee-wee introduced no hostility or even conflict to the show. His appearances on that most ironic of late-night shows were like invasions from Candy Land. He brought toys and disguises, and he would get up and dance even before the music played. There was a joy in his presentation that was bracing. You laughed not because the jokes were funny, but because they were told with such commitment to the fun of it all.

Letterman didn’t know what to make of him. You did get the sense that the host enjoyed his guest’s adolescent jerkiness. But there was more there. Even though Pee-wee was a broad character, something about him seemed more real than any conventional comic slinging punchlines or movie star selling a movie. This was a Bugs Bunny level of charisma, built to last.

Paul Reubens (born Paul Rubenfeld) started his career doing many characters for the sketch group the Groundlings, and he went on to embody even more extreme characters, including the monocled father of the Penguin in “Batman Returns” and an Austrian prince with an ivory hand in “30 Rock.”

But once Pee-wee became a hit with crowds in the 1970s, he mostly abandoned his other roles, to the frustration of Phil Hartman, his improv peer and a future “Saturday Night Live” star, who thought he was wasting his talent focusing on just one part.

By the time he was starring in a Pee-wee movie directed by Tim Burton, Reubens was credited only as the writer. Pee-wee Herman played himself. This blurring of character and actor added a sense of mystery, and odd authenticity, to this stylized performance. A natural outsider, Pee-wee excelled at fish-out-of-water comedy. In “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” (1985) a classic comedy that is still Burton’s best movie, Pee-wee finds himself winning over unlikely people in a quest narrative about his search for his bike.

He accidentally knocks over the motorcycles of a bunch of grizzled Hells Angels types, before charming them by jumping on the bar and dancing to the Champs’ surf tune “Tequila.” In another bit, he is talking in a telephone booth and trying to explain where he is, so he peeks his head out to sing, “The stars at night are big and bright.” A team of cowboys responds in unison: “Deep in the heart of Texas!”

The world of Pee-wee is full of this loopy surrealism that could veer into innuendo but never got dark. It was always welcoming, wildly diverse, profoundly silly. The movie, along with his anarchic Saturday morning children’s show, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” melded a child’s energy with a love of show business. Reubens, who grew up in Sarasota, Fla., nearby the winter headquarters of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, managed to imbue such entertainment with the spirit of performance art, while never taking the easy route of going mean or dark. His work just got weirder.

Pee-wee’s television stint ended in infamy when Reubens was arrested on a charge of indecent exposure in a porn theater. Late-night hosts pounced, and so did the news media. CBS took reruns of his show off the air. The controversy now seems preposterously overblown. That happened just one year before Sinead O’Connor’s career suffered a blow from her protest on “Saturday Night Live” against sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church — an episode that has come under new examination after her death last week. It’s clear that dopey moralizing scandals are far from a hallmark of our age alone.

The one time I talked with Reubens, around seven years ago in an interview, he was, not surprisingly, quite different from his character: thoughtful, reserved, sober-voiced. He was modest about Pee-wee, who eventually returned.

No character that beloved, that meme-able, would not be pulled back to action in our current nostalgia-driven culture. There was a Pee-wee Herman Netflix movie and a Broadway show, and, while there were small updates here and there, the character remained in essence the same: giddy, exuberant, singularly strange and primally tapped into childhood.

Pee-wee got older but he never grew up. His career is an update on the Peter Pan story, except no one in Neverland would say: “That’s my name. Don’t wear it out.”

Jason Zinoman is a critic at large for The Times. As the paper’s first comedy critic, he has written the On Comedy column since 2011. More about Jason Zinoman

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