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35 years in, Paul Reubens doesn’t know—and doesn’t want to know—why Pee-wee Herman works

Although he has extensive film and TV credits—and a reputation as one of the early superstars of The Groundlings, the famed L.A. sketch and improv troupe—Paul Reubens will forever be associated with Pee-wee Herman. He created the character more than 35 years ago at The Groundlings, where it quickly became a hit that progressed to a bigger club, then an HBO special, and eventually, the hit 1985 film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. That led to a critically acclaimed hit TV series Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which ran for five seasons, and another film, 1988’s Big Top Pee-wee. That film didn’t match its predecessor’s success, but the TV show would run through 1990 and score more than a dozen Emmys in the process. The character lay dormant for nearly 20 years until Reubens revived him for an acclaimed stage show, which eventually went to Broadway. That presaged a comeback film, but as Reubens and executive producer Judd Apatow discovered, it wasn’t a slam dunk. News about the film got out way back in 2010, and several studios turned down Reubens and Apatow before Netflix agreed to pick it up. The streaming service released Pee-wee’s Big Holiday last Friday, just after the film premiered to an exuberant crowd at SXSW. The A.V. Club caught up with Reubens in Austin the day of the film’s release to talk about not analyzing Pee-wee, the long road to getting it made, and what comedy lore gets wrong about him. (Note: This interview reveals major plot points in the new movie.)

The A.V. Club: During the Q&A last night, someone asked about how you developed the character over the years, and you said you try not to get too caught up in it.

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Paul Reubens: It’s harder and harder, I’m finding.

AVC: Right, so when you were writing the script, did you feel pressure to think about that?

PR: I feel like I’d be dead if I did that, and I think that’s a trap. A lot of people, over the amount of years I tried to reboot the whole thing, people would say to me, “Is it Pee-wee origins? You’ve been gone 30 years, are you going to explain that? Where has Pee-wee been?” I sort of feel like, who cares where Pee-wee’s been? The thing that I loved about—that I still like about Pee-wee Herman—is that you look at Pee-wee Herman, you know who Pee-wee Herman is. You don’t need a lot of backstory. It didn’t require a lot originally, and I don’t feel like that much has changed, really. It’s sort of the same thing. I just have never been interested in that. I feel like when the movie started last night, people weren’t lost. People weren’t like, “Wait, what is this? What’s going on?” There’s not that much backstory necessary, I think. And by a “trap” I mean like there’s a lot of things that get rebooted where there’s like 20 minutes of exposition at the beginning and you’re like, “Who cares?!” You lift all that out and be better off.

AVC: Do you think about why Pee-wee still works?

PR: No. I absolutely force myself to not. I’m trying to find out ways to not alienate people asking me these questions. I don’t want to make anybody feel bad, but on the other hand, I don’t want to think about that.

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AVC: That’s not a typical approach.

PR: Well, it’s like a survival approach. It really is. Honest. I’m not being weird. I’m not trying to bullshit you in any way. I can’t approach it like that. If I do, I’ll turn into a different person that isn’t someone I want to be.

AVC: Why do you think other studios weren’t interested? Because it’s an old character?

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PR: I don’t think so. I really don’t know the answer to that, and that’s a question I certainly asked a few people, including agents: “Should I be taking this personally? It sure seems personal.” You have Judd Apatow attached to your movie and the studio says no, like, what is that about? But I was told over and over and over again, “It’s not personal. It’s a lot of different factors.” We’re in a situation now where fewer and fewer small films get made. People want these big giant tentpole sort of things, and I don’t know, it’s getting harder and harder to make a small movie. Probably some of what you’re saying is true. I don’t know if people are like, “That was 30 years ago—who’s the audience for that now?” I have no idea. This is so dumb to say, but true: If there was a formula for how you figure all this stuff out, there’d be no big bombs. All the movies would be great. It’s just like nobody knows. They think they know. I feel like I knew. I was very confident that it was time to make another Pee-wee movie 10 years ago, and so now I saw the reaction last night and I go, “Oh, I was right!” It works great. Other people may go, “This is just what I thought would happen with it. It’s the same as Big Adventure.” I don’t know what people really think about it yet.

AVC: How much are you going to find out? Are you one of those people who avoids reviews?

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PR: No, no, no. I’m very interested to hear what people think about it. I mean it’s not going to change how I’m going to perceive it. I’ve learned that lesson already. A lot of critics had a lot to say about my relationship with my girlfriend in my first movie. A lot of people wrote, “Pee-wee doesn’t seem to like his girlfriend,” and so I thought, “Okay, I’ll show you. I’ll have two girlfriends in my next movie.” And no one wanted to see that, so that was a really good lesson of not listening to critics. You just do what you want to do, which is something I’ve always, always felt, down deep, and I think I’m a good example of it. I don’t really listen to anyone’s advice about this kind of stuff; I just do what feels right and what I like. I just realized I’m such a brat, kind of, when I think about it now—I’m listening to myself talk about it. I’ve been super lucky in that I’ve either been in or helped create situations where I do what I want. I’m super lucky. I get to do what I want and create art and make people laugh, and it’s really fun.

AVC: It’s also something that’s so close to you. It’s a character you created.

PR: Yeah, and I make the rules for it. Also, [it’s a] chicken or the egg kind of thing, in terms of my work: Which came first, the quirkiness or the quirky work? I just feel like it’s just a blend of a whole bunch of different things, so I have to look at and go, “Well, I am sort of that person to some degree.” It didn’t come out of nowhere. I enjoy getting to be arty and quirky and weird and all the things that I don’t have that much choice with. You just sort of use what you got. That cliché of you play the hand you got dealt. I’m not Joe Manganiello. I’m not somebody who someone’s going to walk up to on the street and be like, “Are you an actor? Oh my God! Here’s a property for you!” Which is something I thought would happen to me a long time ago. That’s part of how Pee-wee Herman happened, was I realized, “You’ve got to figure out something to make your mark or it’s gonna not happen.” So I felt like I got forced into becoming a writer, which is something I never thought of and wasn’t that interested in.

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AVC: You mentioned the rules. How much of a sense do you have when you’re working that Pee-wee would do this, but not that?

PR: It’s just a gut feeling. I don’t have a list of rules—“Pee-wee can’t do this.” In fact, I’ll do the opposite. If there’s something I want to do, I find a way to rationalize how Pee-wee would do that, and if it’s something I don’t want to do… I think real life is like this, also, where you make a decision, “Oh, I don’t want to do this, so how do I get there? How do I work it out with myself or with a stranger and go ‘Here’s the reason why that doesn’t work’?”

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AVC: Were you hesitant to have those allusions to Big Adventure, like the opening sequence or the road trip?

PR: No, not at all. I think I had to make the road trip be really different, but I felt like the plot—what little plot there is—sort of felt different enough.

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AVC: Did the medium, a streaming platform, inform any of the content?

PR: No, I don’t think so. No, not that I know of. It’s an interesting question.

AVC: It was interesting last night to see the premiere knowing the whole world would have access to it in a few hours.

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PR: Yeah, I was getting very melancholy, I guess, about the idea. I kept thinking, “Wow, this is one of a handful of screenings of hundreds of people.” Unless you own a screening room at your house and invite a hundred people, it’s going to be rare to see it in the theater with other people, other than your invited guests in your living room. Which I’m not putting down—it’s just a different thing.

AVC: There’s a different energy when you see a comedy with a crowd, too, especially at the premiere.

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PR: Yeah, it’s incredible. I’ll be curious to hear what Netflix thought of it. Because the president of Netflix, the vice president, like a lot of the Netflix people were there last night. My phone hasn’t rung today, of somebody going, “You know what? After seeing that last night, we should do a small theatrical run,” or we should do this or that. I mean, I don’t know how that all manifests itself. In a certain way, I’d love to, a year from now, release it to theaters and see what happens. But I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen.

AVC: Yeah it’s interesting to see how people’s conception of it changes. But there’s something about being with an audience for a comedy that makes the jokes hit harder.

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PR: Yeah, this is what I think was a quality of movies, is you’re in a group of people. You’re sharing something with people. Whether those other people make you laugh more, you’re all laughing. You’re all happy together. There’s something… manmade about that in a way that’s—I’m not sure how that manifests itself in nature, but culturally we’ve set that up when we invented theater and the movies and all that stuff. Storytelling, I guess, is a shared—I’m making this up, but it seems like a communal sort of thing. I had some close friends there last night, and we just said to sit in that theater and share that laughter in that group, it’s just unique. Whatever it is, good or bad, it’s just a unique thing. It’s weird to think about there’s two screenings in New York of more than a hundred people, and then after that I don’t know of anything like that.

AVC: When you came out after the screening, you mentioned people laughing at the right places. Were there specific jokes you were hoping would land?

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PR: Well, I think when Joe [Manganiello] said “I want you to come to my party,” I felt very vindicated of trying to get the press to not give that away. The only reason I asked that was because there’s no plot in the movie. The movie has almost no plot, and so for me, that’s a joke. To me it’s a funny moment when you’re 20 minutes into the film and he goes, “I want you to come to my birthday party,” and you go, “That’s the plot?” I think that’s funny. I felt vindicated of harping on that with Netflix and my PR company and trying to say collectively to Netflix, “You’ve got to help me. How can we get the press to not tell it opens with an alien, not tell it’s about his birthday party or that I’m going to New York?” I think it was those three things—and that Joe plays himself. Not because I think you can’t enjoy the movie, but they’re just quirky, odd moments that we made them quirky and odd on purpose, and they’re not like that if you already know.

AVC: To go back to the chicken-or-the-egg thing, the story goes that when you were at The Groundlings, you had a host of characters, but Pee-wee was the one that caught on. Are there any from those days that you still think about, like “Oh, that could’ve been something?”

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PR: No. The only other character I had there that I felt like that about was an American Indian lounge singer, and as sensitive to political correctness as I think I was back then—I think I was an early adopter of not so much “political correctness” but more just sensitivity to people—I was playing an American Indian, and I’m not an American Indian. So it was totally politically incorrect and insensitive and something I couldn’t really do today, and surprisingly I had no recognition of any of that at that point, for that specific thing. But nothing was ever fleshed out for that long at The Groundlings. Pee-wee Herman got fleshed out over a long time after that.

AVC: It’s probably just comedy lore. “Paul Reubens had this character and this character and this character, and they were all great, and they all could’ve been Pee-wee Herman.”

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PR: You know what, they couldn’t have all been Pee-wee Herman, because people didn’t react the same to them. They weren’t as whatever Pee-wee is that I don’t want to focus on. That’s the only time I ever really did what I’m saying I never want to do: I did, early on, go like, “Wow, that’s a different reaction to this character than anything else I’ve done.”

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