Paul Reubens has taken on dozens of minor film and TV roles, but he could take on dozens more without ever blunting the iconic impact of his signature character, Pee-wee Herman. As an L.A. improv comic, Reubens came into his own when he invented the spastic, gray-suited man-child and developed a cult-hit stage show around him. Pee-wee was later a hit in theaters (in Tim Burton's 1985 feature Pee-wee's Big Adventure and the 1988 follow-up Big-Top Pee-wee) and on TV (on CBS' trippy Saturday-morning show Pee-wee's Playhouse). Unfortunately, in 1991, shortly after Playhouse ended its five-year TV run, Reubens was arrested during a sting on an adult-movie theater. For the next year, he was a public punchline.
He rebounded with a recurring role on Murphy Brown, a slew of voiceover work in animated features, including Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, and a series of bit parts in films, including a joyously flamboyant, well-reviewed performance in 2001's Blow. But in 2002, he made headlines again for a scandal involving his private erotica collection. (He pled guilty to a misdemeanor, and more serious charges were dropped.) Since then, Reubens has largely stayed behind the scenes, doing more voiceover work and working on scripts for two Pee-wee Herman movies: a black comedy intended for adults, and another children's movie. Pee-wee is also making a comeback in other ways: Playhouse is now appearing on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim lineup, and Reubens' live stage performance The Pee-wee Herman Show just debuted on DVD. To commemorate both, Reubens recently chatted with The A.V. Club about his work in and out of the little gray suit.
The A.V. Club: Several years back, you were working on producing two new Pee-wee Herman movies. What's the status of those projects?
Paul Reubens: It's funny, a few years ago, I thought what I refer to as the "dark Pee-wee movie" was going to get made first, but now it looks like the beginning of 2007, like February-ish, I could be ready to start filming the second script, which is the movie version of the CBS kids' show Pee-wee's Playhouse. In that show, we never left the playhouse. Whereas this is kind of an epic adventure. It's all those really kind of clunky characters… Chairry, for example. It's a little cumbersome getting him out of the playhouse. So just that aspect of the story alone makes it kind of a fun script, because you've never actually seen any of those characters out of the playhouse.
AVC: Are you planning to use the same puppets, or are you going to update their look, or use CGI?
PR: I'm not sure about that. My feeling is to try to make it look as low-tech as possible, so I'm not sure whether that means CGI that's designed to look low-tech, or whether it really is low-tech. That's kind of a budgetary thing. I don't know the answer to that.
AVC: Do you have a director in mind?
PR: No, I don't really. I wish I could direct it, but that just seems like too much to me. I don't really want to direct myself, but I'm certainly torn in that direction.
AVC: If you found you could only get funding for one or the other of those films, which one would you make?
PR: Jeez, that's a great question. I love both of these scripts, and I've been living with them and talking about them, as you mentioned, for years now. One of them was written before Playhouse was going, so… Gosh, I just don't know how to answer that. I really like both of them. I could answer that easier if… I have three scripts, actually, and one of them, I could easily not make, but these two? I feel really compelled to make both. They're very different.
AVC: You've said that for a few years, you stopped referring to the adult film as "dark Pee-wee" or "adult Pee-wee" because that label scared producers off. That seems surprising, given all the nostalgia for the '70s and '80s, and the way people love to see their favorite childhood characters recontextualized for adults.
PR: I don't think it's so much the idea that frightens people as the idea that Pee-wee Herman had a kids' show. So would people be confused and come to a black comedy if they thought it was for kids? I really don't know. And it's probably an exaggeration. I doubt if anyone is really scared off by it. I guess more than anything, I never really subscribe to many of those kinds of rules anyway. I feel like when I started out, people weren't banging down the doors, like "Let's make a Pee-wee movie." When we announced we were working on Pee-wee's Big Adventure, people said, "I don't get it, I don't see how it's a movie. It seems like a David Letterman sort of thing."
AVC: In the '80s, you played Pee-wee almost as a performance-art piece, refusing to be photographed out of character and building him up as a discrete entity from yourself. If you return to the character, will you be that immersed in the role again?
PR: I don't think so. I think there was a time when most people didn't realize that I had a different name and wasn't Pee-wee Herman. That's not the case any more, and that's just how it is. I just thought it worked better if it didn't seem like an actor playing that person. I guess at this point, some people will think that, and other people won't.
AVC: Given some of the highly publicized issues you've been though, do you think that separation from the character insulated you at all?
PR: You know what, I've commented on all that a couple of times, and I don't really like to think about it or comment on it.
AVC: You had a lot of success as Pee-wee, obviously, but you have a career outside him these days. If you go back to playing him, are you risking typecasting yourself and killing your outside career?
PR: I sure hope not. Honestly, Hollywood is such a competitive place… A lot of people ask, "Do you feel you were typecast during the Pee-wee years?" And I have no idea the answer to that, honestly. I feel that I just gotta do what I feel is right. It certainly is a constant conversation in casting, where I say, "You know, you could think of me in this role or that role, I'm not always Pee-wee Herman." And sometimes I've been successful in convincing them, and other times, people just go, "No, I really can't see him in that role." And that's just the way it is. That's the way it is for almost anyone in Hollywood—you do one thing, and that's suddenly who you are. So I think it's really up to me to write something for myself and make it happen.
AVC: People do get excited when you break your mold, for instance with your part in Blow or the movie version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Do you have the same sort of glee when you step far away from your signature role?
PR: Yeah, it's definitely refreshing, and it's definitely a lot of fun for me to be in someone else's movie, be an actor for hire. You don't have all the stress of "I'm carrying this project," those kinds of things. So yeah, it's really fun. I just did one day on the Reno 911 movie, and it was fantastic. I haven't done anything like that in a long time. You just kind of breeze in and breeze out, with no worries about anything. Part of me gets a funny, devilish kind of glee out of seeing other people—walking on the set and watching the television director or producer jumping around and stressing out. It's fun to watch that person and think, "I don't have that kind of responsibility for this project."
AVC: One of your more recent credits is for a 2007 film called The Tripper, David Arquette's directorial debut. What's your role in that like?
PR: It's a movie about a bunch of young people who go to an outdoor music festival. And I play the festival promoter, who's very materialistic and a very funny guy.
AVC: What's David Arquette like as a director?
PR: He's fantastic. He's a good friend of mine—he got a lot of his friends to be in the movie—and he has an incredible eye. He's very talented.
AVC: What's your ideal director like?
PR: Someone with an eye for detail. Someone who's watching everything, watching what's in the frame, composition, beauty, performance. There are a lot of things that make a director great.
AVC: You've done a lot of cartoon voiceover work lately. How did you get into that field?
PR: I've done a lot of that kind of stuff over the years. When I was just starting out as Pee-wee Herman, I got a call from someone to go in and work on the second set of Flintstones cartoons they made in the early '80s, where a monster family moved next door to the Flintstones, and it was like the Addams Family, only monsters. So that was a firm beginning of that for me. It's just that every once in a while, I'll get a call. Sometimes I'll go in for an audition for something, and other times it's just "Do you want to do this?" I just did a pilot for the Cartoon Network, called Reanimated. It's almost like a Who Framed Roger Rabbit-type thing, with live action and cartoon characters mixed together. Did a voice in that, worked with some amazing people. It's just one of those things that happens every once in a while, and it's a lot of fun, because you're working with great people and it's very casual and relaxed. You don't put the makeup on, and you don't worry about what you look like.
AVC: You tend to be physically expressive in your roles, and Pee-wee in particular has a very distinctive way of moving. Does that come out of your improv background, or have you had specific movement training?
PR: You know, I don't know the answer to that, I certainly went to various acting schools, and I had movement classes, and I grew up in Sarasota, Florida, which is the winter headquarters of the Ringling Brothers circus, so there are a lot of circus things going on there, and I went to a camp that had a circus program. But I don't know. Pee-wee just kind of popped out one day, pretty much fully fleshed-out and fully formed.
AVC: Various biographies have claimed he was specifically based on someone you knew, but they often disagree on who it was. Do you identify him with any particular person from your past?
PR: Yeah, there are certainly little bits and pieces of other people in him, but mostly, he's just a made-up creation. I spent a lot of years prior to that just observing behavior and watching people. So it blends lots of stuff, including people I don't actually know.
AVC: From your early comedy days to the end of the CBS TV series, you played Pee-wee for about 20 years. How did he develop, or how did you refine the character over that time?
PR: More than really developing him or refining him, he sort of expanded. At a certain point, I realized "This is what you're doing." I sort of let Pee-wee do things that I hadn't originally thought of. I can't really explain that, but the boundaries of what Pee-wee could be and what he could do just sort of expanded.
AVC: The Pee-wee Herman Show was a little more aimed at adults. When did you decide to make him primarily a kids' character?
PR: It was sort of two-fold. We did performances of the stage show at the Roxy Theater on the Sunset Strip in L.A., and it was designed to be performed at midnight, so obviously it was for adults. But it was designed to mesh together all the shows that the audience had grown up on, to push nostalgic buttons for old-fashioned kids' shows. It wasn't particularly… I would argue that it was very similar to Pee-wee's Playhouse. It's certainly a little racier, but racy like people going "No, I reeeally like you," instead of saying "I'm hot for you." So it's racy, but just in an corny, old-fashioned kind of way. There's probably more innuendo in the actual kids' show.
AVC: Is it true that the idea for Pee-wee's Playhouse came from Andy Kaufman?
PR: No, it's not. I've heard that a lot, but I don't know where that came from, actually. Andy had Andy's Funhouse around the same time. I saw it performed—I was this huge Andy Kaufman fan. But no, we were just both doing kids' shows. In fact, around the same time, David Arquette's father, Lewis Arquette, was doing this kids' show for late-night television called Uncle Late Night. So there were a lot of things that were kind of the same thing. When I look back at them now, I think what Andy did wasn't really similar to what I did.
AVC: The Internet Movie Database says you had "complete creative control over Pee-wee's Playhouse, with three minor exceptions," but it doesn't give any details. Do you remember what the exceptions were?
PR: In the first episode, the network said "You can't stick that pencil in that potato, because pencils are sharp, and you might encourage kids to stab things." So we didn't do that. Let's see. There was an episode they got a letter about, where there was a fire in the playhouse, and a firefighter showed up and he and Miss Yvonne were flirting, and he said "You have to have a smoke detector," and she said "I have one in my bedroom, above the bed." They asked us to change that for subsequent airings of the show, so we went in and looped dialogue over it, so instead, she said "I have one in my kitchen." I put it back to the original version for the DVD release. There was a shot of a bathroom door that we held for a really long time, and you could hear Pee-wee peeing. They asked us to tone the sound of the peeing down, and add a score so it was a little less graphic. All the changes they asked us to make seemed really reasonable to me, and we accommodated them. I think in 45 episodes, there were only maybe three other changes they ever asked for.
AVC: Was it difficult to secure that kind of creative freedom?
PR: No. It was a really remarkable situation—they were completely open to what we were trying to do. They liked what we were doing, and understood it, and they'd go along with almost anything. It'd be very difficult to get that kind of situation today.
AVC: Were you ever tempted to push the envelope, to see how far you could go or what you could get away with?
PR: Honestly, I think we did that every day, though never in a conscious or deliberate kind of way.
AVC: Do you think Pee-wee appealed to you for the same reason he appealed to children?
PR: I really think it's the same for me as it is for them. I've always felt like a kid, and I still feel like a kid, and I've never had any problem tapping into my childhood, and my kid side. And I think that's a very universal thing, I don't think it's unique to me at all. People I've talked to in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s have all told me "You know, I still feel 20." So I don't expect that I'm going to be any different.
AVC: You work in an industry that loves scandals and can be merciless about publicly exploiting and judging any sign of impropriety. And it's certainly been merciless with you. Did you ever consider getting into another line of work?
PR: You know, I'm not sure there's anything else out there I'd really be suited for. Some job where I got to boss people around, I guess. It just never really entered my head to leave. I think my entire career path was determined for me when I was 6 years old, watching reruns of I Love Lucy on TV and thinking about making people laugh.