The Pee-Wee Perplex: Welcome to Paul Reubens' 'Playhouse'

Who is Pee-wee Herman and why does everyone in America have something to say about him?

American actor, comedian, and children's show host Paul Reubens (as Pee Wee Herman) poses on his beloved bike in a television still from the CBS Television show 'Pee Wee's Playhouse', in 1986. Credit: CBS Photo Archive/Getty

He is totally weird. I think he is tapped into something weird and magical.
—Wayne White, a designer for Pee-wee's Playhouse, on Pee-wee Herman

He's dumb.
Is that good or bad?
That's good. He's an asshole, too.
Is being an asshole good or bad?
It's good.
—Shane, aged six, being interviewed about Pee-wee Herman

I don't have much to say about what it is that I do. I feel that it, by and large, speaks for itself — or I hope it does.
—Pee-wee Herman

This season, cartoon-numbed Saturday-morning TV has offered kiddies of all ages only one live person to watch: the profoundly odd Pee-wee Herman, shrieking and swooping around Pee-wee's Playhouse. To lure the boy-man's fetal charms to its schedule, CBS offered to give him money and then leave him to his mischief. In return, CBS asked three things: (1) Pee-wee should not stick pencils in potatoes; (2) Pee-wee should not emerge from the bathroom with a trail of toilet paper sticking to his shoe; (3) Pee-wee should not say, in the context of a certain presumably innocent scene, "I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours."

Pee-wee Herman ended up doing all three things. He also ended up with high praise from The New York Times, which called the new series "this season's most imaginative and disarming." The Washington Post said, "All right, so Pee-wee Herman is an acquired taste. But how sad for those who are just too darn uptight to acquire it."

And he got the ultimate accolade each time a football player scored a touchdown and, instead of spiking the ball, triumphantly did the Pee-wee, a dance resembling the efforts of a patient to show a doctor the source of lumbar or gastric distress

At first, ratings for the show, while respectable, didn't match critics' and wide receivers' enthusiasm. The audience for animated guano like Smurfs and Real Ghostbusters remained true. By November, though (thanks in part to a move to an earlier time slot), the Playhouse had established itself among the top Saturday-morning shows in households with children aged two to eleven — the target group for kid-vid advertisers pushing toys and glucose. And apparently lots of superannuated children have been watching, too, some setting their alarms, others their VCRs. Pee-wee's audience is so eclectic there's now talk around CBS of running the Playhouse twice — Saturday morning for kiddies and late night for culties. The show, like its star, defies categories.

In one episode, Captain Carl (played by Phil Hartman, now also on Saturday Night Live) growls, "You know, Pee-wee, there's a real twisted side to you."

"Thank you, Captain Carl," Pee-wee answers with becoming modesty.

He seems harmless enough, frolicking in his nerdy, shrunken suit, with short cuffs revealing white socks, and with his fine-wristed hands fluttering in independent Zasu Pitts imitations. He even has a beslimed crew cut — none of this long hair whipping around, like Ted Nugent in a blow-dryer square-off with David Lee Roth. He sports clean white shirts and a red bow tie, probably a clip-on. He could be a high-school chemistry teacher from the Sixties. Problem is, this guy is wearing makeup. Yes, sir, he's got on your face powder, your rouge, your lipstick — more like a Sixties home-ec. teacher. Then there's his voice, which sounds like a blender with sinus problems, whining at high speed through taco dip.

His playhouse, which might be the collision of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with a raspberry-and-lime Jell-O mold constructed by Disney technicians recovering from Taiwan flu, is crammed wall to wall with toys and tchotchkes reminiscent of every flea market, swap meet, garage sale and New Wave gallery between SoHo and Sausalito. It features a resident genie and drag queen manqué who grants wishes, a mouse hole with tennis-playing dinosaurs, an antic ant farm, a fridge where food wears sunglasses, a chair with arms that hug and a robot who outacts Olmos on Miami Vice. Its style completely reflects Pee-wee Herman, who exercises auteur-like control over every detail, according to the artist Gary Panter, the show's design director.

"He's got a strong sense of everything he likes," Panter says in laid-back Texas tones. "He's really smart, and he's a collector of all the kind of stuff that's on the set, so he knows that genre inside and out. He's got a great collection of children's textbooks from the Thirties and Forties. His old house in L.A. was covered with toys and art and objects."

Pee-wee's friend Allee Willis, a Grammy-winning songwriter who collects "Atomic Fifties" memorabilia and has a garden planted with multicolored bowling balls, says approvingly, "Pee-wee Herman is completely into bad taste, completely into cheese, It's a very Jayne Mansfield mentality."

Pee-wee Herman is the creation of an actor named Paul Reubens, who is the creation of a man named Paul Rubenfeld. They're all thirty-four years old, but Pee-wee doesn't act it. Paul Rubenfeld's parents are Judy and Milton Rubenfeld. Pee-wee Herman's parents are Honey and Herman Herman. Judy Rubenfeld finds her mythical counterpart "real weird. When you're a Mrs. Reubens or Mrs. Rubenfeld and Mrs. Herman, it gets very confusing." As a matter of fact, she says, "I'm not sure where Paul ends and Pee-wee begins."

He's a sexy guy. He looks like this kind of Puerto Rican love doll. And the most beautiful lips on a man, the sexiest lips.
—Charlotte McGinnis, former comedy partner of Paul Reubens

He has a really nice body!
—Bonnie Schiffman, photographer, on shooting Pee-wee in a bathing suit

He's incredibly sexy, he's adorable, he's got a great body. He really knows how to work Pee-wee Herman, so he holds his body differently when he's in those clothes. He's pretty tall — I'd say at least five eleven.
—Allee Willis

He's got shaggy hair, he's got a goatee, he's dark complexioned, and he's wearing rose-tinted sunglasses. You would never in a million years know it was Pee-wee Herman. He was real casual: California clothes, a loose Hawaiian shirt, blue jeans and Converse high-top tennis shoes.
—Wayne White, on the first time he saw Paul Reubens

I'm very recognizable, particularly with a crew cut. You can't disguise a crew cut.
—Pee-wee Herman

Is it Pee-wee or is it Paul? The Pee-wee Herman Show, an L.A. theater piece that became an HBO special in the early Eighties, listed Paul Reubens as playing Pee-wee Herman, in addition to co-writing and codirecting. After touring the club and college circuit, Pee-wee Herman, sans Paul Reubens, began popping up on Late Night with David Letterman, squealing nonstop about toys and unattainable celebrity girlfriends and, like, everything, I mean, you know, okay okay okay? Letterman suffered his guest with benign embarrassment, as if Pee-wee might actually go pee-wee on the upholstered chair. The movie Pee-wee's Big Adventure, in which our hero battled the forces of evil to recover his missing bicycle, hit theaters in the summer of 1985. It cost $6 million and earned $45 million — not including bucks yet to come from foreign markets (the French will probably love him), network, cable, syndication rights and videocassette purchases. In the credits, Paul Reubens was listed as a co-writer. Pee-wee Herman appeared as himself.

To promote the movie, Pee-wee traveled to big cities and met the press, with his little gray suit, little pink lips and little high voice. Paul wasn't available for interviews; Pee-wee was. That, his managers and publicists maintain, is the inflexible Pee-wee policy. But sometimes it flexes. Faced with a New York Times reporter, Peter J.Boyer, Paul gave the interview, not Pee-wee. "I was a little amused at that," Boyer says. "Whichever persona he showed up in would've been fine with me. I get along wonderfully well with nine-year-olds."

As the publicity campaign for Pee-wee's Playhouse went into high gear, the ground rules allowed no questions about Paul Reubens or about Pee-wee Herman's work methods. His office explained that I would be talking to Pee-wee, but he wouldn't be using his Pee-wee voice. I wondered if I should use a different voice. I thought of checking Sybil and The Three Faces of Eve out of the library.

The non-Pee-wee voice turned out to be soft, low and polite and sounded like Pee-wee on Thorazine. Our conversation was tiptoeing through the narrow range of permitted topics when suddenly the rules snapped and Pee-wee/Paul started talking about identity separation.

"My only fear about this subject is that it becomes more of a subject because I'm unwilling to discuss it. The problem, to me, is that I have two names, and beyond that, there's not much of a story. This feels more right. I'm able to do all the things I want to do with this arrangement much better. There are so many things I would like to do, so many people I probably am, that it becomes a lot less complicated for me."

He discusses nasty rumors. "No, I don't have forty gray suits. Actually, my suits are all completely worn out right now, so I'm having some new ones made. I have six pretty beat-up suits."

He claims not to know how many sizes too small they are; the main thing is they fit perfectly wrong. And that's not the only thing wrong: "I've heard, I've even seen written reports of ten different people that discovered me in Hollywood. I really don't care about setting it straight at this point. Maybe eventually I'll write a biography and tell my side — Pee-wee Herman: My Side."

He laughs. I laugh. At least he's called it a biography, not an autobiography. Paul Reubens could write a biography of Pee-wee. Pee-wee could write a biography of Paul. And they could both write blurbs for each other's books.

I think to be an individual is a difficult thing, and it's become more and more difficult.
—Pee-wee Herman

He saves every bit of energy for the time when the camera comes on, and he becomes Pee-wee that second.
—Gary Panter

The first time my mother saw Paul on late-night TV, she called me the next night, promptly at five o'clock, when the rates change. That was the kind of lady she was. And she said, "I don't care what you say, Judy. I am going to buy that boy a suit that fits him. I don't want to see him on television again in a suit that doesn't fit him."
—Judy Rubenfeld

The eldest of three children, Paul Rubenfeld was born in 1952, in Peekskill, New York, and grew up in Sarasota, Florida, where his parents ran a lamp store.

Today Mr. and Mrs. Rubenfeld are retired. Paul's sister, Abby, 33, is an attorney and the legal director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national gay and lesbian civil-rights organization active in fighting discrimination against AIDS victims. His brother, Luke, 28, trains Doberman pinschers, preparing them for what Milton Rubenfeld terms "a black belt in karate for dogs."

When Paul was in sixth grade, he auditioned for an amateur production of A Thousand Clowns. "His father didn't want him to try out," Judy Rubenfeld says. "He said, 'If he gets the part, he's going to really have the bug,' 'cause that was a big part for a kid. I said, 'I think we should let him try out, 'cause he won't get the part. There're far better kids, and it will nip it in the bud.' Of course, he got the part."

And the kid got other parts: at the Asolo State Theater in Florida and at Northwestern University's summer program for gifted high-school students, where, in what Paul calls "a humbling experience," he discovered that there were other talented young people in the world. He may have been humbled, but he won the award as the summer's best actor for his performance as David in the play David and Lisa. "Then I wasn't humbled anymore, but for a while I was humbled."

During his freshman year at Boston University, he auditioned for the Disney-endowed California Institute of the Arts, in Valencia, which offers training in the performing and visual arts. "I only wanted to go to a school that you had to audition for to get in," he says. "I got turned down by a lot of schools, so I didn't think I would get in."

Humbled or not, he got in. "There are a lot of wonderful actors out there, and wonderful actors don't always have wonderful auditions. I'm not somebody who does really well on auditions. Most of the roles I've ever gotten have been from people who've seen me doing something full length, rather than an audition piece. When I was going to Boston University, I used to hitchhike to New York every weekend and audition for a different school. I was turned down twice by Carnegie-Mellon. I auditioned the second time because I wanted to be accepted and turn them down, but then they turned me down again. I was turned down at Juilliard and several other places. But Cal Arts was really where I wanted to go."

While he was studying at Cal Arts, he won several roles — in the same show, The Death and Life of Jesse James, at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum. "I played all the parts that weren't the lead parts. I played a Chinaman. I played a Spanish conquistador, and I spoke in Spanish, and I had my heart ripped out in an Aztec ceremony — by this guy who used to cut me with a knife for real every night. I used to have big arguments with him after the show."

Somewhere along the way, Paul Rubenfeld became Paul Reubens. Living in California, he juggled the aspiring performer's usual assortment of "between engagements" jobs — as a busboy, a Fuller Brush man, a submarine-sandwich maker, a setup person in the kitchen of a pizza shop. Engagements he was between included appearing in small parts in two Cheech and Chong movies and not appearing as the voice of Freaky Frankenstone on the TV cartoon The Flintstones. (Paul's vocal diversity continues. In last summer's movie The Flight of the Navigator, the voice of Max is credited to Paul Mall. And in the new George Lucas Star Tours ride at Disneyland, the main robot, Rex, would be speechless without him.)

With a former classmate from BU, Charlotte McGinnis, he developed an act called the Hilarious Betty and Eddie. "It was an out-of-trunk kind of vaudeville duo," McGinnis says. "We did a puppet show and a stand-up sound-effects routine." After winning twice as best act on TV's Gong Show, the Barris Island boot camp for entertainers, they tried to win as worst act, because the award money was the same. They weren't bad enough.

Paul also appeared on the show as a Flathead Indian lounge singer, with a sidekick playing the tom-tom in the background. He won twice for that, too. "I feel like I own Chuck Barris an enormous debt because I made a living from The Gong Show for a couple of years."

Residuals from those appearances keep rolling in. "I get $7.50 checks once in a while. And the first five or six times they rerun 'em, you still get more prizes. I got a shrimpburger cooker and a bowling-ball set, and I got this really cool textured-paint stuff that I used on the walls of the Groundling Theatre that's still there."

As a member of the Groundlings, an L.A. improvisational theater group, Paul created a frenetic little guy names Pee-wee. "I used to have a little harmonica, a little teeny one about one inch long, and it said Pee-Wee on it, and the name stuck."

In 1980 Paul starred in The Pee-wee Herman Show at the Groundling Theatre. A rough predecessor of Pee-wee's Playhouse — but more boisterous and with sexual innuendo — it became a cult hit, playing to adults after midnight and to children at weekly matinees. Eventually it was shot at the Roxy Theater for an HBO special. Behold Pee-wee wearing mirrors on his shoes to reflect a girl's underwear and hypnotizing a young woman in order to get her to take off her dress. Once she's in her slip and awaiting his next suggestion, he doesn't know what to do.

Pee-wee has similarities to Jerry Lewis and Pinky Lee and Soupy Sales, but he doesn't seem to come out of any comic tradition. He's like Beaver Cleaver as raised by Mommie Dearest.
—Michael McWilliams, TV critic

Jerry Lewis I saw when I was little. Soupy Sales I probably saw when I was younger. I never knew who Eddie Cantor was until years later, when a lot of older people used to go [an old Russian-Jewish furrier's accent], "You're like a young Eddie Cantor." I started to watch Eddie Cantor, and I could definitely see the resemblance. His movies are just incredible, very fantasy oriented and comedy oriented.
—Pee-wee Herman

He's mentioned to me that he won't be doing Pee-wee forever. I think that gives the character a poignant edge, because he does represent childhood, something temporary, the soul of whimsicality. There's something fragile and nonlasting about the image he projects. And that gives it another power also, besides the weird freakout quality.
—Wayne White

Pee-Wee is eager to write and perform in next season's episodes of the Playhouse. "The most fun we had writing the show was when we would come up with stuff we knew was going to kill the five-year-olds."

How'd he know? He laughs shyly. "Just the sense about it — I don't know how I know that stuff. The most stupid things, the things I knew were going to have five-year-olds falling on the floor, would strike us so funny, just that image of something that was going to crack up a five-year-old and not crack up an adult."

His good humor fades when the topic is the cost of his show — about $325,000 an episode — which CBS has heavily publicized as comparable to that of prime time. Pee-wee gets testy. "Aren't our children more important than ourselves? Why shouldn't Saturday-morning children's programs be just as expensive as the things we watch at night?"

This isn't a cartoon Kissyfur Muppet Baby Care Bear squeaking. "Fortunately for the kids out there and for CBS and anyone else concerned, I take my job very seriously. I have an enormous responsibility being the only live person on Saturday morning."

He plans to begin preproduction on next season's Playhouse while shooting his second movie, and once again he's starring and co-writing. The movie will be released either this Christmas or the following summer. The plot is secret, but expect something different from the first one — "as different as it can be," Pee-wee says, "given the fact that it's a Pee-wee Herman movie."

Pee-wee's success has a special trap: "I'm still doing Pee-wee Herman. But if I'm locked into that one thing for now, I'm trying to do as many different things within that context as I can." At the same time, the former Fuller Brush man and busboy appreciates security and ensures it by retaining rights to his work. "I'm not saying I don't want the money. I'm saying it's a very different division to be in when that isn't the reason that's driving you on. I don't do commercials, which I'm approached to do all the time. One thing I'm proud of is that my work is very well intentioned. If some people don't like it, you can't please everyone. I hope you're not gagging over how sacchariney this is."

It's obviously not easy for Pee-wee to shrug off the negative, downright-hostile responses he evokes. "I get up-set, it hurts me, but then I think, I don't like everybody.' What I do is extreme, to a degree, and I can certainly see if people don't like it. I don't completely understand why people get so worked up about it."

The words come out in an earnest tumble. A pointed subversiveness grounds Pee-wee's geeky persona. "I'm just trying to illustrate that it's okay to be different — not that it's good, not that it's bad, but that it's all right. I'm trying to tell kids to have a good time and to encourage them to be creative and to question things.

"This sounds so preachy — but I think it's real important to be able to share, to be a good person. That's what my work is about — heart. I'm like starting to gag myself at hearing this."

And now for the burning issue: Why the makeup, Pee-wee?

"I don't know why. That's how it developed, and it's gone through changes. I've attempted to make it a little more realistic and not so painted."

Pause. "I guess my cheeks just aren't that pink in real life."

Laugh. "When I look at some of what I do, I go, 'Boy, a therapist would have a field day.' "