Paul Reubens, the actor-comedian behind everyone’s favorite gray-suited manchild Pee-wee Herman, may be the worst person to ask about the character’s legacy. Before a rare public screening of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday at New York’s 92nd Street Y Tuesday night, the writer-actor sat down with film critic Joe Neumaier to discuss his career arc from his early days with improv legends the Groundlings to TV icon and film star. A talk with the affable Reubens is more of a free-association, meandering conversation than a standard Q&A, as the hour-long chat found him peppering answers to questions with long, hilarious stories of his past.
But Reubens demurred when any talk turned to influence, legacy or process, as the man behind Pee-wee prefered to let the work speak for itself. “I can’t answer any of that stuff,” he genially told Neumaier when asked about the subversive nature of his comedy. “I can’t view it like that in any way. The minute I feel like I start to look at my place in history, I just feel like I kill it all for myself.” No complaints from the audience, as it gave Reubens more time to discuss hilariously disastrous stints on The Gong Show, the depths of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday producer Judd Apatow’s fandom and why we’ll probably be seeing much more of Mr. P.W. Herman in the future. Here are nine things we learned during Reubens’ illuminating chat.
1. I Love Lucy made him want to be an actor
“I was obsessed with I Love Lucy when I was a kid,” Reubens explained when asked how he first got the acting bug. “I wanted to be little Ricky. I would sit on the floor in Oneonta, NY as a four-year-old and think, ‘How am I getting to Hollywood? What am I doing here?’ When I went to college, I wanted to be ‘avant garde’ and ‘weird.’ I got some of that going.”
2. A Pee-wee’s Big Holiday star helped kickstart his career 40 years ago
Patrick Egan, the actor who plays an affable traveling salesman in Holiday, worked with Reubens when the latter was performing at a Florida repertory theatre in high school in the late Sixties. Years later, Egan moved to Los Angeles — coincidentally right near the future Pee-wee — and reunited with the fledgling performer. It was the actor’s friend who suggested to Reubens that he check out a Groundlings show and consider auditioning. “It was a combination I had not experienced before,” he said. “It was really talented people who were really nice. This was attractive to me.”
3. His grandmother never did understand the Pee-wee Herman suit
Gary Austin, the founder and artistic director of the Groundlings, gave Reubens the trademark Pee-wee Herman suit (that he still owns today). “My grandmother for many years during my early success would always call my mother and go, ‘Please let me buy him a suit.’ She never understood that the suit was purposely bad and didn’t fit me.” A fellow Groundling supplied Reubens with a tiny black bowtie, which would, once Reubens swapped it out with a red one, complete the character’s iconic look.
4. He lost out on a Saturday Night Live spot to Gilbert Gottfried
Reubens made it to the final round of auditions for Saturday Night Live‘s 1980 season, the show’s first without Lorne Michaels. After walking into the studio with “two suitcases full of props and costumes,” he spotted Gilbert Gottfried, a comedian and “best friend of the producer.” “I looked and thought, ‘It’s not going to be me and Gilbert. We were the dorky, nerdy weird guys,” Reubens said. “I got back to Los Angeles and got the call. ‘Gottfried was doing [the show].'”
In retrospect, it launched Reubens’ whole career. “I panicked so bad, I called my parents from a pay phone and borrowed $5,000 and out of terror, bitterness and spite created the Pee-wee Herman Show,” he said. “I just thought if I didn’t do something, I’d go directly from up-and-comer to on the sidewalk pulling somebody’s pant leg.”
5. His Gong Show appearances were brilliant anti-comedy
Gong Show host Chuck Barris was a huge supporter of the Groundlings, paying members of the troupe to appear on his show (which Reubens noted was “probably illegal” for a game show). The actor appeared on the show more than 15 times; occasionally, he tried to win worst act “because that won the same amount of money” as the winner. To wit, Les Chats, an ostensibly French dance duo who performed atrocious routines while wearing black leotards, feline masks and homemade cat ears made out of plastic headbands and black electrical tape. “Our whole thing was we’d be gonged right away and then we were going to pretend we were French … we didn’t know the rules and thought we had won,” Reubens said. “But instead of gonging us, [the crowd] thought something was going to happen. So we had to do the whole act, which we had never done before.”
Paul Reubens as a Member of Les Chats
6. Steve Martin indirectly helped Pee-wee’s Big Adventure get made
After working on a script for his first film for more than six months, Reubens “turned in something that was unreadable.” “They said, ‘Well, you’re not hot anymore,'” Reubens said. “I didn’t realize that all that time, I had to continue doing something.” Steve Martin introduced his manager Bill McEuen to the comedian, who subsequently took on Reubens as a client and convinced him to go on a U.S. tour. A movie deal followed soon after.
7. Real life changed the entire plot of Big Adventure
“I was writing a remake of [the 1960 Disney film] Pollyanna without permission,” Reubens said of his original draft for his first film. “Every day, me, [Pee-wee’s Big Adventure writer] Phil Hartman and a producer would take a lunch break and walk to the commissary. As we would walk by, every single person was on a bike and every day, I’d be like, ‘I gotta get a bike.’ One day I came back from lunch and they had bought me a restored Schwinn racer and it was chained up to a post that had a little character of me that said ‘Pee-wee Herman bike parking only.’ And I looked at it and said, ‘I’m writing the wrong movie. We’re doing the wrong thing.'” Reubens started writing a new draft the same day.
8. A 30-year-old photo endeared Reubens to Judd Apatow
Reubens had been unsuccessfully trying to make another Pee-wee Herman film after 1988’s Big Top Pee-wee for years, but created his 2010 Pee-wee Herman Show stage revival “out of panic and spite and anger.” Judd Apatow came to one show and told Reubens his desire to help him get the film made. “He actually had a Polaroid photo that he took of me when he was 16 at [New York’s] Caroline’s comedy club,” the actor said. “Which I have to say, ‘You had me at the Polaroid picture.’ It was so flattering. He didn’t want to make any of the Pee-wee movies I already had scripts for, though. That was kind of a drag because I’m very lazy.”
9. The Pee-wee Herman renaissance has only just begun
Reubens reminded the audience that neither Pee-wee’s Big Adventure nor Big Top Pee-wee received foreign releases theatrically, causing Herman to be more beloved stateside than abroad. That could change quick. “I got a good phone call from the president of Netflix today,” Reubens said. When pressed for details, the actor said the talk revolved around international campaigns and how to expand the character globally. But he stopped short on any concrete plans to make another Pee-wee movie. When asked if another movie was in the works, Reubens coyly answered, “I hope so” and declined to say anymore.
Watch why we still love Pee-wee Herman.