“Being Pee-wee Herman is a good conversation starter,” Paul Reubens said in a mellow deadpan about the comic creation that defined his career.
Two decades after you could say, “I know you are, but what am I?” to just about anyone and get a knowing laugh in return, Reubens still can’t escape the character — nor does he really want to. In fact, it’s quite the contrary, Reubens said in a rare interview last week with MTV News, as he outlined his plans for Pee-wee’s future adventures.
Reubens seemed almost embarrassed at the impact of the character today. “I keep meeting people who come up to me and say they just turned their kids on to it. I get mail that just says, ’Pee Wee Herman, Hollywood.’ It’s like ’Miracle on 34th Street,’ ” he marveled.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Pee-wee appeared in a feature film all his own. No one could have guessed that 1988’s “Big Top Pee-wee” would be the cinematic swan song for Reubens’ baby — not after the character had taken the country by storm, thanks to the groundbreaking children’s show “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” and the instantly quotable 1985 film “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” from a rookie director by the name of Tim Burton. Of course, life — in the form of a notorious 1991 arrest in an adult theater — had other plans.
Now, if Reubens has his way, we may be on the cusp of the return of Pee-wee in the form of two feature films starring the wide-eyed perennial man-child. “I feel like the time is really ripe right now,” Reubens said. “A lot of the kids who grew up with the show are young adults. The college kids are middle-aged adults. I feel like I have enough of a built-in audience to make back an investment.”
Reubens said he has two Pee-wee scripts ready to go. One is an extension of the famed TV show, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” only this story would take Pee-wee and his friends outside the house for the first time. “We never really went out into what we call puppet land,” Reubens recalled of the show. “And this [film] takes place out of the playhouse. I think there are one or two scenes in the playhouse in the beginning. Basically it’s all in a fantasy land,” he said. “It’s like a ’Wizard of Oz,’ H.R. Pufnstuf epic adventure story.” Reubens added that the story would bring back all of the original characters from the playhouse — live-action and puppets alike.
But can the 55-year-old Reubens realistically don Pee-wee’s red bow tie again? The actor said he remains confident, especially after his first appearance in character in 15 years at Spike TV’s Guys Choice Awards. Despite asking himself, “What in the hell are you doing?” as he stood backstage in costume, Reubens said the character “came right back” to him. Still, Reubens said he had a backup plan nonetheless for the Pee-wee movies should he not be up for the part. “My second option is to have Johnny Depp play Pee-wee,” he said. Pie-in-the-sky casting or a realistic plan, Reubens insisted that he’s even spoken to Depp about it, saying that the actor told him, “Let me think about it.”
The other Pee-wee film, which Reubens called “the dark Pee Wee movie,” is “not really very dark” and certainly not intended to be an R-rated film. “It’s basically the story of Pee-wee Herman becoming famous as a singer,” he explained. “He has a hit single and gets brought out to Hollywood to make musical movies, kind of like they did with Elvis. It all kind of goes downhill from there for Pee-wee. He turns into a monster. He does everything wrong and becomes a big jerk.” Though he described it as a movie “about fame,” Reubens insisted, “It’s not autobiographical.”
But there would be a wealth of autobiographical material for Reubens to draw upon. Forget the “Lindsay goes to rehab” and “Britney’s back in court” headlines the public eats up today. Back in July 1991, it was Reubens who, for a time, was the most famous man in America. It was then that the performer was arrested in a Sarasota, Florida, adult theater, caught masturbating in public. The incident effectively retired the Pee-wee character then and there. The media frenzy surrounding Reubens was relentless.
Just weeks later, he made his first public appearance, in character no less, at MTV’s Video Music Awards, memorably asking the audience, “Heard any good jokes lately?” Today, he recalls his nerves backstage. “I was just hoping I wasn’t going to get booed. I had no idea what the reaction would be. I was optimistic, but what was going through my mind was, ’I hope they like me.’ ”
Reubens hasn’t exactly been starved for work since Pee-wee’s disappearance. His feature-film roles in “Mystery Men” and “Batman Returns” have given way to scene-stealing guest-star turns in TV shows like “30 Rock” and “Pushing Daisies.” His second appearance on the latter show as olfactory expert Oscar Vibenius airs on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Reubens said his focus remains on the big-screen Pee-wee adventures. Though he said he hasn’t been trying “super hard” to get them greenlit, he said, “I feel like in the New Year, I’ll switch into a higher gear and see if I can move [them] forward.” Unsure who to ask to direct the films, Reubens admitted he’s talked to “Big Adventure” director Burton. “I have talked to Tim about one of them about a year ago. But Tim is booked. I think he would be interested in it, but he’s really busy.”
Still, the search will continue and Reubens remains optimistic. “I think it’s really just a question of the right person coming along. I’ve had opportunities to do [the films] with people who didn’t feel like the right people. It just takes one person.”
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