Pee-wee Herman Biography: The Rise and Fall of a Comedy Icon

Pee-wee Herman Biography: The Rise and Fall of a Comedy Icon
Pee-wee Herman Biography: The Rise and Fall of a Comedy Icon

Pee-wee Herman is a comic fictional character created and portrayed by American comedian Paul Reubens. He is best known for his two television series and film series during the 1980s. The child-like Pee-wee Herman character developed as a stage act that quickly led to an HBO special in 1981. As the stage performance gained further popularity, Reubens took the character to motion picture with Pee-wee's Big Adventure in 1985, toning down the adult innuendo for the appeal of children. This paved the way for Pee-wee's Playhouse, an Emmy Award-winning children's series that ran on CBS from 1986 to 1991. Another film, Big Top Pee-wee, was released in 1988.

However, Pee-wee Herman's career came to a halt in 1991, when Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure in an adult theater in Sarasota, Florida. The arrest set off a chain reaction of negative media attention that changed the public's perception of Reubens and Pee-wee. Reubens decided to shelve his alter ego during the 1990s, but gradually resurrected it during the following decade. He appeared in several big-budget projects such as Mystery Men (1999), and Blow (2001), and started giving interviews as himself rather than as Pee-wee. He also worked on two possible Pee-wee films: one dark and adult, dubbed The Pee-wee Herman Story, and the other a family-friendly epic adventure called Pee-wee's Playhouse: The Movie.

In 2007, Reubens appeared as Pee-wee Herman for the first time since 1992 at the Spike TV's Guys' Choice Awards. In 2009, he announced that he was reviving his stage show with a new production of The Pee-wee Herman Show in Los Angeles. The show was a success and moved to Broadway in 2010. In 2016, Reubens starred in a third film, Pee-wee's Big Holiday, which was released by Netflix. It was the last time Reubens portrayed the character before his death in 2023.

In this article, we will explore the life and career of Paul Reubens, the man behind Pee-wee Herman, and how he created one of the most iconic characters in American comedy history.

The Origins of Pee-wee Herman

Paul Reubens was born Paul Rubenfeld on August 27, 1952, in Peekskill, New York. His parents were Jewish immigrants who owned a lamp store. His father, Milton Rubenfeld, was a former pilot who flew for the British Royal Air Force and later for Israel during its War of Independence. His mother, Judy Rubenfeld, was a teacher who encouraged her son's artistic interests.

Reubens grew up watching television shows such as The Three Stooges, The Mickey Mouse Club, Howdy Doody, and Captain Kangaroo. He also loved cartoons, especially those by Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. He developed a fascination with comedy and entertainment at an early age.

Reubens attended Boston University for a year before transferring to the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where he studied drama. He also joined an improvisational comedy group called The Groundlings in Los Angeles, where he met fellow comedians such as Phil Hartman, John Paragon, Cassandra Peterson (Elvira), and Edie McClurg.

It was at The Groundlings that Reubens created his alter ego, Pee-wee Herman. In 1977, The Groundlings staged a performance in which its members created characters one might see in a comedy club. Reubens decided to play a guy that everyone immediately knew would never make it as a comic, partly because Reubens had trouble remembering jokes in real life. He wore a gray suit that he borrowed from the director, Gary Austin, and a red bow tie that was given to him by an acquaintance. He also adopted a high-pitched voice and a childish mannerism. He named his character Pee-wee, after a nickname he had as a child.

Pee-wee Herman was an instant hit with the audience, and Reubens soon developed a cult following. He refined his character by adding elements from his childhood idols, such as Pinky Lee, a manic 1950s children's TV host, and Jerry Lewis, a slapstick comedian and actor. He also incorporated catchphrases such as "I know you are, but what am I?" and "Ha ha, heh heh heh".

The Pee-wee Herman Show

In 1980, Reubens was cast as a waiter in Cheech and Chong's Next Movie, where he improvised some scenes as Pee-wee Herman. The film's director, Tommy Chong, was impressed by Reubens and offered him a role in another Cheech and Chong film, Nice Dreams. However, Reubens turned down the offer, because he wanted to focus on his own project: The Pee-wee Herman Show.

The Pee-wee Herman Show was a stage show that Reubens wrote with Phil Hartman and John Paragon. It was inspired by the children's shows that Reubens watched as a kid, but with an adult twist. The show featured Pee-wee Herman as the host of a fictional TV show, where he interacted with various puppets, props, and characters, such as Cowboy Curtis (Laurence Fishburne), Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart), Jambi the Genie (John Paragon), and Chairry (a talking chair). The show also included musical numbers, video segments, and audience participation.

The Pee-wee Herman Show premiered at The Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles in February 1981. It was a huge success, selling out for five months. HBO also produced a special about it, which aired in September 1981. The show attracted the attention of many celebrities and critics, who praised Reubens for his originality and creativity.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure

After the success of The Pee-wee Herman Show, Reubens wanted to take his character to the big screen. He teamed up with Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol to write a script for a feature film based on Pee-wee Herman. The script was titled Pee-wee's Big Adventure, and it followed Pee-wee's quest to recover his stolen bicycle.

Reubens had trouble finding a director for his film, until he met Tim Burton, who had just directed his first short film, Frankenweenie. Burton shared Reubens' vision and style, and agreed to direct Pee-wee's Big Adventure. The film also featured Danny Elfman as the composer of the score.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure was released in August 1985 by Warner Bros. It was a financial and critical success, grossing over $40 million on a budget of $7 million. It also received positive reviews from critics, who praised Reubens' performance, Burton's direction, Elfman's music, and the film's humor and charm. The film soon developed into a cult classic, and is considered one of the best comedy films of all time.

Pee-wee's Playhouse

Following the success of Pee-wee's Big Adventure, CBS approached Reubens to create a children's television series based on his character. Reubens agreed, but only if he had complete creative control over the show. He also wanted to make the show different from his stage show and film, by making it more educational and less adult-oriented.

The result was Pee-wee's Playhouse, which premiered in September 1986. The show featured Pee-wee Herman living in a colorful and whimsical playhouse filled with talking furniture, gadgets, toys, and friends. Each episode had a theme or lesson that Pee-wee learned through various segments, such as cartoons, games, stories, songs, and visits from guests.

Pee-wee's Playhouse was an instant hit with children and adults alike. It won 15 Emmy Awards during its five-season run from 1986 to 1991. It also received critical acclaim for its innovative design, animation, puppetry, music, and humor. The show influenced many artists and comedians who grew up watching it.

Big Top Pee-wee

In 1988, Reubens starred in a second film, Big Top Pee-wee, which was a sequel to Pee-wee's Big Adventure. The film was directed by Randal Kleiser and co-written by Reubens and George McGrath. The film followed Pee-wee's adventures as he joined a circus that came to his farm.

Big Top Pee-wee was not as successful as Pee-wee's Big Adventure. It received mixed reviews from critics, who felt that the film lacked the charm and originality of the first one. It also performed poorly at the box office, grossing only $15 million on a budget of $20 million.

The Scandal

In July 1991, Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure in an adult theater in Sarasota, Florida. He was caught masturbating during a screening of a pornographic film. The arrest was widely reported by the media, and sparked a public backlash against Reubens and Pee-wee Herman. Many of his fans felt betrayed and disgusted by his behavior, while others defended him and argued that he had a right to privacy.

The arrest had a devastating impact on Reubens' career. CBS stopped airing reruns of Pee-wee's Playhouse, and many of his merchandise and endorsements were withdrawn. Reubens also faced legal troubles, as he was charged with a misdemeanor and faced up to six months in jail. He eventually pleaded no contest and paid a fine, but he had to register as a sex offender for three years.

Reubens decided to retire his Pee-wee Herman persona and avoid the public eye for the rest of the decade. He also suffered from depression and substance abuse problems. He later said that he felt like he had lost everything he had worked for, and that he was unfairly treated by the media and the public.

The Comeback

In 1999, Reubens made his comeback to the entertainment industry with a supporting role in the superhero comedy film Mystery Men, where he played The Spleen, a superhero with the power of flatulence. The film was well received by critics and audiences, and Reubens received praise for his performance.

In 2001, Reubens appeared in another supporting role in the biographical crime film Blow, where he played Derek Foreal, a flamboyant hairdresser and drug dealer. The film was a critical and commercial success, and Reubens received positive reviews for his dramatic turn.

Reubens also started to give interviews as himself rather than as Pee-wee Herman, and opened up about his personal life and struggles. He expressed his desire to revive his Pee-wee Herman character, and revealed that he had been working on two possible scripts for new Pee-wee films.

The Revival

In 2007, Reubens appeared as Pee-wee Herman for the first time since 1992 at the Spike TV's Guys' Choice Awards, where he presented an award to his friend Steve Carell. The appearance was well received by fans and critics, who welcomed his return.

In 2009, Reubens announced that he was reviving his stage show with a new production of The Pee-wee Herman Show in Los Angeles. The show featured many of the original cast members from Pee-wee's Playhouse, as well as new characters and segments. The show was a success and moved to Broadway in 2010. It was also filmed for an HBO special that aired in 2011.

In 2016, Reubens starred in a third film, Pee-wee's Big Holiday, which was produced by Judd Apatow and released by Netflix. The film followed Pee-wee's journey across America after meeting a mysterious stranger named Joe Manganiello. The film received positive reviews from critics and fans, who praised Reubens' performance and the film's nostalgia factor.

The Legacy

Pee-wee Herman is one of the most recognizable and influential characters in American comedy history. He has inspired many artists and comedians who grew up watching him, such as Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, Jim Carrey, Seth MacFarlane, Amy Schumer, and Jimmy Fallon. He has also been referenced or parodied in many films, TV shows, songs, books, and video games.

Paul Reubens is widely regarded as a comedy genius who created a unique and original character that transcended generations and cultures. He is also admired for his resilience and perseverance in overcoming personal and professional challenges.

Reubens died on July 30, 2023, at the age of 70, after suffering a heart attack. He was mourned by his fans and peers, who celebrated his life and legacy. He was buried in his Pee-wee Herman suit, as he had requested.

Pee-wee Herman will always be remembered as a comedy icon who brought joy and laughter to millions of people around the world.

FAQ

  • What is Pee-wee Herman's real name?
  • Pee-wee Herman's real name is Paul Reubens. He was born Paul Rubenfeld on August 27, 1952, in Peekskill, New York.
  • How did Pee-wee Herman get his name?
  • Pee-wee Herman got his name from a nickname he had as a child. He also named his character after a harmonica he owned, called the Pee-wee.
  • Is Pee-wee Herman a child or an adult?
  • Pee-wee Herman is neither a child nor an adult. He is a child-like character who lives in his own fantasy world. He has no age, no job, no family, and no responsibilities. He is simply Pee-wee.
  • Why did Pee-wee Herman stop making movies and shows?
  • Pee-wee Herman stopped making movies and shows in 1991, after Paul Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure in an adult theater. The arrest caused a public scandal that damaged Reubens' reputation and career. He decided to retire his Pee-wee Herman persona and avoid the public eye for the rest of the decade.
  • Did Pee-wee Herman ever come back?
  • Pee-wee Herman came back in 1999, when Paul Reubens appeared in the film Mystery Men. He also appeared in the film Blow in 2001, and started giving interviews as himself rather than as Pee-wee. He revived his stage show in 2009, and starred in a third film, Pee-wee's Big Holiday, in 2016.

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Sherif M. Awad
Sherif M. Awad
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