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A few words on the joyful eccentricity of Paul Reubens.

A few words on the joyful eccentricity of Paul Reubens

Because I am very old, my introduction to Pee-Wee Herman wasn’t by way of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure or Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. It was The Pee-Wee Herman Show, a recording of a 1981 live stage show that aired on HBO. You can see much of the bones of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse in it: the set looks very similar, Miss Yvonne and Jambi the disembodied genie head are there, as are puppets Clocky and Pterri. The primary difference is that the humor is a little cheekier, with jokes about looking up skirts and an extended bit involving Pee-Wee hypnotizing a woman into undressing on stage. Even that’s playful, though, like a kid trying to tell a dirty joke and breaking down in giggles in the middle of it, and the woman is in on the gag.

I was maybe 10 or so when I first saw The Pee-Wee Herman Show, and, without a bit of hyperbole, it was a pivotal moment in my life. These are my people, I thought, and so was anyone who thought the show was as funny as I did. It took me a long time to find them in real life, but at least I knew they were out there, and to an adolescent who was already feeling deeply uncomfortable in her own skin, that was enough to get by.

As the story goes, Pee-Wee was just one of many characters Paul Reubens had created during his time with the Groundlings, where he worked with Phil Hartman, Edie McClurg, and Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson. Bitter and despondent after losing an audition for Saturday Night Live to Gilbert Gottfried (they only had room for one weird guy and Gottfried was a friend of one of the producers), Reubens decided to direct all his energy into developing Pee-Wee, a tribute to quaint children’s shows of the 50s like Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo. The cult success of The Pee-Wee Herman Show led, of course, to the more family-friendly Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, a surprise smash and one of the most memorable, oft-quoted comedies of the 80s. After that, Reubens decided to absorb himself fully into the Pee-Wee persona, always staying in character and treating “Paul Reubens” as an entirely separate person who kept a low profile and never did interviews.

You either loved Pee-Wee or you hated him. If you hated him (and a lot of parents did), it was because he was irritating, or creepy, his undersized suit and rouged cheeks giving him the appearance of a life-sized ventriloquist dummy. If you loved him, it was because he had mastered the art of not giving a shit. Not in a bad or selfish way, mind you, as Pee-Wee always encouraged kindness and generosity. But he also lived life as he wanted to, in a house that was half-thrift shop & half-toy store, playing rather than worrying, being silly and light-hearted rather than sad and anxious. For Pee-Wee, each new day was another chance for fun and adventure, rather than something to be treated with “oh god, what next” trepidation.

Paul Reubens as Pee-Wee Herman
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (Warner Bros.)

Children often hear that growing up means giving up what makes you happy. I got that spiel a lot: “You’re too big for that now.” “Stop being a baby.” “You have to grow up sometime.” We all seemed to be working on an arbitrary timeline: 10 is too old to play with dolls. 12 is too old to play make-believe. 13 is when you should have gotten rid of all your toys in favor of more grown-up things. Who made these up? Nobody seems to know, and yet even now the world holds tight to them.

Pee-Wee Herman suggested that there could be another way, that it was possible to hold onto that joy even long into adulthood. His eccentric bunny slipper-wearing lifestyle didn’t make him an outcast. Quite the contrary: his life was full of friends and visitors to his playhouse. He even had potential love interests: bike repairer Dottie in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and trapeze artist Gina in Big Top Pee-Wee. One could even argue that Joe Manganiello, playing himself in 2016’s Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday, was a love interest, and even then it’s portrayed as sweet and innocent, a confusing crush on a friend, rather than an “ew, gross!” joke.

Then, of course, came Reubens’ public indecency arrest in 1991, a ridiculous thing that became an urban legend immediately. People seemed to relish the seedy mugshot of an unshaven, glowering Reubens, like something out of a Saturday Night Live sketch, as if they knew that someone who made their career on playing a character so child-like and innocent had to be a real creep behind the scenes (see also: everyone convinced that Mr. Rogers was secretly a bad person, because no one was that nice and calm all the time). Rather than go on an apology tour (or post a statement on Notes, as someone in the same position would today), Reubens did the right thing and withdrew from the public eye for a little while, both as himself, and as Pee-Wee Herman. Though he had a surprising amount of support from both fans and colleagues, he saw the writing on the wall: no one would look at Pee-Wee the same way again after that.

Save for the famous “Heard any good jokes lately?” appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards, Reubens wouldn’t return to Pee-Wee as a character until nearly two decades later, when he revived The Pee-Wee Herman Show for Broadway. Even without the arrest and ensuing scandal, this was a smart decision: we were now in the irony-poisoned 90s, where we tended to look askance, for better or worse (mostly worse), at earnestness and sincerity, and expressing delight over silly things was done with an edge of embarrassment and self-consciousness. We had outgrown Pee-Wee Herman, at least for the time being.

Paul Reubens in 30 Rock
30 Rock (NBC)

But Reubens kept working, playing a series of memorable supporting roles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Mystery Men, and later doing numerous guest spots on everything from 30 Rock to The Blacklist to Portlandia, all of his characters weirdos and oddballs. It seemed impossible for him to be anything else, nor did anyone want him to try. He eventually began to do interviews as himself, and it was revealed that Reubens too was a genuine eccentric, far more low-key and reserved than Pee-Wee, but with the same love for 50s-era kitsch and generosity of spirit towards his friends and loved ones. Kimya Dawson of the Moldy Peaches posted a Cameo of Reubens that friends had bought for her when she was in a low place, in which Reubens offered an 8-minute-long pep talk wishing Dawson a “beautiful and stress-free” life. It’s a touching gesture for a stranger, made all the more poignant by knowing now that at the time Herman filmed the video, he already had cancer.

Reubens seemed ageless, and it’s hard to decide what’s more startling, that he died or that, at nearly 71, he was old enough to be many of his fans’ father. Sinead O’Connor and Paul Reubens, both icons of living life on your own terms (albeit in very different ways), dying within the same week of each other feels like a cruel cosmic joke when the world is becoming an increasingly terrifying place. There’s no one like either of them now, and it’s frankly a little lonely and scary. All we can do is keep reaching out for the other freaks and oddballs in the world, and remember that “growing up” doesn’t mean giving in.