Written by: Beth Kelly on April 16th, 2015
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is a testament to the power of one man’s perseverance in the face of bike thieves, fires, and terrifying female truck drivers, not to mention a brilliant first showing from iconic director Tim Burton. Even though Roger Ebert never officially reviewed it, the film topped his 1987 list of “Guilty Pleasures.” The film also marked Paul Reuben’s first time playing his Pee-wee character on the big screen – a role he was to reprise in the lesser-known sequel Big Top Pee-wee.
Big Adventure successfully blends elements of physical and cerebral comedy, as Paul Reuben’s Pee-wee character narrowly evades danger while hitch-hiking across the country in search of his beloved stolen bicycle. Audiences loved Pee-wee and his naïve incorruptibility so much that the film brought in over $40 million at the box office (and is now back among the top streaming movies on Netflix and DTV). Those same fans, myself among them, now have something else to look forward to as well. There will be another Pee-wee film (exclusively for Netflix) called Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, produced by Judd Apatow. We can only assume that he will be up to his regular hijinks.
Reubens began his career in the 1970’s as a stage actor. He was a member of The Groundlings, a theater company formed by Gary Austin in 1974. Lily Tomlin and Lorne Michaels were among those in the audience at their shows, which presented some of the best work in stand-up at the time. With so many talented performers, many, including Phil Hartman, had to wait months to be cast in a live show. After years of developing the character, Pee-wee Herman was finally born onstage in 1982, appearing in the The Pee-wee Herman Show which ran for five months to sold-out crowds. An HBO special of the show resulted in instant fame and an offer to do a weekly children’s television program.
The boldly original and hugely popular Pee-wee’s Playhouse ran from 1986 to 1990. Winning 15 Emmys, it was also lauded for its creativity and exploration of racial diversity. Many have said that part of Rueben’s brilliance lies in his ability to recognize and utilize the brilliance of others. The show was cast with actors like Sandra Bernhard and Lawrence Fishburne, writers like Phil Hartman, set artists like Gary Panter, musicians like Todd Rungren and George Clinton, and even production assistants like Rob Zombie. The series was also known for its unique “specials”- his Christmas program with a Grace Jones performance being one of the most memorable.
Many believe that the subtly subversive nature of Reubens’ work caused most of the media sensationalism surrounding his 1991 arrest for indecent exposure in an adult theater. The arrest resulted in public censure of his famous character. During that transitional period, he worked to prove his versatility as a comedian and a serious actor in a variety of unique “outsider” roles. He appeared as a drug-dealing hairdresser in the 2001 movie Blow, an alcoholic newscaster in the FX drama Dirt, and a superhero volunteer on the popular series Reno 911. Lately, however, he’s been back in Hollywood’s favor – his performance as the character of “Prince Gerhardt” on 30 Rock secured his place among the stars once again.
Loyal fans, old and new, are excited by the resurrection of his classic character in the upcoming Judd Apatow-produced film. Written by Paul Ruebens and Paul Rust (Arrested Development), John Lee (She Holler) will make his feature-length directorial debut with the picture.
Paul Reubens pioneered the role of “ironic” cool geek. Decades after his first appearance on television, his role as Pee-wee Herman continues to resonate with contemporary audiences. It could be the timeless nature of his physical slapstick, the memorable one-liners, or maybe just his sincerely goofy persona that keep him in our hearts. Either way, Pee-wee fans of all ages can expect a big return from one of TV’s most-beloved characters after a long-awaited hiatus.