Paul Reubens never once breaks into Pee-wee Herman's voice during a telephone interview ("I know you are, but what am I?"), but the odd manchild character fills the empty space around Reubens' words begging to be defined.
Kid show innocent? Subversive prop gag comedian? Pop culture icon? Early Nineties tabloid scandal-sheet cover boy? Pee-wee/Reubens is all of these things. He is both vintage, punk rock kitsch and smooth, white innocence. More importantly, he's back in Pee-wee's Big Holiday, an only somewhat unlikely collaboration with Judd Apatow that premieres at the South by Southwest Film Festival before airing on Netflix starting March 18.
"I'm part of Austin culture," Reubens said, reminding us that a big chunk of 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure was shot in Texas. "There's a famous sign that says 'Keep Austin Weird.' I'm represented on that artwork, and I tell it to people proudly." He's not certain of the sign's locale, but Pee-wee's image can be spotted in a Home Slice Pizza mural on South Congress emblazoned with the admonition "Don't Hate."
In 2011, Reubens also appeared at SXSW in support of HBO's The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway, a televised version of his stage show, which revived and essentially rebooted Pee-wee.
"I did that stage production with the idea that enough heat would happen to attract someone to make a Pee-wee movie," Reubens said. "Judd Apatow saw the show, and we set up a meeting. He was a big Pee-wee fan. He very early on said, 'I feel strongly that it should be a road movie somewhere in the same wheelhouse as Big Adventure.' That's what we did."
Reubens had two Pee-wee scripts ready to go: a "dark, Valley of the Dolls" film – "It's really not that dark. It's a comedy," he said – and a big-screen version of his Eighties TV series, Pee-wee's Playhouse. "There were only two scenes in the playhouse, at the beginning and end. Everything else was over in this crazy puppet land that we've never seen before," Reubens said.
Big Holiday is indeed a road movie, with a plot Reubens described as "a chance encounter with a mysterious stranger leading Pee-wee to take his first-ever holiday. It's an epic story of friendship and destiny." Essentially, it's a vehicle for Reubens to do his Pee-wee schtick and return the beloved character to the cultural forefront.
Pee-wee Herman was one of a dozen or so characters Reubens created in the late Seventies as a member of improv group the Groundlings. "Very early on I decided I would throw the rest of the characters away and become Pee-wee Herman," he said. He became a pink-cheeked regular on Late Night With David Letterman, pulling strange props from a bag and never breaking character. Reubens was an avid collector then, but had to stop when the treasures started taking over his home. "I still have so many untapped toys and tchotchkes," Reubens said. "If I were ever to go back to my original routine and needed a bag of crazy Pee-wee Herman props and they all need to be stuff no one has seen before, no problem."
The film was a grueling seven-week shoot, with Reubens averaging four hours' sleep a night. "So much of moviemaking is sitting around while they do lighting and things get figured out," he said. "It's constant 14-16 hour days for weeks or months. Someone runs over to you and goes, 'Now!' It could be six in the morning or 11 or 12 at night. You've got to go in there and turn it on. It's forever. Whatever you do is going on a piece of film or digital today. It's permanent. There's your performance. You'd better bring it."
Pee-wee's cultural rep is grounded in a sort of sly, winking sexuality that is also present in Big Holiday, with switchblade-flaunting tough girls who taunt the seemingly sexless Pee-wee. Reubens says that take baffles him. "I only think of it in terms of 'Is this too far? Does this mean something we don't want it to mean?' or 'Is this something kids couldn't see?'" he said. "I still feel like it's a family film and there's nothing problematic for kids. It's more what people think about it and say about it than what I think about it."
Pee-wee Herman was a pop culture icon with a large preteen fan base by the time Pee-wee's Playhouse ended a five-year run on CBS in 1990, with a burned-out Reubens turning down a sixth season. The next year, a long-haired Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure in a Florida porn theatre. "I don't talk about it at all," Reubens said bluntly. "It's in the past. It's on record. I have nothing to say about it."
But the arrest and the return of the Pee-wee Herman character to the big screen says a lot about Reubens the actor, who has successfully waded through the shark-infested water of both Hollywood and public opinion.
"I never thought anything affected my career other than what I wanted to do," he said. "I always dictated what my career was – always. I still do. It's about what I want to do. Nobody was chomping at the bit and opening door after door after door for me to be Pee-wee Herman or make a TV show or make a movie. Those were all opportunities that happened for me that people presented. It was always up to me. At a certain point, I decided I had to have a break from that television show. When I was ready to come back, I came back. I don't feel anything dictated anything other than what I wanted to do. That's the honest truth. I went through a period where I didn't want to do that, and in fact almost didn't want to be in show business. Then I came back."
Big Holiday is the pinnacle of that comeback, and Reubens is indeed in control. Apatow paired him with writing partner Paul Rust, co-creator of recent Netflix show Love. He admits some trepidation at working with Apatow, whose film process includes on-set improvisation that finds its form in the editing room. Reubens is a planner who works strictly from the script. "If you're trying to make a comedy in America and Judd Apatow calls you and says 'I'd like to produce it,' that's a no-brainer," Reubens said. "I had a big question mark. Am I making a Judd Apatow Pee-wee movie? What does that mean? To Judd's credit, he was extremely sensitive to that. He would leave us alone, but when he knew we needed something, he would chime in. I had enormous respect for him before this project and even more now."
Early sections of Big Holiday set in fictional Fairville are snapshots of an overly and eerily perfect small-town America, an uneasy mix of Norman Rockwell and Gregory Crewdson. "We wanted it to be very old-fashioned and picture-book like – a very picturesque small town that doesn't exist," Reubens said. "Pee-wee's experience in his hometown is routine, and he's stagnating a little bit. Then he has to go on the road to somewhere that isn't all that pretty."
The idyllic setting hearkens to Reuben's own childhood in Oneonta, N.Y. "I was precocious and funny," he said. "I was definitely an oddball, but I also fit in. I grew up in a very picturesque, cute, perfect, storybook little town, not unlike Fairville. In between third and fourth grade, my dad came in our living room one night and said 'We're moving to Florida.' It was like we were moving to Hawaii. It was this tropical paradise that was the winter headquarters of the Ringling Brothers Circus. I had a very carefree, great childhood with no real dark, ugly parts to it. As I've grown up and become an adult, I realize how many kids didn't have the kind of childhood I had. I think that's reflected in practically everything I've done artistically."
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