Return from Planet Pee-wee
When Paul Reubens was arrested in an adult-movie theater in 1991, he
didn't follow the script of orchestrated confession and prime-time
absolution. And so the man famous for his sweetly dark kiddie-TV alter
ego, Pee-wee Herman, enter a celebrity purgatory between shock and survival.
Eight years later, BRUCE HANDY finds him ready to talk for the first time
about the scandal and the stripping away of his Pee-wee persona.
Disgrace used to be a chronic condition, like diabetes or having one leg. Now it is more like crow's feet--a few nips and tucks, whether a plastic surgeon's or a publicist's, and everyone agrees to forget that just a few months ago Mrs. X looked 20 years older, and Mr. X stood accused of forcible sodomy. In practical terms, what this means is: eventually, everyone comes back. Think of Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Eddie Murphy, Marv Albery, Dick Morris, Clarence Thomas, Oliver North, Michael Jackson, Woody Allen--even O.J. Simpson can get dates. And then there is Prince Charles, who in all likelihood will be not only the first King of England in modern times to be divorced but also the first King of England--and probably the first man, period, royal or common--to have wished he were his lover's tampon and thought it sexy to say so. That he is not trailed whereever he goes by packs of hooting schoolboys speaks eloquently of the forgiving nature of our age.
One final thought on the subject: Cher.
But Paul Reubens continues to dwell in a kind of public netherworld between shame and survivorhood--as does Pee-wee Herman, the prancing bow-tied man-child Reubens played in two charming if uneven movies and on a brilliant Saturday-morning television series for children that originally ran from 1986 to 1991 on CBS. More so than with most celebrity sex scandals, Reubens's arrest in the summer of 1991 for exposing himself (and allegedly masturbating) inside an adult-movie theater struck a sustained, discordant note with the public. First, and most important, because he was the star of a children's television show, Reubens was portrayed in the media not only as sordid, or sad, or unlucky (depending on your view of these things) but also as a betrayer of innocents, a virtual pedophile, thanks to some sloppy alchemy of the public mind. Second, he was reportedly caught masterbating, an act that, despite or because of the fact that it is indulged in by 60 per cent of the adult male population (if recent studies are to be believed), elicits more smirking and sondescension than does, say getting caught with a prostitute on Sunset Boulevard (to cite a more rarefied sexual practice). Third, there was the confluence of Reuben's alter ego--pale, unvirile, oddly and immaturely sexed--and the pathology of a chronic self-polluter, if you believe old Boy Scout handbooks, Catholic-school nuns, 19th-century physicians, and the voice in the back of your own head. Even the name Pee-wee Herman is vaguely redolent of wankery. The media, and whoever makes up the topical jokes that spread though offices and trading floors (Pee-wee's favorite baseball team? The Montreal Expos), dined out on Reubens for months.
"Trust me, I know what you mean," says Reubens, dryly, when I take up some of these issues with him over the course of a long afternoon's conversation. "Jeffrey Dahmer's story broke the same time as my story, and for a week I was leading the news, followed by Dahmer eating people, boring holes into their heads and turning them into zombies. It was," he adds, seemingly at a loss for words to capture the true awfulness of the experience, "just so bizarre." At lease the arrest has given him an interesting vantage point from which to view the ongoing parade of celebrity scandal that has entertained us through the 90s--what David Kamp in these pages dubbed the Tabloid Decade. "I see people dealing with tragedy in the media," Reubens says. "The first 12 hours, 24 hours, 48 hours, a week, two weeks, three weeks--I know what it's like. I see people making statements to the media and I know what's behind that. I know the meetings that are taking place, the special necessity for it, and it's just"--again he seems at a loss for words--"it's just weird." Were Reubens a different sort of person he could have parlayed these insights into a role as an expert talking head, a kind of Dick Morris filling up airtime on cable news channels after every movie-star arrest. But Reubens has a sense of public dignity, though it's also true he gained fame playing a character who sometimes wore a giant pair of underwear on his head.
According to his friends, the arrest and the subsequent media storm devastated Reubens for years. "He lives with it every day," says the actor William H. Macy, who became close to Reubens on the set of the just-released superhero comedy Mystery Men. "It's affected everything he does. It haunts him. How could it not?"
"It was extremely damaging," says Lucy Dahl, a screenwriter whom Reubens befriended on the set of Matilda, the 1996 film based on her father Roald's novel for children. "I've invited him to movie premieres," Dahl continues, "and he won't go, because he's so wary of the press, which has hurt him so badly." She says Reubens's friends could hardly believe he had agreed to sit for an interview. He himself allows that the whole idea is a "nightmare."
He has never publically commented on his arrest beyond issuing two brief statements. The first, three days afterward, proclaimed both his innocence of the specific charges and his mortification at the larger circumstance of having been arrested at a second-run porno theater regardless of what he was or was not doing with himself. The second came three months later when he pleaded no contest to a charge of indecent exposure (in exchange for 75 hours of community service, a $50 fine, and $87.75 in court costs) but still maintained his innocence. All the while, Reubens had been showered with invitations to unburden himself on various morning shows and TV newsmagazines; in the way of such pursuits, no avenue was left untaken. "All my friends," he remembers, "got big flower arrangements and potted plants from all those shows." Nevertheless, despite such generosity, he managed to avoid the ritual public confession, the tears, the unbearable empathy of Barbara Walter or Diane Sawyer, the final absolution between car commercials. "I just couldn't do it," he says. "I was in shock. On some level, I just thought like an ostrich." Meaning he wanted to bury his head in the sand. And who wouldn't? For years he has kept a low public profile.
Now, however, a Paul Reubens boomlet is under way. There is Mystery Men, in which he is part of an ensemble that includes Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush, and Macy. (Reuben's character is The Spleen, whose superpowers entail farting.) Pee-wee's Playhouse is also back in circulation, on home video and in reruns on the Fox Family Channel.
By talking, Reubens hopes finally to lay the scandal to rest, though he is skeptical as to whether this is really possible. "People still come up to me," he says, "and go, 'How are you?' You know, very heavy, like"--here he puts on a comic, ultra-solicitous voice--"'Are you all right?' [The scandal] seems so old now. I mean, it feels funny just talking about it because it's so not a part of my life anymore. But it certainly was for a while, I have to say. And certainly there were many people who were trying to make me feel good at the time. They were saying, 'This is all going to blow over. The public has a short memory.'" Sometimes, yes, but sometimes not. "The public has a really good memory," Reubens tells me. "The public has a mind like a steel trap."
In person, with his hair cropped short, though not slicked back in an Astro Boy 'do, Reubens is easily identifiable as the actor who played Pee-wee Herman (this wasn't the case with the famous 1991 mug shot, in which he is wearing a goatee and has his hair grown out long and skanky). Talking to him, you can occasionally glimpse a vestigial Pee-wee mannerism--a puckish smile, or the onset of an eye-roll. His speaking voice, unlike Pee-wee's nasal plaint, is pleasantly middle-range; soft, relaxed, even intimate, with just a hint of an insinuating Jack Nicholson-like purr. On this particular summer afternoon, he is dressed in a plaid short-sleeved shirt and crisp stonewashed blue jeans. If he didn't have the face of a children's-television icon, he could pass for a high-school typing teacher.
"I'm lower-key than people think I am," he offers, almost an apology. Not long before our interview he attended the wedding of his friend David Arquette to Courteney Cox, where he apparently disappointed the bride's family with his manifest lack of zaniness. He is, in fact, surprisingly earnest. For instance, he frets about the violence and coarseness of popular culture and takes his role in it very seriously: "How the television and film industries feel they are not responsible--I don't get. I think that if you are in the position where you are a role model, you are a role model. Tough luck. I realize there is kind of a dichotomy because I didn't carry this as far as I should have or could have, because I wound up getting arrested and involved in a so-called sex scandal. [But] when I see some of these sports heroes or whoever going, 'Well it's not my fault I'm a role model,' yeah, I understand that thinking, but it still doesn't change the reality that kids are looking up to you." He sighs. "I could do another hour or five hours on this topic and just nod off."
"My experience is that Paul has no idea how many people love him," says Lynne Stewart, who played Miss Yvonne--"the most beautiful woman in Puppetland"--on Pee-wee's Playhouse and in the series' earlier incarnation as a Los Angeles stage show. Talking to numerous friends and colleagues of his, I quickly gather that Reubens is indeed the subject of deep affection. Adjectives like "brilliant," "generous," "sensitive," "playful," and "pure" are routinely used to describe him. "He's sweet," says Fran Lebowitz, a friend of Reubens's for 10 years, "and 'sweet' is a word I almost never have occasion to use not in connection with dessert. And never in connection with a performer. [But where] most performers are wildly solipistic, Paul is not....And hence he's not intolerable. He's like the son you always wanted."
I should note that when you call up friends of a profile subject you tend to hear nice things, just as you would hope would be the case with your own friends. But rarely do you hear nice things with unanimity and genuineness; even people who have beefs with Reubens seem to have great respect for him. Crew members who worked on Pee-wee's Playhouse talk about the unusual ways Reubens would extend himself, asking after sick parents, making everyone wear nametags to that he could learn the crew's names, entertaining dying children from the Make-a-Wish Foundation who visited the set on a regular basis. He is said to be someone who delights in sharing his many enthusiasms--3-D photography, landscaping, Korean barbeque, an old fishing camp in the Adirondacks, an antique mall in Bakersfield to which he likes to drag friends on field trips. An unusually prolific and enthusiastic sender of Christmas cards, he is known for his lavish gift giving and obsessive shopping. He lives in the Hollywood Hills in a toy-and-kitsch-clogged home--"You can barely navigate it," says Lebowitz, "and it's a big house"--surrounded by a cactus garden most of which he himself planted, apparently at no small peril to his own flesh. There, he is said to commune with the many deer, racoons, skunks, and coyotes that wander onto his property, a Saint Francis of the canyons.
In these descriptions of his private life, one senses currents of both the gentleness and nostalgia that underlie his work. One hears about contradictions too: that he can be both painfully vulnerable and "sledgehammer hard"; that he is a workaholic who can also drive collaborators to distraction with creative ways of procrastinating, like initiating impromtu games of office hide-and-seek. He declines my offer to discuss his romantic life, except to say that he is single and "looking." He allows that he would like to have children someday, but worries that, at 46, he is getting too old.
He was born Paul Reubenfeld in Peekskill, New York, in 1952, the eldest of three children--two boys and a girl. His father, Milton Reubenfeld, owned a Linoln-Mercury dealership, later a lighting store; his mom, Judy, was an elementary-school teacher. Although his parents weren't wild about his becoming a performer, Reubens credits them with being formative influences: "My parents are hilarious. They're like a team. They work off each other. I never realized that they were that funny for a long time, and then in the last 10 years, I look at them and go, No wonder I turned out to be a comedian. They need, like, a rim shot."
Other early influences included the television shows he says he watched most zealously: Captain Kangaroo, Howdy Doody, The Mickey Mouse Club, and I Love Lucy (for some reason of long-forgotten Eisenhower-era developmental theory, his passion for the last show was the cause of great concern at his grammar school). In what you might his own version of the myth-charged day when a teenage Bill Clinton met President Kennedy, Reubens once appeared on Howdy Doody as part of the show's audience, the Peanut Gallery. Alas, there are no photographs of the future kiddie-show host shaking hands with host Buffalo Bob or grinning next to Howdy Doody, the star marionette, and in any case the event proved less than inspirational. "I remember sitting there thinking, Well, where the hell is Howdy Doody? You couldn't see anything. It was all cameras and lights and junk in the way. Nobody looked like they looked on TV. And it was really very frightening." Howdy Doody was the cause of further trauma in the Reubenfeld household when it went off the air in 1960: "I remember sitting on the floor of our living room watching the last episode just in tears, crying, sitting there as a really little kid and thinking, What kind of world is this?" You'd like to imagine Reubens vowing then and there to right this wrong when he grew up--somehow, someday--but that didn't happen.
In any event, his world proved to be a more exotic one a year later when the Reubenfelds moved to Sarasota, Florida--winter headquarters for the Ringling Bros. circus. Paul was then nine. His new neighbors included the Great Wallendas, the famous family of high-wire artists, and another family that shot one another out of cannons. He remembers his first Halloween in Sarasota, when he and his sister knocked on the Doll Family's door. "They were midgets," he explains, "and we didn't even know what that was--I didn't even know how to process that. I mean, I was looking at someone smaller than me but who was obviously old. They said, 'Come on in,' and we went inside their house. It was like being on acid when you were a kid. Everything was tiny, all the cabinets were down to here. The whole house was small." Again, you'd like to imagine Reubens deciding then and there to build a wacky, cockeyed Playhouse when he grew up, but that didn't happen, either.
Pee-wee Herman was born in 1978 at the Groundlings, the Los Angeles improv group that has over the years produced alumni such as Phil Hartman, Lisa Kudrow, Jon Lovitz, Julia Sweeney, Laraine Newman, and nearly half the current
cast of Saturday Night Live (Cheri Oteri, Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan, Chris Parnell, and Ana Gasteyer). Reubens joined in 1977 after having moved to Southern California at attend college at the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied acting. People who knew him then often say they regret that the success of the Pee-wee character has kept the public from seeing Reubens's versatility as a comic actor. (One of the other fondly remembered characters he created at the Groundlings was a Native American lounge singer, Chief Jay Longtoe, the political incorrectness of whom--he drank and danced on point in big white sneakers--Reubens still frets about.) Pee-wee was first intended to be "a really bad comic, somebody you would look at and go, 'This guy's never going to make it.'" The name Pee-wee came from the brand of a harmonica Reubens owned. Herman was the surname of a "crazy, high-powered" kid who grew up in Florida ("I like that it didn't sound like a made-up name, that it was just kind of cruddy"). The voice was the on he had developed years eariler as the "resident juvenile" at a Sarasota reperatory theater company. As to how it all came together, "I just sort of flipped a switch and the character came out," Reubens says. He admits, "You'd think in 20 years I'd have a better story."
Certainly he wasn't the first adult to be rewarded for having a puerile sense of humor or to gain fame playing a freakish, overgrown child. As seen on a 1981 HBO special, the character was originally far more manic and grating than he would be in the subsequent films and television series, although even in this cruder incarnation Pee-wee has more depth--this is relative--and far more ironic self-awareness than such precursors as Harry Langdon, Lou Costello, Pinky Lee, Soupy Sales, and Jerry Lweis, performers who never had much appeal to the hip adult audiences of their eras. Pee-wee was something more akin to Lily Tomlins Edith Ann, but ruder and less precious. From the beginning, observers were struck by how Reubens had managed to capture the comflicting nature of childhood, its twin poles of anarchy and shame, which gave the character an appealing reality even amid the grotesquerie; with his shoe mirrors and naughty jokes, the Pee-wee character also acknowledged that young children are sexually inquisitive--not a particularly novel observation, but one that is rare on Saturday mornings, where it eventually landed.
"Pee-wee Herman certainly had a nice dark mean streak that I never tried to hide," says Reubens. "I mean, I always thought that was funny. But he was basically good-hearted, and there is a sweetness, I think, to what I do." Reubens noticed that Groundlings audiences responded to Pee-wee more readily than they did to his angrier or more depressive characters. "There was a higher likability factor to Pee-wee Herman....And I made a decision to--I became Pee-wee for a while. Because I couldn't figure out how to make it in Hollywood. I didn't feel like I had anything to separate me from anyone else in town. This sounds really weird, but I was actually thinking of that musical number in Gypsy, 'You Gotta Have a Gimmick.' There's these three strippers singing that song, and I was sort of thinking of that and going, A gimmick? Yes. That's good."
He was helped in all this, perversely, by being rejected for Saturday Night Live in 1980, losing out to Gilbert Godfried for the "nutty, dorky guy" slot in the first season after the original cast retired. Angry and haunted by the fear that he had missed his one shot at the big time, Reubens borrowed money from his parents to finance a stage show at the Roxy Theater on the Sunset Strip. While S.N.L. went on to enjoy the most disasterously unfunny season in its long history, The Pee-wee Herman Show, a parody of the kiddie TV shows Reubens had loved as a child, became a hit, playing for five months and launching Reubens as a headliner and "I know you are, but what am I?" as a catchphrase. The 1985 film Pee-wee's Big Adventure, directed by a then novice named Tim Burton, was a sleeper hit that summer, grossing $45 million on a budget of about $7.5 million, which in turn inspired CBS to offer Reubens an actual Saturday-morning children's show.
Pee-wee's Playhouse debuted in the fall of 1986 and was an instant sensation, drawing a substantial audience of adults, who found it worth getting up on Saturday mornings to see what Reubens had persuaded CBS to air on a program ostensibly for kids. On one episode, Pee-wee returned from a shopping trip and began coyly to unpack his groceries for the camera: "Milk . . . milk . . . lemonade . . . " (in homage to the beloved playground verse that also explains, as did Pee-wee, where "fudge is made"). On another episode he was clearly more interested in dancing with Tito, the hunky Latin lifeguard, than he was with busty Miss Yvonne. Despite such goofy if genuine envelope-pushing, Reubens says he never had much trouble with CBS's standards-and-practices department, although on his first episode, for reasons he never understood, the network tried to keep him from sticking pencils in a potato.
The real genius of Pee-wee's Playhouse lay in the larger world Pee-wee inhabited. There was the vibrant, kitschy production design by artist and cartoonist Gary Panter, the stream-of-consciousness-like pacing, the inventive animation, and a small village's worth of animate objects, which included a talking chair (Chairry), a talking globe (Globey), a talking window (Mr. Window), a talking chandelier (Chandelier)--everything talked on Pee-wee's Playhouse, including, by the second season, the floor (Floory). Pee-wee had human friends as well, like Miss Yvonne, Captain Karl (played by the late Phil Hartman, who also co-wrote the script for Pee-wee's Big Adventure), Cowboy Curtis (Laurence Fishburne), and Jambi the Genie (John Paragon, who, along with Hartman, was one of Reubens's closest friends and collaborators at the Groundlings). At its best, Pee-wee's Playhouse sent up classic children's television--not just Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo but the hundreds of other local programs on which middle-aged men talked to sock puppets and unspooled old, scratchy cartoons--with a delightful, skewed logic all its own. It was a show that was both gently subversive and full of positive messages (share, be nice, rush your teeth), a show that evinced amusement at the conventions of its genre but also a respect for them. It was to children's television what Late Night with David Letterman was to talk shows, only without the curdled irony and naked self-loathing--which, technically, I suppose, would make it the Late Night with Conan O'Brien of children's television. It won a total of 22 Emmys, including 2 for Reubens himself.
The show wasn't much of a money-maker, however. With each episode costing $425,000 to $535,000, high for a prime-time sitcom, let alone the normally chintzy realm of Saturday morning, Reubens's production company was losing money on Pee-wee's Playhouse, with the idea that profits would come later with syndication sales, a common formula in television. On top of that, Reubens says he paid himself scale as a performer. He did do pretty well for himself through merchandising deals, though he limited his returns by insisting the Pee-wee products be well made. He also refused to endorse candy bars and other kinds of junk food, though a Ralston Purina Pee-wee Chow cereal nearly made it to supermarket shelves. "The commercial," Reubens recalls, "was going to be a 50s mom shaking the cereal in a bowl and then putting it on the floor--the kids were gonna come up on all floors and eat it like dogs. It tasted just like Trix, which was my favorite cereal when I was a kid, and it had more of everything good in it than any other cereal on the market at the time. No sugar, sweetened with fruit juice, had all kinds of extra vitamins. It was really good for you, and everything was going fine--until at the last minute they did a blind taste test and kids hated it." In another blow, Reubens was never able to interest manufacturers in bringing out a line of Miss Yvonne wigs for little girls.
Though never much of a premiere-goer or one to vacation in Aspen or the Hamptons, Reubens did enjoy the celebrity perk of meeting other famous and successful people. He got to know the late Heiress Doris Duke and her adopted adult daughter, Chandi Heffner, whom he had met in Hawaii though Jim Nabors (whom he had met through Charo). Though some in Duke's circle looked down their noses at Reubens--"He was singing for his supper," says one--she enjoyed his company. There was a semi-notorious dinner party in 1989 at Shangri-la, Duke's faux-Persian Diamond Head estate, during which Reubens and Heffner exchanged vows in an improptu mock wedding ceremony. Nabors serenaded the couple, and, Reubens says, "I still have the temporary marriage license signed by Imelda Marcos" (whom Duke had recently bailed out of prison). I wonder: what do you talk about at a dinner party with Doris Duke, Jim Nabors, and Imelda Marcos? "Oh, they were talking about everything. They were talking about the F.B.I., they were talking about, you know, gold and prices. It just ran the gamut."
The rest of the interview