Magazine article The New Yorker

Pee-Wee Redux

Magazine article The New Yorker

Pee-Wee Redux

Article excerpt

Children (and cool grownups) of the eighties remember a brightly lit room with fifties wallpaper, whose inhabitants included a talking chair (Chairry), a talking clock (Clocky), a talking globe who sounded like Henry Kissinger (Globey), a window with googly eyes (Mr. Window), a blue genie head in a bejewelled box (Jambi), a cow in a tiara (the Cowntess), and a robot (Conky) who dispensed a daily "secret word," which, when it was spoken, would make all of the above scream real loud.

Presiding over the mayhem was a tall man in a too small suit named Pee-wee Herman, played by the actor Paul Reubens. "Pee-wee's Playhouse" ended its run, on CBS, in 1990, and the intervening years have been difficult for Reubens. He was arrested in 1991, for indecent exposure at an adult-movie theatre (he pleaded no contest), and again, in 2001, for possession of child pornography (those charges were later dropped, when he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge). As a result, Pee-wee has not been heard from for almost two decades. But, in the past few months, the character--puffier but no less manic--has been showing up on the "Tonight Show" and "Jay Leno," preparing the public for a comeback.

"I just woke up one day and felt like, Yeah, it's time," Reubens, who is fifty-seven, said the other day. He was at a diner in Los Angeles, following a rehearsal of "The Pee-wee Herman Show," which opens this week at Club Nokia. When not in character, Reubens is sedate, without a trace of Pee-wee. "Yesterday, we saw the pterodactyl"--Pterri--"fly," he said, in a near-whisper. He was wearing a black corduroy shirt, jeans, and a calculator watch.

Reubens first developed Pee-wee Herman (he took the name off a harmonica) in the nineteen-seventies, as a member of the L.A. improv troupe the Groundlings, and gained recognition performing in comedy clubs. That led to an HBO special, two movies--"Pee-wee's Big Adventure" (1985) and "Big Top Pee-wee" (1988)--and the Saturday-morning kids' show. But Pee-wee was never intended purely as a children's character, and the original act was full of racy humor, most of which was purged from the TV show. (There were exceptions, as when Cowboy Curtis, played by Laurence Fishburne, told Pee-wee, "You know what they say, big feet . . . big boots!") Reubens conceived the new stage show as a return to form, but things got tricky. "All these people were calling Ticketmaster saying, 'Can I bring my kids? …

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