A shorter version of this article originally appeared in the April 2001 issue of SPIN.
The Second Coming of Paul Reubens
In the new Johnny Depp true-story cocaine epic, "Blow," Paul Reubens (the Artist Formerly Known as Pee-wee Herman) plays Derek Foreal, one of the 20th century's great villains. Chances are you've never heard of Foreal (because, for one thing, that's not the actual name of the person the character is based on), but consider his crimes. One, he invented the male hair salon. Two, he introduced a young George Jung (played in the movie by Depp) to drug dealing in the late '60s. Jung would ultimately do for cocaine what Bill Gates did for personal computing: "If you did coke in the '80s," Reubens explains, "there's an 85% chance it came from George Jung." Which means that Derek Foreal was indirectly responsible for crack babies, "Bright Lights, Big City," and the demise of the old-fashioned barber shop. Thanks Derek!
The real Foreal (whatever his name is) is currently in hiding. For the last ten years or so, it's often seemed as if Reubens has been too. On September 5, 1991, six weeks after he was arrested for exposing himself in a Sarasota, Florida porno theater, Reubens made his last appearance as Pee-wee Herman at the MTV Video Music Awards. Since then, he's mostly stuck to cameos or bit parts. In the mid-'90s, he became the go-to character actor for primate comedies with roles in both "Dunston Checks In" (about an orangutan) and "Buddy" (about a gorilla). In more recent years he played a murdering, bank-robbing, Bridget Fonda-raping outlaw named Arvid in Dwight Yoakam's rotini Western, "South of Heaven, West of Hell" (which despite the precise directions, still hasn't found its way into theaters). And in "Mystery Men," Reubens played The Spleen, a superhero who subdues his adversaries via noxious blasts of ass perfume.
His work in "Blow" is even more eye-opening than that. Not only does he hold his own against the epic sweep of Johnny Depp's everchanging hairdos, he also played a substantial role in developing the flamboyant, outrageously stylish character of Derek Foreal. "The real guy wouldn't let us use his name in the movie, so apart from being a hairdresser, we actually decided to make Derek as different from the real guy as possible," says Ted Demme, "Blow's" director. "And if anyone on this planet is ready to create a character, it's Paul."
So, a turbo-charged flatulator, a rapist-murderer, and a drug-dealing hairstylist: how can you top that? "I'm going to be a game show host," says Reubens, who has signed up to do the the TV version of the popular CD-ROM trivia game "You Don't Know Jack," which will eventually appear on ABC. "At this point, I don't know jack about it," he says of the show. "It's all very much up for grabs..."
Sitting in the nearly empty lounge of Hollywood's Chateau Marmont, the soft-spoken Reubens comes across as the world's nicest celebrity. Janeane Garafalo, who met him on the set of Mystery Men, says he's "a really sweet and warm person who remembers all birthdays and all holidays." Ben Stiller credits him with an even greater gift. "He hooked me up with a great hypnotist," Stiller reveals. "I wanted to stop eating M&Ms, and he recommended this guy who helped me break the habit…"
At age 48, Reubens' hair is flecked with gray and no longer styled quite so aerodynamically as it was in his Pee-wee Herman days. And instead of Pee-wee's trademark gray suit, he's wearing stonewashed blue jeans and a casual charcoal shirt. But all in all, he's still readily identifiable as Pee-wee, as the repeated glances from two Westside power-moms sitting nearby attest. And, indeed, after a few moments of strategizing, the blonde one bounds across the room like an ill-bred cougar, plants herself in front of Reubens, and requistions autographs for her three kids without so much as an "excuse me."
Instead of farting on her as The Spleen would have done, Reubens happily obliges. "If you could do it on three separate pages, that would be amazing," the woman instructs. "And that's Julien with an 'E.' J-U-L-I-E-N. She can't stand when people spell it with an 'A.'
As Reubens completes his celebrity paperwork, signing his alter ego's name three times, with no spelling errors, the woman makes appreciative small-talk. "Your humor is timeless," she says. "It just gets handed down and handed down…"
Which is a very apt comment, because it suggests that Pee-wee has been gone longer than he actually has, and with us for longer than he actually was. For the record, Reubens created Pee-wee Herman in 1977, when he was a member of the LA improv group The Groundlings. A stage show at the Roxy led to an HBO special in 1981, which led to numerous appearances on Late Night with David Letterman and the first Pee-wee movie, 1985's "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," a surprise hit that was directed by Tim Burton in his feature film debut. After that came the Saturday morning TV show "Pee-wee's Playhouse," which ran on CBS from 1986 to 1991, and another movie, 1988's "Big Top Pee-wee," which didn't do as well as the first.
As Pee-wee, Reubens was a chortling, arm-flapping pastiche of mixed signals. He was neat and clean-cut, with a suit that looked like he'd swiped it from tiny businessman's closet, but he also painted his face like a geisha. Most of the time he acted like a kid - open-minded, obsessed with fun - but if you crossed him or he didn't get his way, he could be as childish as an adult. People loved to imitate his burbly, whining voice and tic-like laugh, but probably only because that was easier to mimic than his perfect geeky grace - many of his best moments were purely visual, with him flitting and hopping around like a puppet who had just escaped his master for the very first time. On the surface, his playhouse was a chaotic place, where any object might prove animate and anything could happen as long as it involved either pointless shouting or miniature claymation dinosaurs, but each week, he and his friends enacted the same comforting rituals - the secret word of the day, the visit from the King of Cartoon, the tried-and-true catchphrases.
"When someone creates a character like that, which is so much their own invention and becomes so iconic within pop culture, I'm always in awe of people who can do that kind of thing," stammers an awe-struck Ben Stiller. (Is he hitting the M&M's again?) And Stiller is far from the only person to express such sentiments. In Pee-wee's late-'80s heyday, the French were similarly awed, comparing him to classic movie clowns like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. ("It was enormously flattering, but the French took it all so seriously," Reubens recalls. "It made me feel really stupid and excited at the same time.") Joan Rivers tapped him to perform on the opening night of her ill-fated late-night talk show, along with Cher, Elton John, and David Lee Roth. Madonna name-checked him interviews as her favorite actor. Investors approached him with plans to build a Disney-scaled Pee-wee amusement park. The Harvard Lampoon paid tribute to him with its prestigious Elmer award. ("I still have it, right next my honorary Muppet award," Reubens says fondly.)
It's tough living up to the expectations of the French, Madonna, and the Harvard Lampoon, however. In addition to starring in "Pee-wee's Playhouse," Reubens also produced, directed, and wrote for the show. "Each one of those was a full-time job," he says now. "It was too many jobs to do at the same time." After five years, 47 episodes, and 22 Emmy awards, Reubens was exhausted. In April 1991, he announced his decision to pull the plug on his show. "CBS wanted to do two more seasons, but I couldn't do two more minutes without a big huge break," he says.
A few months later, however, the big huge break turned unexpectedly bigger and huger when Reubens decided to patronize an X-rated movie theater in Sarasota while visiting his parents. A bunch of police officers who apparently loved porn so much they'd figured out a way to watch it on the job were there to conduct an undercover sting operation. One of their collars was Reubens; they arrested him for indecent exposure and "manipulating the genitalia."
After the story broke, it was a bad time to be, oh, an assassinated political leader or an earthquake-stricken Third World nation, because the only thing the news media cared about was Pee-wee. His mug shot showed up everywhere. Sporting long hair and a patchy goatee, he looked more like the Satan-loving bass player for an Iron Maiden cover band than a Saturday morning kid show host. "I went to really, really great lengths to never appear out of character," says Reubens about the Jekyll and Hyde overtones of it all. "I did interviews as Pee-wee. I was photographed as Pee-wee. So nobody really knew anything about me. Which was really great for my career, but I don't think it worked that well for that particular situation…"
But even though thousands of fans sent Reubens letters of support and publications like the Wall Street Journal and The New Republic editorialized in his favor, institutional backlash was swift and stupid. CBS pulled five "Pee-wee's Playhouse" reruns from its schedule. Toy stores banished Pee-wee merchandise from their shelves. Publicity-seeking psychiatrists explained to parents how to break the news of Reubens' arrest to their children. ("The police said that Pee-wee was in movie theater and he was playing with his wee-wee.")
Reubens maintained his innocence but paid a fine to settle the case, then dropped out of sight. "I don't really even know specifically what got said," he says of all media frenzy surrounding the case. "I wasn't even that plugged in to what was going on. It just seemed like it was much ado about nothing."
Which it was, of course, but it certainly had a strong impact on Reubens and his alter ego. On September 5th, 1991, Reubens made a surprise appearance as Pee-wee at the MTV Video Music Awards. "Heard any good jokes lately?" he asked the crowd. And, then, in the wake of the crowd's loud applause, he added, "Oh, shut up already."
And that was it, the last time Reubens ever put on Pee-wee's snappy red bow tie and bright white shoes. Ever since then, Pee-wee has existed as the James Dean of kid-show hosts, gone before his time, and revered all the more because of his unexpected departure. He didn't get fat like Captain Kangaroo. He didn't lose his edge like Mr. Rogers. Instead, he simply exists in an idealized limbo of memory, limited syndication, and videotape.
"The first time I was on "The Gong Show," I actually took an ad out in Variety and sat by the phone waiting for the offers to pour in," Reubens says. "It was two o'clock in the afternoon, and I thought show business was going to shut down that day and watch me - I was worried that my phone line wouldn't be able to take all the calls."
Show business didn't shut down, but Reubens remained undaunted and continued to perform on "The Gong Show." "I partially supported myself for a couple years from that," he says.
"Since 'The Gong Show' was categorized as a game show, an act could only come on once," says Chuck Barris, the show's creator and host. "But Paul was really just kind of starting out and trying to make it then, and he was always fabulous on my show, so I didn't care if he came back every week. He'd come on completely disguised as an Indian or a pirate or a hobo, and sometimes I didn't know if it was him or not, so I'd go, 'Hey, Paul, is that you?' Whatever act he came back with, it was always just creative and so funny that working with him was really one of the great highlights of doing that show."
After winning "The Gong Show" several times (and selling the prizes), Reubens and a partner decided to go for the worst act of the week, because there was a prize for that as well. "We did this act called 'Le Chats,' where we were French alley cat burglars. So we were sitting in the rehearsal room at NBC, wearing black leotards and cat masks, and the doors to the room swung open. Someone from the network was giving Jon Belushi and Dan Aykroyd a tour, and it was really clear that when they'd opened the doors, they were going like, 'Here's the freak show.'"
Some time after the French alley cat burglars came Pee-wee Herman; Reubens created the character during a Groundlings workshop. "Most of my friends at the time were very skeptical about it," Reubens recalls. "A couple of people who later became very involved in the show thought it was a lame idea and that it would never work. But all you have to do is tell me 'no' and then I'm off and running - it's very hard for me to take 'no' for an answer."
That's the kind of attitude that any working Hollywood actor must possess, of course. And when you combine that attitude with a willingness to dress up like a French alley cat burglar on national TV, well, then you have a star. Which is why Reubens' scene-stealing turn in "Blow" is more than likely just the first stage of a much grander renaissance. Because, really, when Axl Rose recently played a concert for the first time in over seven years, did he play the drums?
To reclaim his rightful place in the universe, Reubens is currently working on two Pee-wee scripts. One, which he and John Paragon (aka Jambie the Genie) are about a third of the way through, is aimed at children. The other, which he and screenwriter Valerie Curtin ("Toys," "Unfaithfully Yours") have already finished, is aimed at adults. "Pee-wee gets famous, and then he turns into a monster," he says of the latter. He's not sure which one he wants to do first, but when he arrives at that decision, his wardrobe will be ready. "Yeah, there a lots of those suits still around in different places," he confirms, laughing softly. "I even have one hanging in my closet."
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