Once upon a time in the year 1980, there were two brothers by the name of Richard and Danny Elfman. They got together in southern California to make a shoestring-budget flick called Forbidden Zone. Aside from being an unknown art-house release that did its best to out-Rocky the Rocky Horror Picture Show, it was seminal in launching the careers of two very famous Hollywood names. Tim Burton was inspired to start a lifelong creative partnership with Danny Elfman. Another attendee was Paul Reubens, who was also influenced by the film, reaching deep within himself to pull out the character that is Pee Wee Herman.
As Reubens puts it in interviews, “…That’s been the amazing thing about Pee-wee Herman over all the years, even right from the get-go when I first did it: It’s just something that’s inside me somewhere, and I’ve always been able to switch it on and switch it off.”
Pee Wee Herman got himself a TV series and a number of films before Reubens got himself into a brief scuffle with the law. Any other actor would be able to brush that off within a week with the right PR and a bit of aplomb, but the media did all but camp out on Reubens’ lawn for a week. Pee Wee had to fade from the public eye for nearly two decades.
Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday at last brings the man-child character back to hordes of adoring fans — fans who honestly would have laughed off the charges against him back in the 90s five minutes after it happened. This brings up the question, why does this guy have such a cult following?
Reubens has been especially savvy in developing his alter-ego’s career. Nobody else can be Pee Wee but him. Nobody could possibly pull off a counterfeit. Building on the personification of immature humor that nevertheless connects with an adult audience, Reubens built a media empire on stage and screen. His success comes not from thinking big, but from thinking small and then making a big deal out of it. In Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, the entire plot is retrieving a simple stolen bike. One memorable scene shows the elaborate Breakfast Machine, a Rube Goldberg-ian contraption set up in Pee Wee’s kitchen to prepare breakfast for himself and his dog. (For the particularly nostalgic, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is available through Amazon, iTunes or DirecTV.)
Throughout his career, Reubens has lent Pee Wee to others in film cameos and game show hosting stints. Most notably, he was part of Cheech and Chong’s stable of stock extras, and he’s never far from whatever Tim Burton is doing. He also had regular guest spots on shows as diverse as TV’s Murphy Brown and the Dwight Yoakam western South of Heaven, West of Hell. Count on him to steal every scene he’s in, even if he’s barely glimpsed in the background.
Pee Wee is a character that sews together contradictions. He is at the same time both square and hip, old and young, traditional and avant-garde, mainstream and surreal — and especially, childishly innocent and yet burlesque. The amazing thing is that he can go from a children’s show to a midnight showing for adults only, appealing to both demographics while changing very little.
Now the fans have a chance to welcome back Pee Wee in a big way. His appeal has crossed several generations by now, although it’s doubtless that there will be another legal scandal or two, such as the 2002 witch hunt where police raided his home, tried to build a pornography case, and dropped charges. That’s just life when you’re Pee Wee. Reubens has reported suffering from depression from his legal troubles, but you can’t keep a good man down. If his fan base is any indication, there’s almost nothing he can be charged with that he can’t put behind him.
Article by contributor Beth Kelly.