Pee-Wee Herman is all about the comeback.
This summer marks the the 30th anniversary of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Directed by the then unknown Tim Burton, Paul Reubens’ stage show turned feature film went on to be a surprise success for Warner Brothers. To help with production, Reubens recruited many of his fellow stage performers from The Pee-Wee Herman Show and The Groundlings comedy troupe where he developed his alter ego character. Along with writer Michael Varhol, Reubens brought his friend, and fellow Pee-Wee Herman Show performer, Phil Hartman aboard to help write the script. What they came up with was near genius. The story is simple. Pee-Wee goes on a cross country adventure to retrieve his stolen prize possession - his bike. With a slew of quirky characters and scenarios, Big Adventure successfully pulled off the difficult task of bringing stage humor to the big screen. The film’s success would later help Hartman earn a spot as a writer and cast member for Saturday Night Live.
For his debut film, Burton experimented with several classic techniques. The result is a smorgasbord of elements, including claymation, noir lighting, and elaborate and imaginative dream sequences. Burton’s signature dark yet playful approach are on full display, and his affinity for incorporating nostalgic elements into his films created the perfect setting for Pee-Wee's adventure. Burton choose Oingo Boingo lead singer Danny Elfman to score the film. Having only worked as the music director/ composer for the independent movie The Forbidden Zone, Elfman jumped at the chance to score his first feature film. The opportunity gave the musician the chance to work with a full orchestra. The result was an explosion of musical creativity. Nearly every instrument is represented in a soundtrack that is best described as a blend of playful chaos and circus paranoia. Elfman's manic score worked perfectly with Burton's outrageous vision. Thirty years later, their collaborative director/ composer relationship is currently one of the longest running in Hollywood.
The success of Big Adventure helped Reubens develop the popular Saturday morning children's show, Pee-Wee's Playhouse. Rueben's again called on the talents of his former Groundlings cast members to play the numerous playhouse characters. With a production budget equal to CBS's prime time shows ($325,000 per episode at the time), Pee-Wee's Playhouse quickly gained a multi-generational following. Every Saturday viewers rose early to learn Conky’s secret word of the day, and to see how big Pee-Wee’s foil ball had gotten. Characters such as Jambi, Chairry, and Magic Screen gave life to every corner of the playhouse, while The King of Cartoons introduced a new generation to the long forgotten cartoons of the past. Playhouse ran for 5 seasons and was praise for its ethnically diverse cast, Pee-Wee's positive moral views, and it's stimulating and infectious creativity. Fun Fact - future musician and film maker Rob Zombie was a production assistant on the set of Playhouse.
Big Top Pee-Wee (1988)
Big Top Pee-Wee could easily be renamed Big Flop Pee-Wee. It was a disappointing follow up. It came as no surprise, especially considering it was made under another studio (Paramount) and Pee-Wee was the only returning character. Even worse was the loss of Burton as director. His imaginative influences were pivotal to the success of Big Adventure. Although Danny Elfman returned to score the film, he was unable to reprise his themes from Big Adventure since it was produced by Warner Brothers. Despite Reubens performance, all the magic from the first film is virtually nonexistent. It was dismally received.
In the summer of 1991 Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure in an adult theater. Although he was finished with Playhouse and had not been in character for over a year, CBS was still successfully running reruns of the popular show. Reubens was crucified by the media. While nightly entertainment show ridiculed the actor’s behavior, many in Hollywood voiced support for the actor. Reubens was a good sport about the incident, appearing as Pee-Wee a few weeks later at the MTV Video Music Awards. "Heard any good jokes lately?" He asked the audience. It no doubt took a lot of courage and humility. The audience responded with a standing ovation. It was a touching show of support, yet the media's harsh spotlight eventually forced Reubens to fade from the public eye.
Hindsight of the incident
Looking back at the media fueled relentless slander Reubens suffered after his arrest is laughable in comparison to today's society. While modern technology keeps many so called frowned upon activities from venturing from home, today's celebrities, athletes, and public figures are held to a more loose caliber. Nude selfies, twitter rants, and other present day unjust behaviors often make one more famous. It is also a fair assumption to note that modern media, as well as social networks, are just as powerful in influencing public opinion as ever. There is no finer example than Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton. Both conveniently had sex tapes "leaked" just before the premiere of their reality shows. What use to be the subject of ridicule, in turn resulted in an onslaught of admired attention. This is the caliber (and sadly the origin) of many of today's modern "celebrities."
Pee-Wee returned to the stage with a new production in 2009. To support the show, Reubens returned to the talk show circuit giving interviews in classic Pee-Wee form. The show was an overwhelming success, selling out performances in Los Angels and New York. In a reflective career full circle, HBO, who aired the original 1981 production, taped a show which premiered later that year on the cable network. After the show wrapped, Reubens continued his Pee-Wee comeback by drinking with Andy Samberg in a video short for Saturday Night Live, and showing off his new iPad to the Playhouse gang in an exclusive video for the site Funny or Die.
Pee-Wee's Big Holiday
After the success of the new Pee-Wee Herman Show, Reubens focused his attention on making another Pee-Wee movie. After working on a number of scripts and stories his persistence finally paid off in February 2015 when Netflix purchased the rights to produce the film Pee-Wee's Big Holiday. The film will follow Pee-Wee on another adventures as he takes on his first vacation. It has no doubt been a difficult journey for Reubens, yet the hiatus did have one positive consequence. Pee-Wee departed before suffering the over exposure that has fallen many popular characters and actors. He left on a high note, leaving behind a positive message of acceptance, imagination, and equality. His return to the spotlight is as natural as his origin. It's the result of a desire to perform, entertain, and to make people laugh. For Reubens, it’s the improbable second chance to introduce Pee-Wee to a new generation, and for longtime fans, it’s the cherry on top of a delicious bowl of Mr. T cereal. Welcome back PW.