Pee-wee Herman, the beloved character created by actor/writer Paul Reubens, was not just a petulant man-child but also a mischievous trickster spirit who brought his unique brand of anarchy into the mainstream. Reubens, who passed away at the age of 70, was known for trying to convince the public that Pee-wee was a real person, not just a character. This eccentric character, with his tight gray suit, red bow tie, crew cut, rouged cheekbones, and ruby-red lips, captivated audiences with his fearless and unapologetic presence.
Created in 1977 while Reubens was a member of The Groundlings sketch troupe in Los Angeles, Pee-wee was a mix of prop comedy, brattiness, and trickster spirit. Despite being a sissy, Pee-wee owned the stage with confidence and dictated the terms for his audience’s experience. His stage show, The Pee-wee Herman Show at The Groundlings Theatre, quickly gained popularity among LA hipsters and featured a combination of puppets, parody, and archival educational films. This unique mixture would later be seen in Reubens’ CBS Saturday morning show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
Pee-wee was not just a Peter Pan figure who never grew up; he represented an adult’s nostalgic remembrance of childhood, including the less desirable aspects such as narcissism, selfishness, and a lack of empathy. In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, these traits were hilariously portrayed through his obsessive quest to recover his stolen bike, disregarding the feelings of his friends along the way. On Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Pee-wee encouraged his viewers to “scream real loud” whenever the secret word was mentioned, much to the dismay of parents seeking a peaceful moment. In Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special, Reubens highlighted children’s greed for presents and turned Pee-wee into a reluctant monster who eventually finds redemption through guilt.
Despite Pee-wee’s popularity, Reubens faced personal controversies during his career. In 1991, he pleaded no contest to indecent exposure in an adult movie theater. A decade later, he was charged with possession of obscene material related to a child under the age of 18, but later pleaded guilty to a reduced misdemeanor obscenity charge. These incidents marred Reubens’ public image but did not overshadow the joy and laughter he brought to millions of fans through his iconic character.
Watching Pee-wee Herman was like reliving childhood in its purest form – a time filled with bike rides, toy play, and unfiltered joy. Pee-wee embodied impulse, anarchy, and id, which made his frequent appearances on Late Night with David Letterman so memorable. Reubens’ wild and uninhibited silliness contrasted with Letterman’s tetchy discomfort, creating a comedic dynamic that resonated with viewers.
In the days following Reubens’ passing, many of Pee-wee’s greatest moments will be revisited, including Large Marge, “Tequila!,” Jambi the Genie, Chairy, and “Come on, Simone. Let’s talk about your big ‘but.'” However, one of his most overlooked talents was his ability to inject a subversive and queer sensibility into mainstream entertainment. The Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special stands out as an example of this, with its inclusion of queer icons like The Del Rubio Triplets, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Little Richard, and Grace Jones as a green Gumby, drag singing “The Little Drummer Boy.” Reubens’ mischievous delight in unleashing this unique blend of weirdness on the unsuspecting audience is evident in his presence on stage.
As we mourn the loss of Paul Reubens, let us remember his incredible talent for bringing joy and laughter through the character of Pee-wee Herman. His ability to embrace the childlike joy and mischievousness of Pee-wee leaves behind a legacy that will continue to bring smiles to faces for years to come.