This headline doesn’t make sense to me: “Paul Reubens, best known as Pee-wee Herman, dead at the age of 70, after a private 6-year battle with cancer.”
Paul Reubens, 70? Impossible. How can that eternal man-child have grown so old when I wasn’t looking? How can he still feel like my peer, while almost being the same age as my father?
A private 6-year battle with cancer? How could someone so important to so many people be sick for that long and not get the victory lap he deserves while he was still with us?
And Pee-wee Herman dead? Paul Reubens, maybe, but Pee-wee? Incomprehensible.
I have been thrilled and surprised by the scale of affection people have been sharing for Reubens and his work. He has always been important to me and the people I knew, but, 7 years removed from the last direct-to-streaming Pee-wee movie, I was unprepared for how culturally relevant he remains.
What I share with more people than I realized is that I can chart the most formative years of my life by Paul Reubens’ career. I was born the same year as that first HBO special that broke Pee-wee into the mainstream. The Pee-wee Herman Show was a filmed stage performance of the show that Paul developed at the Groundlings Theater & School after he was passed over for the 6th season of Saturday Night Live. I remember seeing the special in reruns as a very young kid, presumably in between episodes of Fraggle Rock, and it stuck with me. I surely didn’t understand most of what I was seeing and hearing; but, because the show was riffing on the structure of a kids' show, there was enough to hold my young attention, and I still remember the lo-fi ending where Pee-wee gets his wish to fly and says he’s the luckiest boy in the world. For as rude and oddly adult as the character was at that point, that moment still landed for little kid me.
Chronologically, Paul was able to move from the success of his stage show and TV special toward getting a deal with Warner Brothers Studios to make a Pee-wee movie, but that isn’t what I saw next. Long before I saw Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, I was a fan of his children’s show, the adaptation of his stage show: Pee-wee’s Playhouse. As great as that first Pee-wee movie is, Playhouse is how I best remember the character. Similar to what Jim Henson did with The Muppet Show, Paul and his team found a way to preserve much of the anarchic energy from the stage show that appealed to adults, while creating a show that was more inclusive for a children’s audience. Though overtly much more of a kids' show than The Muppet Show ever was, or wanted to be, Pee-wee’s Playhouse held just as much appeal for audiences of all ages. Looking back, you can particularly see how much both the stage show and children’s show would go on to become major influences for children’s cartoons for decades to come. Right from their opening credits, you can see how much a show like SpongeBob SquarePants aggressively borrowed from Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure didn’t have quite the same influence on me that it had on others, because it’s what I came to last with the character, but, it was kind of the perfect capstone for me, radically expanding what the character of Pee-wee could be by taking him out into the world. To invoke Jim Henson and The Muppets again, this isn’t that dissimilar from what happened with the jump from The Muppet Show to The Muppet Movie.
The trajectories of The Muppets and Pee-wee were different, but they touched a lot of the same bases along the way. We mentioned above how Pee-wee was born from Paul being passed over for Saturday Night Live. A critical step towards the development of The Muppet Show was Jim Henson and his creation, The Land of Gorch, flaming out on the first season of SNL because the writers didn’t know what to do with characters that were meant to be for adults while looking like they were for kids. A place where Paul and Jim’s trajectories differed is that Jim began in children’s television and spent most of his career trying to get out of that box so he could pursue more avant-garde interests. Paul Reubens started out working in sketch comedy, performing in front of hip adult audiences, before making Big Adventure, one of the more “out there” mainstream films of the 80s, but ultimately, settled into a long run in children’s television.
Both Paul and Jim were also notably much more than just their most famous creations. Jim eventually got to branch out from The Muppets to make films like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth before his passing in 1990. Also in 1990, after Pee-wee’s Playhouse went off the air, Reubens reinvented himself in the 90s and 2000s as a character actor and in-demand voice artist. Despite some very high-profile speed bumps to his career, Reubens was a major part of projects like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Mystery Men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and more.
Now, I don’t really want to go too far comparing Jim Henson and Paul Reubens because the mountain of differences between the two of them surely outpaces their similarities, but these coincidental resemblances do help underscore for me a comparison that I do want to dig in on; that, as creations, The Muppets and Pee-wee Herman are of comparable importance and resonance.
When I said at the beginning that the idea of Pee-wee Herman being dead was something incomprehensible to me, this is what I had in mind. Despite Paul Reubens’ obviously inseparable relationship with the character, Pee-wee feels like an inviolable part of the fabric of pop culture. The death of Pee-wee Herman feels as impossible to me as the death of Kermit the Frog did after Jim Henson passed.
That thought has led me to realize that I would love nothing more than to see further stories with Pee-wee even if Paul can’t be with us to see them. He left behind a number of unmade Pee-wee scripts before finally getting 2016’s Pee-wee’s Big Holiday made. He even approached Johnny Depp around 2009 about the possibility of playing Pee-wee in a film Paul was trying to convince Tim Burton to direct. The idea of someone else playing Pee-wee doesn’t seem that absurd to me considering that the ending of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is Pee-wee giddily watching someone else play him in the movie of the story we had just finished watching.
I suspect nothing like this will ever happen, though. It’s a shame because of how much I love Pee-wee as a character and the kind of stories you could tell with him. From all the various iterations over the years, we can see that he can be quite childlike and quite dark; he can be quite sweet and quite rude; he can be bold, imaginative, and entirely his own person. Pee-wee just exudes an infectious enthusiasm, delight, and a childish joy that doesn’t let up. Something indomitable.
Like with The Muppets, Pee-wee can both be identifiably himself and yet, plugged into almost any story. I would happily watch a “Pee-wee’s Christmas Carol,” or “Pee-wee Treasure Island.” For all these reasons, I would love nothing more than to see creatives come up with fun things to do with a character like Pee-wee Herman, but at the same time, looking at the rather lackluster results of what has been attempted since Jim Henson’s passing, also maybe I don’t. I think I want these things, but maybe they would all just be a proxy for the thing I really want; to get to experience a performer like Paul Reubens imbue a character like Pee-wee with all of those qualities again. And that might also be impossible. Paul was something special, both on screen and in life, and, however much I don’t want to believe it, it’s probable that we’ll never see his like again.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.