I Know You Are, But What Am I? – 7 Things I Learned from Peewee Herman

Pee-wee Herman has hit Broadway. The adorable bow-tied man-child has been tearing up New York City with a promotional storm that’s exhausting to watch, and now his show is playing at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. Growing up in New Zealand, we never had the pleasure of the legendary kids’ television show Pee-wee’s Playhouse. (For our men-in-white-makeup fix, we had Count Homogenized, a campy, milk-guzzling vampire with an afro. Suck on that, American kids.)

But we did have Pee-wee’s Big Adventure pretty much on permanent rental from the video store (after first seeing it, probably, at the Starlight Cinema in Papatoetoe, which was a butcher’s shop the last time I visited). The film’s drama centres on a stolen bicycle. Clever Pee-wee; there was no smarter way to identify with teenagers who were too young to drive, yet yearned of suburban escape.

The Tim Burton-directed film pushed a boat-load of crazy-buttons for me and my brothers, fueling and inspiring many of the idiot things we did* in our South Auckland landlubber summers. (Not only that, but, while I’m not usually one for film tourism, in a shocking disregard for Actual History, I did once go to The Alamo in San Antonio specifically to ask for directions to the basement. Yuk yuk.)

While I’d love to see The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway (when a ticket falls out of the sky), I’m already satisfied, having seen the man behind the boy, Paul Reubens, during the New Yorker Festival recently. My friend Jennifer is, like me, a more behind-the-scenes sort of art person. She is also incredibly generous about making sure others can enjoy live experiences, and that generosity sent me and a Sprooklyn artist neighbour (who has an original Pee-wee doll and lunchbox) all the way to the second row of the Paul Reubens event.

Paul Reubens

Paul Reubens with the New Yorker’s Susan Morrison

It was a great and moving talk. I dunno why, but I had been expecting a bit of good old showbiz gossip and some shiny, pat answers – a couple of hundred people in the audience doesn’t always lend intimacy to a one-on-one conversation. Instead, Reubens described the struggles and passions of a true artist, his upbringing and his life with a healthy blend of honesty, ego and wicked timing.


1. Take note of the ‘A-ha!’ moment (#1).

The Pee-wee Herman character grew out of a long-form improvisation during which Reubens realised “something’s here”. He’d thought he was doomed to be a bad comedian who couldn’t remember punchlines, but after that night, he decided that, just like the song from Gypsy, “you gotta get a gimmick”.
Groundlings founder Gary Austin gave him the gray suit, while the childish voice had been developed during a repertory theatre production of Life with Father. (Reubens had started out serious, but over the three-month duration of the play his character – the son – became more and more comical, “further proof that I was a bad actor,” he joked.)

2. Rejection is not the end (and parents are your first best investors).
The original Pee-wee Herman Show was born after Reubens was turned down for Saturday Night Live. “The show really was born from frustration and anger… I’ll show you guys!” he explained. After landing back in Los Angeles from the failed audition, he called his parents from the airport and begged them for $5,000 to invest in developing his own stage show.

3. It’s never too late to change the story.
The Pee-wee’s Big Adventure screenplay was fueled by envy. Reubens had been given an office on a studio lot, where he was attempting to write a Pee-wee Herman feature film. But he was distracted by the fact that everyone else on the lot had bicycles and he didn’t. Finally, one day, he was presented with a beautiful, orange 1948 Schwinn racer, and had a revelation: “Oh my god! I’m writing the wrong movie!” He ran straight into his bungalow office, took the paper out of the typewriter (literally – this was the eighties), and started on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

4. Take note of the ‘A-ha!’ moment (#2).
The studio wanted someone else to direct Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but Reubens wasn’t convinced they had the right person. They gave him just one week to find someone he preferred. Whilst watching Tim Burton’s short film Frankenweenie, Reubens “knew in less than 30 seconds that he was the guy”. (I’m on tenterhooks for the feature version of that short, coming sometime in 2012.)

5. Be corny. Hide nothing. Commit fully.
That Pee-wee Herman has been revived to such welcome glee from my generation is testament to the collective strength of nerds, and to Reubens’ own commitment to the character. “Corny is okay for me. People like corniness!” he said. Though Pee-wee’s Playhouse and the stage show have a stockpile of double-entendres, at heart, Pee-wee’s Playhouse was “a straight-out kids’ show” said Reubens. “Hidden stuff? Nothing’s hidden!” he laughed. The show was designed to celebrate diversity; a decent helping of Spanish was always part of the series, for example. (On the other hand, Reubens said it had never occurred to him until recently that he had a “drag-queen Genie” in the show.)

6. Be as shark-like as possible about business (and listen to your Dad).
Towards the end of the talk, they opened up to questions from the floor. I was first up; I had a burning question for Mr Reubens as a result of my disappointment at the lack of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure paraphernalia in the otherwise amazing Tim Burton exhibition at MoMA recently. I wanted to know where he got his business nous from, since he obviously had an iron grip on his intellectual property, merchandise, imagery and more.
Turns out, it was his father. “You gotta look out for yourself,” Reubens’ Dad told him. “Be as shark-like as possible.” As a result of this advice, “I was able to do it in a pure way in an extremely corporate world,” said Reubens, who reckons he had just “five notes in five years” from CBS about his TV show’s content.

7. Finally, artists have to do what they do.
They just have to, okay? Stop asking them when they are going to get a real job. They will always know themselves when it is time to get a real job (or time to ask Mum and Dad for $5,000). Besides, being Pee-wee Herman is more of a real job than, I dunno, futures trading. But in the early years of a career, it can seem just as much of a gamble. As Paul Reubens said, “You gotta really wanna do this. It’s not a great profession. The most talented person isn’t usually the person who gets the job… If you don’t have to do this, I say don’t do it. I had to do it.”

And aren’t we glad he did.

PS I hope the new Pee-wee Herman movie (the one that Judd Apatow is producing) will be amazing, but the movie I really want to see made is of the story Paul Reubens told us about his high school, one of the first in America to be desegregated. Appalling, dramatic, intense. To your typewriter, Mr Reubens.

PPS *My brothers are still doing idiot things (UPDATE: and riding bicycles). Check out Ben’s new Discourse podcast. Excuse the cussing.

PPPS Here’s me, committing fully with an Edward Scissorhands topiary at MoMA last winter:



2 Responses to “I Know You Are, But What Am I? – 7 Things I Learned from Peewee Herman”

  1. Marianne

    Fantastic post Gemma.

    The combination of all-out, nothing hidden, corny commitment and sharp business acumen is rare. Paul Ruebens has it. So do you (also thanks largely to your dad as it happens, right?). So there you have it, you are the Pee Wee Herman of Papatoetoe. Or Wellington. Or Brooklyn.

  2. Rachael King

    Ah, thanks for the trip down memory lane. Whenever I hear the word ‘adobe’ I always think ‘say it with me: A-DO-BE’ but had completely forgotten where I got from. We had a small in group of 2 in the 7th form who had seen it and cracked each other up much to the envy (ok annoyance) of everyone else.


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