NPR

Pee-Wee Herman Is A Loner, A Rebel -- And Back

This interview was originally broadcast on November 29, 2004.

Pee-wee's Playhouse was broadcast as a Saturday morning kids' show from 1986 to 1991. But its audience included a lot of adults who also loved the humor, the characters and the bright, colorful designs on Pee-wee's wacky set.

And now Pee-wee is back. Paul Reubens, who nearly abandoned the zany, boyish character after his indecent-exposure arrest in 1991, has returned as Pee-wee in a new Broadway show featuring Miss Yvonne, Mailman Mike, Jambi the Genie, Conky, Cowboy Curtis and other regulars from the original Playhouse.

In a 2004 interview on Fresh Air, Reubens explained that he created the character of Pee-wee Herman in 1977, while working with the Groundlings comedy troupe in Los Angeles. But he came up with the character's name, he says, after looking for ideas at home.

"I had a little one-inch-long harmonica that said 'Pee-wee' on it, and I knew a kid whose last name was Herman, and Pee-wee Herman sounded like the kind of name you would never make up," he said. "It sounded like, you know, a totally real name made up by somebody whose parents didn't really care about them."

Though Reubens got his start in comedy, he explained that he didn't tell a joke as Pee-wee for many years. Instead, he says, he thought of Pee-wee as a type of performance art. He would climb on stage, revealing special toys from a giant bag while throwing Tootsie Rolls at the crowd.

But then Saturday Night Live called, offering Reuben an audition. And he didn't get a part. So Reubens decided to create his own comedy show, as he puts it, "completely out of spite."

"Before I even went home [after my SNL audition], I landed in Los Angeles and called my parents and borrowed some money from them," he recalled. "And probably within two weeks, I had 60 people working for me for free, and we produced [Pee-wee's Playhouse.]"

An HBO special followed. In 1985, Reubens made the feature film Pee-wee's Big Adventure with Tim Burton. That movie led to his TV series, which ran on CBS for 5 years, earning 22 Emmys. Reubens has also appeared on 30 Rock, Pushing Daisies, Reno 911, Everybody Loves Raymond and Murphy Brown. He's also the voice of the Star Tours ride at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.


Interview Highlights

On the set design

"I had seen a lot of [Art Spiegelman's] work, and I loved his work.  And I contacted him and asked him if he would do a poster for a show that I hadn't created yet.  And he said, 'Well, why don't I come down and see what it is.'  So, he came down and saw me in the Groundlings show where I had my little 10-minute Pee-wee thing and came backstage and said, 'I'd love to do it, but why don't I do the whole thing?  Why don't I design the sets and the puppets and everything?'  And I said, 'Yeah.  Great.'  So he designed that. ... And you know, I think it's probably the most amazing aspect of the show -- the design of it.  It was just so startlingly incredible in my opinion."

On feeling different growing up

"I felt like a total oddball, like, almost every minute of growing up, so it would be hard to kind of isolate that.  But I think that sort of was the whole point of the show was that it would be hard to stand out in the Playhouse.  Like, everything stood out in the Playhouse, so you could sort of feel right at home no matter who you are or what you were thinking or anything."

On growing up in Florida near the Ringling Brothers Circus

"I met lots of circus people. I mean, for one thing, you could see the circus people coming down the street -- like the lady with the bright red hair and the wooden shoes, you know?  It would be obviously a circus person.  I mean, you could just tell that they were very show-business people in a very conservative small town."

"We rented a little house the first year we moved to Sarasota, and we used to hear these explosions all the time, and we never could figure out what they were.  And one day a couple weeks after we moved, our whole family took a walk one night after dinner, and we heard this explosion, and we looked in between these two homes.  We saw somebody flying through the air in between these two homes. And it turned out that it was the Zacchini family, and they were the family with the giant silver cannon.  And they were shooting each other out of a cannon in the back yard."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of TVworthwatching.com sitting in for Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Pee-Wee's Playhouse")

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (as character) Hey Pee-Wee, do you know what time it is?

Mr. PAUL REUBENS (Actor): (as Pee-Wee) It's fun time! It's fun time!

BIANCULLI: That's Paul Reubens, who rose to fame as his antic alter-ego, Pee-Wee Herman. His CBS children's show, "Pee-Wee's Playhouse," ran from 1986 to 1991. Now, almost 25 years after bringing Pee-Wee to television, Paul Reubens has revived Pee-Wee and his playhouse in a whole new venue, on Broadway, as the opening production of the newly christened Stephen Sondheim Theater. The Broadway show runs through January 2nd and essentially is an extended live version of the CBS series.

"Pee-Wee's Playhouse," both the TV show and its new Broadway incarnation, features a great cast of characters. Even the inanimate objects are alive. The chair, the window and the daisy on the windowsill can all talk. On the TV show a puppet band of beatnik-style hipsters played jazz, sang, and talked in rhymes. The food in the refrigerator was alive. And in each episode a robot-like boom box named Conky printed out a secret word.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Pee-Wee's Playhouse")

Unidentified Person #1 (Actor): (as Conky): Ready to assist you, Pee-Wee.

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) Morning, Conky. What's today's secret word?

(Soundbite of buzzing)

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) Today's secret word is good! Ha-ha. Now, you all know what to do whenever anybody says the secret word, right?

Unidentified Group: (unintelligible)

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) That's right. For the rest of the day, if anybody says the secret word, scream it aloud. Ready? Let's try it, ha, ha.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) Hi, guys, what are you doing?

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) Cool Cat's(ph) pounding out the beat.

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (as character) And (unintelligible) with our feet.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (as character) Like they're dancing, man.

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) I can dig it. Hey, make me try rhyming.

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (as character) Cool.

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) I'd talk like you do if I could.

Unidentified Woman #3 (Actor): (as character) Go on, Pee-Wee, you're doing good.

(Soundbite of screaming)

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (as character) A great big scream is what we heard.

Unidentified Woman #4 (Actor): (as character) I must have said the secret word.

Unidentified Person #2 (Actor): (as character) It's rhyming fun, I agree, but now it's time to play with me.

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) Hey, Magic Screen, that was really good.

(Soundbite of bell and cheering)

BIANCULLI: Paul Reubens spoke to Terry Gross in 2004. I think the interview is pretty good.

(Soundbite of bell and screaming)

TERRY GROSS: Let's get let's start at the very beginning of the birth of Pee-Wee Herman. How did you first create the character? I think this was back in the Groundlings era, when you were working with that improv comedy group.

Mr. REUBENS (Comedian): Yeah, it was, I believe, 1977. I was three and we were doing a night where we were kind of doing an extended scene, what we called an extended scene and we were trying to something where it was like a comedy club, like - like The Comedy Store or the The Improv. And we were all supposed to be different characters that you might see in a comedy club. So I decided to be the guy at the comedy club that everybody would like immediately know this guy was never going to make it as a comic.

And part of it was because I couldn't remember jokes in real life. I couldn't remember the punch line or I'd get halfway through the joke and I was always the guy who'd be like, oh, oh, wait, no, I forgot to tell you this part, you know.

So that and that character just sort of came out that night. I mean I borrowed a suit from the director of the Groundlings, Gary Austin. I borrowed his suit, which had been made for him by a guy named Mr. J, if he's out there listening. And somebody else gave me a little tiny bowtie. I had a little one-inch long harmonica that said Pee-Wee on it. And I knew a kid whose last name was Herman, and Pee-Wee Herman sounded like the kind of name you would never make up. It sounded like, you know, a totally real name like made by somebody whose parents were, you know, didn't really care about them.

GROSS: So did you make up intentionally bad jokes?

Mr. REUBENS: You know, I don't think I even had jokes at the time. I think like basically I had a paper bag full of toys and I would bring them out and just to like ah, hmm, hah, and it was really sort of kind of a pathetic kind of act. I didn't do jokes for many, many years and then I finally - I think the first time I ever told a joke as Pee-Wee was the David Letterman's show, and I used to have - I loved really long jokes, so it was like a story that was a joke and then I would halfway through go like, oh, I forgot this part and I'd have to go back and it was just a big long, long, long joke where fortunately for me it was a really funny punch line, so just when you were listening to it going oh my God if this doesn't like - if this isn't over in 30 seconds I'm going to shoot myself, there would be a really funny punch line and it would all be okay.

GROSS: So how did this really bad comic, Pee-Wee Herman, develop into the kid show host, Pee-Wee Herman?

Mr. REUBENS: You know, I'm not sure there was much development involved. I mean I, I - that character got such a great response on the first night that it ever appeared that I very quickly realized like this is something to pursue, so I did pursue that character, and in the Groundlings Review I had about maybe a ten-minute slot as Pee-Wee Herman, so I had about 10 minutes' worth of here's my toys and I threw Tootsie Rolls at people in the audience.

And about - I don't know a year after I was doing it in the Groundlings Review I was flown to New York to be one of the finalists for "Saturday Night Live," the year that the original, the last original cast member was gone. It was the first year of an all-new cast. It was the Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo year and it was the first and only year that Lorne Michaels didn't produce. And I was one of 22 finalists all across the country, Chicago, San Francisco, New York and L.A., and I few to New York and with all my characters I had like my fat suit, I had a fat guy character and all my props and wigs, and I walked in and I realized almost immediately I wasn't going to get it.

Somebody pulled me aside and said that guy over there is the producer's best friend, and it was somebody who did get on the show, whose name I won't mention, who was very similar. I mean we were both kind of like nerdy, dorky guys, so I knew it wasn't going to be both of us. And "The Pee-Wee Herman Show" actually developed completely out of spite that I didn't get "Saturday Night Live." I was so upset, and people - I literally was thinking to myself I'm going to go from this like up-and-comer guy to like, you know, the guy sitting out in front of Rite-Aid like, you know, tucking on your pant leg going like, you know, can you help me out, without ever having, you know, anything going. So before I even went home I landed in Los Angeles and called my parents and borrowed some money from them and probably within two weeks I had 60 people working for me for free and we produced that show.

GROSS: Well, let's talk about the creation of the Saturday morning version of "Pee-Wee's Playhouse."

Mr. REUBENS: Okay.

GROSS: Let's start with your voice, since you're speaking to us on the radio. Obviously you didn't use your regular voice for the character of Pee-Wee. How did you arrive at that that kind of high and laugh-y voice that you created?

Mr. REUBENS: You know, I had been doing - years before the creation of Pee-Wee Herman I was - I worked at a theater that was the state theater of Florida called the Oslo Theater, which is still in existence, still a fantastic place, which was in my hometown, Sarasota, Florida, and was based at the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, which Sarasota, as you may or may not know, was the former headquarters of the - winter headquarters of the Ringling Brothers Circus, so there's a lot of Ringling influence there.

And I had been doing "Life with Father" in repertory with a bunch of other shows. And my character, I was the second-oldest son, not the star son but the second-banana son, and over a three-month period - and I'm not bragging about this. This probably wasn't a good thing, but my character developed into this total cartoon character, and I didn't really even realize it, but, you know, three months down the line somebody said, wow. Do you remember what you were originally doing and what you're doing now?

And I was like, wow, that's, it is really different. So the voice came from that. That is Pee-Wee's voice. It was from, you know, good morning, mother, you know, blah, blah, blah. And that became Pee-Wee's voice. I love that story.

GROSS: So from doing - so from doing theater you developed the voice for Pee-Wee?

Mr. REUBENS: Yup. You sound incredulous.

GROSS: Well, it sounds like it must have been pretty cartoony by the time it was done.

Mr. REUBENS: It was. It was pretty cartoony.

GROSS: How did it happen? Did you not like the play?

Mr. REUBENS: You know, I don't know. No, I loved the play. I thought it was a really great play. I think I just wasn't very professional. I was an idiot. I really didn't, I didn't know, you know, I didn't know you weren't supposed to like change it completely into a cartoon. It was unwitting. Unwittingly? I did it unwittingly, Terry.

GROSS: No, the way you look as Pee-Wee Herman, with your hair slicked back and the face makeup with the rouge and a little bit of lipstick, reminded me almost of like a silent film star, like a really nerdy version of a silent film star. There was something almost, you know, like Valentino with the slicked-back hair, and I always assumed that those guys wore like a little (unintelligible) and rouge too, you know, in the black and white movies. Were you thinking about that as well, visually?

Mr. REUBENS: I didn't feel like I was back I was around back then. You know, I was a big fan of a bunch of people, but not really. Whatever happened I think must have been kind of subliminal with me because I never really - once Pee-Wee Herman was successful and people knew Pee-Wee Herman, then people wrote quite often, you know, Eddy Cantor or...

GROSS: Right, right...

Mr. REUBENS: Who's the other person? Like some of the - like Harold Lloyd. Some of the silent people you're talking about. Even Pinky Lee, who I had seen as a kid but I, I mean, and Jerry Lewis, who if you're listening, Jerry, I know you're not a silent star. But I don't - I'm sure that all those elements had some sort of play on it, but I never really tried to like look like anybody in particular, and the makeup really was kind of like I just didn't - I didn't have a makeup artist. I mean I did it myself, so I wasn't really trying to look like I had lipstick or rouge on. I was just like, I didn't know how to do it.

GROSS: Now, your body...

Mr. REUBENS: I love that story too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: As Pee-Wee Herman, your body was just like really kind of tight and a little jerky and you'd always be like leaning to one side or your head would be, you know, angled at one side. You'd often like stick your tongue out if you were concentrating in the way that kids often do. Was there a particular like kid you modeled yourself on as Pee-Wee?

Mr. REUBENS: No, there really wasn't. I think it was just a blend of lots of people I knew and kind of like a lot of who I really was down deep somewhere, I think.

GROSS: How deep?

Mr. REUBENS: Not that deep.

BIANCULLI: Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-Wee Herman, speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. More after our break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2004 interview with Paul Reubens. His new stage comedy, "The Pee-Wee Herman Show," opened on Broadway last night as the inaugural production of the Stephen Sondheim Theater. The stage show is based on "Pee-Wee's Playhouse," the wildly fanciful CBS children's show in which Reubens starred from 1986 to 1991. Here's another taste of that show, this time a musical number.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified People (Actors): (Singing) Home, home on the range, where things are a little bit strange (unintelligible)...

GROSS: Can we talk a little bit about the look of "Pee-Wee's Playhouse"? It's just such a fantastic set of images - you know, bright colors, all kinds of like shapes and everything was alive in it. You know, like the chair had arms that could embrace the person sitting in it and the chair talked and the window talked. How was the look designed and were you a part of that?

Mr. REUBENS: The look of the show really had a lot to do with an artist named Gary Panter, who designed the original stage version of it and designed much of the - was really the overall production designer and created the look of the show, the television version of it. He was somebody who, when I was really creating that character in the early days of Pee-Wee Herman, was kind of like the punk scene in Los Angeles and he was kind of one of the premier like punk artists, and I had seen a lot of his work. He was in a publication called the L.A. Weekly.

GROSS: And then Raw magazine, that Art Spiegelman edited.

Mr. REUBENS: Exactly. And I'd seen a lot of his work and I loved his work, and I contacted him and asked him if he would do a poster for a show that I hadn't created yet. And he said, well, why don't I do the poster and well, actually, he said let me come down and see what it is. So he came down and saw me in the Groundlings show, where I had my little 10-minute Pee-Wee thing, and came backstage and said I'd love to do it but why don't I do the whole thing, why don't I design the sets and the puppets and everything?

Mr. REUBENS: And I said, yeah, great. So he designed that and then when we got the deal with CBS a few years later to do it as a real television series, he came onboard. He was the first person I hired and said, you know, you've got to do this set, so it was - I mean the rest is history, I guess. But you know, I think it's it's probably the most amazing aspect of the show, in my opinion, is the design of it. It was just so, so startlingly incredible, in my opinion.

GROSS: Now, you've said that one of the things that you really loved about the character of Pee-Wee Herman was that he showed that it was okay to be different. What did you feel was most different about you when you were growing up?

Mr. REUBENS: You know, I guess I felt like a total oddball like almost every minute growing up, so it would be hard to kind of isolate that, but I mean I think that sort of was the whole point of the show or at least a big point of the show, was that like, you know, it would be hard to stand out in the Playhouse, you know? Like everything stood out in the Playhouse, so you could sort of feel real, right at home no matter who you are or what you were thinking or anything.

GROSS: Tell us a little bit about what your childhood was like, where you grew up and what your school years were like. Were you uncomfortable in school? Did you do well in school? Were you picked on?

Mr. REUBENS: Well, I grew up in an orphanage and...

GROSS: Oh, stop.

Mr. REUBENS: Oh, okay.

GROSS: No, you didn't...

Mr. REUBENS: No, I didn't. Oh, no, that was my fantasy character, sorry. I grew up in upstate New York - Oneonta, New York - until we moved in fourth - when I was in fourth - in between third and fourth grade we moved, which was like a huge relief to me because Mrs. Lake that I had in third grade was really mean to me and scared - scared the hell out of me as far as math goes.

Like I still to this day, if I've got to add or subtract anything, I almost go into a coma. So I had an incredible upbringing in upstate New York, which included the New York State Teacher's College, is in Oneonta, and there was a laboratory school that my sister and I went to, and we had junior kindergarten and senior kindergarten, which I think was an incredible confidence booster for like a little kid. You started at four in junior kindergarten and by the time you were five you were already a senior at something, so you could always be -those little junior kids and, you know, junior kindergarten - which was very cool, to not have to wait till like, you know, going from, you know, eighth grade to - you didn't have to wait to get to sixth grade to be like the big, you know, big cheese. You got to do that at five.

And we lived in a really small town where there was lots of nature and animals and we had a little creek with a, with a crab apple tree across the street. I'm going to burst into tears in a second. It was really like a very storybook kind of upbringing.

And then we moved to Florida, and moving to Florida was like incredible. I thought we moved to Hawaii. I thought we were in the tropics or something, and my mother took us to go get back to school clothes and I I bought all these beachcomber outfits. So I show up for - I showed up for the first day of school in fourth grade in Florida with like clam-digger pants on and these nautical shirts, and like a total freak.

And the kids at school were like, what are you supposed to be? And the thing that was funny about it in hindsight is like normally in that kind of situation I think kids would probably - you would probably go like, oh, oh, sorry, you know, I didn't know what it was - but me, I was sort of like, don't you get it? You know, I'm a beachcomber. What's wrong with you guys? And instead, like the next day I like put out another variation of the same outfit and put it on and got back to school and was like, you know, these kids are going to come around or they're not, whatever, but I'm not changing.

GROSS: Was this your theatrical impulse expressing itself?

Mr. REUBENS: I think it was, yeah, at a very early, early stage.

BIANCULLI: Paul Reubens, speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. His new Broadway showcase, "The Pee-Wee Herman Show," opened last night. We'll hear more about Pee-Wee in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross. We're continuing Terry's conversation from 2004 with Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-Wee Herman. But first, a quick detour.

It's a safe bet that if you're an actor being interviewed by Terry and you've ever appeared on the CBS children's show "Pee-Wee's Playhouse," she'll ask you a question about it. And in 2006, when S. Epatha Merkerson was our guest - for many years she played Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on NBC's "Law and Order" -Terry did just that.

GROSS: Now, on "Pee-Wee," you played Reba the Mail Lady.

Ms. S. EPATHA MERKERSON (Actor): Yeah.

GROSS: And, in fact, why don't we hear a short clip of you on "Pee-Wee's Playhouse"?

Ms. MERKERSON: Oh, you're kidding.

GROSS: Yes. And Pee-Wee has made a wish, and the wish is that Reba the Mail Lady will come to the playhouse and mail his letter. And Jambi the Genie has granted Pee-Wee's wish, and you show up at the playhouse a little baffled, and you're in your nightgown. And here's the scene.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Pee-Wee's Playhouse")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) Hi, Reba.

Ms. MERKERSON: (as Reba) Pee-Wee?

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) How's it going?

Ms. MERKERSON: (as Reba) What are you doing in my house?

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) I'm not in your house. You're in the playhouse.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MERKERSON: (as Reba) The playhouse? How did I get here?

Mr. JOHN PARAGON (Actor): (as Jambi) Oh-oh.

Ms. MERKERSON: (as Reba) Jambi, did you put a wish on me?

Mr. PARAGON: (as Jambi) He made me do it.

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) You see, I have this letter, and I wished that you were here to mail it for me.

Ms. MERKERSON: (as Reba) Why didn't you just take it down to the corner and put it in the mailbox?

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) Well, as long as you're here, would you mind mailing this letter for me, please, Reba?

Ms. MERKERSON: (as Reba) Pee-Wee, I would do just about anything for you, but today is my only day off.

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) All right. I'll mail the letter myself.

Ms. MERKERSON: (as Reba) Thank you.

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) Wait. Reba.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) Reba, wait. Wait. Wait.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You seem to be the only person on Pee-Wee's show who is from, like, the real world, as opposed to the playhouse world. And you're a...

Ms. MERKERSON: Yeah. Yeah. And I think it was like that in real life, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What do you mean?

Ms. MERKERSON: What a fun - that was fun to do.

GROSS: So did you see yourself in that series is, like, the rational person in this wacky world?

Ms. MERKERSON: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MERKERSON: Absolutely. And I think every now and then, she became a part is it, as well. But, you know, that was the whole point, is that Reba was sort of, you know, the real person, the person that actually had, like, a real job and took care of, like, real things, and everyone else was a little kooky.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: S. Epatha Merkerson, speaking with Terry Gross in 2006 about her time on the CBS children's show, "Pee-Wee's Playhouse."

And now, back to Terry's 2004 interview with the star of that show, Pee-Wee himself, actor Paul Reubens. When we left off, he was talking about moving with his family to Sarasota, Florida when he was in fourth grade.

GROSS: So when you moved to Sarasota, which you said was the winter headquarters for Ringling Brothers Circus, did you meet any circus people?

Mr. REUBENS: Oh, I met lots of circus people. I mean, for one thing, you could see the circus people coming down the street. You know, like the lady with the bright red hair and the wooden shoes, you know, would be, obviously, a circus person. I mean you could just tell they were very show business in a very small town, a conservative, small town, so you could tell they were.

We rented a little house the first year we moved to Sarasota, and we used to hear these explosions all the time. And we never could hear - figure out what they were. And one day, a couple of weeks after we moved, our whole family was walking - we took a walk one night after dinner, and we heard this explosion and we looked in between these two homes, we saw somebody flying through the air in between these two homes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: And it turned out that it was the Zakini(ph) family, and they were the family with the giant, silver cannon. And they were shooting each other out of the cannon in the backyard.

GROSS: That's so bizarre.

Mr. REUBENS: And, in fact, years later, when I made my circus movie, we went back to Sarasota and recreated that cannon.

GROSS: For "Big Top Pee-Wee"?

Mr. REUBENS: Yeah.

GROSS: Wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: Don't you love that story?

GROSS: Did you want to be in the circus after seeing this?

Mr. REUBENS: I did. You know, I actually thought that if - I've been ask, like, what would've happened if you weren't as successful as Pee-Wee Herman, what would you have done? And I really thought I was headed for a career in the circus.

GROSS: As?

Mr. REUBENS: As the pin-headed guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: No. The...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: ...the unfunny guy. The guy who - I don't know. I knew how to walk a tightrope. I could do trapeze.

GROSS: Could you really walk a tightrope?

Mr. REUBENS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: How'd you learn that?

Mr. REUBENS: Why would I make that up, Terry?

GROSS: I don't know.

Mr. REUBENS: I went to circus camp when I was young.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. REUBENS: Mm-hmm. I swear.

GROSS: And did you ever do the circus barker rap?

Mr. REUBENS: No. I never did that. I considered briefly covering my body with tattoos, but I didn't do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: Which is good thing now, 'cause, you know, everybody has a tattoo now.

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. REUBENS: So it wouldn't really be like - you know, it'd be sad if I did that. I did, like I started out, I had a balance beam act. My parents showed up to circus camp when we were putting on the show, and I had on, like, a little Speedo bathing suit. And I'd get up on the balance beam with a blindfold on and, like, set these like rings on fire...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: ...and do this insane, completely insane act. I looked - I pulled the blindfold off and looked at my parents, because they were both sitting up in the bleachers with their mouths open, like, what have we created?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: You know, like totally - I think that was probably an early tipoff to them that I wasn't going to be an architect.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So were you inhibited or extroverted as a kid?

Mr. REUBENS: One or the other?

GROSS: Or something in between.

Mr. REUBENS: You know, honestly, I think I was probably a little of each. I was sort of schitzy when I was, like, a kid. I would be, like, very introverted and then, you know, up in my room by myself. And then I would be like the life of the party, you know, like, gathering all the kids around to like - we had a little stage in our basement that my dad built me once he realized he was raising a little...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: ...monster actor. So the kids in the neighborhood would come over and try to figure out, like, what was the teeniest part they could give me so they could use the stage. So we would do like these murder mysteries where like the opening of the show would be me getting pushed offstage into a vat of acid, and then it would be like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: ...you know, my part would be over. And then all the older kids would like do the show. It wasn't till later in life I realized, you know, I'd come in and go like, you've met my attorney, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: We'll see. You know, talk to them.

GROSS: What TV shows did you watch as a kid?

Mr. REUBENS: You know, I was part of an early study on the effects of television on children when I was going to that school in Upstate New York I mentioned. I remember being in first or second grade and having some scientists come into our class to ask us questions about, like, what shows we liked. And my - all the rest of the kids were like "Mickey Mouse Club" and "Howdy Doody." And my favorite show was "I Love Lucy." And so I got, like, selected out of the whole class - I had to go into an office and listen to a bunch of scientists, like, go like, well, why? What was it about the "I Love Lucy" show that attracts you? And who do you like better? Lucy or Desi or Ethel or Fred? And, yeah, I was, like, in second grade. I didn't know any - I just thought like, well, I liked the show just because I like the show.

That's a long way to answer. I didn't even answer your question. I watched, in addition to "I Love Lucy," I, when I was really young, I watched - I loved the "Mickey Mouse Club." I loved "Captain Kangaroo" and I loved "Howdy Doody." I was even on the "Howdy Doody Show." My mother drove me and my sister to New York, and we were on the "Howdy Doody Show."

GROSS: In the peanut gallery?

Mr. REUBENS: Mm-hmm. Somebody knows "The Howdy Doody Show."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: Good. Expressive.

GROSS: What was it like to be inside, rather than watching it on TV?

Mr. REUBENS: Very confusing. I remember - my sister was so freaked out, she burst into tears right before the show and she had to be, like, put in an isolation booth. She didn't make it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: She didn't make it on the air. But I did. I was like, huh, after this drive? You've got to be kidding. Try to axe me from the show. Forget it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: I was right up in there. But the thing that was weird about it was, like, you couldn't see Howdy Doody. You couldn't see anything, except like all the lights and cameras. And, I mean, it was just - it was really weird and kind of semi-disappointing.

GROSS: Why was it disappointing? Oh, because you couldn't see.

Mr. REUBENS: Yeah. Just because I didn't realize that there were lights and cameras and, you know, it's something interesting. Like, from that experience, I now kind of - when I meet little kids, you know, out and about, like, for -like we did the DVD signing the other day here in Manhattan, and a thousand fans showed up, and I spoke to lots and lots of people, including some kids who would, you know, be just sort of staring at me. And I know enough now to say, like, I don't look like myself, do I? You know, and I look bigger, don't I? And that kind of stuff because, you know, when you're a kid, like, it didn't occur to me that everything was real life-size. You know, I thought Buffalo Bob was, like, you know, the size of somebody who could fit inside the TV.

GROSS: Paul Reubens, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. REUBENS: Terry, thank you so much. I really appreciate it, and I had a lot of fun.

BIANCULLI: Paul Reubens, speaking with Terry Gross in 2004. His new stage show, "The Pee-Wee Herman Show," opened last night on Broadway.

Coming up: rock historian Ed Ward on a West Coast songwriting duo from the 1960s, P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri.

This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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