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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.
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."