Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. One of the geekiest moments of my life was meeting Paul Reubens before entering Hall H at the San Diego Comic-Con and conducting a chat in front of some 8,000 screaming fans. That moment was almost immediately topped when I met Pee-Wee Herman for the first time out on stage.
Look at that happy, fat bastard!
Even though he was in the iconic grey suit, it was Paul who I spoke with before the panel. Paul seemed to be reserving his energy for when he would let Pee-Wee take over on stage. I wasn’t quite prepared to confronted with that character if I’m going to be perfectly honest. Even ignoring the fact that my first interaction with Pee-Wee Herman was in front of thousands of people it was a surreal moment. I was addicted to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse as a kid and watched Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure a few hundred times. Hell, I even watched Big Top Pee Wee on a loop.
There was something about the character that resonated with me. Whatever that combination of childish silliness and unbounded optimism is it worked for me. Pee Wee never talked down to kids, but was also able to entertain all the adults in the room thanks his multilayered comedy. There was something for everybody. Often times the raunchier humor flew over the heads of the kids watching. I remember my parents laughing at things I didn’t get while watching Pee Wee’s Playhouse.
That time at Comic-Con flew by, but shortly afterwards I was approached about doing a longer interview with Paul Reubens about the world of Pee-Wee Herman. I was already out in New Zealand palling around with The Hobbit folks and had pretty much put a halt any interviews… I had quite enough on my plate as I’m sure you can understand, but to talk with Reubens at length was too good of an opportunity to pass up and I made an exception for him.
So, it’s been in the can for a bit (you can thank Mr. Jackson and his merry band of Shirefolk for that), but it’s finally time to unleash this chat. We cover a lot of ground, from Pee Wee’s beginnings to his future. We talk about the current Pee-Wee projects (three scripts for three different movies!), the longevity of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, working with Tim Burton and remember the late, great Phil Hartman.
Hope you guys enjoy it!
Quint: How’s it going, man?
Paul Reubens: It’s going great. You are very far away I understand.
Quint: I am. I’m in the future, actually. I’m a day ahead of you, I think.
Paul Reubens: Wow, that’s cool.
Quint: Way down in the butt of the world, but it’s a beautiful butt, so that’s fine.
Paul Reubens: Yeah, I’ve heard it’s incredible there.
Quint: You’ve never been down here to New Zealand?
Paul Reubens: No, I haven’t.
Quint: You should do it.
Paul Reubens: Yeah, I’d like to.
Quint: So, thanks for talking to me, man. I had a blast at Comic-Con and I hope you liked the panel as well.
Paul Reubens: Oh yeah, I thought it was really cool and everyone I know that was there really loved it.
Quint: A lot of people were coming up to me over the rest of the Con going “Hey, you did the Pee-Wee Panel. That was awesome!” All of the fans seem to have had a really good time at it.
Paul Reubens: That’s great.
Quint: I think it was really cool because even though you have this Broadway Special coming out, it didn’t really feel like you were there to sell something. It just felt like you were there to visit with the fans and they appreciated it. I think that’s kind of what set that panel apart. But yeah, regarding the Broadway Special... What’s really interesting I think about that is that it kind of brings Pee-Wee full circle, because it’s very close to the original stage show, isn’t it?
Paul Reubens: Yeah, you know it’s a rewrite. It is the original show vastly rewritten mainly because I had my CBS Saturday Morning kid’s show in between from doing that stage show originally and when I remounted it. I kept thinking people were going to come and go “Where’s Chairy? Where is all of the stuff from the kid’s show?” So I added all of that stuff to it.
Quint: Of course I grew up with the PLAYHOUSE, but at a very young age I saw the HBO special as well. Something I think is really interesting about Pee Wee as a character is that there’s a lot of dark comedy to him. My parents are as big fans of PLAYHOUSE as I was. You don’t get that a lot with kids programming. Was that something that you intended to focus on with the character, to be able to play to more than just the six year olds?
Paul Reubens: Yeah, I mean I’ve kind of always had that approach. I don’t know why, but that’s kind of always been my approach. I think I was a big fan of things I saw as a child where I could see my parents laughing at stuff that I didn’t really get and then revisiting things at an older age and seeing things I hadn’t seen the first time. I always got a big kick out of that, so that was something I always aspire to and I kind of had some sort of inkling that it was tough on parents sometimes to watch entertainment with their kids if it was too much kid’s entertainment, you know?
Quint: Yeah and these poor guys have to sit through some really horrible stuff that their kids like and it takes something special I think to be able to bridge that. You look at classic Disney and now Pixar… kids don’t need to be talked down to to be entertained. I love the Playhouse and it was a real pleasure to see the stage show when it was in LA. I like that you kind of merged the original stage show with the Playhouse.
Paul Reubens: Yeah, I thought actually it was quite successful, but not very many have actually compared the two, so it will be interesting to see if that ever happens.
Quint: I have to ask, because I’ve loved it ever since I saw it in the original show, but where did you find the Mr. Bungle short?
Paul Reubens: The original producer of the show, a woman named Donna Kaufman, found it. Those things are a lot easier to find now, that was a little more rare at the time I did the show to begin with.
Quint: Yeah, now there are like whole DVD sets that you can buy that are nothing but these random PSAs and old 16mm weirdness.
Paul Reubens: Yeah, there’s a website that has like tons of those on there now, too.
Quint: Well I like that you stuck with the Mr. Bungle PSA for the Broadway Show.
Paul Reubens: You know we did one thing, we changed it and I don’t think you would have seen it. I changed it in between LA and New York, but we added sound effects to it.
Quint: Oh, really?
Paul Reubens: It’s on the DVD. We got a lot of laughs just from the sound effects. It was really fun and rewarding and I think it was cool for people who had already seen the show to see new stuff in it. It was cool.
Quint: As a fan it feels great to me to see Pee-Wee back in mainstream pop culture. Does it feel kind of rewarding to you that you could return to the character after all of this time and still have as big, if not a bigger, fan base than when you left?
Paul Reubens: Yeah, it’s unbelievable. I have to say I am constantly kind of surprised by it. It’s been amazing.
Quint: At Comic-Con you closed with the very heartfelt bit where you were saying how you didn’t really get the full-on exposure of the fandom for the character during the initial run and that you were very grateful to see it now.
Paul Reubens: It’s just the truth. I mean that’s just what’s been happening, so that’s all it was.
Quint: So, during the PLAYHOUSE days and the BIG ADVENTURE days were you not as out in the public?
Paul Reubens: Yeah, I was just so busy. I was busy all of the time, so yeah I just never had any time to do anything like that. I just wasn’t around. I really worked all of the time.
Quint: Let’s talk a little bit about PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. To this day it’s still one of my favorite movies and even down here in New Zealand you are all over the place. They are showing BIG ADVENTURE sometime this month on the Kiwi Comedy Central, so there’s an ad for it at every commercial break. Is there any secret, do you think, to the longevity of that particular film? Do you have any idea why it struck such a chord with people like me and still works decades later?
Paul Reubens: You know, I have a few thoughts on it and pure guesses, and this isn’t a way to avoid answering your question, but I have sort of decided over the years that that’s a question I don’t really answer. I can’t answer that even for myself. It kind of takes something away from what I do for me to answer that for myself, not even for you. I just think it would be too extreme to say it takes the fun out of it, but it’s not a question I feel like I should know the answer to. Do you know what I mean?
I feel like if I start dissecting my work too much, particularly really old work and go “Here’s what I think makes BIG ADVENTURE a classic,” it just isn’t good for me. It’s not how I approach what I do and I take it so… I don’t know, I was going to say I don’t take it very seriously. I don’t take it very seriously and yet I take it as seriously as you can take it. Yeah, I don’t know how to answer that one.
Quint: I understand that. If you over-analyze you run the risk of second-guessing your instincts, which seem to have worked pretty well for you so far.
Paul Reubens: Well, I should add to that the good news for me is what a great problem to have. Do you know what I mean? I’m extremely honored and flattered and excited and proud that people still watch BIG ADVENTURE. I mean, I just met a family that has like a really seriously freak fan three year old who knew every line in BIG ADVENTURE. I mean it’s enormously rewarding. I’m really proud of that accomplishment, but that’s as far as I go with it. (laughs)
Quint: You should be proud, because it’s your baby. You created the character, you write him, you perform him… Don’t feel bad about taking full ownership of it, man. It’s all you!
Paul Reubens: (laughs) No, I don’t take full ownership of it. I really don’t. I co-wrote it with people and Tim Burton brought a lot to it. I mean I had a lot to do with it and I certainly don’t try to be coy about it and go like “Oh, it was all everybody else,” but as you well know film is such a collaborative effort. So, yeah. I owe a lot of thanks to a lot of people.
Quint: Speaking of your collaborators, can we talk a little bit about working with Phil Hartman? He was just such an amazing talent and I think that he brought a lot to the original show and I assume to BIG ADVENTURE as well. You co-wrote the movie with him, right?
Paul Reubens: Yes. Yeah, it was certainly a bittersweet experience to redo this stage show without Phil and it was the reason why I put Cowboy Curtis in it instead of Phil’s character, the Sea Captain. I just didn’t want to replace him. I didn’t feel like it was appropriate to have someone else playing his part.
The cowboy character that Laurence Fishburne played in the CBS show was heavily featured in the TV series. I did the same thing, actually, in the movie script that’s based on the Playhouse. That script was written before the CBS show, right after the original stage production, and it’s a movie version of the stage show, but I’ve rewritten it and did the same thing I did with the stage production; I rewrote this movie script and added all of the PLAYHOUSE characters to it that weren’t in it originally.
Originally there was an A plot and B plot and the B plot involved Captain Carl and when I rewrote it I changed that to Cowboy Curtis again because it just didn’t feel right to have someone else playing that character. He was a very, very close friend of mine and a long time friend of mine. We came up together at The Groundlings and he came to SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE with me when I hosted SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, he came and helped write with me and that was his beginning there.
You know, we really started out together, we ascended together, we used to sit out in my car me and him and one other guy in The Groundlings and fantasized about what it would be like when we were all three of us meeting over lunch in between engagements and we were all working actors and you know it was amazing. He was a friend and a great collaborator and it was such a tragic ending for him.
Quint: His death had a huge impact to me and I had never even met the man, I only knew him through his work. There’s something special, a sweetness, he brought to his work that I really responded to.
Paul Reubens: Yeah.
Quint: So, what was the writing process like on BIG ADVENTURE? Was it you guys locked in a room together or you guys trading scenes?
Paul Reubens: Yeah we were pretty much locked in a room together. I mean, we met every day and we wrote for four or five, six hours a day and we just wrote it.
Quint: Can we talk a little bit about Tim Burton coming on? I think his style really compliments Pee-Wee’s world. His world and Pee-Wee’s world are both exaggerated, but also kind of innocently sweet and I loved the tone that he helped bring to the movie, so can we talk about your initial meetings? Did you bring him in?
Paul Reubens: Yes. Yes, I brought him in. The studio had somebody else they wanted to direct the movie, then I just said “That’s not the guy. We have to find the right director, it’s not the guy you want.” I had a bunch of people tell me about Tim at a party the same night that I had gotten permission to have a little extension on the time to find a director. I screened FRANKENWEENIE and I spoke to Shelley Duvall who was a friend of mine who was in FRANKENWEENIE. I knew Tim was the director about fifteen seconds into FRANKENWEENIE, like the second or third shot of it. I was looking at the wallpaper in this bedroom and the lighting and just going “This is the guy who has style and understands art direction.” Those were two really important things for me and my baby, I guess, and you know it just happened to luckily all work out.
The studio had said, “Oh, he won’t do it. We’ve sent him all of these projects and he’s turned everything down. He won’t even read it.” My manager somehow got it to him and he agreed very, very quickly, so it was a perfect situation. Working together was like two people who could speak in short hand. We were very simpatico with each other and very kind of on the same page with everything. I mean we have a lot of similarities in our style and what we like and how we saw things. It was a lot of fun working with him. He was I think 26 or 27, he was very young and he was as excited as me, I mean we were both doing our first feature.
Quint: So was there ever any talk about Tim coming back for the sequel or did you just want to go in a different direction? (Note: I was asking about Big Top Pee Wee, but wasn’t clear enough and Mr. Reubens thought I meant the new Pee Wee project.)
Paul Reubens: You know, I mean we talked about it. I can’t really speak for Tim, but I feel in a certain way Tim has directed a Pee Wee movie, I’m not sure why he would want to revisit it you know? I don’t really know. We haven’t talked about this particular script. I mean the script I’m getting ready to make now, the Pee-Wee movie is a Judd Apatow movie and it’s certainly informed by BIG ADVENTURE. It’s a road picture in a kind of “reality” based world, but yeah I don’t know. I’m not sure about Tim directing another Pee-Wee movie. I don’t think that’s something that interests him and I think he sort of defined Pee-Wee’s world to some degree and it might be risky to try to revisit that. I don’t know. I mean it’s risky for me, (laughs) I think it could be risky for him also. I don’t know. We haven’t really talked about it on this project.
Quint: I think instead of trying to replicate that magic from the first Pee Wee film it would actually behoove you to find somebody who has the passion and the hunger that Tim had during BIG ADVENTURE. You know what I mean? To have somebody who is an up and comer and just ready to attack the movie with all guns blazing.
Paul Reubens: Yeah, that’s what I think too, plus Tim’s pretty booked up. Tim has a lot of stuff already with plenty of irons in the fire and I think you’re right. If I’m able to at any point down the line make the movie that I kind of view as my opus, which would be the movie based on the PLAYHOUSE, you know that’s the first call I would be making.
Quint: So you still have the two projects then? You have the Apatow road picture and then you have your PLAYHOUSE script, right?
Paul Reubens: I actually have three projects. I also have what I refer to as my dark Pee-Wee movie, the kind of VALLEY OF THE DOLLS Pee-Wee movie that I don’t think is going to get made any time soon, because it’s not as family friendly as the other two, so I think those two are the ones that will get made first.
Quint: And as a fan of the character, I’m in for all three. (Laughs)
Paul Reubens: Well, thank you.
Quint: Go ahead and take that to the studios and tell them that “The geek from Ain’t It Cool really wants to see all of the movies.”
Paul Reubens: I will. That will have some kind of impact.
Quint: (Laughs) No, none whatsoever. Are there any new developments on the Apatow film? Do you have any idea when we are going to be able to see that?
Paul Reubens: They are talking about shooting it in the spring and that’s about all I know right now. So yeah, we are talking about shooting it in the spring and I would think it’s going to be announced in the next few weeks.
Quint: I’m looking forward to whatever you do. I just hope it’s as insane and awesome and hilarious as your worlds have proven to translate onto the big and small screen.
Paul Reubens: That’s my hope, too.
Quint: Cool man, well I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me this morning.
Paul Reubens: Thanks so much for doing this. I’m really excited to be talking to you again. That was really fun in San Diego and I enjoyed this one too. Tell the hobbits “Hello from Pee-Wee Herman.”
Quint: (laughs) I will.
Paul Reubens: All right.
Quint: All right, later on.
Paul Reubens: Bye, Eric.
Sorry, I had to close with that image of Pee-Wee hangin' with Snoop. It's just too awesome not to use.
I can’t believe there are three Pee-Wee Herman projects floating around out there right now! If I have one problem with this interview is that I didn’t press for more info on his Valley of the Dolls Pee-Wee project… that sounds fascinating!
Anyway, hope you dug the chat!