If you were a kid 20 years ago, or even just knew a kid 20 years ago for that matter, it’s likely you looked forward to Saturday mornings on CBS. Pee-wee’s Playhouse was a staple of the network and attracted skads of children and adults alike. The TV show left the air very abruptly in 1991 but now it looks like the eternally childlike Pee-wee may be headed back to play once again.
Actor Paul Reubens developed his Pee-wee Herman persona while doing improv work at The Groundlings theatre in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. The Groundlings is a well-known training-ground for improv and it’s the ala mater to many comics that have gone on to success on Saturday Night Live and numerous sitcoms. Reubens actually auditioned for the 1980-81 season of SNL and was rejected (along with Jim Carrey and John Goodman). This spurred him on to develop and fund his own stage show as Pee-wee Herman at the Roxy Theatre in L.A.
The original playhouse stageshow (which also featured good friend Phil Hartman) wasn’t for children — it was more of a parody of classic children’s hosts and programming. It played for six nights to packed houses and was filmed and later broadcast on HBO. The character became so popular after appearances on Late Night with David Letterman that a family-friendly feature film followed. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was helmed by well-known fantasy director Tim Burton (the 1988 sequel Pee-wee’s Big Top was directed by Randal Kleiser).
The incredible success of Big Adventure led Reubens to create a Saturday morning program for CBS entitled Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It was unique to say the least and focused on the impish Pee-wee as he interacted with his many fantastical playhouse friends. The series debuted on September 13, 1986 and ran for only 45 episodes. Budgeted at $325,000 per episode, the show garnered 22 Emmy Awards during its five year run. CBS asked Reubens to do a sixth season but he declined.
On July 26, 1991, Reubens was arrested in an adult movie theatre on a charge of indecent exposure. CBS reacted by pulling the still popular show reruns from their schedule the next day.
The character hasn’t been seen since, with the exception of a brief appearance in September 1991 on the MTV Video Music Awards. Dressed in his trademark gray suit and red bow-tie, Ruebens asked the audience, “Heard any good jokes lately?” The crowd went wild.
Reruns of Playhouse have subsequently surfaced and become very popular on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim and on DVD. The movies have also become modern cult classics. With all of this renewed popularity, many have wondered about a return to the playhouse.
At a recent tribute to Reubens at the San Francisco Sketchfest, the comic sat onstage for an almost two-hour interview in front of an adoring audience. Though he had plenty of opportunities to slip into his famous persona, Reubens resisted — save for a quick “Why don’t you make me?” in his regular, deeper voice.
At the event, the entertaining Reubens shared that Pee-wee and friends will be returning to the big-screen, via an idea he pitched to Paramount years before his first Pee-wee film. Pee-Wee’s Playhouse: The Movie, which is scheduled to begin production soon, would reportedly take the Playhouse characters into the outside world for the first time. He hopes to reunite all of his old Playhouse cohorts for the big-screen adventure, with the obvious exception of the late Phil Hartman who played crusty Captain Carl.
“Everything that (Hartman) did in the script I gave to Laurence Fishburne,” shared Reubens. Fishburne (also known as Cowboy Curtis) hasn’t exactly agreed to reprise his role but Reubens is confident, joking, “Whenever he’s hedging, I tell him, ‘Well, Wesley Snipes has expressed interest.'”
Reuben’s quite aware of the passage of time since the original movies and series. He mentioned a conversation with his former Playhouse make-up artist who told him about the wonder of digital retouching, Reubens told the audience, “I think there’s a good chance that in the next Pee-wee movie, we’ll all look younger than we did originally.”
Reubens has been keeping busy for the past 15 years, appearing in numerous films (Batman Returns, Mystery Men, etc.) and shows (Murphy Brown, Ally McBeal, etc.) and performing voiceover work (Rugrats, Re-Animated, etc.). He’ll be appearing on the sitcom 30 Rock tonight and in an episode of Courtney Cox’s Dirt series soon. Still, Reubens seems quite happy to be remembered for the over-grown kid in the big shoes. Let’s hope we get to see him fill those shoes again real soon. Stay tuned!