By Editor-Tuesday, August 1st, 2023.
Pee-wee Herman was definitely a weirdo. The comic creation of actor/writer Paul Reubens, would often throw childish insults into his casual conversation. They were part of the character’s immediately identifiable catch-phrases.
“Why don’t you take a picture? It’ll last longer!”
“That’s my name! Don’t wear it out!”
And, most iconically,
“I know you are, but what am I?”
Of course, when it came to Pee-wee himself, with his tight gray suit, red bow tie, crew cut, rouged cheekbones and ruby-red lips, “What am I?” was the real question – it was the one he posed merely by existing.
Reubens died Sunday of cancer at the age of 70. He was an actor – but for a long time, he tried to convince the public that Pee-wee was a real person, not a character.
Folks didn’t know what to make of Reubens’ petulant man-child at first. Created in 1977, while Reubens was a member of the Los Angeles sketch troupe The Groundlings, Pee-wee was part prop comic, part brat and part trickster spirit.
In 1991 Reubens somewhat blotted his copy book by being arrested for indecent exposure in a movie theater in Sarasota, Florida, the city where he grew up, which immediately put an end to his career as a children’s entertainer.
It was never Peter Pan, what he was doing. Yes, Pee-wee was a boy who never grew up, but he was more than that — he was one singular adult’s remembrance of what it was like being a kid. Specifically, of those parts of childhood we pretend not to see in our own children — the narcissism, the selfishness, the utter lack of basic human empathy. The monstrous bits.
In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, it manifested in his hilariously obsessive drive to recover his stolen bike — a quest which would cause him to trample on the feelings of friends like Amazing Larry (Lou Cutell) and Dottie (E.G. Daily).
On Pee-wee’s Playhouse, it took the form of gleeful admonitions to his viewers to “scream real loud” whenever anyone said the week’s secret word. (Spare a thought for the long-suffering parents who’d hoped that sitting their kids in front of the TV would allow them a moment’s peace to finish their coffee.)
On 1988’s magnificent holiday staple Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special, Reubens zeroed in kids’ ravenous greed for presents, turning Pee-wee into a monster who only reluctantly sees the light once guilted into it. (Like Scrooge, he’s a lot more fun to hang around with before his last-minute epiphany.)
To watch Pee-wee was to re-experience childhood the way we’d forgotten it actually was – pure, concentrated, distilled to its essence, when riding your bike and playing with your toys and screaming real loud was all it took to fill a day.
Pee-wee was a creature of impulse, anarchy and id – which is probably why Reubens’ frequent appearances on Late Night with David Letterman helped launch him to stardom.
In those interview segments, which quickly devolved into Pee-wee’s signature giggles, you laughed at Reubens’ ability to take complete control of the experience, and at Letterman’s entirely uncharacteristic willingness to give over the reins.
Sources: NPR News, Wikipedia.