Pee-wee Herman

The Exclaim! Questionnaire

BY James KeastPublished Dec 1, 2004

What are you up to?
I'm just getting ready to dive into the special edition of Pee Wee's Playhouse. The DVDs we just came out with is all the episodes including eight lost episodes, but it doesn't include any special material. We're making a documentary on the making of the show and interviewing a lot of people connected with it. I'm just finishing writing two movie scripts that I've been finishing writing for about three years. One might start shooting as soon as I'm finished; the other, I'm toying with doing as an animated film instead of live action, possibly along the lines of Polar Express.

What are your current fixations?
I hardly listen to any music. That's so awful – you're a music magazine! I rented a car for a few months about a year ago that had satellite radio in it, and I would take the long way around to get places so I could listen to that. I love Korean food, Thai food, Peruvian food. Those are my big food groups. I make a Christmas card every year so I'm just putting the final touches on that. And gifts – I'm a big gift giver.

Why do you live where you do?
I live in Los Angeles. It was between New York and Los Angeles to be an actor. I grew up in Florida, so Los Angeles was the closer of the two for nature and climate.

What do you consider a mind-altering work of art?
Let me ask you an aside here: do most people who do this get the questions in advance? Have they had time to think about it? Maybe I should just say nature. I'm just blown away by the animal kingdom, the plant kingdom, the ocean. The earth just seems like a big work of art.

What's been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
I have to tell you what's going on outside the window of my hotel — there's a huge skyscraper with a huge apparatus on the top of it. I just figured out now it's the window cleaning thing. It's been moving around the whole roof of it, it's got cables hanging down and someone at the very bottom is cleaning windows. It's remarkable! I thought it was from outer space! What was the question again?

Yesterday I did my only second in my life in-store appearance in Manhattan. It was a two hour event that went five hours. There were at least a thousand people there, some who camped out the night before. People were hooking up in line. Every single person had a story, got their picture taken, and would use the person they had just met in line to take the picture. The number of people who said "you're the person I'm an actor, a painter, an artist…" It was like a dream. People gave me about 100 photos of people dressed up like me for Halloween.

What have been your career highs and lows?
My show winning 22 Emmys. Being named by TV Guide as one of the top ten cult TV shows of all times. Getting to make Pee Wee's Big Adventure. Finding Tim Burton to direct that movie. I flew on the Oscars one year. I don't know if I view anything as a real low. Certainly getting arrested was certainly not a high. I spent a long time trying to come up with a follow-up movie to Pee-wee's Big Adventure; it was a disappointment, but I don't think it was a career low.

What's the meanest thing someone has said to you before, during or after a gig?
People don't normally wait around to tell you how much they don't like you. The people you meet are the people who really like you.

What do you think everyone should shut up about?
I'd like to have people shut up on their cell phones. I was on the elevator the other day, totally crammed with people, and one person on a really long loud phone call. It seemed to me that the person could have said "just hold on for 30 seconds" but instead ten or 12 people had to hear their stupid conversation. That being said, I took a phone call in the middle of a dinner last night in a restaurant, where a dozen people probably looked at me like "Oh god, don't you know anything?"

What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
I like my curiosity, my willingness to go out on a limb, my feeling like I have nothing to lose a lot of time. I'm a little bit fearless. And that is crippled by, you know, fear. I'm back and forth. I think probably more than anything, my ability to put myself in someone else's shoes. What don't I like? My unfounded fear. Fear of going to a party — I've almost never gone to a party that I haven't pushed myself to go to, overcome some kind of fear (which I like about myself), and then gone "wow, what was wrong with me? Why didn't I just go to that party without all this baggage?"

What advice should you have taken but didn't?
I don't surround myself with yes people. I have a lot of people who give me advice and help me, and I'm very good at taking their advice.

What would make someone kick someone off a project, or out of your bed? And have you?
Lying or cheating would be cause for something like that.

What do you think of when you think of Canada?
I had an incredibly fun trip in my early 20s to Quebec. I always think of that famous hotel, the Frontenac. Taking the train from Manhattan to Canada. The singer, Helen Murray. No, Anne Murray — don't tell Helen Murray I said that.

What are your feelings on piracy?
Piracy is piracy, I think. Copyrights and trademarks are copyrights and trademarks — it's stealing as far as I'm concerned. I think people who steal who haven't had that done to them or aren't in that position. If one owned a copyright or a trademark for some sort of artistic material, and someone stole it, they'd be on the same side I'm on.

What's been your most memorable day job?
I was someone's personal assistant, who I didn't care for. Not for very long – a few weeks.

If you weren't a performance, what would you be doing instead?
I would have been a circus performer. I grew up in Sarasota, Florida, which was the winter headquarters of the circus, and I often thought that was going to be my path.

What do you fear the most?
Besides doing interviews like this? I already said I'm a little fearless and I'm wracked with fear. I'm just afraid sometimes. I just have a fear that's not based on things or specific to anything. I'm not trying for one second to come off like someone who's not fearful because I'm afraid of lots of things, but nothing is coming to mind.

What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
That changes from day to day. I was going to say "What doesn't?" but that sounds a little too horn-doggy.

What's been your strangest celebrity encounter?
Appearing at the Grand Ole Opry. I was friends with Minnie Pearl. They did a tribute to her and I was invited. I met practically every act in country music, and people were so incredibly nice to me. I remember thinking "This is a way better act than non-Nashville scene —Hollywood or New York." Everyone seemed so real and sincere. I'm a huge fan kind of a person, if I meet anyone that's a celebrity, I'm the big fawning fan person. "I can't believe I'm meeting you!"

Who would be your ideal dinner guest, and what would you serve them?
Jimi Hendrix. Just have everything on hand that you could conceivably put on the barbeque.

Given the opportunity to choose, how would you like to die?
Pain free. In my sleep. At a ripe old age — at least 100.

Okay kids, the secret word is "comeback." (Scream real loud!) For fans of Paul Reubens' groundbreaking, surreal, unusual and hilarious television program Pee-wee's Playhouse, the arrival of its five seasons (1986 to 1991) in two DVDs sets is truly cause for screams of delight. Reubens first introduced the grey-suited, red bow-tied Pee-wee in a more adult incarnation as a Los Angeles theatre show called The Pee-wee Herman Show, which was filmed as an HBO special. After the success of its feature film, Pee-wee's Big Adventure (which marked the arrival of another eccentric auteur, Tim Burton), the considerably less adult Pee-wee's Playhouse was launched to immediate critical acclaim. Adults looking back on their fond childhood memories of the program will find a pre-Saturday Night Live Phil Hartman (as lusty seaman Captain Carl, he was also a co-writer), Laurence Fishburne (as Cowboy Curtis), American Pie's Natasha Lyonne (as seven-year-old Opal) and Law and Order's S. Epatha Merkerson (as Reba the Mail Lady).

This attention is putting Pee-wee back in the spotlight, and Reubens hopes to capitalise with a new full-length Pee-wee feature, which will deal with the man-child's uncomfortable relationship with fame. "It's not autobiographical," Reubens explains. "One can complain about fame, but it's not very convincing." Before that will come a special edition of the Pee-wee's Playhouse DVDs, including unseen footage and participation from many of its former stars. With perhaps one puppet exception. "Chairy is one person who really hates being in the public eye," Reubens reveals. "She gets very upset if I talk too much about her." With several high-profile, and hush-hush projects in the works, don't count the occasional hard-luck Reubens out. He's still got some secret plans up his too-short sleeve. "I've always wanted to direct."
James Keast

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