Critic’s Notebook: ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse’ redux: Bonus talk with Paul Reubens
In Sunday’s Calendar section, I wrote about the sparkling new reconstruction that is “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse: The Complete Series” (Shout Factory), which not only puts this crazy diamond of a series on to Blu-ray for the first time but has been assembled from the original 16mm film elements — something even the original series, put together on videotape, didn’t do.
I talked to Pee-wee creator and inhabitor Paul Reubens for the occasion, and as often happens there was more to the interview than print could accommodate. Here, fans, is some of the rest of it.
The look and feel of “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” sometimes seems to me a kind of compressed expression of Melrose Ave. in the New Wave 1980s, colorful and unconventional and filled with toys.
Paul Reubens: Huh! That’s funny because it was done initially in New York. I wish I would have done the first season in L.A., because I knew the community here in terms of artists and creative people and in New York I didn’t know anyone. So we depended quite a bit on the company that co produced the show. a company called Broadcast Arts. I had a lot of the original people, I mean, I had my original cast, John Paragon [Jambi], Lynne Stewart [Miss Yvonne], Phil Hartman [Captain Carl]. And Gary Panter I knew from here — he designed the original stage show. We staffed up with people that Broadcast Arts had, and we met some new people, and we had a lot of people from California. And then we had to cast some roles in New York — Epatha Merkerson [Reba the mail carrier] and Shirley Stoler [Mrs. Steve] were there.
And Laurence Fishburne.
Laurence I knew already; we did cast Laurence in New York, but — this is such an odd story — I had a high school kid who was the follow spot operator on the “Pee-wee Herman Show” at the Groundlings, and his best friend was Laurence Fishburne, they were both at Hollywood High School. Laurence had already done “Apocalypse Now,” but I only knew him as the sidekick to my follow spot operator. And I would always be, “Are they up too late?” When I was casting Cowboy Curtis in New York, I could not find a cowboy; the casting people kept sending me models. I saw every African-American model in New York, but I couldn’t find somebody who could do it. And the only actor I knew in New York was Laurence Fishburne; so I called him and asked him, “Would you come down and read this?” I remember really clearly him coming in in costume, which is always kind of a courageous choice for an actor because you can be so off-base. You walk into a casting office or on the studio lot in some get-up and go, “Uh-oh, this isn’t right.” But he was fantastic; he just nailed it.
How did you hook up with Gary Panter?
You mentioned the Melrose scene — when Pee-wee Herman was being developed and coming up, so to speak, was the same time as punk rock in Los Angeles, and so I traveled in a lot of the same circles as a lot of those artists. I knew that band X, and the Go-Go’s, and we all kind of went to the same stuff. And I’d seen Gary’s work all over the place — T-shirts, posters, comics, and I loved what he did. I’d be like, “Oh, whose is that?” And it would be his.
“The Pee-wee Herman Show” show really started from me not getting cast on “Saturday Night Live.” I literally was so panicked when I realized I wasn’t going to get it — I mean, before they told me officially I wasn’t going to get it, I just knew I wasn’t going to get it, based on the audition. And I flew back from New York, and — this is how long ago it was — before I got in my transportation to leave the airport I made a pay phone call to my parents and borrowed $5,000 to produce a show. I was pretty much formulating my plan on the airplane trip back from New York, like, “You’ve got to make this happen yourself.”
My first call was Phil Hartman, and my second call was to find Gary Panter. I didn’t know Gary Panter, but I made a couple calls to a friend I thought might know someone who knew Gary. We got in touch with each other, and he came to the Groundlings and saw Pee-wee Herman and said, “I’d love to design your poster.” That’s what I called him about — the way I sometimes work, I know one thing, like my hair or the poster. Right off the top I knew I wanted Gary to do the poster and that that would inform a lot of other things. And he agreed to do the poster and said, “But I want to do everything — I’d like to design your set and puppets.” And that’s what he did, and we’ve been friends ever since; it’s one of those great collaborations where you totally speak shorthand and the person always delivers either what you had in your mind or something way beyond it that’s better than what you wanted.
What was your production schedule like?
About 10 days. I’m working on a network drama now [“The Blacklist”] that’s an hour long and very complicated production-wise, and it’s 10 days for an episode. So 10 days for us was a long time — although when I say I’m working on something that’s very complicated; my show doesn’t maybe look complicated, but technically it was extremely complicated: The second you write that a puppet hands you something, or a puppet does anything, you’re talking about a lot of time. Because the puppets are very difficult to get to do things. Particularly in the first year, we didn’t really know what we were doing too much with the puppets; they usually couldn’t do what we wrote.
Was there you anything you learned from doing “The Pee-wee Herman Show” on stage that you were able to apply to making the television show?
It was really apples and oranges. We had a rickety little stage show that had a couple of puppets in it that really didn’t do anything, to a full cast of puppets that were all real strong characters that had to perform and function and do things over and over. And I’d only really done the show as a midnight show and then it moved to the Roxy. The TV show was five years later. It was just two different things in my mind.
Growing up in Sarasota, in that oddball tourist-town environment, with the Circus Hall of Fame and Ringling Museum, did that shape you in any way?
Oh, absolutely. I think a lot of stuff shaped me from growing up first as a kid in upstate New York, and then when we moved to Florida it was exotic and tropical and colorful. And I was already bitten by the show business bug and trying to figure out what to do. At that point I was thinking, “Well, maybe I’ll be in the circus.”
Did you participate in the Sailor Circus [the full-blown, big-top student circus, originally part of the PE department at Sarasota High School]?
No, I didn’t. I love that you even know about it.
I’ve seen it. It’s amazing.
I did the program cover one year in high school, as an artist — I literally copied someone else’s drawing of a clown. What was amazing about the Sailor Circus was that you’d be sitting with these people every day in seven periods of school and never know that the kid who sat in front of you, when you went to the Sailor Circus there they were with, like, no shirt and a pair of tights with sequins on them, and they’re flying or they’re an acrobat, or a girl is a tightrope walker — this person you’ve seen every day who’s like some mousy, quiet, weird whatever, there they are, coming alive. What I was doing at the time was plays, I was in the theater department in high school — not to make it sound too boring, but I was, like, playing Nathan Detroit in “Guys and Dolls” — and there wasn’t a single sequin on the stage in “Guys and Dolls.”
It’s probably the same as with Pee-wee Herman: I’m kind of a low-key, quiet person, and people always say to me, “Oh, I thought you were going to be way more crazy or animated or whatever.” So that was the Sailor Circus attraction to me — all these quiet people would be doing things amazing things, dressed in these crazy costumes.
You could walk down the street in Sarasota and go, “Circus, circus, regular person, circus person.” It was very colorful and exotic and the exact right thing for me when I was a kid, when we got to Florida I was like, “Finally.” I lived in a really, really tiny farming community in upstate New York prior to that; I’d never seen a black person, I’d never had ethnic food; you know, we lived a very sheltered, teeny-tiny, 1950s sort of existence. I felt like we moved to Hawaii or Bora Bora when we moved to Florida.
How has your understanding of Pee-wee changed over the years?
I think my rules have changed for Pee-wee Herman. There were things that I would never do before that I will do now, because it’s been a long time and now just in order to satisfy myself and I’ve relaxed the rules for what Pee-wee can do and he can’t do. I just think that Pee-wee grew a little bit. It couldn’t help but happen — when you do something like that for so long, you learn about it. Pee-wee is kind of a multifaceted character, and so I go back and forth with different aspects of him. The movie I’m writing now, I’m constantly sort of trying to be conscious about that — whenever there are a few pages of sweetness I feel like I’ve got to come back with something snarky here. And I think part of Pee-wee’s success is that he’s both of those things.
This is the Judd Apatow-produced movie project?
And is there anything you can say about it?
It is so imminent it’s scary. We’re waiting for the company that’s making it to approve the director; we’re discussing a start date in the first quarter of the new year. I hate to say this because I’ve been talking about it for so long it’s turned into a joke. But I think it’s really going to happen.
If I love Twitter so much, why don’t I marry it @LATimesTVLloyd?
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