Pee-Wee Herman appeared last night on the second to last episode of Conan O'brien's "Tonight Show," to help break down the events that lead up to Conan's break from NBC.
Pee-Wee (AKA Paul Reubens) aficionados know that the character -- loosely inspired by 50's TV host Pinky Lee -- was developed with Phil Hartman in the 1970's, when the two men worked together in the LA-based comedy troupe "The Groundlings." Pee-Wee didn't make it onto "Saturday Night Live" with Hartman, but his Pee-Wee Herman character appeared in "Cheech & Chong's Next Movie," and the popular stage show was punctuated with appearances on Letterman and HBO. Anyone around my age might have vague memories of Pee-Wee infused shows ranging from "227" to "Saturday Night Live." With the content adjusted to be more child-appropriate, "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" launched in 1981 and was a pop culture epicenter. (Google the resumes of folks like Sally Hershberger and Rob Zombie, to name just a couple....)
Reubens, Hartman and Michael Varhol went on to write 1985's "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" which, if you checked out the Tim Burton exhibit currently at MoMA, might already be on deck for a re-watch. Directed by Burton and scored by one of the biggest score-ers ever, Danny Elfman ("Beetlejuice," "Batman," "Good Will Hunting," to name just a few), "Big Adventure" became a cult classic. Randal Kleiser took over for the 1988 sequel, "Big Top Pee-Wee," which features some classic Kris Kristofferson.
In 1991 Pee-Wee appeared on shows more like "A Current Affair" after he was arrested for masturbating in a Sarasota, Florida movie theatre. Despite vocal celebrity defense from the likes of Bill Cosby, Cyndi Lauper and Zsa Zsa Gabor, the Pee-Wee character was tarnished in terms of marketability. That said, he became more of a dark, edgy persona, appearing to a memorable flurry of applause at that year's MTV Video Music awards.
(An aside: if, like me, you were a tween in 1991, let me put this into context: think REM's "Losing My Religion," Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" and a stellar Guns 'n' Roses performance of "Live and Let Die." The irony of these hit song titles given their place in Pee-Wee history is funny, right?) Anyway, despite the ridiculously outsized villainization of some big-mouthed killjoys, Pee-Wee still had his fans.
Now, if you look up Pee-Wee Herman on IMDB, you'll notice a lot of titles you're familiar with, though you may not remember them as Pee-Wee movies. Reubens tried to make it as a non Pee-Wee actor, too, and his face is stamped in a vast number of films in bit parts and camios. A few years later, Reubens was seen playing significant roles on hit TV programs, including a memorable stint as Andrew on "Murphy Brown."
Reubenns continued to work pretty consistently as an actor, and now he's revived Pee-Wee, a bit older and maybe a bit saltier. You might find it depressing, or nostalgic, desperate, or wildly fun and exciting. It might be too early to tell. I haven't had a chance to see "The Pee-Wee Herman Stage Show: The Return," his new show at the Nokia Theatre in LA. "Pee-Wee's Playhouse: The Movie," after a host of delays that can be blamed on everything from red tape to the economy, is said to be coming in 2011. The story is about the characters from the Playhouse being shoved out into the reality of Puppetland, where they embark on a journey to find their missing roomate. (I can't help thinking poignantly about Phil Hartman....)
In the meantime, the Pee-Wee appearance on Conan was quite funny, indeed. (Though I have to wonder whether they missed an opportunity to bring out Conan's Masturbating Bear.) So cheers to Pee-Wee, and consider yourself armed with some good bar conversation fodder (if you hang out at bars full of people in their 30's, that is).