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Paul Reubens turns 60: Pee-wee Herman’s origins revealed

Meriah Doty
Movie Talk
August 27, 2012

Paging Mr. Herman...

Monday marks Paul Reubens' 60th birthday. He has appeared in such films as "Blow" (2001) and "Mystery Men" (1999), but his most famous character is -- and will likely always be -- Pee-wee Herman.

For those of us who grew up on "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" on the big screen and "Pee-wee's Playhouse" amid Saturday morning cartoons in the '80s, it may be surprising to learn that Pee-wee didn't start off as children's fare. In fact, early Pee-wee would have gotten an R rating if he'd been in the movies.

Pee-wee first appeared on a Los Angeles stage in 1977 as part of a performance by The Groundlings comedy troupe. The troupe has been famous over the years, in part, for being a place where Lorne Michaels would pluck talent for "Saturday Night Live." And back then, Reubens was working with Phil Hartman. (Hartman joined "SNL" in 1986. Reubens was almost cast on "SNL" in 1980 but lost out to Gilbert Gottfried.)

Having developed a close camaraderie with Hartman, Reubens created his Pee-wee character with Hartman's help. "I loved the idea of a last name that could be a first name. And 'Pee-wee Herman' didn't sound made up," Reubens has recalled. The famous Pee-wee giggles and voice were based on a character he had developed in his youth -- one that had evolved into a cartoon character.

When it came to Pee-wee's now-famous costume, Reubens had to borrow a grey, custom-made suit from Groundlings director Gary Austin. The bow-tie was a last-minute addition, given to him before he went on stage. The look was later embellished with that signature pale skin, red cheeks and lips and short black hair -- largely inspired by '50s children's television host "Pinky Lee."

Eventually, Pee-wee was made into its own stage show at The Groundlings and Reubens stumbled upon a way to create early hype with free tickets: "I've never told this to anybody: We only sold 20 tickets to each show, and all the rest of the tickets were comps," Reubens said during a recent interview with Scott Aukerman. "When my show opened, we had a waiting list of hundreds and hundreds of people, and it seemed like it was this impossible ticket to get. It was this huge, big success because there were only 20 tickets to be had."

By 1980, Reubens gained momentum with his outlandish, child-like character -- whose humor was more adult-themed, and often included sex jokes. But that was the year he lost out on "SNL," which would have been his big break. Reubens says he quickly mobilized, mostly out of a sense of panic: "If I don't do something right away I'm going to go from 'the guy who's about to happen' to the guy who didn't happen," he said.

That year he debuted Pee-wee on film in "Cheech & Chong's Next Movie." In it, Pee-wee is rude, foul mouthed and gets arrested by police -- far from what the character later became. (Reubens has also recalled how he auditioned for "The Dating Game" as Pee-wee and wound up appearing as a contestant three times and even won once!)

The start of the '80s decade was a busy one for Reubens. The very year Pee-wee debuted on film, Reubens developed "The Pee-wee Herman Show" on stage, including a cast of characters that later carried over onto the television show -- also starring Hartman. HBO picked it up in 1981 as a comedy special and that's how Pee-wee got his foothold into popular culture. "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," directed by Tim Burton and written by Reubens and Hartman, landed in theaters in 1985 and "Pee-wee's Playhouse" debuted in the Saturday morning lineup the following year. Incidentally, Reubens realized his "SNL" dream in 1985, when he hosted the show in character as Pee-wee.

Just two years ago, Reubens revived "Pee-wee's Playhouse" on stage in Los Angeles, and subsequently took the show to Broadway. Currently, he is said to be developing another Pee-wee movie with producer Judd Apatow.

PHOTOS: Beyond Pee-wee - Paul Reubens's Other Movie Roles

Paul Reubens
Paul Reubens

Watch the close of Reubens' 1981 HBO special:
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