Since his satirical, surreal Saturday morning series, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, went off the air in 1990 after five seasons on CBS, Pee-wee Herman has kept a relatively low profile. Last year, when plans were announced for a revival of The Pee-Wee Herman Show, the stage show that first popularized the character before his two feature films (Pee-wee's Big Adventure and Big Top Pee-wee), ticket demand was so strong that producers decided to mount it at L.A. Live’s Club Nokia instead of the smaller venue chosen originally and move the dates from November to January. Now Pee-wee Herman is back in full force, even showing up on the penultimate edition of the Conan O’Brien–hosted Tonight Show to simplify the Jay Leno versus O’Brien brouhaha for less savvy viewers.
This update of The Pee-wee Herman Show features many of the characters from the original production and focuses on the man-boy’s quest to see his lifelong wish to fly fulfilled. Pee-wee is conflicted when forced to choose to have his wish granted or better the lives of his friends. During the course of the show Herman breaks out his patented “Tequila” dance, tosses in the expected pop culture references — as a concession to gay fans, he quotes both Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn — and offers many of the same tongue-in-cheek moral lessons viewers have come to expect from the entertainer. Prior to opening night, Herman (portrayed by Paul Reubens, who declined to be interviewed out of character) spoke to Advocate.com about his strange appeal, the gay icons who visited the playhouse, gay marriage, and why he decided to make a grand return to the stage.
Advocate.com: For gay viewers, much of the appeal of Pee-wee’s Playhouse was in the way you mocked society's conventions. In one episode you married a bowl of fruit salad. How do you feel about marriage equality?
Pee-wee Herman: Come and see the show! There's a reference to it. [Pause] So the answer is yes, I support it.
Your Christmas special is especially popular with gay and lesbian viewers, as it had an even more pronounced camp sensibility than your Saturday morning show. There were guest appearances by many wonderful gay icons, such as Cher, Whoopi Goldberg, Grace Jones, k.d. lang, and Joan Rivers. Did you reach out to these people to see if they would make guest appearances in your new show?
No, I didn't want any of those people. I didn't care for them after the show was over. Ha! Just kidding! Those people were all so kind to be on the special, but many of them just aren't available. Some of them are dead.
What made you want to come back to the stage after all these years?
Who said I wanted to come back? No, I really did want to come back. It just felt like it was time. I wanted to make a great Pee-wee movie based on all these great characters. I have a script, which I think is fantastic. I always loved this show when I originally did it. I've kept the plot of the show and expanded almost all the rest. Almost 80%, I would say, is new material. And this show was done, as you know, before my kids' show, before the CBS version. So all these puppets and new characters, Chairy and stuff, they weren't in it. I felt like if people came to the show that had seen the television series, they would have wondered, Where's Chairy? so I added all those characters to it.
Do you regard the stage production as more risqué than your Saturday morning show?
I don't think it's much more risqué. I mean, it depends on who you are. I never personally viewed it as that risqué. My theory was always if a kid understood a joke, they understood the joke based on information that I didn't have anything to do with. And if they didn't understand the joke, which is how it was mostly designed, then Whoosh! it just went right over their head. Then the parents could laugh at something that the kid didn't understand. The kid would grow up and watch the show again and then be like, Wow, I never noticed that before! — which has happened a lot. I meet a lot of young adults who say, "You know, I just watched your show, I didn't realize all those things were in it." So it's the same sort of things; we have a lot of the same type of material from the show.
What's been the most gratifying about the response to your comeback?
That there was a response at all! I mean, it's been incredible that we've sold 10,000 tickets like, boom, in one day. You know, it's been very exciting. We've broken Ticketmaster records for the rate we're selling tickets at. It's incredible; it's totally exciting. I mean, you don't know about this kind of stuff. You could say, "I'm coming back," and people go "Oh, ha ha, have you met my back?" So you don't know, you know?
What do you see as the legacy of Pee-wee Herman on contemporary culture?
I don't see it like that. I don't view it in those terms; I leave that up to you guys. I don't think about that because it makes my job not fun in a way. Plus, why should I do your job? I don't really like to comment on it because I probably don't know as much about it as others, and anyways it kind of takes the joy out of it to think about it too much, for me.