Scroll To Top
Voices

Who Do We Mourn, Pee-wee or Paul Reubens?

Who Do We Mourn, Pee-wee or Paul Reubens?


<p>Who Do We Mourn, Pee-wee or Paul Reubens?</p>

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, Kypros Getty Images

We knew everything about Pee-wee Herman, and almost nothing about Paul Reubens.

I know you are, but what am I?

That very well could have been something Paul Reubens said to Pee-wee Herman.

When I’ve written in the past about celebrities or noteworthy individuals who have passed, it’s usually easy to sum them up. We admired and adored Queen Elizabeth, Betty White, Regis Philbin. I even wrote a piece, “When an Icon Dies,” after Kobe Bryant died, which referenced the deaths of George Michael, Rock Hudson, and Liberace.

Then, on the other hand, there were pieces about Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson that were justifiably and deservedly harsh.

Here we are with Paul Reubens, more affectionately known as Pee-wee Herman. Reubens died on Monday. His death doesn’t seem possible, because Pee-wee Herman was perennially 13 years old, so how could this be? But in the real world, Reubens was about to turn 71. It seems unimaginable, mainly because I had no idea that he was that old, or for that matter, no idea who he really was.

Paul Reubens's persona was consumed by his alter ego, Pee-wee Herman. Yes, he was the genius behind Pee-wee, but beyond that, and besides his arrest history, what else did we really know about Paul Reubens?

Pee-wee Herman was ubiquitous. Paul Reubens, however, rarely talked about himself. Even his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame reads “Pee-wee Herman,” not Paul Reubens.

I was an unabashed Pee-wee fan, but it went beyond that. I also had a crush on Pee-wee. Why not? He was cute, fun-loving, and sweet. Sure, he was just a “boy,” but you knew underneath that childlike exterior, there was a man of legal age, so a crush was acceptable. But if you would have said the name Paul Reubens to me during Pee-wee’s heyday, I would have probably said, “Who?”

We knew everything about Pee-wee. He adored his bike, hated Francis, was platonic with Miss Yvonne and Dottie. Pee-wee was petrified of Large Marge. And he swooned over Tito, Ricardo, Cowboy Curtis, James Brolin, Kris Kristofferson, and Joe Manganiello. He enjoyed a nap in Chairry. He loved fruit salad so much that he married it, bringing to life one of his favorite quotes, "If you love it so much, why don't you marry it?"

But Paul Reubens? He was an enigma, and that was by his choice. As we reported, “there was often speculation that Paul was gay, but he never addressed the matter publicly.” He never did marry, and you never saw him in the tabloids with a Hollywood starlet. That doesn’t prove he was gay, but at the same time, was this a case of where there’s smoke there’s fire?

Reubens starred as other than Pee-wee in a several roles in a variety of films, but nothing as iconic as Pee-wee. It was sad, because Reubens had a lot of talent, but like a ball and chain, Pee-wee dragged him down. The only definitive things we know for certain about Reubens was his run-ins with the law.

Reubens was arrested on an indecent exposure charge for masturbating in an adult theater in Florida in 1991. He entered a plea of no contest and had to pay a small fine and do community service. When I was revolted the first time, I saw the long, frazzled hair of Reubens''s mugshot. Pee-wee was squeaky clean, down to his oversized toothbrush. But Reubens?

In 2002, Reubens was charged with possessing images that, initially, were child pornography. That was mortifying, but in a way, at least to me, it showed that perhaps Pee-wee was some psychological manifestation of Reubens's horribly wrong infatuation with children.

I’m not a psychologist of course, but I had been abused by a Catholic priest when I was 13, and I’ve described the priest before as having a warped sense of humor. The whole thing just reminded me of that dark period in my life, and it was hard to reconcile Reubens with his beloved character.

"There's a lotta things about me you don't know anything about. Things you wouldn't understand. Things you couldn't understand. Things you shouldn't understand." Pee-wee, says this to his platonic love Dottie in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Those lines have been overanalyzed a million times in the media; was he sending us a message as to why, all the way back in 1985, that he wasn’t going to try make us understand him?

I watched Pee-wee’s Playhouse obsessively. It was on back in the day when I was making the transition from college grad to working class professional; no matter how hungover I was, I made sure to tune in on Saturday mornings. The show was ostensibly for children, but anyone my age knows that wasn’t true. Pee-wee was playing to the adults in the room, particularly with its homoerotic tone.

Who could forget Pee-wee’s friend Tito, the shirtless and shoeless lifeguard. He was only on the first season, and the eternally horny Miss Yvonne fawned over him, but Tito seemed more interested in Pee-wee. Same scenario for his presumed replacement, the cute soccer player Ricardo. Miss Yvonne tried to kick it up with Ricardo to no avail. Then there was the pink and purple glad Cowboy Curtis, played by Laurence Fishburne before he became, well Laurence Fishburne.

The gayness around Pee-wee is nothing new, and scores of media have covered it many times over the last couple of decades. Yet, at no time, did Reubens address whether Pee-wee was going through what every other gay adolescent goes through, aka confusion mixed with crushes.

When the Netflix movie Pee-wee’s Big Holiday premiered in 2016, I had no desire to watch it after seeing the trailer. For the first time ever, I didn’t see Pee-wee. Instead, I saw an aging man trying to act like Pee-wee Herman. I felt sorry for Pee-wee, but more sympathy for Reubens, a 63-year-old man playing a 13-year-old. Many said it was creepy, but I saw it as a last resort for Reubens to be relevant in an industry that doesn’t take kindly to aging.

Reubens seemed to have many fans in Hollywood. So many have posted about his comedy, his writing, his uniqueness and kindness. Jimmy Kimmel wrote on Twitter, Paul Reubens was like no one else - a brilliant and original comedian who made kids and their parents laugh at the same time. He never forgot a birthday and shared his genuine delight for silliness with everyone he met. My family and I will miss him.”

Gay icon k.d. lang tweeted, “Swift rebirth sweet man. Beautiful joyous thing. I love you.” Cher added, "Goodbye Paul. Goodnight sweet prince. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

Actress Katy Segal, who she said knew Reubens for most of his life, posted a tribute on her Facebook page. The message included one line that spoke to the demons that perhaps plagued Reubens through his life. She wrote, "I knew his struggle. Finally now, be free."

The irony and the tragedy here is that Hollywood loved Paul Reubens, while the public, me, us, loved Pee-wee Herman. It sounds like we may have missed out on a very special guy. That was Reubens's choice.

Rest in your Chairry, Pee-wee, and rest in peace, Paul.

John Casey is the senior editor of The Advocate.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

John Casey

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.
John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.