Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman, seems to be the subject of a personal tale from everyone. And birthdays seem to be a recurring theme in those tales. I didn’t know Reubens, but it appears that half the people on my Facebook page did, as they are all sharing stories of the elaborate celebrations Reubens would have every year.
The former MTV and AMC executive Joel Stillerman, who assisted in the production of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” and later collaborated with him on the movie “Blow,” noted that “He loved to make your birthday special.” The morning would begin with texts, memes, videos, and gifs, and they would go on all day until you were in tears and shocked that anyone could pull this off. You knew it wasn’t just you since you knew that.
Since there are so many people with identical Paul Reubens stories merely on my social media timeline, I have to ask: How could Reubens accomplish anything else if he spent so much time remembering the birthdays of his hundreds (perhaps thousands!) of friends? However, he remained a part of our lives until the very end, even during some of those challenging times that served as a reminder that Paul Reubens wasn’t Pee-wee Herman but an actual person.
It sounds like Paul/Pee-wee was all we had hoped he would be, based on every single story I’ve heard or read about him in the last few days (let’s face it, we just want to call him Pee-wee but yet want to recognize the man who created such an iconic figure). Kind and honest with a hint of roughness. Pee-wee was the ideal progression for those of us in Generation X who watched Fred Rogers in preschool.
Pee-wee Herman shared Mr Rogers’ wide-eyed love for the world and its people, but “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” also featured a cowboy who would go on to become one of America’s best actors, a chair named Chairry, a King of Cartoons, and other comedic characters. Pee-wee Herman wasn’t, however, exclusive for my generation. After all, Reubens developed the character from a more mature gag he performed with the Groundlings comedy group.
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It started as a spoof of children’s hosts, the kind that Reubens and other baby boomers may enjoy. His 1981 HBO show, which popularized Pee-wee Herman, wasn’t even intended for children. But it soon became apparent that Pee-wee was for everyone, both adults who enjoyed the satire and children who enjoyed the silliness. Reubens should be given more credit for introducing kids to alternative comedy since they later idolized Conan O’Brien’s ridiculous antics, “Mr. Show,” and anything on Adult Swim.
Without “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” would there be a “Children’s Hospital,” “Wonder Showzen,” or “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!”? Comedy shows like “Comedy Bang! Bang!” made sure to include Reubens since they understood how much they owed him. I still connect with Tim Robinson’s “I Think You Should Leave” in the same way I did with “Pee-wee” back then.
Let’s not forget that “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” aired on Saturday mornings. On CBS. That is so beautifully subversive. To pull that off, you needed someone like Reubens, who managed to thread the needle of approachability with absurdity. And the legacy continues. I was eager to watch “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” with my children and relive the experience through their eyes.
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They can now recall Large Marge, the Alamo’s lack of a basement, and when to yell “Infinity!” after exchanging the well-known taunt, “I know you are, but what am I?” And now, even they associate the word “Tequila” with the well-known Pee-wee Herman dance. And that chuckle! Pee-wee Herman not only taught us to embrace our oddness and sense of oddness but also to be a little bit different.
Who doesn’t feel a little strange or like an outcast from time to time, by the way? I’m aware that you are, but who am I? When Reubens returned in character as Pee-wee Herman toward the end, he didn’t appear to have aged a day. This makes sense because Pee-wee Herman was always relevant. And even though Reubens is no longer with us, his influence on popular culture endures.