Paul Reubens opens up about his life as Pee-wee Herman
Mere hours before it became available to a global audience of more than 75 million Netflix subscribers, Pee-wee's Big Holiday — a feature film resurrecting the iconic '80s man-child Pee-wee Herman — premiered at Austin's Paramount Theatre during the South by Southwest Film Festival. With an audience made up of devoted Pee-wee fans, and many of the film's creative team on hand, the conclusion of Big Holiday was greeted by an unsurprising and thunderous ovation. This is, after all, Paul Reubens' first significant reprisal of the role in nearly 28 years.
When I caught up with Reubens, now 63, on the morning after the premiere, he exhibited an air of modest validation for the project that had been churning in his head since 2010. "Just sitting through that screening last night, with 1,200 people laughing at stuff so hard that you missed lines… it was really exciting," he told The Week. "If you're me, it doesn't get more exciting than that."
But while the glowing reception in Austin set the stage for a smashing successor to the 1985 cult classic Pee-wee's Big Adventure, the response beyond the festival bubble was passionately varied. For every person toasting the return of a beloved '80s icon, there was someone complaining — in the internet's favorite parlance — that their childhood had been ruined.
Well, here's one thing fans and detractors can probably agree on: This modern revival of the lovable eccentric is markedly less kooky than the Tim Burton-directed Pee-wee of yore. While numerous elements of Big Holiday borrow directly from Big Adventure — the overarching road-trip premise, and the bizarre mélange of personalities encountered along the way — other staples have been conspicuously holstered: the sassy, sophomoric comebacks that helped make Pee-wee such an enduringly quotable "rebel," and the zany brand of torment, madness, and surrealism that made Big Adventure so delightfully offbeat.
While Reubens contends that his latest Pee-wee film is "very similar in tone and style to Big Adventure," he acknowledges that this bromantic tale of "friendship and destiny" is softer. "The movie's quirky, and clunky, and… I felt like it's sweet," he told me. "It almost came out sweeter than we thought it was going to. It's a little less funny than I would like, and a little sweeter than I would like. I wish it was sort of a little more in the middle of that. But when I look at it now, I think it's perfect. I think it's exactly what it should be for right now… Big Adventure was considered quirky and odd and corny and sweet, and people said, 'How's this gonna work in this world today?' In the '80s! And it's sort of the same thing now: I'm getting asked the same thing, and I hope the answer's the same. It either works or it doesn't, you know?"
There's an inherent catch-22 for a long-awaited film like Big Holiday: Your audience is so desperate and eager that a significant portion will inevitably be disappointed by the final product. Fans today have very strong opinions, but the diatribes rarely boom louder than for revival projects like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, or Pee-wee Herman.
And though reboots and revivals have become a Hollywood cottage industry, Reubens and Pee-wee were in largely uncharted territory with Big Holiday, because it's so exceedingly rare for a comic character to remain relevant for so long. Pee-wee's return to the fore is unprecedented due to the sheer length of his hiatus from the spotlight. Save for a few late-night appearances, and a series of coastal live shows in 2010, the world has been virtually devoid of Pee-wee since Playhouse was taken off the air in 1991.
Much has changed since then. The MTV generation that lapped up Big Adventure and Playhouse — and mercifully forgave 1988's film sequel, Big Top Pee-wee — are now veteran members of the workforce with kids of their own.
"It's the tough thing about any sort of sequel, or bringing something back," says Big Holiday co-writer Paul Rust, who co-created and starred in Love, his own Netflix series, earlier this year. "It has to be equal parts: people getting the stuff that they like about the character in the movie, but also doing enough that feels new so people feel excited by it."
Love or hate it, what Big Holiday ultimately offers is a long-overdue spin on an old favorite, somewhat reworked for a new platform and a new era of viewers. It's an appropriate evolution, because Pee-wee has always been a sneakily malleable character. Along the continuum from his genesis with the Groundlings to Big Holiday, no two editions have ever been completely alike.
And Big Holiday, long delayed as it was, may not be Pee-wee's final adventure. "I've had plans for many, many years and I announce them all the time and then they never happen and people go, like, 'You've been talking about this for years," says Reubens, teasing the possibility of a long-discussed TV revival and another film, and joking about an Ice Capades adaptation.
It's an amusingly dated reference that doubles as a reminder that Reubens, at 63, isn't the cutting-edge comic he was when Pee-wee Herman made his debut. As culture changes, people change, and so do the characters they embody — and if they don't return exactly the way you remember them, what does?