Paul Reubens, the comedian best known for his beloved character Pee-wee Herman, died on Sunday of cancer. He was 70 years old.
The Making of Pee-wee Herman
Born in Peekskill, New York in 1952, Reubens created his iconic character, Pee-wee Herman, in 1977 when he was a member of the Los Angeles sketch comedy troupe The Groundlings.
What began as a live show at The Groundlings theater called The Pee-wee Herman Show later grew into a 1981 HBO special, followed by the 1985 movie Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, directed by Tim Burton. Following that, Reuben’s classic CBS Saturday morning series Pee-wee’s Playhouse ran for five years starting in 1986. In 1988, he made a sequel to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure called Big Top Pee-wee, directed by Randal Kleiser.
Pee-wee was full of childlike goofiness and mischief, and characterized by Reubens’ iconic laugh. He was also known for catchphrases like “That’s my name, don’t wear it out!” and his classic retort, “I know you are, but what am I?”
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A Comeback for Paul Reubens
Pee-wee’s Playhouse ended in 1991 after a scandal involving Reubens being arrested for indecent exposure at a Florida porn theater. But two months after the incident, in September of 1991, Reubens appeared on the MTV Video Music Awards — and he had the perfect line to address the elephant in the room.
“Heard any good jokes lately?” he asked the delighted crowd, adding, “So funny, I forgot to laugh.”
When the audience cheered for him, he got serious for a moment and said, “Thank you very much. That really means a lot to me.”
It was a subtle moment that foreshadowed his comeback almost 20 years later. In 2010, Reubens created a new Pee-wee stage show called Pee-wee Herman Stage Show: The Return. It ran for four weeks at Club Nokia in Los Angeles and then had a limited run on Broadway.
In 2016, Netflix released a new Pee-wee movie called Pee-wee’s Big Holiday directed by John Lee. It was a follow-up to Big Top Pee-wee, completing the Pee-wee Herman film trilogy. It was also Reubens’ final role.
Main Image: Paul Reubens courtesy of Alli Harvey/Netflix