Paul Reubens on Reviving Pee-wee, Judd Apatow and That Emmy Nom

“I didn’t get permission from anyone to have a career to begin with, so there wasn’t really anyone to go back to ask, Can I come back?”

When Paul Reubens decided in 2009 to revive Pee-wee Herman, the character he left behind nearly 20 years ago, it could have been a disaster — or maybe even worse, a yawn.

Instead, the 58-year-old and his bowtie-wearing alter-ego have been everywhere lately, including on Broadway, where his "Pee-wee's Playhouse"–style stage production sold out 80 consecutive performances, and on "Saturday Night Live," where he did shots with Andy Samberg and cracked Anderson Cooper over the head with a chair.

(Photographs by Jeff Minton)

Reubens is also teaming with Judd Apatow on a film not too dissimilar to "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," the 1985 Tim Burton movie that immortalized his impish catchphrase "I know you are, but what am I?" He'll also appear, in character, on an upcoming episode of Bravo's "Top Chef" taped, where else, the Alamo.

Oh, yeah, and his HBO special "The Pee-wee Herman Show Live on Broadway," a filmed capture of his live show, is up for a Primetime Emmy.

Reubens' astounding comeback is why he made for the perfect cover star of the latest EmmyWrap, our special printed editon, available now. Here's the interview upon which the feature in the magazine was based.

Welcome back. Please state your name for the record.
I’m Paul Reubens, also known as Pee-wee Herman.

You're having quite a run. What made you decide to pick Pee-wee up again after all these years?
I had about two years where a producer would call me every two months and say, “How about now?” And I kept going, “Yeah, great!” And then two minutes later I’d think, I don’t think so. I kind of liked my semi-retirement life, where every now and then I would get a call to be in a movie.

Did you hesitate because you thought no one would care?
You know, I never really thought it had anything to do with that until opening night [of the live show]. Suddenly, I went, What happens if it doesn’t get reviewed good or if people don’t show up?

You didn’t think about that until opening night? How?
Stupid confidence. I am so obsessive-compulsive and detail-oriented on one side, and then there is a category that is so scattered around and I have no clue what it is. I know everything there is to know about most things that I’m working on, but then someone will ask me a question and I’ll be like, “I have no idea what you’re even talking about” — and it’s some important aspect of it.

But I just didn’t really think about any of that. My feeling was that I didn’t get permission from anyone to have a career to begin with, so there wasn’t really anyone to go back to ask, “Can I come back?” We all make up our own rules and we have to tailor them to the real rules and what’s reality-based. For me, I just thought, I am ready. And if I’m ready, other people will be ready.

Did any part of your decision have to do with wanting to reclaim your image after being tarnished by the 1991 arrest?
I don’t have a comment about that. I’ve commented over and over on it. That was 20 years ago.

I bring it up because it seems like people forgive and forget more quickly now.
That, I don’t agree with. People always said to me, “People will have short memories.” But that’s untrue. People have memories like steel traps. They really do. That’s a footnote to me that will never go away. I could win 150 billion Emmys and I’m still that guy. It is what is is. So, I don’t have a comment. I don’t have any regrets whatsoever. None. It turned me into a super-human person. It gave me super-powers. I don’t fear about anything.

Could you explain what you mean by super-powers?
When you go through a big, huge thing like that, you come out a different person. And I’m ready for anything. I have an enormous freedom and power now that makes me feel like I can do anything I want to do. I’m not waiting for people to give me their blessing. I’m just putting it out there. 

If you like it, great! If not, you know, it’s the same thing that we have had since the 1950s: If you don’t like it, change the channel. That’s how I feel about it. I love what I do. I am very proud of what I do. I take what I did with kid’s television very very seriously and a lot of that has to do with the people I’ve met who come and talk to me 20 years later about it. It’s staggering.

 

Is it hard for you to separate Paul and Pee-wee?
Not really. I mean, people call me Mr. Herman, or Pee-wee, or whatever. I answer all those names. I don’t know. I mean nothing negative by this whatsoever, but people have been trying to get me for 30 years to go, “Oh, it’s just so confusing,” or “I hate Pee-wee Herman.” But it’s just nothing like that.

It’s not easy to engineer a successful comeback. Are you satisfied yet?
This is corny, but I’m in it a lot right now to just have fun. I think there’s difference for me now than there was when I did this the first time around when I was young and hungry and making my mark. Now that I’m older, I’m more into “life is too short.” I don’t have the same kind of patience. This is what I want to do, not this, or this. So, I just feel like as long as I keep having fun, I’m great.

How surprised were you by the Emmy nomination? Honestly, I couldn’t believe it. I’m so humbled by it, I’m almost speechless about it.

Hopefully not too speechless or this will be a short interview.
I don’t really know what to say other than that it’s a complete surprise. In New York, after every single performance, I went out and talked to the crowd outside the theater. I would always end with something emotional, which I would always preface by saying, “Oh, this is really corny, and I apologize, but if you like me and you’re standing here, then you obviously are interested in corniness on some level.”

And then I’d give this little speech about how I didn’t really ever get any of this feedback back in the day when I was doing the show originally. Now people really are up in my face going, “I am an artist because if you!” or “I watched the show with my dad, and that was the only time he and I ever had anything in common.”

 

I have two years now of direct comments from people, and I never was in that position 20 years ago. So it’s been enormously rewarding in that respect. I want you to know this is not an act. I never took this for granted. 

Will you do the "Tequila" dance if you win?
I don’t even know what I would do. I think I would just fall apart in a Sally Field kind of way.

Your HBO special is up against Lady Gaga’s. An epic battle in the making?
Yeah, but we’re nothing like the rest of the stuff that’s been nominated. Mine’s a musical. Hers is a concert. “The Kennedy Center Honors” is an event. Carrie Fisher is reading from her book. I’ve got, like, 40 people, actors, puppeteers, a plot, all kinds of stuff. We should actually be in a different category. 

I bet Lady Gaga wouldn’t mind losing to Pee-wee Herman.
I just hope we don’t wear the same thing to the Emmys. That’s all I care about. That’s my goal right now. I want to make sure I know what she’s wearing ahead of time. If she wore a Pee-wee suit, that would be cool!

“Pee-wee’s Playhouse” won several technical Daytime Emmys, but never for best program. What shut you out, “Captain Kangaroo”?
I couldn’t tell you. I remember one year we lost to LeVar Burton’s “Reading Rainbow,” which honestly, you know, I love LeVar Burton, but he’s LeVar Burton going, "Hi I’m LeVar Burton, let me read a book, and I’m like, "Hi, I’m Pee-wee Herman.” But I don’t want to take anything away from those other people.

At Comic-Con, you ended up talking about the "Pee-wee" movie Judd Apatow is producing. Was that planned?
I was going there to talk about [“Pee-wee’s Playhouse] because it’s coming out on DVD. But everyone wanted to talk about Judd Apatow and the movie. I ended up having to send him an email: “If you read anything that’s incorrect, it’s just because I made a bunch of stuff up, and you’ll be the one reading it, so just know that that is what it is.”

What fake spoilers did you make at Comic-Con?
That we’ll be shooting in three months, for one. We don’t have a start date yet. So if Judd read that somewhere, I better at least say that it came from me.

Is the script pretty much finalized?
It’s hard to say. For me, I’m going to do a rewrite on the script. I haven’t been asked to do a rewrite, but I’m doing a rewrite. So, in my opinion the script is not finished.

Are you going to put Large Marge in it?
[The actress who played] Large Marge passed away.

Bummer. What about re-casting the character?
I don’t think so. But there’s something that sort of fills the place of Large Marge in this script that’s not too dissimilar. There’s a nod to Large Marge, but that’s about it. I sure have heard a lot of people, grown ups, come up to me and talk about Large Marge. And I always feel like, “Do you need to lay down to tell me this?”

Will there be any other familiar characters in it?
No, just me.

Do you really think it’ll go into production by the end of the year?
I do, yeah. But we all know enough about Hollywood that we don’t count our chickens before they are hatched, no matter how good they look – and this looks incredibly likely to happen. But until I’m in that suit, honestly, I don’t want to assume anything.

If I give you $5, will you tell me what the movie is about?
I would give anything, I’m not kidding you, to tell you what the plot is. I think it’s so hilarious. But I can’t tell you anything. I’m already going to get in trouble because I’ve already talked about it a little and I’m not supposed to talk about it yet.

I understand.
It’s exciting, I have to say. It’s exciting to have, like, Judd Apatow as your secret. Because this hasn’t been announced yet, so it must have been whispered, I talked about it a year ago when I wasn’t supposed to.

I actually was in an event and somebody asked me about it and I said, "I’m writing it with ["Inglorious Basterds" actor] Paul Rust." And a journalist in the audience figured out that Paul Rust was a Judd Apatow person and called me up and said, “Can you confirm that Judd Apatow is involved?” But it hasn’t officially been announced, the studio hasn’t been announced yet, nothing has been announced yet.

It’s like the time many, many years ago, when I flew around at the Oscars. I was sitting in the audience in the midst of all these stars, just thinking, “I got a secret that no one knows about, that 20 minutes from now, I’m going to be on the ceiling above.” I was so excited that I had a secret. And it’s sort of like that right now.

Is the secret you’re keeping that Tim Burton is going to direct?
I’m not going to confirm or deny that. [Pause] No, I’m kidding. He’s not going to direct it.

OK. Any other beans to spill?
Having just been at Comic-Con, where I spoke about something all day that I wasn’t supposed to speak about, I feel comfortable enough to say that I’m going next week to do “Top Chef.” I mentioned that there, too, and the producers called midway through the day and said, “Shut up about it — it was supposed to be a surprise.”

I was like ‘Oh, I’m so sorry about that,” but I kept going on talking about it all day because I didn’t know what else to talk about.

You’re not known for your cooking, are you?
I’m not.

So, what’s the deal?
I’m not really sure. I’ll let you see if you can decide. It’s being filmed at the Alamo. So I think that’s the connection. It certainly isn’t based on my cooking! I think once they decided they were filming at the Alamo they asked themselves, “Who is connected with the Alamo?” It’s a choice of one — all the historical figures from that period are dead, so I don’t know who else is really connected to the Alamo except me. I get calls all the time, several calls a year, from people going, “Guess where I am? I’m at the Alamo! And there’s no basement!”

That was "Pee-wee's Big Adventure." People who grew up with that movie are now old enough to have turned their kids onto it.
I know that because I have heard it directly backstage every night. I had so many people come up to me and go, ‘Here is my history with you,” and just go through the whole thing. People say the most amazing, nice stuff to me. I feel incredibly happy that this is my life right now, that my life consists of people coming up to me and saying “Dude, I’m an artist because of you.” That’s just cool, for me. That makes what I do really worth it. 

So, any idea yet when you might retire the Pee-wee Herman character?
I don’t really want to hear this quote back to me when I’m 70, so I’m not going to comment there. I really don’t know. I’ve heard enough people ask the Rolling Stones, “Did you think you were going to be doing this when you are this old?” and seeing their deer-in-the-headlights kind of looks. So I just don’t know. I didn’t think I would be doing it this long. I didn’t think I’d be doing it now. So I can’t really tell. But I am hoping that CGI gets better by then.