Concocting Pee-wee Herman, says actor Paul Reubens, was partly about playing “the hand you got dealt.”
“I’m a little dorky and nerdy and I keyed into this oddball who sticks out in a crowd,” he said. “It wasn’t lost on me that if you stick out in a crowd and you’re in entertainment, that’s good. And Pee-wee is still someone who sticks out in a crowd.”
He certainly does — even in the half-whacked world of “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” which returns Reubens’ maniacally giggling bow-tied sprite to screens both large and small. (The film premieres this weekend at the SXSW film festival and is available on Netflix March 18 and will also have a limited theatrical release.) Directed by John Lee and produced by Judd Apatow, “Holiday” is the first major Pee-wee production since Reubens more or less put his man-child into mothballs in the wake of his much-publicized arrest in a porn theater in Sarasota, Florida, in 1991. The actor didn’t want to discuss the issue directly, but implied that Pee-wee the commodity has suffered limited damage.
“Most of the people I meet love Pee-wee,” Reubens, 63, said. “Someone told me years ago, ‘People do not generally sit at the stage door for 40 minutes to say, “Hey, by the way, just wanted to let you know — not a fan.” ’ ”
The world’s become a bit different, he conceded. “People will open a Twitter account to tell you something horrible,” he joked. Sort of. “But if you’re an oddball and you don’t let that stop you — if you can be an oddball and walk in a room with your head held up high and know someone’s making that snarky comment about you behind your back, I think people like that and respect you for it. I do. That’s how I am.”
In “Big Holiday,” Pee-wee is leading a contented life as a fry-cook in a small town, stuck in what seems like the ’50s. Or the ’40s. Or the ’60s. Then he meets a tall, dark stranger and is invited to New York. What follows is an odyssey of oddities and misadventures, a variation on the farmer’s daughter joke, a visit to a snake farm, a near-catastrophic airplane flight and no small amount of time travel.
Director Lee — who describes himself as “older than Pee-wee but younger than Paul Reubens” — said they spent a few days filming in New York last year and “people on the street, 90 percent of them, their hearts melt and they’re super excited. It’s like seeing Mickey Mouse. Maybe 10 percent are jerks and unkind, but that’s probably true in general. So I think he just sort of captures something people want and aspire to — being kind of weird, arty and gleeful all at the same time. How do you not aspire to that, rather than being snarky or something?”
Is “Big Holiday” a family movie? “It’s a Pee-wee movie, like ‘Big Adventure,’ ” said Lee. “That was a family movie. But for a very strange family. And it turns out all families are strange. Anyway, this is the first thing I’ve made that I’ve ever been able to take my kids to.”
“Big Holiday” is a collaboration between strange comedic bedfellows — namely, Reubens and Syosset native Apatow, who, as Lee pointed out, always places his characters in modern times and saddles them with modern problems. With Pee-wee, it’s hard to tell what time it is. But that didn’t stop him.
“Here’s the thing,” said Reubens, who during the past two decades has played roles in and out of his Pee-wee persona. “You’re trying to make a movie and you haven’t been around in a while and people aren’t, like, tripping over themselves to make your movie. And Judd Apatow says, ‘I really want to bring you back. I want to make a Pee-wee movie.’ There’s no universe where you say, ‘Gee, we’re so night and day, sorry, thanks a lot.’ It’s just not going to happen. But I immediately had a lot of concerns because we’re not the same.”
Apatow had come to a production of “The Pee-wee Herman Show” that Reubens did in Los Angeles and produced a Polaroid he had taken of the comedian at a comedy club when Apatow was just a teenager. “To prove he was a real fan,” Reubens said.
“I’ve had a lot of people say to me, ‘I really like Pee-wee Herman, I really like what you do, I’d love to help you do something,’ and then they turn around and tell me how to do it. It always starts out, ‘You know what’s best for Pee-wee. But . . . ’ Whatever. Judd was really, really different with that. He only stepped in when he felt he had something to contribute and was so respectful about what it already was and said it all right up front: ‘This is your movie, you know best.’ ”
Example? “Well, the biggest suggestion was that he was very insistent he didn’t want to make either one of the other scripts I already had,” Reubens said. “He wanted to make a new script. It was his idea to make a road picture and stay true to ‘Big Adventure.’ That’s a pretty huge contribution. I would have made the ‘Playhouse’ movie next. But I’m glad he did this because it’s a more classic kind of thing people can relate to easier.”
Part of the challenge for both producer and director was getting aboard a project in which the character is so well-defined, and the actor so closely associated with that character. But Lee said his job was simply “to make Paul’s movie better. That’s how I approached it.
“It’s not the kind of movie,” he added, “where you say, ‘Explain your vision to me. . . .’ The vision’s already explained: It’s sitting right in front of you.”
Pee-wee’s big trivia
Where did Pee-wee Herman come from? “He just sort of happened,” Paul Reubens says of his masterwork, the man-child with the churlish streak, the maniacal giggle and a sense of absurdity has endeared him to audience since . . . well, since the following:
THE PEE-WEE HERMAN SHOW (1981) A onetime member of the Groundlings comedy troupe in Los Angeles, Reubens created this original stage show as a slightly more adult version of what would become his children’s program. It played for five sellout months at the Roxy in L.A. and featured such fellow Groundlings as Phil Hartman and John Paragon. Its presentation by HBO — and Reubens’ several appearances as Pee-wee on David Letterman’s show — provided entree to a national audience. In 1984, he sold out Carnegie Hall.
PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985) The feature directing debut of a young Tim Burton, this variation on De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief” found Pee-wee in search of his beloved stolen bike, and having one crazy adventure after another — rescuing animals from a burning pet shop, masquerading as a nun and dancing in platforms to “Tequila” in a biker bar. Greeted initially with lukewarm reviews, it has developed a major cult following.
PEE WEE’S PLAYHOUSE (1986-91) One of those rare and wonderful TV shows that made you ask, “How did this ever get on television?” The characters on this demented variety show included Cowboy Curtis (Laurence Fishburne), Reba the Mail Lady (S. Epatha Merkerson) and, in the first of its five seasons, Hartman as the grizzly Captain Carl. Also among the regulars was Chairry the chair, Pterri the pterodactyl, and Jambi (“Mecca lecca hi, mecca hiney ho”).
BIG TOP PEE-WEE (1988) This sequel to “Big Adventure” was directed by Randall Kleiser (“Grease”) and finds that Pee-wee has become a farmer who, after a big storm, discovers an entire traveling circus has blown into his backyard. He also finds himself in the middle of a love triangle involving schoolteacher Winnie Johnson (Penelope Ann Miller) and trapeze artist Gina Piccolapupula (Valeria Golino).
SPIKE TV’S GUYS’ CHOICE AWARDS (2007) Reubens appears as Pee-wee for the first time since the early ’90s, and the arrest that almost ended his career. — JOHN ANDERSON