It all starts with the voice.
Paul Reubens, better known as Pee-wee Herman, created that voice that sounds helium-induced back in his school days. Now, it has taken him to an HBO special, "The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway," airing March 19 at 10 p.m.
While driving to an editing room to put the final touches on the special, Reubens recalls creating Pee-wee for a sketch he did with The Groundlings, the improv troupe, in 1977.
"The voice came from a play many, many years prior to that," Reubens says. "I was the second-oldest kid in a repertory production of 'Life With Father.' I inadvertently changed from a normal, acceptable voice that would have worked for that show to a cartoony voice that became Pee-wee Herman's voice."
Since Reubens had not yet finished editing the special, no preview tape was available to screen. But the HBO special is based on "The Pee-wee Herman Show," which ran 80 performances on Broadway late last year and turned the Stephen Sondheim Theatre into his wacky playhouse. The stage show was based on his 1986-'91 Saturday morning TV series "Pee-wee's Playhouse."
It was great fun, and "fun" was his secret word of the day. Each time it was said, the audience had to get loud and silly, and it was impossible to sit in that theater and not laugh.
Ultimately, silly is what it's about. There's pretty much no other way to describe the colorful, zany world that is his playhouse. Pee-wee's pals show up: Cowboy Curtis (Phil LaMarr) in his purple chaps and Jheri curls; Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart) in her enormous bouffant; King of Cartoons (Lance Roberts) in his regal garb; and Mailman Mike (John Moody), as angry as ever.
It's not just for kids
Though the show has all of the "Playhouse" TV show trappings, its double entendres give it a more adult sensibility. Pee-wee wears what looks like a wedding band, and a running joke is that it's his abstinence ring, a nod to his 1991 arrest in a Sarasota, Fla., adult-movie theater.
And therein is the big lesson, Reubens says.
"I feel like, in a certain way, one of the things always attractive to me was to show kids that anything is possible," he says. "If your aspirations are big, reach-for-the-stars sort of things. This show illustrates that -- me being on Broadway in a show that is being filmed for Home Box Office was almost an impossibility a few years ago.
"I am a good example that anything is possible -- don't count anybody out," he continues. "What I try to achieve in the show is to do something old-fashioned, and it is just pure entertainment. I don't want to say it is a piece of fluff. It is just there to be fun and funny and make you feel good."
In the play, Pee-wee is about to have his playhouse wired for a computer, and his friends worry that if he goes online, he won't spend much time with them anymore. Some terrific 1950s-era black-and-white school films are shown, and as important as hygiene and etiquette are, the film about being well-mannered and washing hands frequently is hilarious.
The Broadway audience, at least on one night in December, was made up of hipsters who cheered Jambi the genie (John Paragon), and just the sight of Chairy, the big, fuzzy blue chair, and Globey, the globe with Mel Brooks' visage, made people happy.
"In New York City, we had between 100 and 300 almost every night, waiting in the freezing cold weather 20 or 30 minutes for me to come out at the stage door," Reubens says. "I was all over New York City one day in the Pee-wee suit. I talked to fans, of all 80 performances, after the show. I have a good feel for how people were reacting."
About that Pee-wee suit -- it's not plain gray as it appears, but glen plaid. Isaac Mizrahi came to see the play and liked the suit, Reubens says. Other famous audience members included Elvis Costello, who went with his wife, jazz singer Diana Krall. Simon and Garfunkel attended -- though separately, Reubens notes. Prince saw the show, as did David Bowie and his wife, Iman.
Getting his Broadway rhythm
Reubens looks fairly unchanged since the '80s, still slim and bopping about the stage. Though there are actors who spend their youths priming to be on Broadway, he was not among them.
"In a certain way, it was probably more extreme than had I been the person my whole life aspiring to this," he says.
As a veteran of TV, Reubens thought he was accustomed to long hours, but the grind of eight shows a week surprised him.
"This is so much more work than I thought it would be," he says. "I was shocked by just how hard it was to do that many shows and rewriting it."
Reubens was rewriting the show up until the curtain rose. Given that Pee-wee has been a part of him for so long but had been retired for a while, why revisit the man-child and his famous "heh-heh" now?
"I woke up one day and thought, 'This is it,'" Reubens says. "This is the time."