Pee Wee Herman died.
He was a character, not a real guy. But, to many of us he seemed real. And that's what made him so unique.
The actor Paul Reubens created Pee Wee Herman as part of his stage act in the late 1970s with a group of improvisational actors called The Groundlings. Reubens said he had around 15 or so characters, but none of them received the feedback and appreciation that Pee Wee did.
As a result, he said he began to focus on Pee Wee Herman exclusively.
If you don't know who Pee Wee is, he was a type of man-child. A grown up who never grew up. He wore a suit with a red bow tie, white shoes, short haircut, and laughed like someone 35 years his junior.
In short, he liked all things kitschy that were reminiscent of what every kid wanted back in the 50s and 60s. A decked out bicycle with a horn and decorations, toy dinosaurs, children's songs, and anything else that reminded baby boomers of our childhoods.
Pee Wee Herman got his first national exposure on David Letterman's late show. He also appeared in movies for Cheech and Chong, and other adult-type fare. But as his character gained recognition, he dropped anything in his act that was even remotely blue and focused on children.
In the early 1980s, Reubens and his friend Phil Hartman (who later went on to fame on Saturday Night Live), and another writer friend bought a book on how to write a movie screenplay. They had no idea how to write a screenplay, so they followed everything the book said to do. The result was called, "Pee Wee's Big Adventure."
This got them an interview at Warner Brothers, and consequently, a movie deal. In multiple interviews I saw with Paul Reubens, he said that he wanted a specific type of director to match his vision for his film. He wound up with Tim Burton. It was Burton's directorial debut. The success of Pee Wee's Big Adventure led to Burton being tapped to direct Beetlejuice, a couple of Batman films, and many more.
Big Adventure was shot on a $6 million dollar budget, and made far more than that. A handful of critics hated it, but moviegoers loved it. This movie led to a Saturday morning children's show on CBS called, "Pee Wee's Playhouse." For a handful of seasons, my children made sure they were up in time with their cereal in hand to catch the latest episode. I also recorded each episode so that they could watch it whenever they wanted.
Pee Wee's Playhouse reminded me of Looney Tunes. They both were written by adults and in many ways for adults. But the shows were never anything other than great for children.
Saturday mornings in the mid-1980s, I'd sit with my coffee and laugh at the show with my children, all while reminiscing about my favorite TV characters.
For my generation, we had Kukla, Fran and Ollie, and Captain Kangaroo. Both shows were about teaching children something new that would be helpful to them as they got just a little bit older and had to navigate the world.
The Captain, as many of us called him, was played by Bob Keeshan. Just as Paul Reubens had created Pee Wee, Keeshan created Captain Kangaroo. Before the captain, Keeshan played Clarabell The Clown on the original Howdy Doody show.
Each weekday morning, I made sure that I had both captains with me to start my morning: Cap'n Crunch, and Captain Kangaroo. I pre-dated Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street, but I wouldn't have needed them anyway. With The Captain dealing with Mr. Moose and his raining ping pong balls, Bunny Rabbit (the hand puppet who nodded but never spoke), and Mr. Green Jeans, who was played by Hugh "Lumpy" Brannum, each day was always filled with laughs and fun.
That's why I also enjoyed Pee Wee Herman so much. He reminded me of my time with Captain Kangaroo. Pee Wee's Playhouse featured other characters, similar to what Captain Kangaroo had. Future stars Phil Hartman (mentioned earlier), Laurence Fishburne, S. Epatha Merkerson (who later was a cast member of Law and Order), and Jimmy Smits of L.A. Law.
There wasn't anything else on TV like Pee Wee's Playhouse. Not before and not since. The program and his Pee Wee movies brought Reubens fame and money.
There were Pee Wee dolls, toys, and lots more. I bought each of my children a Pee Wee Herman doll. You could pull the string and he'd say one of his different catch phrases each time. Today, the doll in the original box brings a good bit of money, as do the other Pee Wee-related items.
Paul Reubens got in trouble with the law in 1991 and his world, personally and professionally, came crashing down. CBS canceled his Playhouse show, and movie offers dried up. His friends stuck by him and eventually, he was able to find work as an actor again.
A few years ago, Reubens even revived the Pee Wee character. Remarkably, his faith retained much of its youth, so he could still pull it off. He made another Pee Wee movie and several appearances in character.
But unknown to virtually everyone, just as he returned as Pee Wee, he was diagnosed with cancer. The public learned of his illness after his passing at the young age of 70. He wrote a note for us where he apologized for not telling us ahead of time that he'd been sick.
Reubens was a smoker, but as of yet, no one has revealed what type of cancer took him.
Some folks are judging him for his arrest, but not me. It's not my place to judge anyone. But my momma did teach me to say, "Thank you," when it's warranted. And with Paul Reubens, it's definitely warranted.
Thanks, Pee Wee, for the laughter you brought to children of all ages.
John's latest book, "Puns for Groan People," and volumes 1 and 2 of his series "Write of Passage: A Southerner's View of Then and Now" are available on his website, TheCountryWriter.com.
©2022 John Moore