He accidentally knocks over the motorcycles of a bunch of grizzled Hells Angels types, before charming them by jumping on the bar and dancing to the Champs’ surf tune “Tequila.” In another bit, he is talking in a telephone booth and trying to explain where he is, so he peeks his head out to sing, “The stars at night are big and bright.” A team of cowboys responds in unison: “Deep in the heart of Texas!”
The world of Pee-wee is full of this loopy surrealism that could veer into innuendo but never got dark. It was always welcoming, wildly diverse, profoundly silly. The movie, along with his anarchic Saturday morning children’s show, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” melded a child’s energy with a love of show business. Reubens, who grew up in Sarasota, Fla., nearby the winter headquarters of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, managed to imbue such entertainment with the spirit of performance art, while never taking the easy route of going mean or dark. His work just got weirder.
Pee-wee’s television stint ended in infamy when Reubens was arrested on a charge of indecent exposure in a porn theater. Late-night hosts pounced, and so did the news media. CBS took reruns of his show off the air. The controversy now seems preposterously overblown. That happened just one year before Sinead O’Connor’s career suffered a blow from her protest on “Saturday Night Live” against sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church — an episode that has come under new examination after her death last week. It’s clear that dopey moralizing scandals are far from a hallmark of our age alone.
The one time I talked with Reubens, around seven years ago in an interview, he was, not surprisingly, quite different from his character: thoughtful, reserved, sober-voiced. He was modest about Pee-wee, who eventually returned.
No character that beloved, that meme-able, would not be pulled back to action in our current nostalgia-driven culture. There was a Pee-wee Herman Netflix movie and a Broadway show, and, while there were small updates here and there, the character remained in essence the same: giddy, exuberant, singularly strange and primally tapped into childhood.
Pee-wee got older but he never grew up. His career is an update on the Peter Pan story, except no one in Neverland would say: “That’s my name. Don’t wear it out.”