I grew up in a small Midwestern town with somewhat reasonable parents who fostered a passion for both literature and cinema, but still stuck to conservative traditions they’d been conditioned to accept without question. Like most American kids, Saturday morning cartoons were the defining childhood leisurely pastime.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, amidst Duck Tales and Teenage Mutant Ninja Titles and My Little Pony, there was something much more special — something wonky and weird — compared to all the other children’s shows. This was Pee-wee’s Playhouse, a five-season series starring Paul Reubens that ran from 1986 to 1990 on CBS. There were, famously, two film versions showcasing the daffy man-child, but it would be the infectious television show that many families looked forward to every Saturday morning.
Pee-wee was an unsaid guilty pleasure. Many of his catch phrases were often bandied about (“That’s my name, don’t wear it out!”) or imitations of his infectious giggle (which were on par with Steve Urkel-isms for us), but there was always the understanding of a “weirdness” my parents couldn’t quite fathom, much less articulate. There wasn’t a wariness about Pee-wee so much as there was often commentary about how “strange” the man playing him must be, interacting with a mix of puppets (the free-floating genie head, Jambi) and vibrant live-action characters (such as Laurence Fishburne’s Cowboy Curtis). There was a diversity to this world unlike anything else readily available, and an underlying message of kindness, making Pee-wee feel like the Roald Dahl version of Mr. Rogers, had the friendly neighborhood sage been possessed by a goofy alien.
And then, it all went up in smoke.
In 1991, Paul Reubens was arrested at an adult theater in Florida, charged with indecent exposure. Though the show was already completed, there was a disastrous fallout, with CBS canceling reruns (despite a strong petition from fans and outpouring of support from the actor’s colleagues) and ending various high profile advertising deals. At home, it seemed the news was merely confirmatory. My uncle, who lived next door had made a tradition of forcing my sister and I to imitate Jambi and chant his iconic “Mekka-lekka-hi, mekka-hiney-ho” before giving us treats or trinkets, was used as evidence to highlight his own weirdness for being so invested in Pee-wee-isms.
My personal processing of what happened to Paul Reubens wouldn’t consciously rear its head for at least another decade. What was so beloved about Pee-wee from my childhood was how he represented the joy, rather than the dread, of difference, and for queer kids, someone like Pee-wee felt like a life raft in the sea of heteronormative signaling we’re so conditioned to accept. By today’s standards, masturbating at an adult theater hardly seems scandalous, but Pee-wee, and Reubens, were only acceptable as neutered, asexual figures since they were packaged for family-friendly consumption.
Reubens’ downfall was due to entrenched homophobia, and the imbalanced perception of a public refusing to separate the art from the artist. The impact of representation is consistently eroded by the gatekeepers of a pervasive “cancel culture” (even before the term was conceived) with widening parameters dictated by shifting cultural opinions, a double-edged sword. To repeat, there must be a separation of the art vs. the artist, which doesn’t mean condoning the reality of Bill Cosby, for instance, but allows for directly addressing the reality of any given situation. Historically, the law has also been used as a tool to demean and diminish the queer and LGBTQ+ community by denying them the reality of living their lives with any semblance of equality. Paul Reubens was a casualty of America’s repressive, puritanical patriarchy, which rewards violence and condemns sexuality.
Reubens spent almost all of the ‘80s in his Pee-wee persona, and intriguingly, it was a character not initially intended for family-friendly fare. Tim Burton made his directorial debut with the iconic Pee-wee’s Big Adventure movie in 1985, and a 1988 sequel directed by Randal Kleiser followed suit.
After he was demonized in the press, Reubens spent the rest of the ‘90s quietly appearing in various supporting roles. We’re left with a veritable obituary of his surviving works. Burton would tap him for a cameo in 1992’s Batman Returns, and then again for some exceptional voice work in 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. In what would become a common recurring theme for the actor, he would pop up in bizarre supporting roles, often in family-friendly fare centered on animals, such as the villainous orangutan wrangler in Dunston Checks In (1996), the snippy primatologist in Caroline Thompson’s Buddy (1997), and the voice of Raccoon in Betty Thomas’ 1998 revamp of Doctor Dolittle. He scored a recurring role on Murphy Brown, which assisted in his professional recuperation (and earned him one of three Emmy nods).
By the time he made a bigger splash in titles like Mystery Men (1999) or Blow (2001), it seemed he’d entered a new phase of his career — until he was again hobbled by scandal. In the wake of solicitation and possession of child pornography charges brought against character actor Jeffrey Jones in the early 2000s, an anonymous tip about Reubens led to a search warrant and charges of child pornography, eventually dropped years later after much haggling with the justice system over how to define his collection of erotic art.
The nostalgia factory of Netflix resurrected Reubens’ beloved character in 2016’s Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, his last film role.
Ironically, it was the very essence of what made Reubens so special that was ultimately held against him.
The industry turned its back on him, despite the anointment of “icon” you’ve been reading following his death. Like countless others who inherited a pariah status, he was treated like he was replaceable. But those who witnessed Paul Reubens at the height of his powers know he was not. He died after a private six-year battle with cancer, and his unexpected passing has generated the usual expected response of public mourning, a hot burst of acknowledgement regarding a career suddenly rendered finite, for there will be no more Paul Reubens and no more Pee-wee.
But homage cannot reclaim what he’s owed. We put Paul Reubens on an imaginary pedestal alongside his iconic character and robbed him of a greater legacy. But for many of us who grew up with Reubens on our Saturday morning reprieves from reality, his legacy remains alive in how he influenced our imaginations with silly, sweet, gonzo antics, always extolling the virtues of kindness and the power of curiosity. He was special because he was clearly being himself in a world that demands we be something else.