Paul Reubens Did Everything Funny
4:18 PM EDT on July 31, 2023
The great and brilliant comedian Paul Reubens, creator and performer of Pee-wee Herman, died Sunday night, aged 70. The statement posted to Reubens's (technically Herman's) Instagram account by photographer Art Streiber attributed his death to cancer, never previously disclosed to the public.
In show business a very talented person can have an incredibly accomplished and successful career without ever creating anything half as unique or ingenious as Pee-wee Herman, a character/one-man show which I have sat here for like 10 minutes trying to figure out how to describe in any manner both concise and fair and which I must now concede surpasses my abilities. What was Pee-wee Herman? Pee-wee Herman was, well ... Pee-wee Herman. In broad and unsatisfying terms I suppose the concept was that he was like a little kid—boundlessly energetic, enthralled by the world, a fount of mostly benign anarchy—who happened to be played by an elfin sorta-grown man with an impossibly hilarious voice. Possibly Pee-wee is a grown man? He lives alone in any case. But also he has no apparent job and no evident source of income, his life is virtually all free time, and people talk to him as though he is a child, except when they do not. None of this is meant to be mysterious in the world of Pee-wee; the humor doesn't come from anybody's confusion about the nature of Pee-wee. Other characters never seem to wonder what Pee-wee's deal is, or even to have any sense that he has any particular deal to wonder about. Neither the stage show where the character first gained an audience, nor the silly and sweet-natured TV series my sister and brother and I lived for in the 1980s, nor Pee-wee's Big Adventure, the miraculous and perfect 1985 feature film directed by a never-better Tim Burton, bother themselves with even bare minimal world-building or origin-storying. Pee-wee Herman is just Pee-wee Herman, the person who is like this. It feels both right and like cheating to write this, but: What was funny about Pee-wee Herman was just, uh ... that it was very funny.
I have watched Pee-wee's Big Adventure very probably more than 50 times. I giggle and chuckle and guffaw my way through it every single time (and will again tonight). The movie is stuffed with great, goofy traditional setup-punchline jokes—including a breathtakingly silly one that slow-burns through something like half the movie's runtime just to get a one-second snort-laugh out of the phrase Remember the Alamo—but so much of its richness comes from the innumerable places it makes you laugh not via a structured joke but by just leaving room for some weird little detail, a sight gag or a line-reading, not particularly freighted by any storytelling duty, that's funny in and of itself. Pee-wee having a rubber hitchhiking thumb in his bindle. Pee-wee's horrified, outraged "ANDY?!?!?" at a key moment. The line "Is this something you can share with the rest of us, Amazing Larry?" The sight gag when Pee-wee turns his flashlight spectacles on. The entire incredible biker-bar dance sequence, which makes me feel giddy and slightly inebriated every time I see it. These are just funny and weird little ideas that Paul Reubens (and his frequent Pee-wee writing partner Phil Hartman) had, and had the serene confidence and generosity to just show, as they were, and trust that you would find them funny.
And then the movie would sometimes swoop back around to pick up one of those silly moments and turn it into one of its structured jokes. Pee-wee's ridiculous "I'm a loner, Dottie, a rebel," speech, coming back around like 20 minutes later, for no particular reason more clever than that having heard it once in Pee-wee's voice will make it sound all the more hilarious in Judd Omen's.
That generosity, that eagerness to lead you along and show you all of his weird and silly ideas, suffused Reubens's Pee-wee work. To watch the show was to spend some time hanging around with your Saturday morning friend, Mister Rogers spliced with Bugs Bunny, who'd share his toys and introduce you to his other friends and help solve problems and make sure you felt welcome. These are my fish! This is my friend Cowboy Curtis! This is my magical genie-head friend who lives in a box!
He was more than Pee-wee, of course he was. (Among other things, he became a figure of national scandal in the way that sort of thing could happen back then, and disappeared from the public eye for a while, dropping the Pee-wee character for close to 20 years.) He did years of great non-Pee-wee work, mostly in secondary roles, reliably making TV shows and movies funnier and weirder and better whenever he was on screen. Every moment he is on screen in his small role on 30 Rock as a catastrophically inbred European royal makes me feel like I am going to scream and die from laughing. In 1999's otherwise dreadful Mystery Men, Reubens wrings giggles out his conceptually unfunny character's body language, his cartoon expressions and voice; when he's not on the screen you just want him back. He played a dirtbag vampire henchman in 1992's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and turned his character's death into a 30-second stretch of brilliance.
Why is this impaled vampire, who is actually dying, also theatrically play-acting dying? Because it's funny! Because you could have Paul Reubens do it, and he would make it surprising and weird and funny and memorable. It didn't have to have some other reason, just a chance to let Paul Reubens play, and to see what he could dream up.