I've seen and loved Pee-wee's Big Holiday three times now, the new comedy co-written by and starring a still-energetic, 63-year-old Paul Reubens as his famous alter ego, Pee-wee Herman. In the film, the red-bowtied "boy" treks across the country to meet up with his best friend (played by Magic Mike's Joe Manganiello) in New York City, which ultimately brought happy tears to my eyes. The other reviews have strangely been mixed, but I'm convinced that the film's feverish imagination and uniquely timeless humor will be studied in years to come.
Annoyingly, when I tell people this, everyone feels the need to make some joke about whether or not I jerked off while I watched. If you know the character, you likely know the context: In 1991, Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure in a Florida porno theater, a victimless crime in an appropriate masturbatorium during the pre-internet age. The media-driven circus that ensued effectively derailed his career for the better part of a decade.
It's all distant history, so let's try to have more respect for a man who's not just an artist but an auteur. As Manganiello told me, "Paul brought weirdness and a unique brand of comedy to the mainstream. He's very meticulous. That world is very clear to him, but there's a playfulness to him, and he's super calm. I was wondering when I got to set, Was he going to be Pee-wee now, or is he, Paul, wearing the suit? But it's just Paul. I'm hanging out with my friend."
Wonder Showzen co-creator John Lee, who directed Big Holiday, agreed on whose vision took priority: "I thought, I'm here to make his movie better. He knows the character better than any of us, down to the cut of a suit. You can't disagree with that; he's living in this. The gleefulness of the character in this situation makes it seem so unique and from another time, but not. You're swirling in this weird feeling, and that's what I studied from his movies."
During this month's SXSW Film Festival, where Big Holiday made its world premiere, I sat down to chat with an articulate if understandably reserved Reubens, as himself. We spoke about collaboration and the eternal if demanding art of being Pee-Wee.
VICE: With each new project, Pee-wee Herman hits the reset button. In Big Top Pee-wee, he was a farmer-inventor. In Pee-wee's Big Holiday, he doesn't seem to remember ever traveling to find his bike in Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Why is he a continual work in progress?
Paul Reubens: That's a good way to put it. I wonder if some of it doesn't go back to being obsessed with The Loretta Young Show when I was little. I have no idea what the show was really like—this is my four-year-old memory of it—but I feel she came down a staircase, there were doors that opened, she would walk out and go, "Hello, I'm Loretta Young, and tonight I'm the farmer's daughter." Every episode was a self-contained, one-hour story that was reset every week, and the only thing in common was Loretta Young playing a different character.
I wonder if that influenced me in some way. I remember in Big Adventure thinking that if I make another movie, they're all going to be completely different and not informed by any of the other ones. They will all have the word "big" in the title, and that was it. No other rules; it could be anything. I always felt like it was retaliation to [how] you gotta make a sequel to everything. Big Adventure was what they called a sleeper hit at the time, meaning no one thought it would do anything, and it did something. Everybody I spoke to wanted to make a sequel, and I was never interested in that.
A lot of children's stuff was also reset, like Harold and the Purple Crayon, which I loved. Comic book characters were like that, too. Here are all the Peanuts characters, but what they're doing isn't related to anything [previous]. It's a definite choice, and it unnerves a lot of people: "But you rode a motorcycle before!" Some of that's a mistake. Somebody said to me the other day, "When he asks, 'Ever had two women fight over you?' You did have two women fight over you in your circus movie." Oh my God, I forgot. My answer to that is this is a prequel.
"The more far-fetched you make something, the more reality-based it is because life is totally like that."
The through line between all the Pee-wee movies is the universe you've built, which is somewhat realistic but also half-dreamt.
I am constantly in situations where I'm meeting or hanging out with somebody, and the whole time I'm going, You could not make this up. Yet you could. The more far-fetched you make something, the more reality-based it is because life is totally like that. Something happens to you, and you're like, This couldn't be real. And yet, it's real.
You didn't direct the film, but this is your creation. How does it work? Did John Lee, producer Judd Apatow, and the whole team look to you first in artistic choices?
Yeah, to a degree. Judd sat down at the very beginning and said, "I get it, it's you. You created it. I'm helping you." He said the same thing to John Lee. All the way through this movie, I tried as much as I could to speak up in a scene, or I would say, "John, you make this decision." If it was something I felt strongly about, I would still go like, "Can you live with this?" Or, "Can we talk about this?"
Film is collaborative. You're just forced to collaborate, and I love to… I say that, and I'm not really sure if that's true or not. I'd love to just do it all, but I've been the director, and it's too much. Part of what's stopped me is you can't get enough sleep while being the director and the star. For the first time, that doesn't matter now. I always felt like the bags would be way too big under my eyes. Now we can take them out [digitally]. I wouldn't get any less sleep as the director, and I don't have to worry that I'll look too dragged out. I don't know, you want someone else watching who has perspective that you don't have.
You may have utilized digital makeup to appear more boyish, but you're in your early 60s and still doing frenetic physical comedy. Can you feel age creeping into your work as the eternally youthful Pee-wee?
Absolutely, I did on the set. This happened to me more on my Broadway show than in the movie, but it is a way to reinforce your good qualities. I would constantly be like, Why am I doing this? The alarm clock would go off, and I'd wake up and laugh out loud: Four hours again? I'm too old, I can't pull this off. Then I'd jump in the car and go be Pee-wee all day, and make it work.
Pee-wee Herman has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in Big Adventure, stars as himself. I'm curious what it's like to be known more for an invented persona, like Elvira, than as the artist Paul Reubens.
It doesn't bother me because I strived for that for so long. Part of the reason for that was that I helped perpetuate that myth about it all. So I'm happier when people think that. I just assume that it doesn't have a bunch of baggage attached to it, [except] it has lots of baggage attached to it. I don't have much control over it.
John Lee jokes that Pee-wee's Big Holiday is the first thing he's made that his kids can actually see. Why did you want him in the director's seat?
He has a sweetness and an authenticity that you can see right off the bat. I was a huge fan of Wonder Showzen. He's got a devilish glint in his eye. You can tell he's bent a little bit, and he's funny. I am a purist in a lot of ways, but not there. It's a good idea to mix it up and have somebody that's dark and light. It's a lucky outcome that he was as good as he was. When people show you their best side in a meeting and they're trying to get the job, it's fifty-fify. I'm a terrible auditioner and a good actor, I think, and if you give me the job, then I'll step up to the plate. I loved John Lee and thought if he delivers forty percent of the vibe I'm getting, we'll be golden. He was, like, two hundred fifty billion percent of what we thought and that was luck because he could've just been terrible and gone, "It's my movie, fuck you."
"I went to art school, and I consider making movies art."
Was there a moment in the making when you realized that Big Holiday would actually live up to your high expectations?
First day. I mean preproduction, before we started shooting. John Lee is a person you can come up to like, "I'm melting down about this and that," and he'll be like, "Alright, don't worry. Let's figure this out because this has an answer, and here's how we'll do it." The most seasoned directors in the world aren't like that. They lose it every day with somebody, or multiple times.
John is super creative and arty, which is another thing that pushed me over the edge. He used the word "art" in our meeting, and that's not a word you hear often in show business. People don't throw that around, but it's a word I respond to. I went to art school, and I consider making movies art. I try not to hang too much on it, but I take it seriously, so I appreciate it when somebody else comes in the room and has that "simpatico-ness." That's not a word, but we'll make it one.
Has Pee-wee evolved for you personally, as far as your own artistic fulfillment?
I'm on the fence about how to answer that. What's my real gut feeling about it? Part of why I don't feel like there is that big of a change is because everything I just said to you about art, I felt that thirty years ago when I made the first one. I always thought if I have to share my process, it's super pretentious and corny. If you read it, you'd think, Oh, this guy is an asshole. But I stand by it all and take it really seriously. I love classic screen comedy and people like Buster Keaton. If in any way I took a grain of that and put it into what I do, I would die a lucky man.
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