Pee-Wee Herman Needs Your Help

It is time for all good people to come to the defense of their Pee-wee.
I can't tell you whether or not he did it. After all, I wasn't sitting behind the long-haired, goateed man in that Sarasota adult movie theater on July 26, my eyes riveted on his hands and crotch as skin flicks such as Nancy Nurse, Turn Up the Heat, and Tiger Shark flashed across the screen in front of him. What's more, I don't care if he attended this triple bill because he thought it would be artistically and cinematically enlightening, or for the purpose of spanking his monkey somewhere other than in the home of his mother, whom he was visiting. And neither should you.

Anyone who tells you that he or she has never masturbated is lying to you; and for all I know, Paul Reubens, also known as Pee-wee Herman, is lying to you as well when he says that none of his fingers got within stroking distance of his love weasel on that fateful night. But I do know that Reubens is one of the greatest entertainers of his time, and he deserves a lot better than seeing his career, his reputation, and much of his life tossed onto pop culture's dust heap for allegedly doing nothing more than orgasming (twice - what endurance!) in a place where lonely men have traditionally done exactly the same thing.

He's been abused. He's been mistreated. He needs your help.
Reubens is far from an overnight success. The diminutive comic served a long apprenticeship with a comedy troupe known as the Groundlings (working alongside future quasi-stars such as Cassandra Peterson, best known as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark) before finally hitting on the character that would make him a mint, and serve as his prison. Pee-wee Herman soon developed into a strange, quirky, lipsticked boy-man in a too-small gray suit and bow tie. The voice Reubens affected for the part - a nasal whine that swooped up and down registers in a manner that suggested a Memorex commercial gone horribly, horribly wrong - drew derisive comparisons to Fifties kiddie-king Pinky Lee, Soupy Sales, and Jerry Lewis during his goony heyday; but that didn't stop Pee-wee from catching on. His appearances on cable specials and Late Night with David Letterman established a cult following committed enough to spawn a burgeoning trade in Pee-wee T-shirts and led a film-studio executive likely under the influence of controlled substances to okay the production of 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure.

Like Lewis, whose best films were manned by Frank Tashlin, a cartoonist on the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes team, Reubens collaborated with an animator: director Tim Burton, a Disney veteran. Burton went on to make box-office behemoths such as Beetlejuice and Batman, but Big Adventure, in which Pee-wee searches the country for his missing bicycle, remains his best picture. The film is an art director's dream, filled with marvelously offbeat contraptions, bright colors, quick editing, and a musical score by Oingo Boingo's Danny Elfman that's better than anything he ever did with his band. It also gave Reubens enough credibility to land a second movie, Big Top Pee-wee (it, pardon the expression, stiffed) and, more important, a Saturday morning program on CBS, Pee-wee's Playhouse. And a legend (sort of) was born.

No one who's paid even the slightest attention to the content of Pee-wee's Playhouse over its four-year run could have been surprised by Reubens's excursion in Sarasota. From the beginning, it's been the oddest show on network television; and even though its ostensible audience was children, it was filled with enough off-color material to keep adults tittering. The title sequence, with its musical tribute to exotic-music maker Martin Denny, showed Pee-wee twirling around a very phallic pole; and the first episode's initial sequence featured a tube-shape creature with only one eye wiggling across a shelf as Pee-wee shouted, "I love my toys!" (Later shows featured Roger, a one-eyed monster who turned out to be very friendly to everyone in Puppetland.) And during the second episode, Captain Carl, a character portrayed by Saturday Night Live's Phil Hartman, told Pee-wee that "there's a real twisted side to you," to which Pee-wee replied, "Thank you."

Other clues to future behavior? How about the time Pee-wee and Cowboy Curtis (Larry Fishburne, currently costarring in Boyz N the Hood) were roasting hot dogs, and paused to ask about each other's wiener? Or the scene that showed Miss Yvonne (Lynne Stewart) panting excitedly while riding a horse, then climbing down and saying, "Thanks, big fella." Or Miss Yvonne's admission that the fire alarm over her bed kept going off (a line that was overdubbed when the episode was repeated)? Or the sequence in which Pee-wee was unloading groceries: "Milk, milk, lemonade. 'Round the corner, fudge is made"? Or the Pee-wee Christmas special, in which he peeked up Miss Yvonne's skirt and said, "I see London, I see France..."?

The Christmas offering provided a good example of why the Playhouse was such a musically cool place to be: Guest stars included k.d. lang and the Del Rubio Triplets. Moreover, the first season's episodes were directed by Stephen R. Johnson, who created Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" video, and musical contributions to the series included contributions by Elfman, Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, and members of the Residents, a San Francisco-based group that has been on the outskirts of the music scene for decades. By giving mainstream exposure to these artists, and great parts to oddball performers such as Shirley Stoler (who added the first season's Mrs. Steve to a list of roles that include the psychotic murderess in the cult classic The Honeymoon Killers), he pushed the edge of the TV envelope. The show's combination of outrageous, influential design, animation, claymation, non sequiturs, and skits came closer to originality than anything that had been on the tube in ages.

And now it's gone. CBS had canceled Pee-wee's Playhouse before the Tiger Shark incident because of its expense and a slight decline in the ratings; but after Reubens's mug shot appeared in newspapers across the country, the network decided not to air five scheduled repeats. A video starring Pee-wee that had been showing at the Disney-MGM theme park at Disney World also was spiked. As happened following the airing of a videotape showing Rob Lowe involved in a three-way love affair, Pee-wee jokes have already begun making the rounds (sample: "Did you hear that Pee-wee decided not to hire a lawyer to defend him? He decided to get himself off"), and Reubens's guilt or innocence is being debated beside water coolers in offices across the nation.

The consensus among most observers is that Pee-wee will never be able to come back from this blow, but this will only prove true if Pee-wee fans prove to be as hypocritical as network executives. Just because public masturbation may not be the kind of thing most parents want to encourage in their children doesn't mean that this single incident should serve as an excuse to banish one of the only decent children's performers on the scene. Talk about indecent exposure: Would you rather have your kids watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? The Care Bears? Slimer! & the Real Ghostbusters?

So don't become one of those cretins who's kicking Reubens now that he's down. If you're a man, prove your solidarity with Pee-wee by growing a goatee, and if you're a woman, tease your hair until it's as big as Miss Yvonne's. Don't let this talented man burn in public-relations hell for a momentary weakness.

Pee-wee now! Pee-wee forever!

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Michael Roberts
Contact: Michael Roberts