The red bow tie is back. The white chunky loafers are, too. So is that too-tight gray suit.
The Secret Word today is: Comeback. Pee-wee has returned from exile.
Paul Reubens, who virtually abandoned the cult character he created nearly two decades ago following scandal, is making his Broadway debut with a reworking of the same theatrical show that started Pee-wee’s career in the late 1980s.
“I think it’s full circle. I view it even a little fuller, I guess. I feel that it’s full circle in that I can come back around to a really good place where I was. As opposed to having my career end on this really sour note,” says Reubens during an interview before a recent rehearsal. “I absolutely feel like I want to redeem myself to a degree and this seemed like a really pure way to do it.”
Reubens, now 58, has been soaking up the attention this time around. He has donned his Pee-wee suit and popped up all over New York to drum up attention for “The Pee-wee Herman Show,” which officially opens Nov. 11. Everywhere he goes, people say: “Welcome back!” and “Glad you’re back.”
“I really just never got any of this the first time around,” he says, getting a little teary. “I feel really lucky and really blessed right now. I just feel like it’s my time right now. The stars are aligning for me.”
Reubens, who is as quiet and thoughtful in real life as Pee-wee is zany and high-pitched, is still slim and boyish. He’s dressed for California on this chilly New York day — jacket-less in jeans, a plaid shirt and a clunky digital watch. He’s pressed for time — so much of it has been lost.
“I wasn’t feeling it for a long time. And then all of a sudden it became a long time. All of a sudden I was like, ‘Wow. How do you come back now out of this?’ And you know what the answer was? You just do it,” he says. “I didn’t feel like I needed anyone’s permission to come back. And what do I have to lose? Nothing really.”
Much of Pee-wee’s exile has been self-imposed since Reubens’ July 1991 arrest for indecent exposure in an adult-movie house in Sarasota, Fla. He was handed a small fine but the damage to the character was incalculable.
“When I was arrested in 1991, offers poured in,” he says. “All kinds. I mean, some of those offers weren’t things that I wanted to do and were taking advantage of the luridness of my situation, but I haven’t really had trouble working or existing or having a career. It just changed. Everything changed.”
For a performer who had spent a long time and a lot of energy tying to make people think Pee-wee was real, Reubens watched as the public unmasking (he also pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obscenity charge in 2004) put a cloud over his best-known alter ego.
“It was one thing to say, ‘Paul Reubens, he’s this or that.’ Or yuck or ick or whatever you wanted to say. But to move that into this work that I loved and that I thought was special, and that I thought was important — that was extreme to me. That was something that the second it happened, I went, ‘Wow, that is so sad.’ And I can’t do anything about it.”
Reubens continued to act, playing characters other than Pee-wee and scoring successes in “Batman Returns” in 1992 and a 1995 Emmy nomination for a recurring guest role on “Murphy Brown.” He has also been on “30 Rock” and had prominent roles in the films “Nailed” and “Life During Wartime.”
In the years since the arrest, some could argue that Reubens got a raw deal, at least in comparison to other public figures who have almost instantly jumped back from controversy. Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, brought downin a prostitution scandal in 2008, is on CNN. Don Imus, accused of racism in 2007, was back on the radio within a few months. Reubens’ crime hurt no one but himself.
“I’ve become wise and mature. Not Pee-wee, but me. I’m absolutely a different person,” he says. “All those cliches about what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? Somehow, I wound up being this evolved, wise person.”
Even in exile, he and Pee-wee had unfinished business. Reubens, who says he has several TV and movie scripts in his head starring his quirky nerd, wanted to bring him back. “I didn’t see any reason to put Pee-wee away,” he says.
So he went back to the beginning: a live show based on the “The Pee-wee Herman Show” that debuted in Los Angeles in 1981 and was a success with both kids during matinees and adults at a midnight show. It inspired Tim Burton’s feature “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” in 1985 and another film, “Big Top Pee-wee,” three years later. His television series, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” ran for five seasons, earned 22 Emmys and attracted not only children but adults to Saturday-morning TV.
Both silly and subversive and championing nonconformity, the Pee-wee universe is a trippy place, populated by things such as a talking armchair and a friendly pterodactyl. The host, who is fond of secret words and loves fruit salad so much he once married it, is prone to lines like, “I know you are, but what am I?” and “Why don’t you take a picture; it’ll last longer?” The act was a hit because it worked on multiple levels, even though Reubens insists that wasn’t the plan.
“It’s for kids,” says Reubens. “People have tried to get me for years to go, ‘It wasn’t really for kids, right?’ Even the original show was for kids. I always censored myself to have it be kid-friendly.
“The whole thing has been just a gut feeling from the beginning. That’s all it ever is and I think always ever be. Much as people want me to dissect it and explain it, I can’t. One, I don’t know, and two, I don’t want to know, and three, I feel like I’ll hex myself if I know.”
The new 11-actor show brings back many of the favorite characters in a plot centered on Pee-wee’s desire to fly. Reubens is the star, producer and co-writer, with renowned puppetry artist Basil Twist and director Alex Timbers also aboard.
“He’s terrific,” says Timbers of Reubens. “He’s very collaborative, he’s really funny, he’s a terrific actor. You’d think in a way that after doing a character for 30 years that he wouldn’t have a light hand, but he’s very collaborative and open to new ideas.”
Reubens checks his watch. He knows it’s time to get back on stage and do a million things to tune up his show before opening night. This second bite of the apple seems that much more sweeter.
“The future seems very bright and full of positivity, and I’m excited,” he says.