Performers who make a name for themselves in the guise of an alter ego usually have a short shelf life. They tend to become camp curiosities within minutes of achieving cultural saturation. But Paul Reubens avoided the fate of Carrot Top, Andrew “Dice” Clay, Larry the Cable Guy, and their ilk, who, if they remain familiar, do so in the manner of a mortifying ex. Reubens survived on his own terms because his Pee-wee Herman was a much savvier invention, utterly specific visually (snug glen-plaid suit, red bow tie, white loafers) but otherwise built on a series of childlike ambiguities (hostile or silly? gay or straight? wise or innocent?) that he steadfastly refused to resolve or even acknowledge. In his first decade of fame—from The Pee-wee Herman Show, which played Hollywood’s Roxy Theatre in 1981, to the 1985 hit movie Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (directed by the neophyte Tim Burton) to Pee-wee’s Playhouse, the Saturday morning kids’ show that ran on CBS from 1986 to 1991—Reubens rarely appeared as himself in public. And then, in the wake of his 1991 arrest for indecent exposure (he was supposedly masturbating in a porn theater), he stopped appearing in public altogether, except rather brilliantly to ask the audience at that year’s MTV Video Music Awards if they’d “heard any good jokes lately.”
The taint of the overblown scandal—exacerbated in 2001 when he was falsely charged with possessing child pornography—may have stuck like glue to Reubens, but it bounced right off Pee-wee. So while the actor went on to take small, dark roles (he played a suicide in Todd Solondz’s recent Life During Wartime), his alter ego lived on, Peter Pan–like, and has reemerged unscathed. A new Pee-wee movie, to be directed by Judd Apatow, is in development, and in what feels like a kind of homecoming (though he’s never appeared in a Broadway house) Reubens is bringing The Pee-wee Herman Show to the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, in a production that starts previews on October 26 and runs through January 2. It is perhaps a sign of the breadth of his rehabilitation that on the day he spoke to New York, Reubens had just returned from (of all places) a series of promotional appearances among the hog-heads at the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota.