Frustrated by his failure to make the cut, Reubens began planning a stage show of his own starring Herman who'd attained cult status with fans along with fellow improv stars like Phil Hartman (as Captain Carl) and Lynne Marie Stewart (who played the flirtatious Miss Yvonne).
Reubens: I remember being on a pay phone at LAX, calling my parents and saying, ''I need to borrow some money. I'm going to produce a show.'' They loaned me $3,000, which turned into $5,000, and about a week and a half later, I had 20 to 30 people working for free, and we wrote The Pee-wee Herman Show. The Groundlings agreed to let me have [a slot at] midnight.
John Paragon (writer; Jambi the Genie and voice of Pterri the Pterodactyl): He said, ''I really want you to be in my show. Come up with a character.'' So I said, ''I want to be a genie with a disembodied head.'' I may have just seen They Saved Hitler's Brain or The Brain That Wouldn't Die. ''Mekka-lekka-hi, mekka-hiney-ho'' came from an improv in the Groundlings where I was a waiter at one of those Hawaiian barbecue bars. I think the ''hiney'' part came as a result of listening to Frank Zappa, who mentions ''heinie'' in his records. It was such a funny word.
Stewart: I grew up loving Sandra Dee and Marilyn Monroe, so when Miss Yvonne flirted, it was always my interpretation of [them].
Reubens: To me, there was a conceptual aspect to Pee-wee. If you thought Pee-wee was a kid, fine. If you thought Pee-wee was a man who was trying to be a kid, great. If you thought Pee-wee was developmentally challenged, fine, whatever.
II: OPEN FOR FUNNY BUSINESS
The Groundlings gig led to a successful stint at L.A.'s Roxy Theater and an HBO airing of The Pee-wee Herman Show in 1981. For the next four years, Reubens' bratty, id-driven character earned a nationwide following, thanks to multiple appearances on Late Night With David Letterman and, in a fitting twist, a gig hosting on SNL. In 1985, Reubens collaborated with Tim Burton for Pee-wee's Big Adventure, which followed Pee-wee's cross-country quest to find his stolen bike. The low-budget film was hugely profitable, earning $41 million. And Pee-wee's bar-top dance to the 1958 party song ''Tequila'' platform shoes and all became a pop culture phenomenon.
Reubens: At the [Big Adventure] premiere, the vice president of children's programming for CBS, Judy Price, approached my manager and said, ''We would love to do an animated show.'' I didn't even skip a beat. I said, ''Ask them if we can do live-action.''
Laurence Fishburne (Cowboy Curtis): I was in the D.C. area making Gardens of Stone, and I got this call that Paul wanted to see me. I had almost no hair on my head because I had been doing this military picture. I [auditioned as] a Yul Brynner-esque kind of cowboy very dark and serious. [Reubens and Paragon] both looked at me like, ''Could you lighten it up?''
S. Epatha Merkerson (Reba the Mail Lady): If you look at the first episode, you'll see I can't look at Paul. The first time I saw the character was my first day of working. I could not stop laughing. I was like, ''What the hell is this?''