Pee-Wee Turns 20

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.

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?''


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