"Free My Pee-wee!"
That clarion call from outraged fans rose up in the form of buttons, T-shirts, and bumper stickers just a few days after July 26, 1991, when Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman, was arrested for masturbating in a Florida adult theater while watching the film Nancy Nurse. It would reach a crescendo in 1992, when Pee-wee made his last international TV appearance to a thunderous standing ovation at the MTV Music Awards. "Heard any good jokes lately?" he asked after peering from behind the curtains, giggling at the overheated controversy surrounding his buddy Paul Reubens.
But Herman was the star of an (ostensibly) children's Saturday-morning show, and Americans go to absurd lengths to shield kids from sexuality. Pee-wee's Playhouse action figures were yanked from the shelf, Pee-wee's star was pulled off the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a gesture of monumental hypocrisy, considering the crumbs, bums, and addicts whose names populate that concrete stretch. Herman, whose ultra-expensive ($325,000 an episode), mega-feted (22 Emmys), but Nielsens-dwindling Playhouse had already come close to the network chopping block, grew up and became the bearded, long-haired, sad-eyed adult of those mug shots released by the Sarasota Police Department.
In historical accounts, it's best to get The Incident out of the way fast, since Pee-wee Herman and his fall will be forever linked. But Pee-wee's death was hardly premature, because Reubens had been performing the character nationally since it was created in 1978 for the Los Angeles-based comedy ensemble The Groundlings. And 14 years of prepubescence is long enough for anyone, even those who sentimentalize complex childhood. All an indecent-exposure rap did was ensure (probably) that a septuagenarian Pee-wee Herman would not return 30 years later, spiky crewcut intact and dishwatery gray makeup caking in the creases of his aged face, for what would be, this time, a generational round of pop-culture masturbation. Pee-wee needed to die to preserve his own immortality, and if it was a violent and painful end, then so much more dramatic and indelible will be the watershed. The history of children's television can be recorded by media pundits as B.P.W. (Before Pee-wee) and A.P.W. (After Pee-wee).
The creative life of the man born Paul Reubenfeld, however, is far from over. It's appropriate that the 1999 Dallas Video Festival has chosen to honor Reubens with its Ernie Kovacs Award at this point in the honoree's career. After a protracted two-year development process that is still in a "delicate" phase, Reubens may be on the eve of debuting a show with Carsey-Werner Productions. Early print speculation has indicated that he may create and perform a variety of characters. Sounding much like the FBI, his manager will neither confirm nor deny this. If the show gets the go-ahead, this is the logical blossoming of an American comedic sensibility that suckled at the glass teat of control freak Kovacs, who, in several TV venues between 1951 and 1961, created a self-sustaining videoland with its own indigenous population. Like Pee-wee's Playhouse, which ran from 1986 to 1991, Kovacsland (it's the name of a book and a Web site dedicated to Ernie) was insular and a little disorienting for the unprepared. You had to accept the rules at the door or spend your time playing catch-up with the other kids.
Like Paul Reubens' previous live-performance career with The Groundlings and his possible upcoming show with Carsey-Werner, Kovacs' TV work is a case history in creative schizophrenia, in the way one man's imagination can be the compassionate center for an orbit of misfits and monomaniacs. George Bernard Shaw once said all progress was made by unreasonable people, but the playwright never met Pee-wee Herman or Kovacs' Percy Dovetonsils, who were both unreasonable and stunted. Their comic fire spreads from their arrested development and their chronic inability to see the world from anyone else's perspective. Effete, poetry-loving Dovetonsils permanently wore spectacles with prefab eyes bulging out of them; effete, prank-loving Herman sometimes literally donned the same eyewear, but was always, in spirit, painting the room with Playhouse colors everywhere he looked. Each time either actor stepped in front of a camera, both would be forced, by necessity, to create their own universes. That's why, chances are, you either adore or loathe the comedy of Reubens and Kovacs. They are, in a curious and satisfying way, very selfish playmates: both insist that you must always come over to their house to play.
Kovacsland had apes playing classical music, anti-gravity olives, and plucked turkeys that performed interpretative dances to international rhythms. Pee-wee's Playhouse had the Puppet Band with Cool Cat, Dirty Dog, and Chickie Baby playing jazz; frozen food that loved winter sports; and Pterri the Pterodactyl, who could jitterbug with the best of the Playhouse cast during those frequent musical interludes. And really, don't both Edie Adams, Kovacs' lovely wife and frequent comic foil, and Miss Yvonne, "the most beautiful woman in Puppetland" and Pee-wee's frequent comic foil, belong to the same glamorous sorority?
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But if Kovacsland and the Playhouse shared similar menageries, they diverged with a sense of destination. Ernie Kovacs carried all his people and things with him and set up camp at points all over the map, forcing the world to interact with his traveling company. With the notable exception of his experiment in national travel in Pee-wee's Big Adventure and Big Top Pee-wee, Herman was a recluse who rarely left a tight circle of friends. When he exited the Playhouse every Saturday morning on his flying red scooter, he was seeing the world from a safe, pigeon's-eye view.
What a Paul Reubens variety show would hopefully do is place Reubens back on the track of his improv-generated characters like Moses Feldman and Chief Jay Longtoe--adults who are forced to do the adult business of negotiating with their peers. This fission of character must occur and be matched by a fusion of miscellaneous kitsch if Reubens is to fulfill his creative promise and approach the accomplishments of idol Kovacs. Pee-wee, a Kovacs-like curator of America's forgotten whimsies, kept these sundry bits of kitsch--the oddball piece of music or old, inconsequential bit of film footage--in his toy chest and would pull them out occasionally so he and his friends could admire them. But Pee-wee creator Paul Reubens never really did much with them. Kovacs the TV technical pioneer stitched such elements into vistas that were interpreted through the binoculars of his various characters: Eugene, the mute protagonist of Kovacs' legendary "The Silent Show," was assaulted by the sights and sounds of a world designed and overseen by Kovacs with all the mercilessness and wry humor of Zeus. There was impressive breadth but little depth to Pee-wee's Playhouse; Kovacsland would go as far up, down, left, or right as you wanted to take it. The Playhouse had killer atmosphere; Kovacsland thrived on, if not exactly narrative, then the beating heart of narrative: conflict.
To realize that an artist has room to grow is to identify an opportunity. Paul Reubens deserves the Kovacs Award as much for the direction in which he may be heading as for the ground he's already covered. As Pee-wee Herman, he's amply proven he can share with an audience all the wonderful toys he's recovered from America's disposable pop-cultural past. Under the Screen Actors Guild name Paul Reubens, he should start thinking about inventing some really cool games that'll use those toys in ways that nobody ever thought of.
Paul Reubens receives the Ernie Kovacs Award Thursday, March 25, at 7 p.m. in the Electronic Theater.