Pee-wee’s Beehive Adventure | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

February 19, 2020 News » Cover Story

Pee-wee’s Beehive Adventure 

Comedian Paul Reubens talks fame, his character’s darker side and Utah’s Mighty 5 ahead of SLC appearance.

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  • Derek Carlisle
click to enlarge JIM MCDERMOTT
  • Jim McDermott

Paul Reubens' alter ego, Pee-wee Herman, is many things—a cross-generational comedic icon, the ultimate man-child, and most importantly: a loner, a rebel. Audiences the world over learned about that last part during the character's big-screen debut in 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Written by Reubens, Groundlings buddy Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol, and directed by pre-fame Tim Burton, the bizarro flick struck a universal chord and propelled instant quotables like, "I know you are what am I?"; "Why don't you take a picture, it'll last longer"; and my personal fave, "Be sure and tell 'em Large Marge sent ya!" into the pop culture ethos.

Thirty-five years later, the film that taught a generation to remember the Alamo has no basement and that half a boxful of Mr. T cereal is part of a balanced breakfast, has amassed a cult following that Madam Ruby herself couldn't have predicted. To celebrate, the poster boy for missing bikes everywhere is again taking the show on the road, this time for a 20-city screening of the film, followed by a "lecture" of sorts from Reubens himself. The tour makes a Salt Lake City stop at the University of Utah's Kingsbury Hall on Saturday, Feb. 22.

In a candid chat with City Weekly, Reubens talked about the dichotomy between his persona and himself; the immortal villain-ness of onscreen archnemesis, Francis; his relative public anonymity; and what The Hollywood Reporter recently referred to as a yet-to-be-developed "dark reboot," which would see a fame-torn Pee-wee turn to booze and pills.

click to enlarge (CC) BRIAN SOLIS
  • (CC) Brian Solis

Ice breaker: Have you visited Utah before?
I've been to Salt Lake City. I've been all over Southern Utah—some of the most beautiful land I have ever seen is in Southern Utah. I've been to ... now, correct me if I'm wrong, because I'm a little confused over which is Utah and which is Northern Arizona. But I've been to Zion, Bryce. Are those both in Utah?

Yes. Both of them.
I've been to somewhere else. I should've done a little prep here, so I could've been a little more knowledgeable. But, yes, I've been all over Southern Utah, and it's some of the most beautiful land I've ever seen. I'm super into that kind of thing, and I've been on a couple of road trips through there. And then I filmed a limited HBO series called Mosaic with Sharon Stone directed by Steven Soderbergh. We flew into Salt Lake City and filmed right outside of, where's the film festival there?

Oh, Park City?
Yeah. We were outside of Park City in the Silverado Lodge, or something like that. It was a big ski lodge that was closed down because we were there off-season, and it was a little bit like The Shining.

It's been 35 years since Big Adventure's release. Why do you think it still resonates with audiences today?
You know, I'm learning more and more about that as we go. We've done two shows, as you know. Two and a half shows I would say, although I don't want to slight the incredible audience we had in Ventura by calling them a half-show. But that was our pre-tour kickoff preview show. So, it was almost like a dress rehearsal. We did that show, and then we did our first real weekend this past weekend in Seattle and Portland. And so, I'm learning a lot from it. And I think the answer to your question, is that I think it's a couple of reasons. I think the comedy is very classical, and—I don't mean this in a weird way—but it's very pure. It's funny in a kind of a classic way. It's sort of everyman funny, or everyman comedy, in a way.

I think a lot of people can relate to things that are funny in it. And I also think that usually Pee-wee Herman is the butt of the joke. It's not ethnic humor, it's not humor that's based on making fun of somebody. It's usually making fun of me, my character. And so, I think that sort of helps it be a little more timeless. And I think that also the movie very much is about following your gut feelings, following your dreams, you know?

For me, the story of making the movie is different than the movie itself. I've always set the bar very high for myself, and I talk a little bit about that in the show, of just setting your bar very high and reaching for the stars. There's that cliché—if you reach for the stars, you may make it to ... I forget what the saying is, you make it to the moon? But you know what I mean.

So, I think that there's a lot of that kind of stuff, that's a behind-the-scenes story of how the movie was made, and my story. And then I think that the movie itself has a lot of that in it, also. It's about people having dreams and caring about things. "Universal" is the word I was looking for earlier. I think they're very universal themes in that movie that people can relate to 35 years ago, and can relate to today.

click to enlarge Tim Burton and Paul Reubens on location during the filming of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. - VIA PEEWEE.COM
  • Via
  • Tim Burton and Paul Reubens on location during the filming of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.

What is it about the actual filming of the movie that you might remember the most?
Oh, gosh, there's so many things. That's what really the evening is about; it's about me remembering some of the highlights of what I hope are people's favorite moments in the movie. There's quite a few scenes in the movie that seem to be scenes people really like and remember. And so, a lot of that stuff is covered in the seven-hour talk that I do.

I do make a little bit of fun of how long it is, because it's longer than I think people expect. I have a hard time shutting up. So, we have a countdown clock on the stage that only I can see. And at a certain point I have to start to figure, "OK, well whatever you didn't cover, it's going to be on part two of your next appearance in Salt Lake City."

Hey, for the 70th anniversary.
[Laughs] It goes a long time. I've done two-hour versions of it. I've done an hour 45. The shortest I've done so far is about an hour 20, or an hour 25. And that was when they were blinking a light on my monitor going, "10 more minutes," because we had a curfew at this one theater. They had to be out by a certain time because they shared a wall with a hotel. So, we really had to be out on a certain time. And so, short of making an electric charge on my chair, they had to let me know, "Stop! Stop!"

But yeah, I'm very talkative about this movie. It's a movie that's really dear to me. And I genuinely care about it and love talking about it. So far, I have loved sharing it with audiences. We've had audiences filled with people who really love the movie and admire the movie. And it's just been really, really fun. It's been a fun experience. I'm a little surprised by how much fun it's been, and I also feel like it's an experience that's an amazing experience for people, because even if ... I'm kind of guessing that most people have seen the movie already. But the movie was released 35 years ago, as you do know, and hasn't played theatrically since that time, unless you go see a midnight screening somewhere in an art house or something like that.

I don't know offhand what the Salt Lake City venue holds, how many people. But we just played an 1,800-seat theater. To be in a theater with 1,800 people all laughing at the same things, it's an incredible shared experience. And it's the kind of thing—particularly with a comedy—that really is an experience, that becomes something akin to what I think movies were.

click to enlarge untitled-1.png

The good old days.
We're in the process of seeing that change over to some degree. I think nowadays you have that experience if you go see a Marvel movie, if you see a big tentpole-movie, a big giant thing in a theater. And otherwise, you're watching it at home, with your family, or friends, or whatever. And it's not 1,800 people. It's not even 20 people.

The only thing I could really compare it to is something like The Rocky Horror Show, where people know the movie really well and they're yelling out the lines. And I can just feel the electricity when, for example, the ghost story of Large Marge, when she picks me up hitch hiking. When that truck pulls up and that sequence is about to start, the electricity in all three shows so far has just been palpable. You can just feel everybody getting excited, knowing what's happening and what's gonna unfold. I have to say, I'm backstage in the wings listening to people's reaction to it, and I get completely—this is going to sound super corny—but I get completely emotional and choked up. I just feel so amazed and touched by how much people like it and admire it.

During the Q&A session, given the current political climate, does Pee-wee get political?
No. So, I want to be very clear that people don't think Pee-wee Herman is showing up there. It's me as myself. I'm not wearing my Pee-wee suit, and it's not even a Q&A. It's really an A. I don't really take questions. I'm pretty much just talking [laughs]. Part of it is because I really feel like I have a lot of stuff to share, and stories that no one's ever heard before, information that people don't know about the movie. And I feel like a lot of times people ask me questions. I get asked the same questions. And it's not that I think that they're boring, or that I'm bored by it, but I think a lot of times people ask questions that the answer is already online.

So, I just feel like I have so much really, what I consider to be very interesting and great stuff, that it's ... I don't want to say a college lecture, because that sounds like it could be very academic, and it's not that at all. I try to be funny and have it be entertaining at the same time. But it's really not too far off of a lecture. Like I said, I'm not taking questions. I'm really just talking about the movie, and relying on you've seen the movie, and I come on right after the movie's screened.

Let's talk Francis. How do you think history remembers him?
I was just thinking about that last night, because I'm hoping Francis is going to come to one of the shows, the actor who played Francis. I was thinking about if I introduced him and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, Mark Holton, the actor who played Francis is here in the audience," I have a feeling people might boo him. It would be sort of a compliment, in that I think they would be booing his persona, his alter ego in the movie. And so I think people do view him as a villain.

I have a great picture from Seattle of two women who, one was dressed like Francis, and one was dressed like Pee-wee. And they're in profile. It looks like they're yelling at each other. The girl that has the jumpsuit that says FB—Francis Buxton's initials on it—has a wad of cash in her hand and she's shaking it at the other, at the Pee-wee person, and they look like they're saying, "I know you are, but what am I? I know you are, but what am I?" back and forth. And it's just a riot.

There's a video circulating from the Bloomberg campaign comparing our current president to famous 80s movie bullies, like Biff from Back to the Future and the Cobra Kai sensei from The Karate Kid. And I was surprised that Francis didn't make the cut. It seemed like a complete missed opportunity.
Well, yeah. There was something on the Oscars this year. I don't know if you saw the Oscar telecast, but they had something about music and songs that were so heavily identified with films. And I was kind of waiting for "Tequila" to come on. I thought, "Wow, that was missing from that also." But, you know, what can you do?

Do you get annoyed? I imagine people everywhere on the street, at the grocery shop, ask you to do that dance.
You'd be surprised how little I get recognized, honestly. And it's not usually the first thing people [ask]. People want me to do my laugh more than anything. Somebody did bring me a pair of incredible white patent leather platform shoes, though, to the show we just did in Portland. Giant, patent leather platform shoes that had clear plastic heels that had liquid in them with fake gold fish floating in them. It was just awesome.

Deep philosophical question time: Where does the character of Pee-wee end and Paul start?
Well, my snarky Pee-wee answer would be, "That's for me to know and you to find out." But that's what you're trying to do, I guess. I don't really know. I have a couple of friends who said to me, "I think that's very interesting that in this show you have unwittingly answered that question. You know, that people can see a lot of the similarities in you being yourself and talking about the movie, you can see a lot about how much Pee-wee is in you."

And I have to take that as the truth. I'm not trying to mask anything, or hide anything. But I think if you come see the show, you will probably know the answer to that.

click to enlarge Reubens speaking to an audience during the 2019 Phoenix Fan Fusion. - GAGE SKIDMORE
  • Gage Skidmore
  • Reubens speaking to an audience during the 2019 Phoenix Fan Fusion.

There's information circulating about The Pee-wee Herman Story, this darker tale. Is it one of those kill your darlings-type of things that you want to do with the character?
I'm not sure I know what you mean.

That it shows a different side of Pee-wee, not necessarily the quirky, eternal optimist. I've heard it's a little bit darker. It involves addiction ...
I've been told by many people that I work with not to call it dark. And I think that I used to disagree with that. I think that they were being dramatic. But I think the reason more has to do with that people immediately start to think of it in a different way—and it's really not. If you think back to even Big Adventure, the first Pee-wee movie, Pee-wee has always had this kind of snarkiness. I don't know, snarky's my word of the day lately. I don't know exactly what's a better word than that, but Pee-wee's always had this edge to him. He's not always sweet, he's sometimes the opposite of sweet. And I think that what's being called "the dark movie" just capitalizes on that, and it takes that maybe a little bit further.

It's certainly a little edgier than everything else, all the other Pee-wee movies so far. But I don't think it's out of the blue. I don't think people would go, "That's not Pee-wee." I think really that movie is about fame, and how much fame doesn't agree with some people. Some people, fame really changes [them], and some people remain very similar to who they were.

Where do you think you fall in that spectrum?
I think I fit into the latter category. I don't think I have changed a lot from being famous. But I think, like, in this particular movie, Pee-wee absolutely changes. Pee-wee becomes a monster from fame, and has to be kind of calmed down three-quarters of the way through the movie.

Any final words for your Utah audience?
I'd like to just add that I hope people will come out and see the show. I love Salt Lake City. I love Utah. I've felt very at home there the three or four times I've visited there. And I'm really looking forward to the shows. As you know, it's one of the only venues on the whole tour that hasn't sold out. Pee-wee might try to make the citizens of Salt Lake City feel a little guilty about that and be like, "What's going on? Do you want to look bad on the tour, on our list of cities or what?"

So, I'm hoping that people buy some tickets after they read your article and come, because I genuinely think it's a great show. So far we've had a lot of amazing feedback, positive feedback online. People have called it even "inspirational," people say that their face hurts from laughing so much. The screening of the movie is a really wonderful shared experience, and I think that the show that I'm doing afterwards is equally as fun. So, I hope people will come.

Something tells me they will.
All right, I hope you're right. I'm going to take you up on that. If not, I'm going to seek you out, Enrique.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure
35th Anniversary Tour
Saturday, Feb. 22, 7:30 p.m.

Kingsbury Hall, 1395 Presidents' Circle

GA $39.50; VIP $119.50 and up

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About The Author

Enrique Limón

Enrique Limón

Editor at Salt Lake City Weekly. Lover of sour candies.

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