“I know you are, but what am I?”
That retort to an insult was once upon a time generally relegated to an elementary school playground. Thanks to Pee-wee Herman, that sassy phrase became an ageless and timeless comeback.
The feature film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was released in 1985, a few years after actor and comedian Paul Reubens brought the sharp-suited, childlike, and devilishly clever character to life as a stage act.
In the movie, Pee-wee interacts with an array of zany characters while he traverses a variety of locales in search of his stolen bicycle. From a fake psychic named Madam Ruby to the scary ghost of truck driver Large Marge, to a hobo named Jack, it’s a crew that matches Herman’s high level of quirk.
This year, the movie turns 35, and Reubens is celebrating that milestone on the road, with a Phoenix stop on March 7.
Audiences will enjoy a screening of the movie, which is exciting, for sure. The real frosting on this cake, though, is that Reubens will follow up the film by telling stories about the making of the movie.
We caught up with the busy, but festive, performer for a quick chat about the tour and what else is on the horizon for both Herman and Reubens.
Phoenix New Times: The 35th anniversary of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is a big deal on its own, but did anything else inspire you to do this tour?
Paul Reubens: I’d appeared at several comic con-type conventions, and at each one, I would speak at a Q&A for 45 minutes to an hour. It was interesting and fun. I found out I had a lot to say, and I discovered it was hard to shut me up. Over the years, a few times, I’d screened Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, followed by a Q&A. I was approached a year and a half ago to do a series of screenings and talks over a weekend in Texas, and when it didn’t happen, I decided to try out a tour to see how it went. I wasn’t sure I’d sell a single ticket, and it sold out so quickly it was amazing. It’s been enormously fun, and we’re already talking about doing a second, larger version soon.
I can't believe you didn't think you'd sell a ticket! This tour has people rabidly excited. Pee-wee has become a timeless character in our cultural landscape. Did you ever think that would happen?
I never know how to respond to talk about Pee-wee’s impact on pop culture or the timelessness of it. I don’t ever think about it like that. For me to take it to that level, it kind of zaps the joy and fun out of it. I don’t dissect it too much and don’t like to take myself or my work that seriously! But I’m certainly happy when other people compliment Pee-wee and me in these types of ways!
Is there a chance that a Pee-wee show will be a regular part of the TV world again?
I would love that. I have a fantastic Pee-wee variety show that I think has a great concept and script. It’s very similar to The Muppet Show. I wish someone would put it on TV!
Everyone is talking about the possibility of your “dark” Pee-wee movie. You had written a draft of that years back, right? If this idea comes to life, would it be the script you previously drafted, or has it since taken a new or different direction?
It’s the same script I’ve talked about in the past. It’s a great story about fame and how it doesn’t agree with Pee-wee Herman. He becomes a monster. I’ve called it "dark," but it’s very funny.
If Pee-wee goes dark, does that mean the character would become increasingly treacherous?
All the Pee-wee movies are standalone stories and worlds, so I don’t think about trajectory much.
Another thing you have in the works is a memoir.
Yes. I’m way into it, but it’s not finished yet. I hope to be done after one more chunk of time after the tour. Then, it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to playing myself in the movie based on the book.
Will you also tour with that? If so, would it be interactive?
Going on a book tour seems likely. If that happens, I would like to act out scenes from the book.
Are there any other Paul Reubens projects are in the works?
I’m putting the finishing touches on The Pee-wee Herman Radio Hour and my Western TV series, Fancypants. I’m also putting together the first Pee-wee Herman convention. We’re still poring over the applications from cities all over the world who are looking to host the first one. After that, I hope we’ll be seeing the opening of The Pee-wee Herman Museum in Hollywood.
Is there anything you're watching or listening to lately that’s blowing your mind or inspiring you?
I love The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I’ve been so busy, though, that I haven’t had a chance yet to see the new season. I don’t have much time to watch movies or television. I’m loving a lot of different music and getting to hear a lot while working on selecting stuff for my radio show. I wish I had more time to know what was going on.
The Pee-wee’s Big Adventure 35th Anniversary Tour is scheduled on Saturday, March 7, at Arizona Federal Theatre. Tickets are $39.50 to $79.50 via Live Nation.
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