Nerd Culture

10 Things We Learned From Paul Reubens' Q&A at Phoenix Fan Fusion

Benjamin Leatherman
Fan Fusion, meet Playhouse.

The ratio of Pee-Wee Herman interviews to Paul Reubens interviews leans heavily in the direction of the former. Since the early days of Late Night with David Letterman, Reubens would rarely take questions publicly without first donning the grey suit, red bowtie, and, on a few memorable occasions, the big shoes.

So when attendees filed into the third-floor ballroom on Saturday afternoon, there was definitely that "what-are-we-in-for" feeling wafting through the air. Not because convention Q&A's can sometimes veer off track and tumble down the ravine on a moment's notice, but because a very proud few really know the man behind the shiny bike and wacky playhouse. The vast majority of us were about to meet an old friend for the first time, in a way.

After a 20-minute wait, it began to feel like Reubens' Q&A might be a bigger letdown than discovering the Alamo has no basement. But by minute 21, the opening riff to The Champs' "Tequila" kicked on and the man hit the stage. He did not disappoint.

So what did we learn?

1. He almost didn't agree to guest-star on What We Do in the Shadows because he had plans to spend the day in his sweatpants.

When Reubens was asked to appear in a recent episode of the new FX vampire mock-useries, his immediate answer was no. Why? Filming was to take place on Oscar Sunday, and he wasn't about to give up his plans to sit on his couch and live his best life.

But the lure of the offer was no match for Reubens' Oscar party-of-one plans. Upon learning that Tilda Swinton, Evan Rachel Wood, and Danny Trejo would also guest on that episode, Reubens' curiosity was piqued. He gave the original 2014 film a look, absolutely loved it, and decided that his own personal Oscar Sunday would be canceled for that year.

2. The lunch date he had planned earlier this year with his friend Luke Perry did not happen, sadly.

The premise of the aforementioned What We Do in the Shadows episode was to be centered around a vampire celebrity reunion, which would see Reubens semi-reprising his role from the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer film.

His old friend and former Buffy co-star Luke Perry was so excited by Reubens' gig on the FX series that the two made plans to grab chicken tacos and discuss how the filming went. Sadly, the meeting between the two friends never came to pass.

"He had the stroke two days later, and that was that," Reubens said. "He was really a spectacular person."

3. "Paging Mr. Connery ..."

When asked if there was anything about the 1985 box office hit Pee-Wee's Big Adventure that he would have changed, Reubens gave a hard no. But that wasn't always the case.

"There was a time, very briefly after we made the movie, that every time I saw the end of the movie I would be like 'Ugh, where is Sean Connery?'"

Fans of the film will remember that Big Adventure culminates in a finale that gives Pee-Wee's odyssey the Hollywood treatment after a deal with Warner Bros. The "adaptation" of the film shown at the end is a big budget action flick that recasts Pee-Wee and Dottie as ninja-battling secret agents on a mission to find the hero's stolen bike. The part was written for the original James Bond, but oddly enough, Connery was not available, and the role went to James Brolin.

4. The Goonies and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure were practically neighbors.

So how did James Brolin get that gig? Well, as they say, it's all about who you know.

It's hard to believe that two of the biggest adventure comedies of the '80s were so closely linked, but Big Adventure shot on a soundstage next to the set for The Goonies. The set for Goonies was impressive, even by today's cinema standards, so Reubens would often drop in and admire all the hard work done by the cast and crew. On one of these visits, he struck up a conversation with a baby-faced Josh Brolin and asked if Brolin's dad would be down to fill the shoes that Connery couldn't. Sure, he wasn't 007, but just like The Goonies themselves, James Brolin was "Good Enough."

5. If it were up to him, he'd still have the keys to the Playhouse.

Would you like to see Pee-Wee's Playhouse back on the air? So would Reubens.

"I've been talking to some people in Hollywood about doing holiday specials, like the Christmas special," Reubens said.   His ideas include a Halloween special, a Valentine's special, and even a few non-holiday themes, such as an exotic Hawaiian vacation themed special and one that would see Pee-Wee and his Playhouse crew taking a trip into outer space.

So what's stopping this dream from coming true? The same thing that usually stops these things: money. Reubens has been having trouble finding willing financiers, so let's hope this article gets seen by the right people.

6. He's still surprised Pee-Wee's Playhouse even got the chance to exist.

"Very few people get to be commercial and arty at the same time," Reubens said.

Fans may remember his early '80s stage show/HBO special The Pee-Wee Herman Show. The special wasn't exactly kid-friendly, but Reubens always thought that with a few tweaks and turns of the dial, it could be reshaped into a Saturday morning program that both adults and children could enjoy.  

So when CBS approached him with the initial offer, the plan was to have Pee-Wee on screen in cartoon form. Reubens pitched the live-action idea that he had been carrying around in his back pocket, and the network was all for it. In fact, Reubens was often surprised by how much the network seemed to support his ideas.

"It was exciting, and appalling, about how little they cared about what would be seen on Saturday mornings," he added. "They were like, 'Whatever. Do whatever you want.'"

7. The only note he got from the network was not to stick pencils in potatoes.

CBS was so hands-off when it came to Playhouse that the only note they gave him seemed to be just for the sake of giving notes.

"The first note I ever got was on the first script, the first episode," he says. "It was a note that said 'you can't stick pencils in potatoes.'" Reubens obviously found this to be odd, so he asked what was the reasoning behind the memo. The network  folks immediately shrugged their shoulders and let Pee-Wee have his pencils and potatoes. There was no real reason for the note; it was just someone's job to give notes, and they grasped at whatever they could.

"I'm not sure, but I think if you go back and look at that first episode, the first thing that happens on that very first episode is that I'm sticking pencils in potatoes."

What a rebel.

8. His advice to young people is to follow your bliss and never give it a second thought.

"I never questioned what it was I was interested in," Reubens told the audience. "When I was going to art school, my interests were so varied and there were so many things that I was interested in that I'd be like, 'What does this have to do with anything?'"

Eventually, Reubens learned how to keep from censoring himself and just let the things he liked be the things he liked. "At some point down the road, it's going to be revealed to you," he told the crowd.

As the opportunities came his way, Reubens found that all these newfound interests proved useful, and he incorporated them into his work.

9. He feels very, very lucky to have the career he's had.

Decades in the business hasn't soured Reubens view of acting one bit. He still loves the feeling he gets when he walks onto a set and sees all the moving parts working together, and it's unlikely that he'll ever lose that sense of optimistic wonder. There's a level of childlike enthusiasm (not surprising, considering who we're talking about here) that seems to keep him moving forward from role to role.

"It's still extremely exciting to me," he says. "Every time I work on anything, I'm always like, 'Wow, this is so cool! I'm so lucky to get to do this!' I'm not kidding you, I really believe that."

10. He wants comedy to be nice again.

"For a long time, comedy has been mean-spirited. It's been more about making fun of other people and other people's problems."

Pee-Wee Herman was never rooted in that brand of humor, obviously. Reubens uses terms like "sappy" and "corny" to describe his alter ego, and points out that Pee-Wee was usually the butt of the joke. In fact, the only times in which Pee-Wee did try to go in on somebody usually just involved some 1950's schoolyard comebacks, mainly the classic "I know you are, but what am I?"

But "sappy" and "corny" are terms he uses with endearment. He feels that in the age we're in now, we could use more comedy that's closer to the human condition and helps build up rather than tear down.

"I feel like more than ever, now is a good time to have some heart, and be serious, and be warm and fuzzy," says the legendary comedy actor.

"I just think it's nice to be sweet and corny. And that's all I know how to do, really."