I can’t remember a time before Pee-wee Herman. This is true chronologically, as Paul Reubens began appearing exclusively as his most iconic character years before I was born, but Pee-wee has also been a constant in my family story. My first trip to meet him was a cover for my parents’ separation and the harsh means through which it was achieved. As a result, I experienced what should’ve been the defining traumatic event of my early life as something else entirely: a big adventure.
In the mid-1980s, my mom and dad forged their identities in the punk music scene at the edges of the University of Florida. Pee-wee’s Playhouse had an in-your-face energy and subversive visual reinterpretation of old-school children’s television that made it required watching among their friends.
“You have to understand,” my dad explains every time we pass the apartment where my godmother, mom’s first bandmate, used to live. “Very few people had cable back then. CBS didn’t have a local affiliate, but Sharon had a 12-inch TV with a wire hanger antenna that caught the Jacksonville signal. When I met your mom, we all went over there on Saturday mornings to get stoned, eat grits and watch Playhouse.”
In the rush to prepare for parenthood a few years later, my folks thought it convenient that they were already watching a children’s show. My dad made a ritual of recording Pee-wee’s Playhouse every weekend for the first three years of my life. He’d sit within arm’s reach of the VCR so that he could modulate the record button, saving me from the influence of commercial breaks. On the cardboard sleeves, he scrawled his own summaries of the episodes in theatrical cursive: “Pee-wee Has a Cold and Gets Real Cranky!” or “Whomever Will Pee-wee Bring to the Luau (to Eat the Pupu Platter!)?”
We played those VHS mixtapes and a copy of the feature-length Pee-wee’s Big Adventure from the bargain bin at Pick ’n Save nonstop at home. Every time the phone rang, the three of us zigzagged around the house yelling, “I’ll get it! I’ll get it!” like outfielders under a fly ball. On Playhouse, this was how Pee-wee answered his Picture Phone. The yelling was ironic, as he was the only nonstationary being at home.
My mom’s favorite character from the show, she said, was “a tie between Cowboy Curtis and Chairry.” The concept was new to me, that you could love two choices just as much.
Chairry was a plush, teal-colored recliner with long eyelashes, and was the centerpiece of the Playhouse. Trusty and comforting, she was always there to soften Pee-wee’s landing when he flew out of an adventure inside Magic Screen.
“Oh, where would I be without you, Chairry?!”
“On the floor, Pee-wee.”
Thirty years later, the call-and-response routines that Playhouse set up are still automatic for me. You know what to do when someone says today’s secret word? Scream! Real! Loud! Miss Yvonne? The most beautiful woman in Puppetland! Going door-to-door with an incredible offer? Aaah! Salesman!
My dad created similar cues during a long drive west in 1991, just after preschool. The two of us were going to see Pee-wee, he said. It would be worth the wait. Every few hours, he’d lean back from the driver’s seat to announce a landmark, and I’d counter with a rhyme. The pairings we liked most became mnemonics we returned to during lulls in conversation or if we drifted apart in the aisles of a Texaco Food Mart.
“Who’s your friend?”
Other times, dad would start a sentence, and I knew from the cadence of its delivery that I was to finish it. Driving by cattle fields in Texas, he began what became our most enduring prompt:
“There was a cow … ”
“Who had a fart.” To me, it was the obvious and most hilarious answer.
Pee-wee understood that flow of mind. His speech and physicality had a zooming quality that, to young viewers, just made sense. He was playful but sincere, self-centered yet always learning. Living on his own in a house built for continuous play, Pee-wee was adulthood idealized by a child.
Here and there in the years that followed, my dad threw in an explanation for the trip to California as a side note to another story. Someday, he’d promise, I’d be ready to hear the things my mom was up to back then that justified his taking me across the country without so much as a phone call. There was an affair, he sometimes said. She was leaving me around sleazy people, other times. When I got older, he would let on that my mom had been using. To him, the trip was a rescue mission — but mom has always referred to it as a kidnapping.
One day in second grade, while rummaging through her purse on the ride home from after-school, I found a tub of lip balm.
“What do you do with this?” The ceramic container still held a chill from her office.
“Circle your finger across the top so the balm gets on it. You only need a little,” my mom said. I pressed the golden butter to my temples and felt them cool with menthol.
“That was all I had, when your dad took you away.” She stared over the steering wheel. “The groove in my Carmex left by your little toddler fingers.”
When I search my memory of the trip, I can’t locate the same sadness or longing. Instead I find the certainty I felt telling the mariachi band at a restaurant in Tucson that we were going to see Pee-wee. And the thrill of recognizing the Cabazon Dinosaurs through the windshield of dad’s Mercury when we finally got to California, the five-story Brontosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex lit green and red against a starry desert sky. I feel the rush of reenacting the chase scene from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in the parking lot nearby and my confusion trying to understand why we couldn’t go inside the head of the T. rex, like Pee-wee did.
When we arrived in Los Angeles, dad tried to get in touch with an old scene contact who’d been hired as a puppet designer on Playhouse. One of the friends we were crashing with eventually got a message for us on his answering machine. Bits and pieces of an apology broke through, looping the phrases “as you know,” “media circus” and “scandal.” The tone left the possibility of a visit dangling in the air, but as the weeks passed, talk of the Playhouse receded, replaced with trips to Bugs Bunny World, La Brea Tar Pits and magic shops.
After a while, dad said our L.A. friends were having too many parties. We’d have to see the Playhouse another time, but we were still going to a house I loved: my grandparents’ in Colorado. I learned later that this is when the lawyers were engaged and the court case litigated back home.
For the next several months, I wound ribbons of phone cord around my fingers each week when grandma dialed a Florida area code and pressed her face against mine to hear that we got an answer. My mom was quick to pick up and always began our talks by asking how I was. I was fine. I was good. I was almost 5 now. She knew, she said. Sometimes she cried, but mostly she listened to my stories of playing in the snow and seeing deer in the yard. One night I told her I’d heard on the news that Pee-wee was in hiding. Did she know where he was? Grandma said it wasn’t something children should talk about. Dad said it was a conspiracy, but I didn’t know what that meant.
“It’s not Pee-wee who’s gone away,” mom said after a pause. “There’s someone who plays Pee-wee, a man, and he got in trouble.”
“What did he do?”
“He took his clothes off when he went to the movies, and people got upset.”
“Was it too hot?” At my mom’s rock shows, people took their clothes off when they danced. She’d told me it was because they got too hot.
“It probably was,” she laughed. “But remember, it wasn’t Pee-wee. Sometimes people are different from the characters they play.”
When we returned to Florida, my life was divided into Mom’s Weeks and Dad’s Weeks, and the years when we all lived together became harder to remember. Over a decade of split custody, my parents found ways to get along. When I was in high school, they started going to each other’s shows and house parties. Since I’ve left home, they occasionally help one another out during hard times. Neither likes to talk directly about the era of the trip.
My dad maintains he was heartbroken and had my best interests in mind. My mom is unable to enjoy a movie with a kidnapping storyline. But Pee-wee Herman has never been a point of controversy for us. His franchise remains canon in each home. My Pee-wee’s Big Adventure VHS has been handled so many times that the cardboard cover is stripped thin with tears crisscrossing each side. Two Christmases ago, my dad wrapped it up and gave it back to me.
As an adult, I’ve gone years without watching any Pee-wee content, and then, at a summer screening of Big Adventure in Central Park, am reminded I know every line of dialogue by heart. I find Pee-wee in my coping mechanisms, when I slip into a character voice to diffuse difficult emotions, letting zany energy overtake the self-destructive. I still drift into call-and-response cues when I feel I have nothing good to say to my family. And I make a point of surrounding myself with bright colors so I can find them when everything else feels dark. My parents have wound in and out of reliability. But Pee-wee, his stories, and his sensibilities have always been there. Like a piece of talking furniture, his work my constant companion.
Last fall, I saw a post on Pee-wee Herman’s Instagram announcing he’d be at New York Comic Con, and knew it was time to make my dream come true.
Beyond the security lines, herds of people flowed in every direction, enthusiasm echoing from the atrium walls. I was there with one purpose, but it still took me 20 minutes to find my way to the meet and greet hall.
“Paul R — ”
My heart lurched hearing these syllables together as I walked up, though I knew it was too early.
“ — udd.”
There were easily 10 times as many people gathered for Ant Man as there were for Pee-wee. An announcer called a new fan group every five minutes. I leaned against a carpeted wall outside the hall, not really reading my book, for 12 more rounds of Paul Rudd.
“Paul R-OO-bens, group one.” A point was made to distinguish the surname. “Paul R-OO-bens, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Mystery Men, aaaand Gotham. Paul Reubens, group one, getch’yer photo ops and autographs, folks. Stand by.”
A line emptied next to me, and through the expanse of conference floor I saw him: a figure leaning over an empty autographs desk, shaking hands. His shape was broad now, filling out a modern navy-blue suit, topped with a Kangol hat. He was a person. There are places he could go unrecognized. But there was something in the way this figure shifted its weight across the hall that I recognized as distinctly Hermanian.
We were ushered through a labyrinth of room dividers. My photograph, I realized, was going to last all of a few seconds. I was shaking, but this was a moment for which I was well-trained: Adopting a Pee-wee posture for a camera — body arched like a question mark with head tilted and palms to one’s cheeks to frame the excitement — is second nature. In a blur, my name had been called, my mark stepped to, and our poses nailed. I was collecting my glossy print in the next room, eyes still adjusting from the flash, before I fully took in that by “our,” I’d meant Pee-wee’s and mine.
I joined a shorter line for the meet and greet and ran through the coming interaction again and again in my mind, paring down the script to its most essential parts.
At 67, Paul Reubens still has a rubbery, buoyant face for television, but his energy is deliberate and slow, as if he were evening out his lifetime average after decades spent bouncing off the walls. The man ahead of me pulled a red wagon of memorabilia. I watched Paul inspect an unopened Pee-wee doll box from all sides and ask detailed questions, as if they were interacting fan-to-fan.
A woman took my name down on a Post-it note. She told me to place it on the item I’d like autographed. OK, now.
I swallowed one last ocean breath and stepped in front of the face I’d watched on screen more than any other. He was focused, all eye contact and nods. Our names were exchanged, and I slid my Pee-wee’s Big Adventure VHS across the table.
“I’ve had this for as long as I can remember.” I pushed more air through my vocal cords. “It’s been watched so many times that the cover falls off every few years, and my dad has had to tape it back up.”
Paul turned the cassette over and ran his hands along the frayed cardboard. He traced the strips of Scotch tape across his younger face, smiled, and said, “This is hilarious.”
“Now,” he looked up from carefully printing my name and then his. “Is your father still with us?”
“Yes, he’s in Florida.”
“Well, you tell him thank you for taping this video up all these years.”
“I will.” The moment lingered. I needed to close with the most efficient distillation of all I felt. “Our lives have been more joyful because of your work. Thank you so much.”
Paul took another beat, giving me the focus of his hazel eyes. “Thank you.” It was the most genuine of call-and-response answers.