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Paul Reubens Didn't Let Pee-wee Herman Have the Last Word

When we remember Reubens, let’s remember how funny and joyful he was even outside of Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
  • Clockwise: Paul Reubens and Cheri Oteri in Ally McBeal; Reubens in Pushing Daisies, Reubens and Candice Berge in Murphy Brown (Photos: Everett Collection)
    Clockwise: Paul Reubens and Cheri Oteri in Ally McBeal; Reubens in Pushing Daisies, Reubens and Candice Berge in Murphy Brown (Photos: Everett Collection)

    Actor obituaries regularly center around the role the deceased is best known for: Euphoria's Fez for Angus Cloud, for example, or A Room with a View's George Emerson for Julian Sands. Paul Reubens, whose death from cancer was confirmed on July 31, 2023, would always be associated with his most popular role, even if it weren’t one of the wackiest characters in the children’s television pantheon, Pee-wee Herman. If it hadn’t been for his 1991 arrest in Florida for “indecent exposure” (or his later one in 2002), many fans probably would not have known his real name in the first place.

    However, Reubens was a gifted comedian outside of that over-the-top bow-tied screamer. While it’s the role he’ll be remembered for most, he didn’t need to be Pee-wee to be funny, joyful, or weird.

    Reubens developed his Pee-wee character before he broke out of the Los Angeles Groundlings comedy troupe he worked with in the 1970s. Notably, his early appearance in the hit Saturday Night Live film The Blues Brothers only became a recognizable cameo after the fact, as one of the few times in the early 1980s when he didn’t appear as Pee-wee. While it’s a tiny role and steamrolled by those around him, it’s got an oddball energy that made it indelibly Reubens.

    But it was in the 1990s, when his first arrest seemed to end his time as Pee-wee, that Reubens showed his comedy skills outside of the playhouse. In March of 1995, his career revived with a guest star stint on Murphy Brown, then at the height of popularity. He played Andrew J. Lansing III, the nephew of the network president, appearing with the Pee-wee haircut that made him instantly recognizable to TV audiences. The character never seemed to hold the same job twice over his six guest appearances between 1995 to 1999, first working for Brown as one of her never-ending stream of secretaries, then promoted above Brown into a parody of nepotistic incompetent producers and VPs, before being randomly busted down to the mailroom.

    His appearance in "The Good Nephew" marked Reuben’s comeback and reminded audiences (and critics) that there was more to the comedian than red bow ties and anthropomorphic furniture. It was also a reminder that Reubens’ comedic style wasn’t dependent on “secret words,” silly costumes, or riding around on bicycles. He could be perfectly strange in even normal circumstances. The Primetime Emmys cemented that a few months later, handing Reubens a nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series.

    Without the “children’s programming” label, one thing that jumps out about the Pee-wee character and his energy is their queerness. It was never said out loud, but Pee-wee’s oversized personality and sweet innocence always gave off vibes that LGBTQ+ kids who watched the show growing up picked up on. In the 1980s, at the height of homophobic fearmongering, it was safe to love Pee-wee because they recognized someone loud and weird and different. Nowadays Reubens’ deeply snarky and devious Andrew in Murphy Brown clearly feels LGBTQ+ coded, but not stereotypically so. It’s why he and Brown got along so well.

    It’s also why, in some ways, Reubens was able to weather not one but two arrests on charges that would have ended most other careers in children’s television. When that avenue was initially shut off in 1991, with CBS pulling Pee-wee’s Playhouse reruns and Disney and Toys “R” Us pulling any reference to his character, Reubens took that same energy to the mainstream right at the time when the world was starting to open up to it.

    From there, he began to appear in several famous and long-running sitcoms, bringing his eccentricity to other more mainstream entertainment aimed at an older crowd. In Everybody Loves Raymond Season 4, he played Russell, the Comic Book Guy, looking less like Pee-wee and more like a Gen X extra from Clerks, and sounding like he fell out of The Simpsons. This was one of the few times Reubens appeared dressed in a manner that did not play upon his Pee-wee persona; in fact, his look — Avengers tee shirt, long hair — seemed almost deliberately to obscure it. It was also one of the few times his comedy stemmed from something that wasn’t queer-coded; instead, it aimed more at the over-the-top fan stereotype that was prevalent before the superhero revolution.

    Reubens also turned up in Ally McBeal towards the end of the show’s run as a man trying to sue Sting for causing his divorce, with SNL alum Cheri Oteri as the wife in question, intent on leaving him for a rock star who didn’t know who she was. Though he was far closer to his recognizable style — close-cropped hair, tight suit — this was more of a double-act comedy appearance, with Reubens as the impotent male bouncing off of Oteri’s frustrated rage, the two spiraling up into ever greater heights of uncomfortable goofy humor while everyone else looked on helplessly.

    His more normal levels of weirdness returned in a two-episode arc in the canceled-too-soon Pushing Daisies as the scent-obsessed Oscar Vibenius, desperately breathing in Anna Friel’s pheromones while demanding to know why she smells so “undead.” In 30 Rock, he was Prince Gerhardt Habsburg, a character loosely based on real-life Habsburg monarch Carlos II, right down to the fake ivory hand and hideous face, allowing him to lean into a level of slapstick comedy he rarely tapped into outside of his Playhouse appearances. In each case, he played characters channeling the same off-beat energy that made him famous as Pee-wee, and just as funny.

    Ultimately, the Pee-wee persona may have prevented Reubens from stretching his comedy farther than he might have otherwise. His recognizable looks worked against him; it was one thing to cast him in “hey, it’s Pee-wee” cameos or, in later years, appearances in Gotham and What We Do in The Shadows that referenced his movie roles in Batman Returns and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But he never seemed to get full-time gigs, except in one arena: voice acting.

    Voice work had been Reubens’ original saving grace after the 1991 arrest, allowing him to appear in Tim Burton’s 1993 The Nightmare Before Christmas, which has become a holiday classic, with little controversy. On TV, it became his go-to: He nabbed a lead role in Tron: Uprising, less a humorous part than a futuristic one. However, his long-running roles in multiple Batman series as Bat-Mite (a small would-be antagonist in an ill-fitting costume, less supervillain than super-nuisance), Star Wars: Rebels (as a beeping-booping droid), and the voice of Mike the Spike (who goes around randomly possessing dolls) in the live-action DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, took better advantage of his comic timing. Some of these roles even led to the sorts of gigs that pay residuals forever, as those voices are now featured in everything from toys to theme park rides.

    In the end, Pee-wee did return, as time, distance, and nostalgia made it possible for Reubens to see if his fans would still accept him, and they did, first in the 2010 stage show that was well-reviewed on Broadway, and then later in the Netflix original Pee-wee's Big Holiday. But even with that successful comeback, Reubens had long proven he hadn’t needed that character to make it in Hollywood; his comedy was never dependent on an audience whose ages were in the single digits. When we remember Reubens, let’s not just remember the playhouse; let’s remember how funny he was outside of it too.

    Ani Bundel is an entertainment writer covering everything from celebrities to movies to peak TV when she's not tweeting or Instagramming photos of her very fuzzy cats. Her other regular bylines can be found at PBS/WETA's Telly Visions, where she co-hosts a weekly podcast by anglophiles for anglophiles, CNN Opinions, and MSNBC Daily. 

    TOPICS: Paul Reubens, 30 Rock, Ally McBeal, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Everybody Loves Raymond, Gotham, Murphy Brown, Pee-Wee's Playhouse, Pushing Daisies, Tron: Uprising, What We Do in the Shadows