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Actor Paul Reubens, who created Pee-wee Herman, dies at 70


The actor Paul Reubens, best known for his work as Pee-wee Herman, died of cancer Sunday. He was 70. Reubens' work included the 1985 film "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" and the children's show "Pee-wee's Playhouse," which produced new episodes from 1986 to 1990. Here to talk about Paul Reubens' legacy, we asked Pop Culture Happy Hour co-host Stephen Thompson to join us. Stephen, I hear you're a big fan of "Pee-wee Herman's Adventure" - "Big Adventure." For those who don't know the character, though, tell us a bit about him.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Well, Pee-wee Herman is a character Paul Reubens created. He's a manchild with a gray suit, a red bow tie, a bicycle he loves and a very childlike way of moving through the world. He's like an amped-up kid with a big laugh. And he's fervent and intense about everything.


PAUL REUBENS: (As Pee-wee) Exhibit Q, a scale model of the entire mall (laughter). X marks the scene of the crime. These arrows here show the exact position of the sun on the hour of the crime. Jupiter was aligned with Pluto.

THOMPSON: Paul Rubens created Pee-wee in 1977 when he was in a comedy troupe called The Groundlings. Pee-wee had a stage show in LA. And then in 1985, they made that movie, "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," which we just heard a clip from. That was directed by Tim Burton. And when it came out, I was a 13-year-old nerd who just absolutely ate it up.

MARTÍNEZ: So you and I are a year apart, which is why I get why you liked Pee-wee. But who was supposed to be his target audience?

THOMPSON: Well, I mean, I think part of the Pee-wee magic is that he could impart lessons for little kids, but the prevailing mood has really always been loud and subversive and weird. I'm 51, and "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" and the "Pee-wee's Playhouse" Christmas special still get played in my house. And my kids love it. I just rewatched the 1988 Christmas special last night and just the sheer queerness of it really jumps out. You've got Grace Jones and k.d. lang and Little Richard. And if you were a weird kid or a queer kid, or a weird queer kid...

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: ...You were seeing so much weirdness and queerness on a G-rated kids' show. And you felt seen.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, definitely. Paul Reubens' career, though, was derailed in 1991, arrested for indecent exposure at an adult theater. Did that somehow maybe affect or change your appreciation for his work?

THOMPSON: Well, I think it made him a pop cultural punchline at first, and it definitely hurt his career. But I think it also, in the long run, humanized him in a way. You could make the argument that it enhanced his outsider appeal and made people feel like they had to fight for him a little bit. But I'm sure it also pained him because he had taken such care to make Pee-wee a role model for kids. He was a heavy smoker. And he had a strict policy that he could never be photographed smoking because he didn't want kids to see that. So I'm sure that arrest weighed heavily on him.

MARTÍNEZ: Overall, Stephen, I mean, how would you sum up the legacy of Paul Reubens and the legacy of Pee-wee Herman?

THOMPSON: Well, in many ways, he felt to me like an embodiment of childhood, the way it can be magical and wonderful and playful and great. But it's also - childhood is confusing and transgressive and weird. He did a beautiful job capturing the way kids can be sweet and innocent, but also obnoxious and full of themselves. He had this whole cocktail of childlike qualities, and he poured it with such love and care, you know? As I've kind of acknowledged, I was a weird kid. My kids were weird kids when they were little.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: And we're all just so grateful for him.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, all the weird kids everywhere are grateful for him.


MARTÍNEZ: Stephen Thompson is a co-host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Stephen, thanks.

THOMPSON: Thank you, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)