Pee-Wee Herman’s entertainment journey from the Groundlings to Netflix

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Today marks the 70th birthday of one of the most creative performers ever seen on TV: Paul Reubens, whose character Pee-wee Herman gave decades of children the courage to feed their weird imaginations. In the late 70s, Reubens developed the childlike character of the Groundlings. In 1981 he got his own HBO special based on his stage show. Fueled by his growing popularity in late show segments, Reubens caused a stir in Variety via a 1984 concert review of Pee-Wee Herman performing in the iconic Carnegie Hall.

“Herman’s rapport with the attentive public, which included an idolatrous element, was impressive. The crowd, which paid up to $19.50 per person, was generally between the ages of 20 and 33 and looked like rock concert fans in the long hair and preppy categories. They loved Herman’s frequent visits to the audience (the performer’s wireless body mic worked great). Despite an incredibly quirky and seemingly narrow personality, Herman’s career has taken off and Reubens faces a bright future in all media.

All the media indeed, because, barely a year later, the Pee-wee fever would explode with the hit film “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”, the first feature film by the young Tim Burton. A mixed review of Variety always predicted the success of the film, which grossed $41 million on a budget of $7 million and touched on what Reubens does best.

“The goofy and seductive opening sequence sets a standard the rest of the pic can’t maintain, but the coolness of comedian Paul Reubens’ unique characterization has already disarmed audiences at five regional venues and promises to deliver impressive numbers. when Warner Bros. August 9.

“Pee-wee’s Playhouse”

©CBS/courtesy Everett Collection

Perhaps Reubens’ greatest triumph with the character was developing five seasons of the gonzo Saturday morning children’s show “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” from 1986 to 1990. With its unique blend of animation, set handmade, puppet and audience interactivity, there was an ‘anything goes’ sensibility that caught the industry’s attention early on. In 1987, Variety reported on a Director’s Guild seminar titled “Kid Vid: The Inside Story,” featuring programming executives from CBS, NBC, PBS, Disney, KCOP and Paramount Pictures.

“The loudest panelist was Judy Price, vice president of children’s programs and daytime specials for CBS, commenting on her struggles to bring shows to the network that ‘break form’ and don’t rely solely on music. animation or technological gadgets to attract an audience.

“’We look at animation,’ she says, ‘as the frame of the picture in terms of execution quality. That is, what is inside the frame and not the frame itself. First you get your internal idea, then you enhance or subtract it with the framing device. Pee-wee Herman is the focus of his show, which has many elements. This show dared to break form. The most successful shows are those that define or redefine form. You break the form and you have a chance to grow. Formula stuff can work, but it’ll never be great. ‘Smurfs’, ‘Muppet Babies’ and ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse’ aren’t formulas and they turned out great. You don’t always become awesome by breaking form, but the real sin is not trying.

Although Reubens mostly pursued other roles and projects after “Playhouse” ended, he revived Pee-wee for a 2016 Netflix movie, “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.” It was produced by Judd Apatow, who spoke of his adoration for the comedian while teasing the film during the Television Critics Association press tour that year.

“I love Pee-wee Herman and have always wanted more Pee-wee Herman movies and TV shows, so I’m very excited to see the movie, which is really funny and silly and sticks in the mind. of all his other work,” he said. “It was a pleasure for [co-writer] Paul [Rust] and me to collaborate with him. He knows exactly what he wants to do and what the voice of that work is, so we tried to help him in every way we could, but it’s really a world he made up. We’re just trying to help make another one. It was fantastic. It was a dream come true.”

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