Pee-wee's Small Adventure

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DENNIS VAN TINE / ABACA

Paul Reubens in front of CBS studios after a taping of The Late Show with David Letterman

He was a wiry little man-child with a voice that sounded like his novocaine hadn't worn off yet. But children adored Pee-wee Herman (aka Paul Reubens), critics praised him and adults delighted in discovering double-entendres and inside jokes on his Saturday morning kids’ TV show Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which ran from 1986 to 1991 on CBS. Pee-wee is back — this time for grown-ups — in all 45 original episodes, airing on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim Monday thru Thursday nights at 11 p.m. TIME's Jeanne McDowell talked to Reubens about the return of the Playhouse, his small-screen alter-ego and his teeny weenie grey suit.

Why air Pee-wee’s Playhouse on Adult Swim?

When I first heard about it I just had a gut feeling that it would work. Adult Swim is artistic and irreverent, and those are also two characteristics of the Playhouse.

What was the appeal of Pee-wee’s Playhouse to children?

At the time there weren’t many live-action people on television. It was a time of Transformers and merchandise-driven shows that I didn’t think were creative. I believe kids liked the Playhouse because it was very fast-paced and colorful. And more than anything, it never talked down to them. I always felt like kids were real smart and should be dealt with that way.

What was your vision for the show?

To do something that wouldn’t seem like education but purely like entertainment. I wanted it to have a strong moral backbone and be something kids could really get immersed in. The opening of the show was designed to be very hypnotic and pull children in. We were out to educate kids, teach them about the golden rule and to celebrate the differences in each other. I was trying to be all-inclusive.

But the show was also revered for its wacky, campy sensibility.

TV Guide named it one of its top 10 cult classics of all time, and college professors lectured about its hidden meaning and metaphors. Was there a hidden subtext within the show?

I honestly don’t know how to answer that. I wasn’t thinking of other stuff in a conscious way. I had been a big fan of Rocky and Bullwinkle and other shows in that vein that I had watched and appreciated as a kid. When I got older I saw all of these things I had never seen before or understood in [those shows]. I think one might see a subtext to Pee-wee’s Playhouse, but I don’t remember thinking about it much. There wasn’t anything in it designed to be hidden or that I didn’t want people to get.

Then why did adults get into Pee-wee’s Playhouse?

It pushes buttons for many people. It’s a show that made one think about the past in a certain way. Anyone who watched could see I was a fan of Howdy Doody and the Mickey Mouse Club. It was designed to be a show that kids could watch with their parents. Parents didn’t have to feel, “Oy, I have to watch this horrible show.” It was gratifying over the years to hear parents say that they watched with their kids and loved it.

Pee-wee’s Playhouse had a surprisingly diverse cast of characters. How did that come about?

One of the central themes of The Playhouse was that everyone is invited. Everyone is the same or everyone is different, and it’s okay to be different and to be whomever you are. I was very conscious of mixing up the cast ethnically because I felt that wasn’t happening much on TV.

What were some of your favorite characters in the Playhouse?

I just felt panicked when you asked me that. I can’t name a favorite character because all of the rest will feel left out. I forgot for a minute that they weren’t real people.

If you could do it again, what would you change about the show?

My biggest mistake, and the one real regret I have — and I may try to fix digitally — is that Pee-wee doesn’t buckle his helmet. I can’t tell you how many parents and kids have commented on that through the years.

Where did the character Pee-wee come from?

I first started doing Pee-wee when I was part of the Groundlings [a Los Angeles improvisational group]. His development was one of those organic things. The director and founder of the Groundlings knew I was looking for a suit for Pee-wee to wear, and he had one. It was too small, which made it perfect. The voice came to me one day, and someone gave me a bow tie that was tiny. Then Pee-wee started to emerge fully formed and ready to be born. I spent many years trying to make the public think that Pee-wee Herman was a real person. I always did my interviews as Pee-wee.

Pee-wee was sort of a man-child.

There was always a dichotomy in him. People said he was innocent but had a dark devilish side. He could be gracious and also very selfish. When I started out, I was always asked how old Pee-wee was, but I never wanted to attach an age to him. If it worked as a man trying to act like a kid, or a kid trying to act like a man, that was okay.

Will you ever be Pee-wee again?

Yes I’m going to make two more Pee-wee movies. I never said I wasn’t going to bring him back. One movie that will start production early next year is a film version of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. In the TV series Pee-wee almost never left the Playhouse. The movie script is just the opposite. This is a road picture, an epic adventure story where all of the characters leave the Playhouse when one of them disappears.

You’re 53 now. How do you feel now when you see Pee-wee in that tight grey suit and red bow tie?

Sometimes I can’t believe that it was me. It’s strange to have something air again after so many years. He was a big part of me but I was also always able to jump outside of it.

So does the suit still fit?

I haven’t pulled it out of the closet, but I have a feeling it will be tighter than it used to.