Paul Reuben's rise as Pee-wee was meteoric. The character grew from a skit for the Los Angeles-based comedy group the Groundlings, then turned into a recurring live show. After a cameo in Cheech & Chong's Next Movie, Reubens starred in an HBO special, based on the Groundlings event, and then Pee-wee's Big Adventure, a film that married the talents of Reubens and another newcomer, Tim Burton. The Pee-wee Herman persona reached its zenith in 1986 with the debut of Pee-wee's Playhouse, a faux children's program aired Saturday mornings on CBS. But Reubens reached a personal nadir in July 1991, in the South Trail Cinema, an adult movie theater in Sarasota, Florida, when around 10 pm a patrolling cop—as the police report chronicles it—"did observe the Def's penis exposed. The Def did begin to masterbate [sic] his exposed penis with his left hand. At approx 2035 hrs, the Def did again expose his penis and masterbate [sic] again." Three other men were also arrested. The film showing was Nurse Nancy.
At which point Pee-wee Herman became a national joke, the subject of Jay Leno monologues. Reubens had another brush with the law in 2002 when he was scooped up in the Jeffrey Jones child pornography scandal thanks to an extensive collection of gay erotica, supposedly mostly men's physique magazines bought in bulk. Since then, Reubens has repaired his career and may do yet another Pee-wee Herman movie.
Caseen Gaines is one of thousands of Pee-wee's Playhouse fanatics, but he has turned the obsession into a helpful guide to the series, Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse: The Untold, Unauthorized, and Unpredictable Story of a Pop Phenomenon (EGW Press). A fan since childhood, Mr. Gaines watched the show "religiously, often screaming the secret word at the top of my lungs whenever it flashed on the screen and jumping up and down in my footed pajamas." Though the second half of the book is an episode guide—that outdated phenomenon of '80s publishing—the first half gives a detailed history of the program and interesting information about Reubens's life and the influences on the show and the Pee-wee Herman character:
• The most shocking parts of the book concern Reubens's treatment of past associates. First up was Dawna Kaufmann, who produced the first Pee-wee Herman Show. She was introduced to Reubens by fellow-Groundling Cassandra Petersen, who later went on to become Elvira. Viewed as a mastermind behind the show, she was unceremoniously cast aside when Reubens and his character took off. Kaufmann never sued Reubens as others did, and he went on to claim that the show was always his idea, conceived on a plane flight to New York.
• Next was Phil Hartman, a key early writer and performer. Says one observer, "There was a lot of jealousy between Paul and Phil… They were close friends, but Paul never really went out of his way to help Phil in his career." Reubens viewed Hartman's ascension to Saturday Night Live as "disloyalty." Said one observer, "Paul actually was angry about this, rather than happy for Phil's success … He was really nasty to Phil and felt the reason he got the job was because Paul [had originally] brought him there as a writer. They didn’t speak for years."
• Shirley Stoler as Mrs. Steve was "a concession that Reubens was forced to make" and she was a "deeply polarizing presence on the set." One colleague called her "the laziest actress I've ever worked with," adding that, "if she was ever placed near furniture or a window ledge, she would try to sit down. She was always whining and had a really low, negative energy."
Being a celebration of Pee-wee Herman and his club, Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse is lavish in its attention to the special effects, toys, and sets that serve as background and co-stars, and is skimpy on the sex scandal. Still, the book does capture a bubble in the pop culture zeitgeist—even if we all now know that there is a devil in Mr. Herman.