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Remembering Pee-wee Herman creator Paul Reubens

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we misidentified the year Laurence Fishburne's interviewed aired as 1993. It aired in 1992.]


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. Paul Reubens, the character actor and comic who created and embodied the charmingly childish character of Pee-wee Herman, died of cancer Sunday at age 70. On today's show, we remember Reubens and Pee-wee by listening back to interviews with him and some of the cast members of his hit children's TV series "Pee-wee's Playhouse."


ALISON MORK: (As Magic Screen) Hey, Pee-wee. Do you know what time it is?

PAUL REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) It's fun time. It's fun time.

BIANCULLI: Paul Reubens was an early member of the Groundlings, the LA improv comedy troupe whose members also included Phil Hartman, Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig. He introduced his Pee-wee Herman character in 1977 and mounted a full-length on-stage showcase, "The Pee-wee Herman Show," that was captured as an HBO special in 1981. Reubens starred as Pinocchio in a wonderful episode of Shelley Duvall's "Faerie Tale Theatre," then got his big break in 1985 by teaming with young director Tim Burton on a movie called "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," which presented Pee-wee in all his childlike glory, whether he was playing with toys, riding his bike or trading insults with the neighborhood bully, played by Mark Holton.


MARK HOLTON: (As Francis Buxton) Morning, Pee-wee.

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Hello, Francis.

HOLTON: (As Francis Buxton) Today is my birthday, and my father said I can have anything I want.

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Good for you and your father.

HOLTON: (As Francis Buxton) So guess what I want?

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) A new brain.

HOLTON: (As Francis Buxton) No - your bike.

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman, laughter).

HOLTON: (As Francis Buxton) What's so funny, Pee-wee?

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) It's not for sale, Francis.

HOLTON: (As Francis Buxton) My father says everything's negotiable, Pee-wee.

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) I wouldn't sell my bike for all the money in the world, not for a hundred billion million trillion dollars.

HOLTON: (As Francis Buxton) Then you're crazy.

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) I know you are, but what am I?

HOLTON: (As Francis Buxton) You're a nerd.

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) I know you are, but what am I?

HOLTON: (As Francis Buxton) You're an idiot.

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) I know you are, but what am I?

MARK HOLTON AND PAUL REUBENS: (As Francis Buxton and Pee-wee Herman) I know you are, but what am I? I know you are, but what am I?

BIANCULLI: A year later, Reubens was on Saturday morning television as the host of a gloriously imaginative series called "Pee-wee's Playhouse." It ran for five seasons and was set in a world populated by a talking chair, talking windows, small dinosaurs who lived in a mouse hole, dancing ice cubes in the freezer and a puppet jazz band. There was a genie, a disembodied head who granted wishes and a robot who printed out the day's secret word. And any time anyone unknowingly said that secret word, everyone else, including viewers at home, were supposed to yell real loud. In addition to the puppets, talking props and cartoons, there were human co-stars, too, including Jimmy Smits, who played a robot repairman, and Natasha Lyonne, now of the Peacock series "Poker Face," who was a regular "Playhouse" visitor at age 6, playing an inquisitive kid named Opal.


REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Now, first thing, I'm going to put some butter - boop, boop (ph) - in my frying pan.


REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) So the bread doesn't stick to the pan.

LYONNE: (As Opal) Why?

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Because if it does, then the bread will burn.

LYONNE: (As Opal) Why?

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Because we want the cheese to melt.

LYONNE: (As Opal) Why?

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Because we are making grilled cheese sandwiches.

LYONNE: (As Opal) Why?

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Because we're hungry.

LYONNE: (As Opal) Why?

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Because.

LYONNE: (As Opal) Because why?

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Because. That's why.

BIANCULLI: Other regulars on "Pee-wee's Playhouse" included S. Epatha Merkerson, later of TV's "Law And Order," and Laurence Fishburne, Orpheus in the "Matrix" movies. We'll hear from them later in the show. But first, let's listen back to an interview Paul Reubens recorded with Terry Gross in 2004, when "Pee-wee's Playhouse" had just been released as a DVD box set.


TERRY GROSS: Let's start at the very beginning of the birth of Pee-wee Herman. How did you first create the character? I think this was back in the Groundlings era when you were working with that improv comedy group.

REUBENS: Yeah. It was, I believe, 1977. I was 3, and we were doing a night where we were kind of doing an extended scene - what we called an extended scene. And we were trying to do something where it was like a comedy club, like The Comedy Store or The Improv, and we were all supposed to be different characters that you might see in a comedy club. So I decided to be the guy at the comedy club that everybody would, like, immediately know, this guy was never going to make it as a comic. And part of it was because I couldn't remember jokes in real life. I couldn't remember the punchline, or I'd get halfway through the joke. And I was always the guy who would be like, oh, oh, wait. No, I forgot to tell you this part, you know?

So that's - and that character just sort of came out that night. I mean, I borrowed a suit from the director of the Groundlings, Gary Austin. I borrowed his suit, which had been made for him by a guy named Mr. J (ph), if he's out there listening. And somebody else gave me a little, tiny bow tie. I had a little one-inch-long harmonica that said Pee-wee on it. And I knew a kid whose last name was Herman, and Pee-wee Herman sounded like the kind of name you would never make up. It sounded like, you know, a totally real name, like, made by somebody whose parents were - you know, didn't really care about them.

GROSS: So did you make up intentionally bad jokes?

REUBENS: You know, I don't think I even had jokes at the time. I think, like, basically, I had a paper bag full of toys. And I would bring them out and just go like, ah, hmm (ph), ah. And, you know, it was really sort of a kind of a pathetic kind of act. I didn't do jokes for many, many years. And then I finally - I think the first time I ever told a joke as Pee-wee was on David Letterman's show. And I used to have - I loved really long jokes. So it was, like, a story that was a joke. And then I would halfway through go, like, oh, I forgot this part, and I'd have to go back. And it was just a big, long, long, long joke where, fortunately for me, it was a really funny punchline. So just when you were listening to it going, oh, my God, if this doesn't - like, if this isn't over in 30 seconds, I'm going to shoot myself, there would be a really funny punchline, and it would all be OK.

GROSS: So how did this really bad comic Pee-wee Herman develop into the kids' show host Pee-wee Herman?

REUBENS: You know, I'm not sure there was much development involved. I mean, I - that character got such a great response on the first night that it ever appeared that I very quickly realized, like, this is something to pursue. So I did pursue that character. And in the Groundlings Revue, I had about maybe a 10-minute slot as Pee-wee Herman. So I had about 10 minutes' worth of, here's my toys. And I threw Tootsie Rolls at people in the audience. And about - I don't know - a year after I was doing it in the Groundlings Revue, I was flown to New York to be one of the finalists for "Saturday Night Live," the year that the original - the last original cast member was gone. It was the first year of an all-new cast. It was the Eddie Murphy-Joe Piscopo year, and it was the first and only year that Lorne Michaels didn't produce.

And I was one of 22 finalists all across the country - Chicago, San Francisco, New York and LA. And I flew to New York and - with all my characters. I had, like, my fat suit - I had a fat guy character - and all my props and wigs. And I walked in, and I realized almost immediately I wasn't going to get it. Somebody pulled me aside and said, that guy over there is the producer's best friend. And it was somebody who did get on the show, whose name I won't mention, who was very similar. I mean, we were both kind of, like, nerdy, dorky guys. So I knew it wasn't going to be both of us.

And Pee-wee Herman - "The Pee-wee Herman Show" actually developed completely out of spite that I didn't get "Saturday Night Live." I was so upset. And people - I literally was thinking to myself, I'm going to go from this, like, up-and-comer guy to, like, you know, the guy sitting out in front of Rite Aid, like, you know...

GROSS: (Laughter).

REUBENS: ...Tugging on your pant leg, going like, you know, can you help me out, without ever having, you know, anything going. So before I even went home, I landed in Los Angeles and called my parents and borrowed some money from them. And probably within two weeks, I had 60 people working for me for free. And we produced that show.

GROSS: Well, let's talk about the creation of the Saturday morning version of "Pee-wee's Playhouse."


GROSS: Let's start with your voice, since you're speaking to us on the radio. Obviously, you didn't use your regular voice for the character of Pee-wee. How did you arrive at that kind of high and laughy voice that you created?

REUBENS: You know, I had been doing - years before the creation of Pee-wee Herman, I was - I worked at a theater that was the state theater of Florida called the Asolo Theater, which was in my hometown, Sarasota, Fla., and was based at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, which - Sarasota, as you may or may not know, was the former headquarters of the - winter headquarters of the Ringling Brothers Circus. So there was a lot of Ringling influence there.

And I had been doing "Life With Father" in repertory with a bunch of other shows. And my character - I was the second oldest son, not the star son but the second banana son. And over a three-month period - and I'm not bragging about this. This probably wasn't a good thing. But my character developed into this total cartoon character, and I didn't really even realize it. But, you know, three months down the line, somebody said, wow, do you remember what you were originally doing and what you're doing now? And I was like, wow, that's - it is really different. So the voice came from that. That is Pee-wee's voice. It was from, you know, good morning, Mother, you know, blah, blah, blah. And that became Pee-wee's voice.

GROSS: So...

REUBENS: I love that story.

GROSS: From doing theater, you developed the voice for Pee-wee.

REUBENS: Yeah. You sound incredulous.

GROSS: Well, it sounds like it must have been pretty cartoony by the time it was done.

REUBENS: It was. It was pretty cartoony.

GROSS: How did that happen? Did you not like the play?

REUBENS: You know, I don't know. No, I loved the play. I thought it was a really great play. I think I just wasn't very professional. I was an idiot.


REUBENS: I really didn't know what - you know, I didn't know you weren't supposed to, like, change it completely into a cartoon. It was unwittingly. I did it unwittingly, Terry.

GROSS: Now, the way you looked as Pee-wee Herman, with your hair slicked back and the face makeup with the rouge and a little bit of lipstick, reminded me almost of, like, a silent film star, like, a really nerdy version of a silent film star. There was something almost, you know, like Valentino with the slicked-back hair. And I always assumed that those guys wore, like, a little lipstick and rouge, too, you know, in the black-and-white movies. Were you thinking about that as well visually?

REUBENS: I feel like I was back - I was around back then, probably. You know, I was a big fan of a bunch of people, but not really - whatever happened, I think, must have been kind of subliminal with me because I never really - once Pee-wee Herman was successful and people knew Pee-wee Herman, then people wrote, quite often, you know, Eddie Cantor or...

GROSS: Right, right.

REUBENS: ...Who was the other person - like, some of the - like, Harold Lloyd, some of the silent people you're talking about, even Pinky Lee, who I had seen as a kid. But, I mean - and Jerry Lewis, who, if you're listening, Jerry, I know you're not a silent star. But I don't - I'm sure that all those elements had some sort of play on it, but I never really tried to, like, look like anybody in particular. And the makeup really was kind of - like, I just didn't - I didn't have a makeup artist. I mean, I did it myself. So I wasn't really trying to look like I had lipstick or rouge on. It was just, like, I didn't know how to do it.

GROSS: Now, your body...

REUBENS: I love that story, too.

GROSS: (Laughter) As Pee-wee Herman, your body was just, like, really kind of tight and a little jerky. And you would always be, like, leaning to one side, or your head would be, you know, angled at one side. You'd often, like, stick your tongue out if you were concentrating in the way that kids often do. Was there a particular, like, kid you modeled yourself on as Pee-wee?

REUBENS: No, there really wasn't. I think it was just a blend of lots of people I knew and kind of, like, a lot of who I really was down deep somewhere, I think.

GROSS: How deep?

REUBENS: Not that deep.

BIANCULLI: Paul Reubens speaking to Terry Gross in 2004 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2004 interview with Paul Reubens, most famous for his character Pee-wee Herman on the large and small screen. Reubens died of cancer Sunday at age 70.

GROSS: Can we talk a little bit about the look of "Pee-wee's Playhouse"? It was just such a fantastic set of images - you know, bright colors, all kinds of, like, shapes. And everything was alive in it. You know, like, the chair had arms that could embrace the person sitting in it. And the chair talked, and the window talked. Who - how was the look designed, and were you a part of that?

REUBENS: Were you taking some kind of psychedelic drug when you watched that show? No, I'm just kidding, Terry. The look of the show really had a lot to do with an artist named Gary Panter, who designed the original stage version of it and designed much of the - was really the overall production designer and created the look of the show, the television version of it. He was somebody who, when I was really creating that character in the early days of Pee-wee Herman, was kind of like the punk scene in Los Angeles, and he was kind of one of the premier, like, punk artists, and I had seen a lot of his work. He was in a publication called the LA Weekly.

GROSS: And in Raw magazine, that Art Spiegelman edited.

REUBENS: Exactly. And I'd seen a lot of his work, and I loved his work. And I contacted him and asked him if he would do a poster for a show that I hadn't created yet. And he said, well, why don't I do the poster and - well, actually, he said, let me come down and see what it is. So he came down and saw me in the Groundlings show where I had my little 10-minute Pee-wee thing and came backstage and said, I'd love to do it, but why don't I do the whole thing? Why don't I design the sets and the puppets and everything? And I said, yeah, great.

So he designed that. And then when we got the deal with CBS a few years later to do it as a real television series, he came on board. He was the first person I hired and said, you know, you've got to do this set. So it was - I mean, the rest is history, I guess. But, you know, I think it's probably the most amazing aspect of the show, in my opinion, is the design of it. It was just so startlingly incredible in my opinion.

GROSS: Now, you've said that one of the things you really loved about the character of Pee-wee Herman was that he showed that it was OK to be different. What did you feel was most different about you when you were growing up?

REUBENS: You know, I guess I felt like a total oddball, like, almost every minute of growing up. So it'd be hard to kind of isolate that, but, I mean, I think that sort of was the whole point of the show or at least a big point of the show was that, like, you know, it would be hard to stand out in the Playhouse, you know. Like, everything stood out in the Playhouse. So you could sort of feel right at home, no matter who you are or what you were thinking or anything.

GROSS: Tell us a little bit about what your childhood was like - where you grew up and what your school years were like. Were you uncomfortable in school? Did you do well in school? Were you picked on?

REUBENS: Well, I grew up in an orphanage, and...

GROSS: Oh, stop.


GROSS: No, you didn't.

REUBENS: No, I didn't. Oh, no, that was my fantasy character. Sorry. I grew up in upstate New York - Oneonta, N.Y. - until we moved in fourth - when I was in fourth - in between third and fourth grade, we moved, which was, like, a huge relief to me because Mrs. Lake (ph) that I had in third grade was really mean to me and scared the hell out of me as far as math goes. Like, I still to this day, if I got to add or subtract anything, I almost go into a coma.

GROSS: (Laughter).

REUBENS: So we moved. So I had an incredible upbringing in upstate New York, which included - the New York State Teachers College is in Oneonta. And there was a laboratory school that my sister and I went to. And we had junior kindergarten and senior kindergarten, which I think was an incredible confidence booster for, like, a little kid. You started at 4 in junior kindergarten, and by the time you were 5, you were already a senior at something. So you could always be like, ha-ha, those little junior kids...

GROSS: (Laughter).

REUBENS: ...In, you know, junior kindergarten, which was very cool, to not have to wait till, like - you know, you didn't have to wait to get to sixth grade to be, like, the big, you know, big cheese. You got to do that at 5. And we lived in a really small town where there was lots of nature and animals, and we had a little creek with a crabapple tree across the street. I'm going to burst into tears in a second.

GROSS: (Laughter).

REUBENS: It was really, like, a very storybook kind of upbringing. And then we moved to Florida. And moving to Florida was, like, incredible. I thought we moved to Hawaii. I thought we were in the tropics or something. And my mother took us to go get back to school clothes. And I bought all these beachcomber outfits.

GROSS: (Laughter).

REUBENS: So I showed up for the first day of school in fourth grade in Florida with, like, clamdigger pants on and these nautical shirts and - like a total freak.

GROSS: (Laughter).

REUBENS: And the kids at school were like, what are you supposed to be? And the thing that was funny about it in hindsight is, like, normally in that kind of situation I think the kids would probably - you would probably go like, oh, oh, sorry. You know, I didn't know what it was - but me, I was totally like, don't you get it? You know, I'm a beachcomber. What's wrong with you guys?

GROSS: (Laughter).

REUBENS: And instead, like, the next day, I, like, put out another variation of the same outfit and put it on and got back to school and was like, you know, these kids are going to come around or they're not - whatever. But I'm not changing.

GROSS: Was this your theatrical impulse expressing itself?

REUBENS: I think it was, yeah, at a very early stage.

BIANCULLI: Paul Reubens speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. And we'll also hear from two of the cast members of "Pee-wee's Playhouse," Laurence Fishburne and S. Epatha Merkerson. And I'll offer some viewing recommendations for TV shows, new and old, to watch during the ongoing actors and writers strike. I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.


CYNDI LAUPER: (Singing) Come on in and pull yourself up a chair.

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Like Chairry.

LAUPER: (Singing) Let the fun begin. It's time to let down your hair.

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman, laughter).

LAUPER: (Singing) Pee-wee's sure excited 'cause all his friends have been invited...

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) That's you.

LAUPER: (Singing) ...To go wacky at Pee-wee's Playhouse. There's a crazy rhythm coming from Puppetland.

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) What's that?

LAUPER: (Singing) Dirty Dog, Cool Cat...

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University. Let's continue our tribute to Paul Reubens, the comic actor who died of cancer Sunday at age 70. Later in his career, Reubens appeared sporadically in films, playing the Penguin's father in the movie "Batman Returns," a hairdresser-drug dealer in the film "Blow" and a vampire in the movie version of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer."

On TV, he played a temp on "Murphy Brown" and guest starred on "Ally McBeal," "Pushing Daisies," "30 Rock" and, most recently, played another vampire on "What We Do In The Shadows." He's best known, though, for his movie and TV portrayals of his infantile alter ego, Pee-wee Herman. When we left off with Terry's 2004 conversation with Paul Reubens, he was talking about his family's move to Florida when he was in the fourth grade.

GROSS: So when you moved to Sarasota, which you said was the winter headquarters for Ringling Bros. Circus, did you meet any circus people?

REUBENS: Oh, I met lots of circus people. I mean, for one thing, you could see the circus people coming down the street, you know, like the lady with the bright red hair and the wooden shoes, you know? It would be obviously a circus person. I mean, you could just tell. They were very show business people in a very small town, a conservative small town, so you could tell who they were. We rented a little house the first year we moved to Sarasota. And we used to hear these explosions all the time. And we never could figure out what they were. And one day, a couple of weeks after we moved, our whole family was walking. We took a walk one night after dinner, and we heard this explosion. And we looked in between these two homes. We saw somebody flying through the air in between these two homes.

GROSS: (Laughter).

REUBENS: And it turned out that it was the Zacchini family.

GROSS: (Laughter).

REUBENS: And they were the family with the giant silver cannon. And they were shooting each other out of the cannon in the backyard.

GROSS: That's so bizarre.

REUBENS: And in fact, years later, when I made my circus movie, we went back to Sarasota and recreated that cannon.

GROSS: For "Big Top Pee-wee."



REUBENS: Don't you love that story?

GROSS: Did you want to be in the circus after seeing this?

REUBENS: I did. You know, I actually thought that if - I've been asked, like, what would have happened if you weren't successful as Pee-wee Herman? What would you have done? And I really thought I was headed for a career in the circus.


REUBENS: As the pin-headed guy.

GROSS: (Laughter).

REUBENS: No (laughter), the unfunny guy. The guy who - I don't know. I knew how to walk a tightrope. I could do trapeze.

GROSS: Could you really walk a tightrope?

REUBENS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: How'd you learn that?

REUBENS: Why would I make that up, Terry?

GROSS: I don't know.

REUBENS: I went to circus camp when I was young.

GROSS: Really?

REUBENS: I swear. Like, I started out, I had a balance beam act. My parents showed up to circus camp when we were putting on the show, and I had on, like, a little Speedo bathing suit. And I'd get up on the balance beam with a blindfold on and, like, set these, like, rings on fire (laughter) and do this insane, completely insane act. I could, like, look out - I pulled the blindfold off and looked at my parents. And they were both sitting up in the bleachers with their mouths open like...

GROSS: (Laughter).

REUBENS: ...What have we created, you know? Like, totally - I think that was probably an early tipoff to them that I wasn't going to be an architect.

GROSS: (Laughter) So were you inhibited or extroverted as a kid?

REUBENS: One or the other?

GROSS: Or something in between.

REUBENS: You know, honestly, I think I was probably a little of each. I was sort of schizy when I was, like, a kid. I would be, like, very introverted and, you know, up in my room by myself. And then I would be, like, the life of the party, you know, like, gathering all the kids around to, like - we had a little stage in our basement that my dad built me once he realized he was raising a little...

GROSS: (Laughter).

REUBENS: ...Monster actor. So the kids in the neighborhood would come over and try to figure out, like, what was the teeniest part they could give me so they could use the stage. So we would do, like, these murder mysteries where, like, the opening of the show would be me getting pushed offstage into a vat of acid. And then I would be, like...

GROSS: (Laughter).

REUBENS: You know, my part would be over. And then all the older kids would, like, do the show.

GROSS: What TV shows did you watch as a kid?

REUBENS: You know, I was part of an early study on the effects of television on children when I was going to that school in upstate New York I mentioned. I remember being in first or second grade and having some scientists come into our class to ask us questions about, like, what shows we liked. And my - all the rest of the kids were like, "Mickey Mouse Club" and "Howdy Doody." And my favorite show was "I Love Lucy." And so I got, like, selected out of the whole class. I had to go in, you know, leave the office - leave the school, leave the classroom, and go to an office and listen to a bunch of scientists, like, go, like, well, what was it about the "I Love Lucy" show that attracts you? And who do you like better, Lucy or Desi, or Ethel or Fred?

And, you know, I was, like, in second grade. I didn't know any - I just thought, like, well, I like the show just because I like the show. That's a long way to answer. I didn't even answer your question. I watched - in addition to "I Love Lucy," when I was really young, I watched - I loved "The Mickey Mouse Club." I loved "Captain Kangaroo" and I loved "Howdy Doody." I was even on the "Howdy Doody" show. My mother drove me and my sister to New York, and we were on the "Howdy Doody" show.

GROSS: In the peanut gallery?

REUBENS: Mm-hmm (ph).

GROSS: (Laughter).

REUBENS: Somebody knows the "Howdy Doody" show good - impressive.

GROSS: What was it like to be inside rather than watching it on the TV?

REUBENS: Very confusing. I remember my sister was so freaked out, she burst into tears right before the show. And she had to be, like, put in an isolation booth. She didn't make it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

REUBENS: She didn't make it on the air, but I did. I was like, after this drive, you got to be kidding. Try to axe me from the show. Forget it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

REUBENS: I was right up in there. But the thing that was weird about it was, like, you couldn't see Howdy Doody. You couldn't see anything except, like, all the lights and cameras. And I mean, it was just - it was really weird and kind of semi-disappointing.

GROSS: Why was it disappointing - oh, because you couldn't see?

REUBENS: Yeah, just because I didn't realize that there were lights and cameras. And, you know, it's something interesting. Like, from that experience, I now kind of, when I meet little kids, you know, out and about, like, for - like, we did the DVD signing the other day here in Manhattan, and 1,000 fans showed up. And I spoke to lots and lots of people, including some kids, who would, you know, be just sort of staring at me. And I know enough now to say, like, I don't look like myself; do I, you know, and, I look bigger; don't I, and that kind of stuff because, you know, when you're a kid - like, it didn't occur to me that everything was real-life sized, you know? I thought Buffalo Bob was, like, you know, the size of somebody who could fit inside the TV.

GROSS: You were on "The Gong Show" before the creation of Pee-wee Herman, and it was a kind of vaudeville type of act. I don't think - I used to watch "The Gong Show," but I don't remember your act. Can you tell us something about the act and about where it got you? Did you get anything by virtue of having been on "The Gong Show"?

REUBENS: I did a whole bunch of different acts on "The Gong Show," and I think of those times very fondly. I was proud to be on "The Gong Show." A woman named Charlotte McGinnis, who was - I went to Boston University for a year before I went to California Institute of the Arts. And I was in the acting school at BU. And when - I left after a year, but I kept in touch with a core group of people. And someone who came in the year after I left was this girl who I then met three or four years later when all the people graduated from BU and they all came out to California. And she had just been on "The Gong Show," and I met her, and the first thing she said to me was like, do you have any interest in being on "The Gong Show"? I'm looking for a partner to do something on "The Gong Show." And so that was kind of me going, OK, I'll try comedy. I mean, I had done comedy, but I hadn't really been focusing on it. I was much more of a serious actor in the James Dean kind of school. And...

GROSS: That's funny, I mean, because your image is so not that right now (laughter).

REUBENS: Well, I had a different image and a different image of myself at that time. And so she had said, you know, you can join the union after you've been on "The Gong Show" more than one time. The second time you join the union, which is what she was trying to do. And you get paid. Once you join the union, you get paid for the performance.

So I was on "The Gong Show" about 15 times, and she and I did - we had an act called the Hilarious Betty and Eddie, and we did that on "The Gong Show." We won. We won $500. And then they asked us to come back and do it on the nighttime version, which meant I was automatically going to join the union and get paid more money or get paid. And we won again on the nighttime show.

And Arte Johnson said - was one of the judges from "Laugh-In," and he said, what are their names? What are their names again? And Chuck Barris said, Betty and Eddie. And he said, well, Betty and Eddie - we're going to hear from them in the future. And I literally ran out of the studio and called my parents, I was so excited about it. You know, Arte Johnson recognized us.

GROSS: (Laughter).

REUBENS: And being part of this duo act and coming up with material for "The Gong Show" then led me into the Groundlings, which was an improvisational group which had a real bent towards writing and character creation. And it was pretty early in my career where I realized, like, no one's going to do this for me, you know, like that I needed to write, that I needed to create my own vehicle and create material. And, you know, if you're waiting around, you know, you might spend some of that time coming up with some ideas and putting them on a piece of paper.

GROSS: Paul Reubens, thank you so much for talking with us.

REUBENS: Terry, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. And I had a lot of fun.

BIANCULLI: Paul Reubens speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. He died Sunday of cancer at age 70. After a break, we visit briefly with two actors who played in "Pee-wee's Playhouse." This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We conclude our tribute to Paul Reubens and "Pee-wee's Playhouse" with two actors who got early career roles on that show. One of them was Laurence Fishburne, later one of the stars of the "Matrix" movies. But back in the Pee-wee days, he was still billing himself as Larry. Terry spoke with him in 1993. Here he is as Cowboy Curtis.


RIC HEITZMAN: (As Mr. Window) Hey. Cowboy Curtis is coming, Pee-wee. Cowboy Curtis is coming.

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Cowboy Curtis. Yippee-ai-oh (ph).

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (As Cowboy Curtis) Howdy, partner.

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Howdy.

FISHBURNE: (As Cowboy Curtis) Oh, after a long day out on the range, I tell you, this playhouse sure does look good.


FISHBURNE: (As Cowboy Curtis) Hey, little doggy (laughter).

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Hey, Cowboy Curtis. Did you just come from church?

FISHBURNE: (As Cowboy Curtis) No.

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Then why are your boots so holy?


FISHBURNE: (As Cowboy Curtis) Yeah, they do look a mite poorly; don't they, Pee-wee? You know, I sure do wish I had a new pair of boots.


JOHN PARAGON: (As Jambi) Wish? Did somebody say wish?

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Cowboy Curtis did, Jambi. He needs a new pair of boots. Would it be all right if I gave him my wish?

PARAGON: (As Jambi) Sure it would, Pee-wee. But, you know, you only get one wish a day. Are you sure you want to?

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Yes, I'm sure. Doing something for someone else will make me feel good.

PARAGON: (As Jambi) All right, then. One pair of cowboy boots coming up. What size?

FISHBURNE: (As Cowboy Curtis) Size 12, double E.

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Boy, big feet.

FISHBURNE: (As Cowboy Curtis) Well, you know what they say.

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) No, what?

FISHBURNE: (As Cowboy Curtis) Big feet, big boots.


GROSS: You were a regular on "Pee-wee's Playhouse."

FISHBURNE: You betcha (ph).

GROSS: You were (laughter) - there you go. You were Cowboy Curtis.

FISHBURNE: Yes, ma'am.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FISHBURNE: Hoo-wee (ph).

GROSS: (Laughter) And you had a great animated lasso.

FISHBURNE: Yes. Magic lasso.

GROSS: Yeah. How'd you get the part with Pee-wee?

FISHBURNE: I met Pee-wee in LA back in the early '80s, and he and I became friends. And I was doing "Gardens Of Stone," and I got this call. He said, I need a Black cowboy. So I said, no problem, you know, and I saddled up and rode on in - kind of where it's at.

GROSS: Was it fun to work on the show?

FISHBURNE: It was wonderful. It was great.

GROSS: I really - I love that show.

FISHBURNE: I mean, it was the first, you know, television show for children that had live people on it for a long time.

BIANCULLI: Laurence Fishburne speaking to Terry Gross in 1993. Another actor who got an early break on "Pee-wee's Playhouse" was S. Epatha Merkerson, who later starred as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on NBC's "Law And Order" for 17 seasons. She spoke with Terry in 2006 about playing Reba, the neighborhood mail carrier on the "Playhouse." It was her first TV role.


GROSS: How did you get the part on "Law And Order"?

S EPATHA MERKERSON: Well, Dick says it was because his kids were huge fans of "Pee-Wee's Playhouse." (Laughter).

GROSS: That's great. So Dick Wolf, the creator of "Law And Order," knew you because his kids were big fans of "Pee-Wee's Playhouse."

MERKERSON: His kids, yeah.

GROSS: So now, on "Pee-Wee," you played Reba the mail lady.


GROSS: And, in fact, why don't we hear a short clip of you on "Pee-Wee's Playhouse"?

MERKERSON: Oh, you're kidding.

GROSS: Yes. And this is a scene...

MERKERSON: You did your homework (laughter).

GROSS: Pee-wee has made a wish. And the wish is that Reba the mail lady will come to the playhouse and mail his letter. And Jambi the genie has granted Pee-wee's wish, and you show up at the playhouse a little baffled, and you're in your nightgown. And here's the scene.


REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Hi, Reba.

MERKERSON: (As Reba) Pee-wee.

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) How's it going?

MERKERSON: (As Reba) What are you doing in my house?

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) I'm not in your house. You're in the playhouse.

MERKERSON: (As Reba) The playhouse? How did I get here?

PARAGON: (As Jambi) Uh-oh.

MERKERSON: (As Reba) Jambi, did you put a wish on me?

PARAGON: (As Jambi) He made me do it.

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) You see - I have this letter, and I wished that you were here to mail it for me.

MERKERSON: (As Reba) Why didn't you just take it down to the corner and put it in the mailbox?


REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Well, as long as you're here, would you mind mailing this letter for me, please, Reba?

MERKERSON: (As Reba) Pee-wee, I would do just about anything for you. But today is my only day off.

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) All right. I'll mail the letter myself.

MERKERSON: (As Reba) Thank you.

REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Wait, Reba. Reba, wait. Wait. Wait.

GROSS: That's my guest, S. Epatha Merkerson, in a scene from "Pee-wee's Playhouse." And she was playing Reba the mail lady. You seem to be the only person in - on Pee-wee's show who is from, like, the real world as opposed to the playhouse world, and you're...

MERKERSON: Yeah. Yeah. It was - and I think it was like that in real life, too (laughter).

GROSS: What do you mean?

MERKERSON: What a fun - that was fun to do. It was a fun show to do.

GROSS: I love that show.

MERKERSON: Yeah. And, you know, it was my first TV gig, and I used to ask them to - after the first year - the first year we filmed here in New York, and then subsequent shows were filmed in LA. But I used to ask them to bring me out a day early because, I'm telling you, Terry, I'd get on set, and there would be something else to feast your eyes on. It was probably the most fun I've ever had on a set.

BIANCULLI: S. Epatha Merkerson speaking with Terry Gross in 2006. Paul Reubens died Sunday at age 70. You can find episodes and entire seasons of "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" on Prime Video.


REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Well, we're out of time. I sure had a lot of fun. And I'll see you all real soon. Till then, everybody be good.


BIANCULLI: Coming up, I have some recommendations for TV shows to seek out during the current strike. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "BLACKBIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.