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The character Pee-wee Herman, portrayed by Paul Reubens, has been a fun part of pop culture for more than 35 years now, and in that time has expanded across multiple mediums. Reubens first created Herman for the stage, but he broke out thanks to an HBO special, gained popularity with his television series, and even got to be the titular character of a few of his own movies. What you may not have noticed, however, is that each version of Pee-wee Herman varies a bit, as there is a certain degree to which the medium dictates just how "Pee-wee" Pee-wee can be.
With Pee-wee’s Big Holiday set to arrive on Netflix in mid-March, I recently had the pleasure of chatting with director John Lee about the project over the phone, and it was during our conversation that the filmmaker revealed a subtlety about Paul Reubens’ performance that fans may have not noticed before. Curious about the special weirdness that must come with directing Pee-wee Herman in a scene, I asked Lee about the process of discussing character motivation and delivery, and he explained why the Pee-wee on stage, on the small screen, and on the big screen are all just a bit different:
To me there’s three different versions of Pee-wee Herman. There’s the stage Pee-wee Herman, which is way more raunchier and crowd-oriented; and then there’s the television show Pee-wee Herman, which is just like a loud obnoxious train of Pee-wee Herman; and then there’s the movie Pee-wee Herman, which is like, all of his movies, he’s way more subdued and in control. I think he knows, and we all know, if it was the television show Pee-wee Herman [in the movies], within 15 minutes you’d leave the theatre.
It’s an interesting thing to learn about Pee-wee Herman, if not just because a real part of the character’s particular charm is the fact that he’s kind of annoying. Very much a Peter Pan-like figure, he’s eternally optimistic, energetic and childlike, which can be a crazy amount of fun, but also be completely exhausting. When dealing with a theatrical environment (where everything has to be projected and "more"), or the small screen (which jams a full experience into 22 minutes), it makes sense than Pee-wee can be a bit bigger and intense – but that wouldn’t really make any sense in a 90-120 minute movie due to a burnout factor. So the film version of Pee-wee is still very much Pee-wee, but one that doesn’t cross the line into "too much."
Pee-wee’s Big Holiday will be dropping on Netflix on March 18th, and be sure to stay tuned here for more from our fantastic conversation with director John Lee!