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The return of Pee-Wee

Paul Reubens prepares to dawn his skinny suit and bow tie once again

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For years, he wouldn’t do the voice. He wouldn’t put on the tiny suit and dance to ”Tequila.” He wouldn’t say, ”I know you are, but what am I?” Paul Reubens simply had no desire to be Pee-wee Herman. ”I never uttered one syllable in that voice,” he says, sitting in a booth in the back of a nearly empty L.A. diner. ”I just decided, ‘Sorry, I’m not doing it.”’

Since Pee-wee’s 1980s heyday, fans have wished that Reubens would bring the character back to life. In the words of Jambi the Genie: Did somebody say wish? More than 30 years after creating the giggly man-child, Reubens, now 57, is reviving him in a live stage production, The Pee-wee Herman Show, for a four-week run at L.A.’s Club Nokia. A helium-voiced oddball living in a state of permanently arrested development, Pee-wee was one of the unlikeliest pop culture icons of the 1980s: the star of two movies, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Big Top Pee-wee, and the host of a deliriously weird Saturday-morning kids’ show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, beloved by children, TV critics, and college-age stoners alike. Then, in July 1991, Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure in an adult-movie theater in Florida (he pleaded no contest and paid a fine). After a 2002 arrest for alleged possession of child pornography (he later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of possession of obscene material), his Hollywood adventure seemed over. But Reubens wasn’t willing to let it end that way. ”If anybody thought I was going to be destroyed,” he says, ”that’s their problem.”

The Pee-wee Herman Show returns Reubens to his roots: He first developed Pee-wee in the late ’70s as a member of the comedy troupe the Groundlings, then created an adult-oriented stage show that ran at L.A.’s Roxy Theatre for five months in 1981. His ambitious new show updates the original production’s plot with fresh material, and features many of the characters from Pee-wee’s Playhouse, both puppet (Chairry and Conky) and human (Miss Yvonne and Jambi, still played by Lynne Marie Stewart and John Paragon, respectively). Reubens hopes to build enough buzz for a studio to greenlight a new Pee-wee movie (he’s written two scripts already). The stage show’s producer, Scott Sanders, sees an eager audience: ”There are a lot of loyal fans who felt like they were robbed of Pee-wee before they were ready. There’s a huge desire to reconnect with him.”

Complicating Pee-wee’s comeback is the fact that Reubens, who’s done respected work as a character actor in numerous movies (Mystery Men, Blow) and on TV (30 Rock, Pushing Daisies), still carries baggage from his brushes with notoriety. As much as he’s tried to leave that behind — and as many times as he’s explained that the material that led to his 2002 arrest was just a collection of kitschy vintage erotica — it’s still the elephant in the playhouse. But he’s surprisingly serene. ”What’s empowering right now is that I have nothing to lose,” he says. ”At the time of the scandals, people would tell me, ‘Something good will come out of this,’ and I’d be like, ‘F— you.’ But it was true.” While preparing for his return to the stage, Reubens has appeared as Pee-wee on The Tonight Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and The Jay Leno Show. Looking into the studio audiences, he’s seen fans cradling Pee-wee dolls in their laps. ”People have said to me for years, ‘Do you have any idea how much people love you?”’ Reubens says softly. ”I was so busy when I did this the first time, I didn’t have any kind of feedback. This time, I really feel the love.” He pauses. ”What I’m doing now is writing a different ending to the story. At least I hope I am.”