The once-disgraced Paul Reubens is back in a big way.

By A.J. Jacobs
October 20, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

It was Pee-wee Herman himself who said it best: ”I’m rubber and you’re glue. Anything you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” So, with a mountain of jokes, sneers, and career obituaries behind him, Pee-wee is bouncing back! Well, sort of. Actually, his alter ego, Paul Reubens, is the one who’s back, hamming it up on Murphy Brown and in several other bow tie-free roles.

”Look, if Hugh Grant can still be making movies, Paul Reubens deserves to make movies,” says Michael Shamberg, a producer of the upcoming TriStar comedy Matilda, which features Reubens. For those with short memories, it was just four years ago that Reubens was busted outside a Florida porn theater for indecent exposure. The arrest touched off a firestorm of outrage about the actor and his helium-voiced man-child, Pee-wee, prompting toy stores to pull Pee-wee dolls and CBS to snuff out reruns of his mind-altering hit kiddie show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse. (Videos of his films Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Big Top Pee-wee, however, were spared.) Reubens took his spanking (he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and paid a $50 fine) and went straight to his room, where he’s remained in virtual exile. Until now:

In November, Reubens returns to rankle Murphy Brown as the smarmy nephew of the network president (Garry Marshall). His appearances last season earned him critical coos and an Emmy nomination. ”We didn’t get a glimmer of judgment,” says executive producer Bill Diamond. ”People were just happy to see him back.”

The 43-year-old comic will mug in two upcoming movies. In Twentieth Century Fox’s Dunston Checks In, starring Seinfeld‘s Jason Alexander, Reubens plays a maniacal animal catcher out to snare an orangutan that has run wild in a posh hotel. And in Matilda, a Danny DeVito-produced kids’ flick due out next summer, Reubens has a small role as a buttoned-down FBI agent who spies on a girl’s scheming parents.

Reubens is revving up to direct his own feature — a kaleidoscopic mix of cartoons, live action, and computer animation, according to a source.

Once hermitlike, Reubens has hit the Hollywood party circuit, popping up at, among others, a recent bash for Atlantic Records singer Bruce Roberts.

Reubens, who owns the rights to his Saturday-morning sensation, is finally unleashing Playhouse. According to his manager, Michael McLean, reruns of the twisted show might hit the airwaves soon in syndication.

As further proof that the sprightly comic is in demand, the producers of the Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying begged him to take over the lead when Matthew Broderick exits (Reubens declined). And he’s even got his own fan-created website on the Internet.

To an outsider, this overgrown nerd’s resurrection might seem as strange as his ascension to kiddie stardom in the first place. After all, when the scandal hit, even his own lawyer pronounced the comedian’s career dead. But remember, Hollywood is the land of Teflon, where all is forgiven. (Charlie Sheen, that is your beeper ringing). So though Sen. Bob Dole probably won’t be inviting Reubens to speak at a fund-raiser, Pee-wee sympathy within the biz runs high. Typical is Seinfeld‘s Alexander: ”It was a vindictive and hostile and purposeless scandal.”

In fact, Hollywood pardoned Reubens long before he was ready to come back. “Over the past three or four years, he’s been offered everything under the sun—from directing major movies to having his own [prime-time] series on the air,” claims manager McLean. (Reubens himself never grants interviews.) Among the offers was a chance to direct The Brady Bunch Movie.

The still-decompressing Reubens said no to everything, except for, um, a handful of fleeting appearances. He played the Penguin’s father in his friend Tim Burton’s Batman Returns and the villain in the anemic Luke Perry vehicle Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And in 1991, Reubens appeared at the MTV Video Music Awards as Pee-wee himself, asking “Heard any good jokes lately?”

Which raises the question: Will Reubens be dusting off his Pee-wee character again? “That decision hasn’t been made,” says McLean. But those close to the actor doubt it. “He’ll never go back to Pee-wee,” says Fran Kuzui, who directed him in Buffy. “He’s done everything Pee-wee’s needed to do.” And then some.

Cameos aside, Reubens spent his hiatus in appropriately bizarre ways: building up his E.T. memorabilia collection, gardening, and hanging out with such friends as writer Fran Lebowitz and actress Debi Mazar. Apparently, he never lost his proto-Beavis sense of humor. On the set of Buffy, Kuzui says she walked in on Perry and Reubens playing with their respective dolls in a trailer. While filming Dunston, Reubens would call and berate the director, pretending to be the studio chief.

“With some of the kind of press that he’s gotten, he could be extremely neurotic and very miserable,” says Faith Ford, who plays Corky on Murphy. “But he’s nothing like that. He’s got a great positive outlook on everything.”

Again, Pee-wee said it best: “Told you so.”

(Additional reporting by Jason Kaufman)