Dropping Names & Lifting Spirits In The Year of the Pig-er, Boar
Pee-Wee Herman is back, and he talks with our Ben Fong-Torres.
I hate to be a name-dropper. Diana Ross told me it was gauche. But Ive got to drop at least one on youactually, two: Pee-Wee Herman and the guy who created and played him, Paul Reubens.
He was honored by SF Sketchfest, an annual celebration of sketch comedy, and the organizers asked me to conduct the interview, in the theater at the Palace of Fine Arts. I accepted immediately. Way back in 1983, hed brought his Pee Wees Playhouse act to a nightclub in North Beach, and Dianne and I were immediate fans of his quirky character. Next came the movie, Pee-Wees Big Adventure, followed by CBS putting him on Saturday mornings for kids (and the young and goofy at heart). In 1988, he had his second film, Big Top Pee-Wee.
And then came his arrest in an adult theater in his hometown, Sarasota, Florida, and a couple of years away from the spotlight. He has since appeared in numerous films and TV shows, from Batman Returns and Mystery Men to, currently, 30 Rock and Reno 911. And, after years of pointedly not doing his Pee-Wee character, even as the shows were being rerun and distributed on DVD, hes working on two films centering on that beloved character.
Before our interview, he made it clear that he didnt want to rehash his arrest. He had nothing to worry about. This, after all, was a tribute, a celebration of his work. And with as rich a career as his, I was barely finished with questions about the Pee-Wee projects when it was time for audience Qs and As.
Throughout our hour or so together, Reubens was relaxed enough to tell some stories hed never revealed before. After working with the comedy troupe, the Groundlings, in Los Angeles, and establishing the Pee-Wee character, he tried out for Saturday Night Live in 1980. He lost out to Gilbert Gottfried, and, he says, I was so bitter and angry that on the plan on the way back to LA, I was thinking, Youd better think of something to do, and take it to another level. He borrowed some money and turned Pee-Wee into a full-blown nightclub act, which ran on Sunset Strip for five months. In 1985, he returned to SNLas guest host.
Reubens also revealed that, while doing the TV show, he was a heavy smoker, and used Conky, the robot who dispenses his secret word of the day, as an ash tray. Also, casting the show, he came close to giving Benicio del Toro a part. But, Reubens said, del Toro couldnt read or speak English. A couple of years later, del Toro had improved, and won the role of The dog-faced boy in Big Top Pee-Wee.
Reubens said he was always a promoter of diversity in his casting. The proof is in the playhouse. Reba the Mail Woman was played by S. Epatha Merkerson, now Lt. Van Buren on Law and Order. He had Laurence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis; Roland Rodriguez as Tito, a lifeguard. And the kids who visited the Playhouse on CBS included Diane Yang who, 20 years later, is still acting.
Pee-Wee began as a campy, risqu sendup of a kids show that became a superb, real kids show (it won 22 Emmys in its six-year run). It was the TV show that Reubens called the funnest. He added: The most fun I really ever had writing on that show was when wed come up with something, and look at each other, and know that a four or five or six-year old would fall off the couch laughing.
They did, they still do, and they always will.
MORE STARS: Last time out, I mentioned doing promotional work for the book I published in November, The Doors by the Doors. You can see a video of Ray Manzarek, the bands keyboardist, and me at Book Passage in Corte Madera by going to www.fora.tv. You can see and hear Manzarek explain Doors music by playing it, and you can hear me mangle Riders on the Storm. We did a lot better a week later at The Booksmith in the Haight-Ashbury. Now, I can say Ive sung with two of rocks greatest keyboardistsManzarek of The Doors and Tony Brown, Elvis last on-tour ivory-tickler In December, after doing a piece about Jersey Boys, the Tony-winning musical about the Four Seasons, coming to San Francisco, I got invited to dinner at the home of super-producer Carole Shorenstein Hays and her husband, Dr. Jeff Hays. Our table of 14 included Robin Williams, Lars Ulrich, Dave Eggers and Mayor Gavin Newsom. Seriously. And, since it was a private affair, I will say only that, yes, Williams was entertaining, and that, egged on by Dianne, my wife, I sang Blue Christmas to the tableand they still stayed for dessert
STEALING BUDDHAS DINNER: Speaking of wonderful moments, I got a call from an editor at the New York Times Sunday Book Review dept., asking if Id like to take on an assignment. I was shocked. Early last year, hed asked me about reviewing a Jimi Hendrix book. Being mired in the Doors book, I had to decline, and, given that it was the New York Times I was turning down, figured that it was all over between me and my favorite newspaper. But no. They had a memoirs from a bright young writer, Bich Minh Nguyen, called Stealing Buddhas Dinner. Ms. Nguyen came to the U.S. when she was only eight months young, after the fall of Saigon in 1975. This is a story about assimilationmuch of it through a girls passion for American food and snacks.
After reading the book, I accepted the assignment, they accepted my piece, and the review is in the February 4th edition.
HAPPY YEAR OF THE BOAR: Or, as David Letterman will no doubt say, Man. Im still writing Year of the Dog on my checks. And, on March 3rd, well have our San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade, and Ill be co-anchoring it on KTVU for the eleventh year, along with the stations news anchor, Julie Haener. Watch out for flying pigs