I didn’t know the late, great Paul Reubens personally, but like a lot of ’80s and ’90s kids, I’m count myself lucky that Pee Wee Herman was part of my childhood.
When Paul Reubens passed away at the age of 70 on July 31st, 2023, the news came as a shock to countless fans and even some of his friends. He’d kept his six-year battle with cancer private as he continued to work on several projects, including two Pee Wee-related movie scripts and a completed first draft of his memoir.
Fans first heard the news via his social media channels, which were always full of upbeat memes and cute or funny videos. Much like Pee Wee’s Playhouse was a place where individuality, joy, and friendship was celebrated, Reubens’ corner of social media was a refuge from the barrage of outrage, hopelessness, and trend-chasing so prevalent elsewhere. His passing was announced first, rather, as a personal note to his fans and friends — not as a splashy TMZ headline.
Please accept my apology for not going public with what I’ve been facing the last six years. I have always felt a huge amount of love and respect from my friends, fans and supporters. I have loved you all so much and enjoyed making art for you.
I read the post while scrolling through Instagram on a work break. It felt like a gut punch.
The Nature of Celebrity Deaths: Why Paul Reubens’ Death Hit Different
For me, celebrity deaths don’t often hit hard. Even beloved celebrities like Betty White, as bummed as I was for The Last Golden Girl Standing to make her exit from this world, at 99 years old, it was easy to say she’d had a good run and went peacefully, knowing how loved she was by so many.
Paul Reubens’ death felt different. By today’s standards, 70 is still relatively young. And maybe because Reubens only made sporadic appearances on TV and film in recent years, it was easy to think of him as the eternal man-child Pee Wee Herman: Never aging, delightfully silly, and full of good humor and gentle mischief.
Truthfully, I feel a little melodramatic writing about someone I never knew. Perhaps the sadness feels so weighty is because Paul Reubens’ Pee Wee character was such a big part of my childhood and still something I could enjoy as an adult. From his feature films to TV shows, all things Pee Wee Herman were made to be enjoyed by all ages. They were meant for everyone.
Okay. Maybe it’s not melodrama and just reflecting on a person who I’ve admired for nearly 40 years. When I think about growing up watching Pee Wee Herman and how Reubens’ creation colored my life, it hurts to see a piece of that enduring joy leave the world. It also hurts to think about losing Paul Reubens, the person who seemed so kind and genuine, despite not always having been treated kindly by the media. Yet, his story is also uplifting when you consider how he managed to mount a comeback, sharing his talents with the world yet again.
At the heart of all that, was a good person who preferred to hide the pain of his own cancer so it didn’t overshadow the smiles he brought to the world while he was still in it. I think that’s why Paul Reubens’ passing is one of the few celebrity deaths that hit me hard.
The Lasting Legacy of Paul Reubens & Pee Wee Herman
Every Saturday morning, Pee Wee’s Playhouse would air at 10am. Everyone in the house would sit down to watch. Mom might have either been apathetic to or outright avoided some of our Saturday morning fare (with the exception of Garfield and Friends, Muppet Babies, Bump in the Night, and ALF Tales), but when Pee Wee’s Playhouse was on, she’d stop her housework and park her ass on the couch with me and my brother. For 30 minutes, we’d laugh and “scream real loud” whenever the episode’s “secret word” popped up.
An episode of Pee Wee’s Playhouse set the tone for the rest of the day and the weekend ahead. It was impossible to have a bad day after a stint in the Playhouse. It was probably one of the last shows that both parents and kids could enjoy together. After Pee Wee’s Playhouse went off the air, it was followed by an era of insipid, saccharine shows like Barney and Friends that lacked the giddy subversiveness that invited creativity and welcomed kids of all ages to just be themselves.
Pee Wee’s Playhouse ended in 1991 — the same year Paul Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure. As a then 12-year-old preteen, I understood the charges against him. My parents, my brother, and I all had the same reaction: Big deal. The guy was on his off-time and wasn’t dressed in Pee Wee regalia. Reubens was virtually unrecognizable in his mugshot. It wasn’t “indecent public exposure.” It was someone doing something that a lot of other people did in dimly-lit adult movie houses. If anything, it seemed like a witch hunt designed to purposefully railroad and malign Paul Reubens. As a family, we weren’t angry at Pee Wee. Hell no! We were angry at the press and small margin of self-appointed “morality police” that seemed bent on destroying this man and the legacy he worked so hard to create.
Apparently, my family and I weren’t the only ones who felt this way. There were a lot of people who stuck by Paul Reubens’ side and gave him roles on shows like Murphy Brown and Ally McBeal in the ’90s and early 2000s. He even made his way into quite a few mainstream movies like 1992’s Buffy the Vampire, Mystery Men (1999), and Blow in 2001. He also teamed up again with his old friend and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure director Tim Burton for roles in The Nightmare Before Christmas and Batman Returns.
The Reubens renaissance rolled on and, by 2010, he’d bounced back with a Broadway revival of his Pee Wee Herman stage show. The following year, it was turned into a television special called (what else but) The Pee Wee Herman Show on Broadway. He brought along many of his old friends and original castmates like Lynne Marie Stewart (Miss Yvonne) and John Paragon (Jambi the Genie), who sadly passed away in 2021.
By 2016, Pee Wee Herman was back in the pop culture landscape, returning to film with Pee Wee’s Big Holiday, a Netflix release packed with an all-star cast. It was heartwarming to see Paul Reubens and Pee Wee climb back to the top, embraced by old and new fans. All was right with the world again.
Why Pee Wee Herman & Paul Reubens Mattered
While I didn’t re-watch Pee Wee’s Playhouse often as an adult, when I did, those second viewings seemed as timeless and ever and gifted me with jokes that I didn’t catch the first time around. Conversely, I found myself re-watching Pee Wee’s Big Adventure at least once a year and still laughing just as hard as I did when I was 6 or 7 years old. Hell, I watched it just the other night after hearing the sad news and, like magic, Pee Wee’s journey to find his beloved bicycle banished the blues. I sat there with a giant grin for 90 minutes, forgetting the world outside.
For a kooky kid like me, Paul Reubens’ Pee Wee Herman offered hope that growing up didn’t mean you were resigned to a life with boring beige furniture and constant seriousness. As a kid, he showed me and my generation that there were adults like Pee Wee who still embraced watching cartoons, hanging out with talking robots and genies, and had interior design that revolved around chairs that talked and hugged you. From a young age, Pee Wee instilled in me that it was possible to find the fun in life and that you could hang onto old friends and still make new pals wherever you go — and that the key to all of it was letting your lovable inner weirdo shine bright as a homing beacon to attract those joyful experiences and kindred spirits.
Paul Reubens himself once said,”I enjoy getting to be arty and quirky and weird and all the things that I don’t have that much choice with. You just sort of use what you got.” Conversely, his alter ego declared that, “The Playhouse will always be here for everyone to play in. Forever and ever and ever.”
With those sentiments in mind, there’s no better way than to honor him than by putting more laughter, friendship, and silliness in a world that sorely needs it. So, thank you, Paul Reubens, for sharing your imagination, humor, and kindness. If the goal is to leave the world a better place than when you entered it, you succeeded and left a positive impact on so many lives. And for all the love and happiness you fostered, I hope you felt just as much back. All us quirky kids will hold down the fort and keep the spirit of the Playhouse alive for future generations of cheerful eccentrics in this world. Pee Wee will forever live on, but here’s hoping you, Jambi, the King of Cartoons, and Captain Carl are reunited and having a lot of laughs in the Playhouse in the next world.
Photo credits: Author’s own