Pee-wee Herman’s 30-Year Journey From Obscurity, Through Infamy and Onto Netflix

Netflix let it be known today that the long-awaited third Pee-wee Herman film, Pee-wee's Big Holiday, would finally make it to the … well, not the big screen, but a screen. Specifically any screen hooked up to a Netflix subscription.

The project has been in the works with producer Judd Apatow for nearly five years, but the original team—Pee-wee portrayer Paul Reubens and Arrested Development writer Paul Rust on script duties, Apatow producing—is now in place at Netflix.

It's a show with a rich history, some of it very strange. The movie goes into production next month and, given Netflix's track record, will probably get made at an impresisve level of investment (the first two seasons of House of Cards cost a reported $100 million) for television and a totally reasonable level for an indie comedy.

With Pee-wee on his way back into the national limelight, we thought we'd take a look back at the long, strange trip that brought him to Netflix:


The Pee-wee Herman Show (1984, HBO)

Writer/performer Paul Reubens developed the character for the stage with Los Angeles improv troupe The Groundlings the first time around. When HBO recorded it for a special called The Pee-wee Herman Show, it earned a lot of attention for fun dialogue ("The Post Office called. Your sea monkeys died.") and Phil Hartman as Captain Carl. All the elements of the later TV show are there, probably because in a lot of ways the show is a send-up of old-fashioned kids' TV series like Captain Kangaroo.

There's been a rumor for years that the Reubens took his cues from Andy Kaufman's failed 1980 pilot Uncle Andy's Funhouse, even asking permission to do his own version (some folks source the rumor to Kaufman collaborator Bob Zmuda), but Reubens denies it: "I saw it performed—I was this huge Andy Kaufman fan," he told the Onion A.V. Club. "But no, we were just both doing kids' shows. In fact, around the same time, David Arquette's father, Lewis Arquette, was doing this kids' show for late-night television called Uncle Late Night. So there were a lot of things that were kind of the same thing. When I look back at them now, I think what Andy did wasn't really similar to what I did."


Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985, Warner Bros.)

After the HBO special, a big-screen feature from Warner Bros. launched not just Reubens' career but that of newbie director Tim Burton, whose shorts Frankenweenie and Vincent had gotten the attention of Disney (the company had no idea what to do with him and put him to work on its least-celebrated animated feature, The Black Cauldron, a movie for which Burton has often apologized). The movie, shot on a shoestring, made more than $40 million domestically. It spawned a sequel, and of course...


Pee-wee’s Playhouse (1986-1990, CBS)

Easily the best-known incarnation of the character, CBS kids' series Pee-wee's Playhouse won 15 Emmys for everything from video mixing to graphic novelist Gary Panter's amazing sets. Practically everyone in the show was either on their way up or at the top of their game: Hartman as Captain Carl, Laurence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis and S. Epatha Merkerson as Reba the Mail Lady. Orange Is the New Black's Natasha Lyonne was one of the kids who played with Pee-wee in the first season.

The show also courted controversy: the "different is OK" message wasn't entirely OK with everybody, and when Reubens got arrested in a porn theater (for doing what you do in a porn theater), there was plenty of dancing on the show's grave.


Big Top Pee-wee (1988, Paramount)

The movie was made in the middle of the successful but hectic run of the CBS series, and it shows. It got negative reviews and made less than half of what Big Adventure pulled in. Penelope Ann Miller played Pee-wee's love interest and Kris Kristofferson played the circus ringmaster. The less said about it, the better.


The Pee-wee Herman Show (2009, HBO)

Reubens retreated from the public eye and took Pee-wee with him post-arrest. After nearly 20 years, he returned to the stage, first at the Nokia Theater in L.A. and then on Broadway. Theater wunderkind Alex Timbers directed the show; it, too, was filmed for HBO and received warmly by pretty much everybody. (Timbers is now directing Amazon's Mozart in the Jungle, by the way.)


Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday (2015?, Netflix)

As Reubens staged his comeback, his attempts to shop around a new Pee-wee script picked up a head of steam. Before the stage show and the new HBO special, there was another Pee-wee script (Wikipedia still lists it as "allegedly greenlighted") but the current version has been around since 2010. From what we can gather, it's aimed at adults, sort of.

Co-writer Rust is Netflix's next big hope: Apatow has taken a major interest in him the same way he endorsed Girls creator/star Lena Dunham, and he and his fiancee, Leslie Arfin, have a new show from the service called Love, starring Rust and Community's Gillian Jacobs. 

Reubens is best-known for Pee-wee, still, despite his having spent the last dozen or so years booking progressively bigger bit parts (he's got a recurring character on NBC's flagship drama The Blacklist, in fact). He's taking grown-up parts. But honestly—thankfully—after more than 30 years, Pee-wee still isn't an adult, not even with a 62-year-old man playing him.