25 Big Facts About Pee-wee Herman

Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

In the summer of 1985, Paul Reubens introduced America’s youth—and millions of young-at-heart adults—to a new brand of comedy when his slim suit-loving, bow-tied alter ego Pee-wee Herman stormed the box office with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

Two sequels, one Saturday morning television series, and one Broadway show later, Pee-wee is still very much a part of the pop culture consciousness. Reubens—who is celebrating his 65th birthday today—helped us uncover 25 things you might not know about Pee-wee Herman. 

1. PEE-WEE HERMAN BEGAN LIFE AS A GROUNDLING.

Pee-wee Herman “came about from an extended improv at The Groundlings,” Reubens says of the character’s origin. “We were just given an assignment to come up with a character that one might encounter in a comedy club and I came up with Pee-wee Herman.” Pee-wee’s first stage appearance was in 1977. 

2. “PEE-WEE” WAS A HARMONICA.

Reubens says the character’s many distinctive traits were "a bunch of stuff all mixed in together. The voice came from a stage production that I was involved in. And then the name came from a kid I knew who was kind of off-the-wall. The name 'Pee-wee' came from a little harmonica I had that said ‘Pee-wee’ on it. I loved the idea of a nickname, because it sounded so real to me. ‘Pee-wee Herman’ sounds like a name that is so odd, how would you make that up? If you were going to make up a name, you’d make up a better name. It seemed real to me; it was a nickname with a last name that’s also a first name … And it went hand-in-hand with what I wanted to do, which was to make people think this was a real person, not an actor.” 

3. PAUL REUBENS IS ALWAYS CREDITED AS “PEE-WEE HERMAN.”


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To further enforce the idea that Pee-wee Herman is indeed a real person, when Paul Reubens is appearing as Pee-wee Herman, the credits simply list “Pee-wee Herman as Himself.” 

4. PEE-WEE’S SUIT WAS A LOANER. (BUT NOT A REBEL.)

“The director and co-founder of The Groundlings, a man named Gary Austin, loaned me his suit, which I never gave back,” Reubens says of Pee-wee’s now-iconic gray suit. “Someone else gave me a kid’s black bow tie, which I later changed out for a kid’s red bow tie. And the white shoes were mine. That’s just sort of what I put on and I had success with it so I thought, why mess with it? If it ain’t broke ..."

5. PEE-WEE GOT THE GIRL ON THE DATING GAME.

Two years after making his stage debut with The Groundlings, Pee-wee made his first of three appearances on The Dating Game (totally in character) in 1979. “That was a little test experiment I was doing early on,” Reubens recalled to Interview magazine. “I went to a cattle call audition for The Dating Game, and before I even got home they called me back.” On one occasion, he even won the date! 

6. PEE-WEE WAS AN ANGRY HOTEL CLERK IN CHEECH & CHONG’S NEXT MOVIE.

In 1980, Pee-wee made his first big-screen appearance as a not-so-sweet hotel employee in Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie. 

7. THE PEE-WEE HERMAN SHOW WAS A FIRST FOR THE GROUNDLINGS.

On February 7, 1981, Reubens helped to take The Groundlings in a new direction when he premiered The Pee-wee Herman Show at midnight, a stage show that became the group’s first piece of alternative format programming. Shortly thereafter, it moved to The Roxy, where it ran for five months. But it wasn’t an adults-only kind of thing; matinee performances proved to be fun for the whole family. Miss Yvonne, Captain Carl, Jambi, Pterri, and Clocky are some of the characters that were there from the beginning. 

8. HBO WAS THE FIRST NETWORK TO COME CALLING.

Pee-wee gained national attention courtesy of HBO, which aired a taping of one of The Pee-wee Herman Show's performances in 1981.

9. PEE-WEE KICKSTARTED TIM BURTON’S CAREER.


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Following the success of The Pee-wee Herman Show, Warner Bros. approached Reubens about turning Pee-wee into a movie star. Though the studio originally had another director in mind, several people mentioned Tim Burton’s name to Reubens one night at a party. “I screened Frankenweenie and I spoke to Shelley Duvall, who was a friend of mine who was in Frankenweenie,” Reubens recalled to Ain’t It Cool News. “I knew Tim was the director about 15 seconds into Frankenweenie, like the second or third shot of it. I was looking at the wallpaper in this bedroom and the lighting and just going, ‘This is the guy who has style and understands art direction.’ Those were two really important things for me and my baby, I guess, and you know it just happened to luckily all work out." 

10. PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A REMAKE OF POLLYANNA.

The original concept for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure took much of its storyline from Disney’s classic Pollyanna, with Pee-wee as Pollyanna. Ultimately, this idea was scrapped in favor of the stolen bike road trip idea, though Reubens was able to recycle many of the original ideas for Big Top Pee-wee.

11. PEE-WEE’S BIKE SOLD FOR $36,600 ON EBAY.

In 2014, an original bike that was used in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure went up for auction on eBay. The seller was hoping to get $15,000 for the iconic prop; he ended up selling it for $36,600. Which isn’t quite "a hundred million, trillion, billion dollars,” but it’s still impressive.

12. PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE CLEANED UP AT THE BOX OFFICE.


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Shot on a budget of approximately $7 million, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure earned nearly $41 million at the box office. Which, not surprisingly, led to a sequel—1988’s Big Top Pee-wee

13. THE ORIGINAL CONCEPT FOR PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE WAS AN ANIMATED SERIES. 

Following the financial success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, CBS came to Reubens about creating a children’s series around the character—only they wanted it to be animated. “I'd had the stage show originally, so I was much more interested in doing something closer to that, something live-action,” Reubens told Rolling Stone. “So when they suggested doing a cartoon, I said ‘I'm not really interested in that; let's do a real kids' show.’ I was a big Howdy-Doody freak growing up—I was actually on one show when I was a kid, in the audience—and was more interested in doing something like that. Howdy-Doody, Captain Kangaroo, a lot of the local kids' shows that were on a long time ago—those were the influences.” 

14. CYNDI LAUPER SANG THE PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE THEME SONG.

Though the series’ theme song is credited to Ellen Shaw, Cyndi Lauper admitted in her autobiography that she is the voice behind it.

15. THE PLAYHOUSE WELCOMED A NUMBER OF SOON-TO-BE STARS.

A number of burgeoning stars got their starts on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Among them: Phil Hartman, S. Epatha Merkerson, and Natasha Lyonne. Both Laurence Fishburne and Jimmy Smits also made early-career appearances.

16. ROB ZOMBIE AND JOHN SINGLETON WERE PEE-WEE’S PRODUCTION ASSISTANTS.


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Pee-wee’s Playhouse had plenty of talent behind the camera, too. Five years before he wrote and directed Boyz n the Hood—for which he earned two Oscar nominations—John Singleton was a P.A. on the Playhouse set. Around the same time he formed White Zombie—and 17 years before he moved into the director’s chair with House of 1000 Corpses—Rob Zombie held the same title. 

17. PHIL HARTMAN LEFT AFTER ONE SEASON TO JOIN THE CAST OF SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Phil Hartman, Reubens’ longtime friend and collaborator (they co-wrote Pee-wee’s Big Adventure together), left the Playhouse—where he played Captain Carl—after the first season to join Saturday Night Live.

18. MISS YVONNE’S HAIR WON AN EMMY.


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Two Emmys, actually. One in 1987 and another in 1989. The show won a total of 15 Emmys throughout its five-season run. 

19. JAMBI SPOKE GIBBERISH.

On Shout! Factory’s Pee-wee’s Playhouse Blu-ray collection, writer John Paragon describes Jambi’s famous “Mekka lekka hi mekka hiney ho. Mekka lekka hi mekka chahny ho” chant as gibberish. “So I’m in The Groundlings and we’re doing a sketch and it’s customers in a Hawaiian restaurant and I’m wearing a Hawaiian shirt and doing Hawaiian gibberish. So that’s where that line came from. It was supposed to be bad Hawaiian.” 

20. LAURENCE FISHBURNE HAD A DARK TAKE ON COWBOY CURTIS.


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During his original audition for Cowboy Curtis, Laurence Fishburne didn’t get the note that the tone of the show was rather silly. “I was in the D.C. area making Gardens of Stone, and I got this call that Paul wanted to see me,” Fishburne recalled to Entertainment Weekly. “I had almost no hair on my head because I had been doing this military picture. I [auditioned as] a Yul Brynner-esque kind of cowboy—very dark and serious. [Reubens and Paragon] both looked at me like, 'Could you lighten it up?'"

21. SEASON THREE HAD JUST THREE EPISODES.

Because of a 1988 strike by the Writers Guild of America, the third season of Pee-wee’s Playhouse is comprised of just three episodes—two regular episodes and one primetime special, Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special.

22. BIG TOP PEE-WEE MARKED THE BIG-SCREEN DEBUT OF BENICIO DEL TORO.

After a couple of small television roles, Benicio Del Toro landed his first feature film playing “Duke the Dog-Faced Boy” in Big Top Pee-wee. The film also marked the big-screen debut of Dustin Diamond, who would make his first appearance as Saved by the Bell’s “Screech Powers” just a few months after Big Top Pee-wee’s release.

23. DANNY ELFMAN HAD TO COMPOSE AN ALL-NEW SCORE FOR BIG TOP PEE-WEE.


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Like Tim Burton, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure marked the first feature film gig for Danny Elfman. Though the music he created for the first film is iconic, because Big Top Pee-wee was produced by a different studio, he was not allowed to use any of the elements from the original score and had to create a new one.

24. PEE-WEE CAME TO BROADWAY IN 2010.


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On October 26, 2010, Pee-wee was back—this time on Broadway—for a limited-run stage show.

25. PEE-WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY WAS PEE-WEE’S FIRST FILM IN 28 YEARS.

In 2016, Netflix released Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, Pee-wee Herman’s first film in 28 years. Officially, Netflix summarized the plot as follows: “A chance encounter with a mysterious stranger (Joe Manganiello) points Pee-wee toward his destiny—and his first-ever holiday!” For his part, Reubens told Mental Floss, “It’s a road picture and it’s an adventure story. It’s similar in tone and structure to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in that it is a road picture—I’m trying to get somewhere. I live in a real little small town and I don’t get much excitement.”

11 Fun Facts About Them!

Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video

In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

10. The movie was a surprise hit.

Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

George R.R. Martin Doesn't Think Game of Thrones Was 'Very Good' For His Writing Process

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

No one seems to have escaped the fan fury over the finals season of Game of Thrones. While likely no one got it quite as bad as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, even author George R.R. Martin—who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based, faced backlash surrounding the HBO hit. The volatile reaction from fans has apparently taken a toll on both Martin's writing and personal life.

In an interview with The Guardian, the acclaimed author said he's sticking with his original plan for the last two books, explaining that the show will not impact them. “You can’t please everybody, so you’ve got to please yourself,” he stated.

He went on to explain how even his personal life has taken a negative turn because of the show. “I can’t go into a bookstore any more, and that used to be my favorite thing to do in the world,” Martin said. “To go in and wander from stack to stack, take down some books, read a little, leave with a big stack of things I’d never heard of when I came in. Now when I go to a bookstore, I get recognized within 10 minutes and there’s a crowd around me. So you gain a lot but you also lose things.”

While fans of the book series are fully aware of the author's struggle to finish the final two installments, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, Martin admitted that part of the delay has been a result of the HBO series, and fans' reaction to it.

“I don’t think [the series] was very good for me,” Martin said. “The very thing that should have speeded me up actually slowed me down. Every day I sat down to write and even if I had a good day … I’d feel terrible because I’d be thinking: ‘My God, I have to finish the book. I’ve only written four pages when I should have written 40.'"

Still, Martin has sworn that the books will get finished ... he just won't promise when.

[h/t The Guardian]

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