Comic-Con: Fast and funny Pee-Wee Herman invades Hall H

SAN DIEGO – Since Disney decided not to bring “The Muppets” to San Diego to help promote their new movie this fall, my guess is the most direct hit of bottled childhood available to Comic-Con attendees walked out onstage today to thunderous applause in a familiar grey suit and red bowtie.

Ostensibly, Paul Reubens appeared to promote the upcoming home video release of “The Pee-Wee Herman Show On Broadway,” which appeared on HBO, but it really felt more like he showed up just to say hello and answer some questions.  They opened the panel with a clip from the show, the opening few minutes of the special, and then Eric “Quint” Vespe walked out to start the panel with no announcement or preamble from anyone else.

That’s appropriate.  When I went to see “The Pee-Wee Herman Show” in Los Angeles at LA Live with my wife and my son, Eric was also there that night.  He and another friend flew in expressly to go see the show, and talking afterwards, it was obvious that the night meant quite a bit to him.  To see him sit onstage in Hall H steering the conversation with Pee Wee is a great pleasure, and it came across much better than a more polished promotional thing might have.

When “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” was on TV, I was a senior in high school, and while I was a fan of the character from “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” and the original Groundlings show that HBO aired in the ’80s and from his Cheech & Chong work, I did not spend my Saturday mornings watching the series.  I really fell in love with that show when Toshi was about a year and a half old and we started showing him the DVDs of the series, and I have real admiration for what that show was and how it was made.  But Eric, though… he was an original run “Playhouse” kid, and listening to him talk about growing up with the show, it was clear that he was nervous and thrilled in equal measure.

Then Pee-Wee took the stage, and the response was just pure warm embrace, a big wave of excited applause.  Eric brought up the LA show and how much he enjoyed it.  “We changed it a lot after that.  It was different on Broadway.”

“Oh, so you’re saying I haven’t really seen the show, then?” Eric said.

“No.  The HBO show is the final version.”  And from there, the conversation jumped to pretty much anything and everything.  Reubens told a story about an April Fool’s Day joke he played on an executive at Paramount during the making of “Back To The Beach.”  In that film, he showed up for one scene to perform “Surfing Bird,” and it was one of the big selling points of the movie.  The week before release, Reubens called the exec and said, “Hey, I’m sorry, but Warner Bros. Records is where I have my record deal, and they just told me that legally I can’t perform a song in the movie.”  The exec dropped the phone and started shrieking at someone, and Paul couldn’t even tell him it was a joke because he wasn’t listening anymore.

They talked about “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” and the way the Large Marge scene scarred Eric and kids his age when they saw it, and that’s what led to the discussion of how the new Pee-Wee film is being produced by Judd Apatow.  “Being able to drop his name in Los Angeles is real clout,” he said, and he talked about all the movie stars backstage.  He said he missed seeing Bella and Edward by mere minutes and almost went home because of the disappointment.  It’s fascinating when Paul is playing the Pee-Wee character but talking about real life at the same time, and there was a lot of that going on today.

Eric opened it up to questions from the audience at that point, and omnipresent Comic-Con character Bob Stencil was first to the mic.  I was shocked when there was no punchline to his question, a simple “What can you tell us about the new movie?”

Not much.  “The studio is reading it right now, today, to make their final decision.  It’s a road picture, and Mr. Apatow wanted something similar in feel to ‘Big Adventure,’ so it’s a road picture that takes place across the entire country.”

The only real news there is that it’s definitely a road movie.  Other than that, we know he’s writing it with Paul Rust and that it’s in development.  I’m so curious, but that’s the sort of thing I really don’t want to read early.  I want to see it.  I want to see the right director sign up, someone who really gets what Reubens is all about, someone who can bring just as much to the table as Tim Burton did on “Big Adventure.”

The next question was “What’s today’s secret word?”

Exasperated, Pee-Wee replied, “Comic-Con.  DUH.”  He waited a moment, then yelled, “Comic-Con!” and a good percentage of the audience immediately screamed real loud.

“Hi, I’m a big fan of yours.”  “CONGRATULATIONS.”

“How is it working with Judd Apatow?”  “Who?”

A guy dressed like Flynn Ryder from “Tangled” steps up and before he can say anything, Pee-Wee asks, “How’s everything going in Sherwood Forest?”

“How many of those grey suits do you own?” “Between six and eight hundred.  They’re very cheap.  You can’t tell from here, but this is a paper product.”

Just one set-up and punchline after another.  Reubens was having so much fun with the audience, and they were all, to a person, smiling like Christmas morning as they were talking to him.  One guy asked him about how they removed his character, Captain REX, from “Star Tours,” and Pee-Wee talked about why that upset him.  “As long as the voice was part of the ride, I had a free pass and could go to Disney any time I wanted.  And that’s Disney.  That’s a great pass.  I used it all the time.”  And when they took the character out, he was worried that he was going to lose his pass until Disney wrote to tell him that the pass is actually good for life.

One woman asked, “How did you come up with Pee-Wee?” He took a moment, weary at this point from being asked that particular question, but when he answered, he made it into funny broad sarcastic teasing.  “Well, there’s this thing called the Internet.  I-N-T-E-R-N-E-T.  They have all sorts of amazing information to answer that question there.”

He was asked if Twisted Sister would be in the new film (“No, one movie for Twisted Sister is probably enough.”), about the movie “Blow” (“I was going to play Jordie Molla’s part until I pointed out that I’m not Spanish.”), and how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop (he sang the old ’70s commercial jingle in response) by the audience, and the whole time, he was beaming, having a great time.

What really made the panel special was at the very end, after his last question, when he explained that the first time around, he was so busy and so focused on the show and the character and the movies that he didn’t really pay attention to any of what was going on with the audience.  He never took any time to enjoy it, and then came the big break when he had to stop playing the character for a while, and now, finally, he’s been able to pick it up again.  And the difference is that this time, he’s become totally aware of just how much people love Pee-Wee, and what it means to them to see him play the part again, and this time, he’s enjoying it.  This time, he actually looks out at that audience when he’s doing it live, and he sees the faces of the people that grew up with the character, and he can feel the overwhelming affection, and it moves him. 

It moved me just to hear him talk about it, and I genuinely hope the new film is amazing and that when he does finally hang the suit up for the last time, he does so knowing that the character is eternal.