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Remembering Author Larry Brown

We remember fireman turned writer Larry Brown. He died last week. He was 53. At the age of 29, Brown decided to become an author, and taught himself fiction writing. He moved from short stories for motorcycle magazines to critically acclaimed works in literary journals to a novel, Dirty Work.

08:30

Other segments from the episode on November 29, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 29, 2004: Interview with Paul Reubens; Obituary for Larry Brown.

Transcript

DATE November 29, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Paul Reubens discusses his character Pee-wee Herman
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "Pee-wee's Playhouse")

Unidentified Character #1: Hey, Pee-wee, do you know what time it is?

Mr. PAUL REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) It's fun time! It's fun time! Ha, ha!

GROSS: "Pee-wee's Playhouse," all five seasons--that's 45 episodes--has just
been released on DVD. It was broadcast as a Saturday morning kids' show from
1986 to '91. But its audience included a lot of adults, like me, who loved
the humor, the characters and the design. Our TV critic, David Bianculli,
describes the DVD collection as `packed with more entertainment and insanity
per minute than any release this side of the Looney Tunes collection.' We're
going to talk with Paul Reubens about creating his alter ego, Pee-wee Herman.
Reubens declined to talk about his past legal problems pertaining to charges
of indecent exposure in a Florida adult theater and his collection of erotic
photos.

"Pee-wee's Playhouse" had a great cast of characters. Even the inanimate
objects were alive. The chair, the window and the daisies on the windowsill
could all talk. A puppet band of beatnick-style hipsters played jazz, sang
and talked in rhymes. The food in the refrigerator was alive. And in each
episode, a robotlike boombox named Conky printed out a secret word.

(Soundbite of "Pee-wee's Playhouse")

(Soundbite of robot noises)

CONKY: Ready to assist you, Pee-wee.

Mr. REUBENS: (As Pee-wee) Morning, Conky. What's today's secret word?

(Soundbite of robot noises)

Mr. REUBENS: (As Pee-wee) Today's secret word is `good.' Ha, ha. Now you
all know what to do whenever anybody says the secret word, right?

CONKY and Characters: (In unison) Scream!

Mr. REUBENS: (As Pee-wee) That's right. For the rest of the day, if anybody
says the secret word, scream real loud. Ready? Let's try it. Ha, ha.
(Laughing)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. REUBENS: (As Pee-wee) Ha, ha. Hi, guys. What are you doing?

Unidentified Character #2: Hmm, cat's pounding out the beat.

Unidentified Character #3: And ...(unintelligible) with our feet.

Unidentified Character #4: Like that dancing, man.

Mr. REUBENS: (As Pee-wee) I can dig it. Hey, let me try rhyming.

Unidentified Character #2: Cool.

Mr. REUBENS: (As Pee-wee) I'd talk like you do if I could...

Unidentified Character #3: Come on, Pee-wee, you're doing good.

(Soundbite of bell and screaming)

Mr. REUBENS: (As Pee-wee) (Laughing)

Unidentified Character #2: A big scream is what we heard.

Unidentified Character #3: I must have said the secret word.

MAGIC SCREEN: This rhyming's fun, I agree, but now it's time to play with me.

Mr. REUBENS: (As Pee-wee) Hey, Magic Screen, that was good.

(Soundbite of bell and screaming)

GROSS: Let's hear the interview I recorded with Paul Reubens. I thought it
was pretty good.

(Soundbite of bell and screaming)

GROSS: Let's get--let's start at the very beginning of the birth of Pee-wee
Herman. How did you first create the character? I think this was back in The
Groundlings era when you were working with that improv comedy group.

Mr. REUBENS: Yeah. It was, I believe, 1977. I was three. And we were
doing a night where we were kind of doing an extended scene--what we called an
extended scene, and we were trying to do something where it was like a comedy
club like The Comedy Store or the Improv. And we were all supposed to be
different characters that you might see in a comedy club. So, I decided to be
the guy at the comedy club that everybody would, like, immediately know this
guy was never gonna make it as a comic. And part of it was because I couldn't
remember jokes in real life. I couldn't remember the punchline or I'd get
halfway through the joke and I was always the guy who'd be, like, `Oh. Oh,
wait. No, I forgot to tell you this part,' you know.

So, that's--and that character just sort of came out that night. I mean, I
borrowed a suit from the director of The Groundlings, Gary Austin. I borrowed
his suit, which had been made for him by a guy named Mr. J.(ph), if he's out
there listening, and somebody else gave me a little tiny bow tie. I had a
little one-inch-long harmonica that said `Pee-wee' on it, and I knew a kid
whose last name was Herman, and Pee-wee Herman sounded like the kind of name
you would never make up. It sounded like, you know, a totally real name,
like, made by somebody whose parents were, you know, didn't really care about
them.

GROSS: So, did you make up intentionally bad jokes?

Mr. REUBENS: You know, I don't think I even had jokes at the time. I think,
like, basically I had a paper bag full of toys, and I would bring them out and
just go, like, aah, hmm, aah. And, no, it was really sort of--kind of a
pathetic kind of act. I didn't do jokes for many, many years, and then I
finally--I think the first time I ever told a joke as Pee-wee was on David
Letterman's show. And I used to have--I loved really long jokes. So, it was,
like, a story that was a joke. And then I would, halfway through, go, like,
`Oh, I forgot this part,' and I'd have to go back, and it was just a big,
long, long, long joke where, fortunately for me, it was a really funny
punchline. So, just when you were listening to it going, `Oh, my God. If
this doesn't, like--if this isn't over in 30 seconds, I'm gonna shoot myself,'
there would be a really funny punchline, and it would all be OK.

GROSS: So, how did this really bad comic, Pee-wee Herman, develop into the
kid's show host Pee-wee Herman?

Mr. REUBENS: You know, I'm not sure there was much development involved. I
mean, I--that character got such a great response on the first night that it
ever appeared that I very quickly realized, like, this is something to pursue.
So, I did pursue that character. And in The Groundlings' review, I had about,
maybe a 10-minute slot as Pee-wee Herman. So, I had about 10 minutes worth of
here's my toys, and I threw Tootsie Rolls at people in the audience. And
about--I don't know--a year after I was doing it in The Groundlings review, I
was flown to New York to be one of the finalists for "Saturday Night Live,"
the year that the original--the last original cast member was gone. It was
the first year of an all-new cast. It was the Eddie Murphy-Joe Piscopo year.
And it was the first and only year that Lorne Michaels didn't produce. And I
was one of 22 finalists all across the country--Chicago, San Francisco, New
York and LA. And I flew to New York, and--with all my characters--I had,
like, my fat suit. I had a fat guy character and all my props and wigs. And
I walked in, and I realized almost immediately I wasn't gonna get it.
Somebody pulled me aside and said, `That guy over there is the producer's best
friend.' And it was somebody who did get on the show--whose name I won't
mention--who was very similar. I mean, we were both kind of like nerdy, dorky
guys.

So, I knew it wasn't gonna be both of us. And Pee-wee Herman--the Pee-wee
Herman show actually developed completely out of spite that I didn't get
"Saturday Night Live." I was so upset. And people--I literally was thinking
to myself, `I'm gonna go from this, like, up-and-comer guy to, like, you know,
the guy sitting out in front of Rite Aid, like, you know, tugging on your pant
leg, going, like, you know, `Can you help me out?' without ever having, you
know, anything going. So, before I even went home, I landed in Los Angeles
and called my parents and borrowed some money from them. And probably within
two weeks, I had 60 people working for me for free, and we produced that show.

GROSS: Well, let's talk about the creation of the Saturday morning version of
"Pee-wee's Playhouse."

Mr. REUBENS: OK.

GROSS: Let's start with your voice, since you're speaking to us on the radio.
Obviously, you didn't use your regular voice for the character of Pee-wee.
How did you arrive at that kind of high, laughy voice that you created?

Mr. REUBENS: You know, I had been doing--years before the creation of
Pee-wee Herman, I was--I worked at a theater that was the state theater of
Florida called the Oslo Theatre, which is still in existence, still a
fantastic place, which was in my hometown, Sarasota, Florida, and was based at
the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, which Sarasota, as you may or may
not know, was the former headquarters--the winter headquarters of the Ringling
Bros. Circus. So, there was a lot of Ringling influence there. And I had
been doing "Life With Father" in repertory with a bunch of other shows, and my
character--I was the second oldest son, not the star son, but the second
banana son, and over a three-month period--and I'm not bragging about this,
this probably wasn't a good thing--but my character developed into this total
cartoon character. And I didn't really even realize it, but, you know, three
months down the line somebody said, `Wow. Do you remember what you were
originally doing and what you're doing now?' And I was, like, `Wow.
That's--it is really different.' So, the voice came from that. That is
Pee-wee's voice. It was from, you know, `Good morning, mother,' you know,
`Blah, blah, blah.' And that became Pee-wee's voice.

GROSS: So...

Mr. REUBENS: I love that story.

GROSS: So from doing theater, you developed a voice for Pee-wee?

Mr. REUBENS: Yeah. You sound incredulous.

GROSS: Well, it sounds like it must have been pretty cartoony by the time it
was done.

Mr. REUBENS: It was. It was pretty cartoony.

GROSS: How did that happen? Did you not like the play?

Mr. REUBENS: You know, I don't know. No, I loved the play. I thought it
was a really great play. I think I just wasn't very professional. I was an
idiot.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. REUBENS: I really didn't know what, you know, I didn't know you weren't
supposed to, like, change it completely into a cartoon. It was
unwitting--unwittingly? I did it unwittingly, Terry.

GROSS: Now, the way you looked as Pee-wee Herman with your hair slicked back
and the face makeup with the rouge and a little bit of lipstick, reminded me
almost of, like, a silent film star, like a really nerdy version of a silent
film star. It was something almost, you know, like, Valentino with the
slicked back hair. And I always assumed that those guys wore, like, a little
lipstick and rouge, too, you know, in the black and white movies. Were you
thinking about that, as well, visually?

Mr. REUBENS: I didn't feel like I was back--I was around back then. You
know, I was a big fan of a bunch of people, but not really. I--whatever
happened I think must have been kind of subliminal with me because I never
really--once Pee-wee Herman was successful and people knew Pee-wee Herman,
then people wrote quite often, you know, Eddie Cantor or...

GROSS: Right. Right.

Mr. REUBENS: ...who was the other person?--like, some of the--like Harold
Lloyd, some of the silent people you're talking about. Even Pinky Lee, who I
had seen as a kid, but I--I mean, and Jerry Lewis, who--if you're listening,
Jerry, I know you're not a silent star--but, I don't--I'm sure that all those
elements had some sort of play on it, but I never really tried to, like, look
like anybody in particular. And the makeup, really, was kind of, like, I
just didn't have a makeup artist. I mean, I did it myself. So, it--I wasn't
really trying to look like I had lipstick or rouge on; I was just, like, I
didn't know how to do it.

GROSS: Now, your body...

Mr. REUBENS: I love that story, too.

GROSS: As Pee-wee Herman, your body was just, like, really kind of tight and
a little jerky, and you would always be, like, leaning to one side or your
head would be, you know, angled at one side. You'd often, like, stick your
tongue out if you were concentrating in the way that kids often do. Was there
a particular, like, kid you modeled yourself on as Pee-wee?

Mr. REUBENS: No. There really wasn't. I think it was just a blend of lots
of people I knew and kind of, like, a lot of who I really was down deep
somewhere I think.

GROSS: How deep?

Mr. REUBENS: Hmm. Not that deep.

GROSS: My guest is Paul Reubens. All 45 episodes of "Pee-wee's Playhouse"
have been released on DVD. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Paul Reubens. He's best known for creating the character
Pee-wee Herman. All 45 episodes of "Pee-wee's Playhouse" have just been
released on DVD. One of the features of the show was snack time. In this
episode, Pee-wee's eating at a salad bar.

(Soundbite of "Pee-wee's Playhouse")

Mr. REUBENS: (As Pee-wee) Ha, ha. (Laughing) Aah! What's this? Ha, ha.
Looks like a brain. Ha, ha. Cauliflower. (Laughing) La, la, mm, mm.
Onions. (Laughing) Green peppers. Radishes. Now, the beans. Ha, ha. Green
beans. Mmm. Garbanzo beans and pinto beans. Ha, ha. (Laughing) Now, mmm,
mushrooms. Sure hope these aren't the poison kind. Ahh! (Makes choking
noises) Aah! Ha, ha. Just kidding. Hmm. Ha, ha. Three enough? Six too
many? Hmm.

GROSS: Can we talk a little bit about the look of "Pee-wee's Playhouse"? It
was just such a fantastic set of images, you know, bright colors, all kinds
of, like, shapes, and everything was--everything was alive in it, you know,
like the chair had arms that could embrace the person sitting in it, and the
chair talked, and the window talked. Who--how was the look designed and were
you a part of that?

Mr. REUBENS: Were you taking some kind of psychedelic drug when you watched
that show? No, I'm just kidding, Terry. The look of the show really had a
lot to do with an artist named Gary Panter, who designed the original stage
version of it and designed much of the--was really the overall production
designer and created the look of the show--the television version of it. He
was somebody who--when I was really creating that character in the early days
of Pee-wee Herman, it was kind of like the punk scene in Los Angeles, and he
was kind of one of the premiere punk artists, and I had seen a lot of his
work. He was in a publication called the LA Weekly.

GROSS: And then Raw magazine, that Art Spiegelman edited.

Mr. REUBENS: Exactly. And I had seen a lot of his work, and I loved his
work. And I contacted him and asked him if he would do a poster for a show
that I hadn't created yet. And he said, `Well, why don't I do the
poster'--well, actually he said, `Well, why don't I come down and see what it
is.' So, he came down and saw me in The Groundlings show where I had my
little 10-minute Pee-wee thing and came backstage and said, `I'd love to do
it, but why don't I do the whole thing? Why don't I design the sets and the
puppets and everything?' And I said, `Yeah. Great.' So he designed that.
And then when we got the deal with CBS a few years later to do it as a real
television series, he came on board. He was the first person I hired and
said, you know, you've gotta do this set. So, it was--I mean, the rest is
history I guess. But it--you know, I think it's probably the most amazing
aspect of the show--in my opinion--is the design of it. It was just so
startlingly incredible in my opinion.

GROSS: Now you said that one of the things you really loved about the
character of Pee-wee Herman was that he showed that it was OK to be different.
What did you feel was most different about you when you were growing up?

Mr. REUBENS: You know, I guess I felt like a total oddball, like, almost
every minute of growing up, so it would be hard to kind of isolate that. But
I mean, I think that sort of was the whole point of the show or at least the
big point of the show was that, like, you know, it would be hard to stand out
in the Playhouse, you know. Like, everything stood out in the Playhouse, so
you could sort of feel right at home no matter who you are or what you were
thinking or anything.

GROSS: Tell us a little bit about what your childhood was like, where you
grew up and what your school years were like. Were you uncomfortable in
school? Did you do well in school? Were you picked on?

Mr. REUBENS: Well, I grew up in an orphanage, and...

GROSS: Oh, stop.

Mr. REUBENS: Oh, OK.

GROSS: No, you didn't.

Mr. REUBENS: No, I didn't. Oh, no, that was my fantasy character, sorry. I
grew up in upstate New York, Oneonta, New York, until we moved in fourth--when
I was in fourth--in between third and fourth grade, we moved, which was, like,
a huge relief to me, because Mrs. Lake(ph) that I had in third grade was
really mean to me and scared the hell out of me as far as math goes. Like, I
still, to this day, if I got to add or subtract anything, I almost go into a
coma.

So we moved--so I had an incredible upbringing in upstate New York, which
included--the New York State Teachers College is in Oneonta, and there was a
laboratory school that my sister and I went to, and we had junior kindergarten
and senior kindergarten, which I think was an incredible confidence booster
for, like, a little kid. You started at four in junior kindergarten, and by
the time you were five, you were already a senior at something, so you could
always be, like, `Those little junior kids in, you know, junior kindergarten,'
which was very cool to not have to wait till, like, you know, going from, you
know, eighth grade to ni--you didn't have to wait to get to sixth grade to be,
like, you know, the big cheese. You got to do that at five.

And we lived in a really small town where there was lots of nature and
animals, and we had a little creek with a crab apple tree across the street.
I'm going to burst into tears in a second. It was really like a very
storybook kind of upbringing, and then we moved to Florida. And moving to
Florida was, like, incredible. I thought we moved to Hawaii. I thought we
were in the tropics or something. And my mother took us to go get
back-to-school clothes, and I bought all these beachcomber outfits, so I
showed for the first day of school in fourth grade in Florida with, like, clam
digger pants on and these nautical shirts and, like, a total freak. And the
kids at school were, like, `What are you supposed to be?' And the thing that
was funny about it in hindsight is, like, normally, in that kind of situation,
kids would probably--you would probably go, like, `Oh, oh, sorry, you know, I
didn't know what it was'--but me, I was totally, like, `Don't you get it? I'm
a beachcomber. You know, what's wrong with you guys?' And instead, like, the
next day, I like put on another variation of the same outfit and put it on and
got back to school and was, like, you know, `These kids are going to come
around or they're not, whatever, but I'm not changing.'

GROSS: Was this your theatrical impulse expressing itself?

Mr. REUBENS: I think it was, yeah, at a very early stage.

GROSS: Paul Reubens will be back in the second half of the show. All 45
episodes of "Pee-wee's Playhouse" have just been released on DVD. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of "Big Top Pee-wee")

Mr. REUBENS: (Singing) She's the girl on the flying trapeze.

GROSS: That's Paul Reubens singing in the movie "Big Top Pee-wee." Coming
up, Reubens talks about growing up near the headquarters of the Ringling
Bros. Circus, and we remember writer Larry Brown. He died last week at the
age of 53. We'll hear an interview recorded in 1990, the year he gave up his
job as a firefighter to write full-time.

(Soundbite of "Big Top Pee-wee")

Mr. REUBENS: (Singing) ...trapeze. She's the girl on the flying trapeze.
She's the sweetest thing that's ever blown in with the breeze. And if you see
her, tell her that I'm in love with her. She's the girl on the flying
trapeze. Hey!

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Paul Reubens, creator
of the character Pee-wee Herman. His series, "Pee-wee's Playhouse," was
broadcast on CBS Saturday mornings from 1986 to '91 and won 22 Emmys. The
complete series has just been released on DVD.

(Soundbite of music)

Characters: (Singing in unison) Playhouse, Playhouse on the range, where
things are a little bit strange, where seldom is heard the secret word...

"COW": And the cows are all happy all day.

GROSS: That was the characters in "Pee-wee's Playhouse" serenading Pee-wee.

When we left off, Paul Reubens was talking about moving with his family to
Sarasota, Florida, when he was in fourth grade.

So when you moved to Sarasota, which you said was the winter headquarters for
Ringling Bros. Circus did you meet any circus people?

Mr. REUBENS: Oh, I met lots of circus people. I mean, for one thing, you
could see the circus people coming down the street, you know, like the lady
with the bright red hair and the wooden shoes, you know? It would be
obviously a circus person. I mean, you could just tell that they were very
show-business people in a very conservative small town. So you could tell who
they were. We rented a little house the first year we moved to Sarasota, and
we used to hear these explosions all the time, and we never could figure out
what they were. And one day a couple weeks after we moved, our whole family
was walking to--we took a walk one night after dinner, and we heard this
explosion, and we looked in between these two homes. We saw somebody flying
through the air in between these two homes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: And it turned out that it was the Zacchini family, and they
were the family with the giant silver cannon. And they were shooting each
other out of a cannon in the back yard. And, in fact...

GROSS: That's so bizarre.

Mr. REUBENS: ...years later, when I made my circus movie, we went back to
Sarasota and re-created that cannon.

GROSS: For "Big Top Pee-wee?"

Mr. REUBENS: Yeah.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. REUBENS: Don't you love that story?

GROSS: Did you want to be in the circus after seeing this?

Mr. REUBENS: I did. You know, I actually thought that if--I've been asked,
like, `What would have happened if you weren't successful as Pee-wee Herman?
What would you have done?' And I really thought I was headed for a career in
the circus.

GROSS: As?

Mr. REUBENS: As the pinheaded guy. No, the unfunny guy. The guy who--I
don't know. I knew how to walk a tightrope. I could do trapeze.

GROSS: Could you really walk a tightrope?

Mr. REUBENS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: How'd you learn that?

Mr. REUBENS: Why would I make that up, Terry?

GROSS: I don't know.

Mr. REUBENS: I went to circus camp I was young.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. REUBENS: Mm-hmm, I swear.

GROSS: And did you ever do the circus barker rap?

Mr. REUBENS: No, I never did that. I considered briefly covering my body
with tattoos, but I didn't do that, which is a good thing now because, you
know, everybody has that now.

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. REUBENS: So it wouldn't really be, like--you know, it'd be sad if I did
that. I did--like, I started out, I had a balance beam act. My parents
showed up to circus camp when we were putting on a show, and I had on, like, a
little Speedo bathing suit. And I'd get up on the balance beam with a
blindfold on and, like, set these, like, rings on fire and do this completely
insane act. Like, I pulled the blindfold off and looked at my parents. They
were both sitting up in the bleachers with their mouths open, like, `What have
we created?' You know, like totally--I think that was probably an early
tip-off to them that I wasn't going to be an architect.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So were you inhibited or extroverted as a kid?

Mr. REUBENS: One or the other?

GROSS: Or something in between.

Mr. REUBENS: You know, honestly, I think I was probably a little of each. I
was sort of schizzy when I was a kid. I would be, like, very introverted
and, you know, up in my room by myself. And then I would be, like, the life
of the party, you know, like gathering all the kids around to, like--we had a
little stage in our basement that my dad built me once he realized he was
raising a little monster actor. So the kids in the neighborhood would come
over and try to figure out, like, what was the teeniest part they could give,
so they could use the stage. So we would do, like, these murder mysteries
where, like, the opening of the show would be me getting pushed offstage into
a vat of acid. And then I would be like--you know, my part would be over, and
then all the older kids would, like, do the show. It wasn't till later in
life I realized--you know, I'd come in and go, like, `You've met my attorney,
right?'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: So let's see--`yeah, talk to them.'

GROSS: What TV shows did you watch as a kid?

Mr. REUBENS: You know, I was part of an early study on the effects of
television on children when I was going to that school in upstate New York I
mentioned. I remember being in first or second grade and having some
scientists come into our class to ask us questions about, like, what shows we
liked. And my--all the rest of the kids were like, `"Mickey Mouse Club" and
"Howdy Doody."' And my favorite show was "I Love Lucy." And so I got, like,
selected out of the whole class. I had to go in--you know, leave the
classroom and go to an office and listen to a bunch of scientists go, like,
`Well, what was it about the "I Love Lucy" show, you know, that attracts you?
And who do you like better, Lucy or Desi or Ethel or Fred?' And, you know, I
was, like, in second grade; I didn't know any--I just thought, like, `Well, I
like the show. Just 'cause I like the show.' That's a long way to answer. I
didn't even answer your question.

I watched--in addition to "I Love Lucy," when I was really young, I watched--I
loved "The Mickey Mouse Club," I loved "Captain Kangaroo," and I loved "Howdy
Doody." I was even on the "Howdy Doody Show." My mother drove me and my
sister to New York, and we were on the "Howdy Doody" show.

GROSS: In the Peanut Gallery?

Mr. REUBENS: Mm-hmm. Somebody knows the "Howdy Doody Show" good.
Impressive.

GROSS: What was it like to be inside rather than watching it on the TV?

Mr. REUBENS: Very confusing. I remember my sister was so freaked out, she
burst into tears right before the show, and she had to be, like, put in an
isolation booth. She didn't make it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: She didn't make it on the air, but I did. I was like, `After
this drive, you gotta be kidding. Try to ax me from the show. Forget it.' I
was right up in there. But the thing that was weird about it was, like, you
couldn't see Howdy Doody. You couldn't see anything except, like, all the
lights and cameras. And, I mean, it was just really weird and kind of semi
disappointing.

GROSS: Why was it disappointing? Oh, 'cause you couldn't see.

Mr. REUBENS: Yeah, just 'cause I didn't realize that there were lights and
cameras. And, you know, it's something interesting. Like, from that
experience, I now kind of--when I meet little kids, you know, out and about,
like, for--like, we did the DVD signing the other day here in Manhattan, and a
thousand fans showed up. And I spoke to lots and lots of people, including
some kids, who would, you know, be just sort of staring at me, and I know
enough now to say, like, `I don't look like myself, do I?' You know? And, `I
look bigger,' and that kind of stuff because, you know, when you're a kid,
like--it didn't occur to me that everything was real life-size. You know, I
thought Buffalo Bob was, like, you know, the size of somebody who could fit
inside the TV.

GROSS: My guest is Paul Reubens. All 45 episodes of "Pee-wee's Playhouse"
have just been released on DVD. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Reubens. And he created
Pee-wee Herman and played Pee-wee Herman. And now all of the "Pee-wee's
Playhouse" episodes that aired on television are collected on DVD for the
first time.

You were on "The Gong Show" before the creation of Pee-wee Herman, and it was
a kind of vaudeville type of act. I don't think--I used to watch "The Gong
Show," but I don't remember your act. Can you tell us something about the act
and about where it got you? Did you get anything by virtue of having been on
"The Gong Show."

Mr. REUBENS: I did a whole bunch of different acts on "The Gong Show," and I
think of those times very fondly. I was a big fan of "The Gong Show." I was
proud to be on "The Gong Show." A woman named Charlotte McGinis, who
was--I went to Boston University for a year before I went to California
Institute of the Arts. And I was in the acting school at BU, and when--I
left after a year, but I kept in touch with a core group of people. And
someone who came in the year after I left was this girl who I then met three
or four years later when all the people graduated from BU and they all came
out to California. And she had just been on "The Gong Show," and I met her.
And the first thing she said to me was, like, `Do you have any interest in
being on "The Gong Show"? I'm looking for a partner to do something on "The
Gong Show."' And so that was kind of me going, `OK, I'll try comedy.' I
mean, I had done comedy, but I hadn't really been focusing on it. I was much
more of a serious actor, the James Dean kind of school. And...

GROSS: That's funny, I mean, because your image is so not that right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: Well, I had a different image and a different image of myself at
that time. And so she had said, you know, `You can join the union after
you've been on "The Gong Show" more than one time. The second time, you join
the union,' which is what she was trying to do. And you get paid. Once you
join the union, you get paid for the performance. So I was on "The Gong Show"
about 15 times, and she and I did--we had an act called the Hilarious Betty
and Eddie. And we did that on "The Gong Show." We won. We won $500. And
then we--they asked us to come back and do it on the nighttime version, which
meant I was automatically going to join the union and get paid more money--or
get paid, and we won again on the nighttime show.

And Arte Johnson said--was one of the judges from "Laugh-In," and he said,
`What are their names? What are their names again?' And Chuck Barris said,
`Betty and Eddie.' And he said, `Well, Betty and Eddie, we're going to hear
from them in the future.' And I literally ran out of the studio and called my
parents. I was so excited about it. You know, `Arte Johnson recognized us!'

And being part of this duo act and coming up with material for "The Gong Show"
then led me into the Groundlings, which was an improvisational group which had
a real bent towards writing and character creation. And it was pretty early
in my career where I realized, like, `No one's going to do this for me,' you
know. Like, that I needed to write, that I needed to create my own vehicle
and create material. And, you know, anyone who's thinking about this kind of
career, I would encourage that, really, because you can wait a long, long,
long, long time for that, you know, fictional--or for that person who's going
to come and discover you and go, `What's your name? Oh, my God! You know,
you're going to be a big star.' It just very, very rarely happens like that.
So I think, you know, if you're waiting around, you know, you might spend some
of that time coming up with some ideas and putting them on a piece of paper.

GROSS: You are working on a couple of other Pee-wee Herman-related movies, I
think. Can you tell us anything about those?

Mr. REUBENS: I'm doing--I have two Pee-wee scripts. One is a spinoff of the
television series we're talking about, the "Playhouse." It's basically
"Pee-wee's Playhouse: The Movie." And we'll sort of see for the very
first time what's outside of the Playhouse, which we've never--we talk
about Puppetland, but we've never really seen it and what's all the
characters that live in the playhouse and that visit the Playhouse. So it's
sort of like an epic "Wizard of Oz" kind of adventure film.

And then the other one is what I refer to as the dark Pee-wee movie. It's
kind of the "Valley of the Dolls" Pee-wee movie, which I think is the one
that's going to get made first. And that, at this point, is just waiting for
a rewrite. I just have to sit down and finish rewriting it, and then it's
going to get made.

GROSS: And you're working on a Western also?

Mr. REUBENS: Yes, I'm developing a Western television series for Showtime,
but I can't really talk too much about it. There's not too much information
about it yet.

GROSS: And you'd star in it?

Mr. REUBENS: I don't know. I think so.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Riding a horse, use your circus experience?

Mr. REUBENS: I did a Western actually. I did a Western called "South of
Heaven, West of Hell" with--it was Dwight Yoakam's movie. He wrote it,
produced it, directed it and starred in it. And so I got to go to Arizona and
live out my, you know, playing cowboy fantasy.

GROSS: And it wasn't a comedy?

Mr. REUBENS: No, hmm-mm. No. In fact, a lot of people had seen that film
and gone, like, `Where were you? I didn't--were you cut from it?' And I'm in
it all the way through. I'm just almost unrecognizable.

GROSS: Paul Reubens, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. REUBENS: Terry, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. And I had a
lot of fun.

GROSS: Paul Reubens. All 45 episodes of "Pee-wee's Playhouse" have just been
released on DVD. A chance to see all of the Playhouse characters, including
the genie.

(Soundbite of "Pee-wee's Playhouse")

(Soundbite of music)

GENIE: How about that wish, Pee-wee? Use it or lose it.

Mr. REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) Let's see, what should I wish for?

(Characters yell out suggestions)

Unidentified Man: How about a team of horses, Pee-wee?

Mr. REUBENS: (As Pee-wee Herman) I know. I wish that all of you will come
back again next week.

GENIE: All right. Everyone, repeat after me: mecca lecca hi, mecca heini
ho.

Characters: (In unison) Mecca lecca hi, mecca heini ho. Mecca lecca hi,
mecca heini ho.

GENIE: Now everyone at home, mecca lecca hi, mecca heini ho.

Characters: (In unison) Mecca lecca hi, mecca heini ho. Mecca lecca hi,
mecca heini ho. Mecca lecca hi, mecca heini ho.

GROSS: Well, I have a wish. I wish I could hear some good music. Wait, I
can. I'll play some music by Billy Strayhorn. He was born 89 years ago
today. Strayhorn collaborated with Duke Ellington for nearly 30 years from
1939 to his death in 1967 at the age of 51. He wrote or co-wrote many of the
songs you may have assumed were written by Ellington, including "Take The `A'
Train," "Satin Doll," "Lush Life" and "Chelsea Bridge." Here's a 1942
recording of the Ellington Orchestra playing Strayhorn's composition "Johnny
Come Lately."

(Soundbite of "Johnny Come Lately")

GROSS: Coming up, we remember the writer Larry Brown. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Remembering Larry Brown, who died last week at age 53
TERRY GROSS, host:

We're going to remember the writer Larry Brown. He died last week of a heart
attack at the age of 53. When Brown sat down to write his first novel in
1980, he was a fireman in Mississippi with a high school education. For five
years he wrote late into the night while continuing to work as a fireman and
holding down a second job to support his wife and two children. During this
period he completed five novels, which brought him only rejection slips. But
in 1988, Algonquin Press, a small literary press in North Carolina, published
a collection of short stories called "Facing the Music." The following
year Algonquin published his novel "Dirty Work" about two Vietnam vets.

Brown went on to win the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for
literature, the Southern Critics Circle Award for fiction and the Thomas Wolf
Award. I spoke with him in 1990, the year he quit his job as a firefighter to
write full-time. He had just published a book of short stories called "Big
Bad Love." We started with a reading from his story "Falling Out of Love."
As the story opens, the narrator and his girlfriend are walking down a road
looking for help. Their car has two flat tires, and they're kind of lost and
kind of angry at each other.

Mr. LARRY BROWN (Author): (Reading) `Sheena baby(ph) didn't hurt for me like
I hurt for her. I knew it. I'd thought about shooting her first and me
second, but that wouldn't have done either one of us any good. There wouldn't
be nothing but a short article in the paper that strangers could read and
shake their heads over, then turn to the sports. Loves goes wrong. It
happens every day. You don't need to kill yourself for love if you can help
it, but sometimes it's hard not to. If we'd had inflated tires, I could have
got her off over in the woods somewhere, put some Thin Lizzy on, told her how
we could work it out; told her not only to be my baby but to be my own only.
Later, in the dark, we could have moved together. But she didn't love me, and
I could see that finally. So I decided to be real nasty to her. I said, "You
just don't want to listen to anybody." She said, "I about had it with your
damned mouth." "Jam it," I said. "Kiss my ass," she said. "Make it bare," I
said, hoping she would, but she didn't. And we walked off in different
directions.

I didn't know why something that started off feeling so good had to wind up
feeling so bad. Love was a big word, and it covered a lot of territory. You
could spend your whole life chasing after it and wind up with nothing, be an
old, bitter guy with a long nose and ear hair and no teeth, hanging out in
bars looking for somebody your age. But the chances of success went down
then. After a while you got too many strikes against you.'

GROSS: What got you started writing?

Mr. BROWN: Well, to be honest, I thought when I started that it might be
possible to make some money doing it. I had been a fireman for about six
years, I guess, and I had--but mainly I had been a big reader all my life.
Ever since I was a small child, I had loved to read. I didn't care anything
about education. I only--I just barely got out of high school. I failed
English my senior, as a matter of fact, and had to go to summer school to get
my diploma. But I had been wondering about the process for a long time of how
people learned to write. I knew that, you know, somebody sat down in a room
somewhere with a typewriter, and he started writing a novel, and he just made
it out of nothing. I mean, there's nothing before he wrote the novel, and
after he finished the novel, there's a book. And I wondered how people
learned how to do that, and I wondered if I could learn how to do it.

And so after I thought about it for a long time, I decided I would finally try
it. And I sat down and started writing a novel in 1980, you know, just about
10 years ago this month. And so I was under the impression that the novel
would be published, you know, as soon as I finished it, and I mailed it off to
a publishing house in New York. And, of course, it came right back; nobody
wanted it. And I sent it around enough times to realize that it was not going
to be taken. And I said, `Well, I'll write another one.' So I wrote another;
it wasn't taken either. And about that time it began to dawn on me that there
was an apprenticeship period that a writer had to go through, and nobody
really knew how long it would take. But I just decided that I was going to
stay with it for as long as it took because I had started enjoying what I was
doing tremendously, inventing all these characters and situations.

GROSS: What were your early stories and novels like? What were they about?

Mr. BROWN: Well, the first one I wrote was about a man-eating bear in
Yellowstone National Park. It was a place I'd never been to. The second one
was about some boys up in Tennessee who were going to plant a big patch of
marijuana and sell it. And the third one--I can't remember that much about
it, but I burned it, it was so bad. And the fourth one was about a boxer told
from the first person. And the fifth one was about a one-armed guy who was a
wood cutter, and he accidentally killed a game warden. And he got in a whole
bunch of trouble over it. And I wrote those, I guess, between 1980 and 1985,
yeah, covered a period of five years there. And it was 1986 before I started
writing "Dirty Work."

GROSS: You know, your story about the man-eating bear in Yellowstone National
Park, there's a character in one of your short stories in the new collection
who writes that story.

Mr. BROWN: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: This is a character who's teaching himself how to write.

Mr. BROWN: Yeah. I used that--I kind of stuck that in there on purpose, and
that's basically the plot line of what my first novel was. But it was really
poorly written. No, it's so bad that now I can't stand to look at it.

GROSS: But you still have it.

Mr. BROWN: I've still got it, yeah. I keep it as a reminder.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you get any enjoyment out of the work? Was there anything that
you liked about the job?

Mr. BROWN: The best feeling about being a fireman is when you can stop a fire
in somebody's home before it gets to the point that it damages all their
irreplaceable items, like pictures, you know, momentos, things like that. And
the worst part was the death that you see. You know, that's always the worst
thing, fire deaths.

GROSS: Were you a good fireman? Did you think you were good at it?

Mr. BROWN: I think I was. My only problem is that I'm fairly small
physically. You know, I don't weigh but about 140 pounds, and often I worked
alongside guys who weighed 200, 220 pounds. But mainly I was a driver and a
pump operator after I graduated up from being a nozzleman, although whenever
we would have something, I would wind up in the house anyway most of the time.
I finally made captain, and then I was--you know, I could oversee a whole
operation then and sort of run the whole thing. So I was really involved in
all the aspects of it.

GROSS: Was there an editor who encouraged you early on?

Mr. BROWN: Well, there were a lot of editors who started writing me letters
about my stories around 1984 and 1985, but it wasn't until 1987 that I met the
lady who is my editor now, Shannon Ravenel at Algonquin. She saw a short
story that I published in the Mississippi Review in 1987, and she wrote me
a letter. And I didn't know that a publishing company called Algonquin
existed, but she wrote me this really nice letter and said she liked my story
a whole lot. And she was senior editor at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, and
she wanted to know if I had enough stories to make a book, like a collection.
And it was like, you know, just the greatest thing that had happened to me.
And I wrote back. I said, `Yeah, I've got a hundred. How many would you like
to see?'

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Larry Brown recorded in 1990. He died last Wednesday of a heart
attack. He was 53.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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