Like many kids of the ’80s, comedy writer Paul Rust grew up in awe of Pee-wee Herman, so when he received the call to help Paul Reubens stage a revival of the gray-suited boy wonder, it was a dream come true.
From countless hours of conversation and writing, the pair crafted wonderful and wacky movie “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” now available on Netflix.
Following the film’s rousing world premiere at SXSW, SPINOFF spoke with Rust about his path to “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” the lessons to be learned from other revivals, and how to do right by the world of Pee-wee Herman. I also asked the “Comedy Bang! Bang!” veteran about “Mac and Me” for reasons I still can’t explain.
Spinoff: What’s your first memory of Pee-wee Herman?
Paul Rust: I remember my mom rented “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and brought it home, and when I saw it, it felt like it came from a different planet. It was so funny, and I couldn’t believe something could be hitting a joy button over and over and over and over again. My main memory growing up was HBO would have these free HBO weekends for people who didn’t subscribe to it, as a way to kind of “you get your first taste for free but then you got to pay.”
I like that you’re describing this like a drug deal.
(Laughs) Yeah, somebody came over with a briefcase, knocked on the door. But HBO would always show their best stuff on those weekends. So, we would use our VCR to tape off the TV. And we’d tape “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” So that was the version I’d always watch. But because it was one of those free weekends they ran phone numbers across the bottom of the whole movie, so that was the version of “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” that I always grew up with. So when it finally came out on Blu-ray, I was like, “Where — where are the phone numbers?”
I have similar experiences of movies I never knew who was in them because we taped over the credits to make the most of the tape’s run time and fit more movies.
Or if you taped it on the TV with commercials, you’d pause during the commercials, so you don’t have the commercials. But then you forget to unpause it —
Right! And then you just lose a huge section of the movie! This is things that kids today are never going to understand.
Well, I thought about it a lot. I was a part of the first age group that had “priced to own” videocassettes. And so there are certain movies that I just watched 50 times, like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” or something. It was an experience unlike anything before it, where you could just watch the movie anytime you wanted to, as many times as you like.
So there’s been a lot of old properties brought back of late, including “Arrested Development,” “The Muppets” and “Fuller House.” Were you looking to any of these to try to figure out the do’s and don’ts of revival?
Yeah. I think the good thing about this is that it was a property that was being brought back but had the original creator involved. I had a certain amount of confidence in just Paul Reubens is the genius behind this, and if I just trust in him and his instincts about the movie and the character, things are going to be all right. And it turned out to be true. I mean, his instincts are so right on. It really benefited that it was the original creator and not just a property that got bought by a conglomerate and then I’m sitting in a room by myself trying to figure out “What Would Pee-wee Do?” So that helped.
It’s interesting. I feel like in the last year especially — in a way that really excites me — I feel like movies are trying to do a new twist if something is being brought back. So the revivals that I thought were most interesting were like “Jurassic World” and “The Force Awakens” that were kind of actively about taking the objects from the first one and trying to see it from a different angle. That was really cool. I mean, we’d already written the script and stuff were shooting the movie by the time those came out, but there’s certainly something in the zeitgeist.
Might those lessons be employed in future Pee-wee movies?
Yeah. Paul and I talked about it and we would love to do another Pee-wee movie if folks would let us. So, it’s certainly on the table.
So how did you come to cameo in “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday”?
Oh, that was Paul Reubens and the director John Lee and Judd Apatow the producer all being very nice and letting me have a part in the movie.
It wasn’t in your contract, like, “I’ll do this for you, but I need to be in the movie”?
(Laughs) No, no, no. I was just so thrilled because I got to be in the Pee-wee universe somehow. Also, my character’s name is Ernie, and Paul often names the characters in the Pee-wee universe with the last name “ee.” You know, like Pee-wee or Chairy or Conky or Mickey, so to get to be a part of that specific pantheon of characters was really great.
Nice! Like he took ownership of you.
Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
I’d like to hear about how you determined what characters would come to play in this movie, because as with every Pee-wee adventure, there were some really interesting characters from all across the nation here.
Paul and I, whether it was characters or premises for the movie or just gags and jokes, we just kept this huge document, a list of ideas. It was basically a sort of inverted-pyramid form of we started really wide and expansive and slowly narrowed things down until we had like an 85-page script. So, all the characters that he meets on the road are basically our top eight characters that we liked. Like, we knew we wanted to have these “Faster Pussycat”-style female criminals. We also liked the idea of an Amish village. We liked the idea of a mountain man. So, it was basically like what are the worlds we most want to see Pee-wee in? And then who are those characters. Then it ends up being really fun because you end up writing these kind of outlandish characters.
I remember I met Elvis Mitchell once, the film critic, and I told him I was co-writing this Pee-wee movie. And he said something really insightful, which was, “You know it’s interesting, Pee-wee often becomes the straight man. As wild a character as he is, he ends up being the straight man for wilder characters.” That was a nice little insight while we were writing. It does end up happening that Pee-wee becomes the normal one in comparison to this Katharine Hepburn-esque aviator who he meets on the road.
That’s a very good point. I think that’s maybe why as a kid you relate so much to Pee-wee, because he makes sense to us, but then the world doesn’t make sense to him.
Yeah, and I think what also occurred, to me at least — I would tell people this 20 years ago before I ever was even close to writing this Pee-wee movie — at the beginning of “Big Adventure” there’s this really great moment where he steps outside and he turns on the sprinkler and it starts spraying water into his neighbor’s house. In 99 percent of other comedies, it would be about that character is disrupting people’s lives and that’s what’s funny, like the Marx Brothers or Ace Ventura or whatever. But in Pee-wee’s world, when water starts spraying into the neighbor’s house, the neighbor waves to Pee-wee and laughs and says, “Good morning, Pee-wee!” I think I like the notion of, like, there’s nobody in Pee-wee’s world that points at him and goes, “What’s wrong with that freak?” And just being a kid, that’s sort of a utopian vision, like “Oh, I can let my freak flag fly and people will accept it,” I think that’s what kids connect to when they watch Pee-wee stuff.
Is there any bit of trivia about making this movie you want people to be aware of?
Huh. I guess one thing that I like is that we tried to reference the other Pee-wee movies and the TV show, but in a way that would be for the hardcore die-hard fans. So there’s a part in “Big Adventure” where there’s a movie theater with a marquis that reads “Cartoon Cavalcade,” and I always thought it was so funny that in Pee-wee’s world there was a movie theater that just shows cartoons. So in “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” if you look closely, there’s a movie theater that says “Cartoon Festival” on the marquis. […] So just little stuff like that. And someone says, “Do you hear that, the old highway’s a-calling,” and that’s a small line in “Big Adventure, ” where he says, “Well, I got to get out of here, the highway’s a-calling.” So just little things like that I hope people will appreciate.
Is the alien in the opening a “Mac and Me” reference?
(Laughs.) In terms of boys’ friendships with aliens, it was much more “Mac and Me” than “E.T.” Nah, it was an “E.T.” reference. Paul and I are huge fans of “E.T.” and we thought for a movie about friendship, it would be nice to pay a little homage to the ultimate movie about friendship, “E.T.”
OK. I get that. “Mac and Me” is an “E.T.” rip-off after all. But something about the design —
No, that’s true, because the eyes are so big, like Mac’s.
I’m at least glad you knew what I was talking about and weren’t like “What is “Mac and Me”?
Oh, no. My favorite thing about “Mac and Me” is that it ends with “to be continued.” I love it when a movie does that but doesn’t have a sequel. Like, they were so presumptuous! Like “America is going to love this movie. Let’s promise them a sequel.” Everybody is like, “I think we’ve had enough of ‘Mac and Me.’ We don’t need anymore.”
Is that your next dream project, a “Mac and Me” sequel?
Yeah (laughing), that‘s my dream project
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