A (beloved) loner, a rebel: Paul Reubens (1952-2023)

Written by Andrea Domanick

Paul Reubens, who hosted The Pee-wee Herman Radio Hour on KCRW in 2021, defined a generation with his humor, creativity, style, and, of course, music taste. Photo by Mario Anzuoni/Reuters.

Paul Reubens, the comedian, actor, artist, and children’s entertainer best known for portraying Pee-wee Herman, died Sunday night after a private battle with cancer, according to a statement posted to Reuben’s social media. He was 70 years old. 

“Please accept my apology for not going public with what I’ve been facing the last six years,” wrote Reubens in the statement, posted after his death. “I have always felt a huge amount of love and respect from my friends, fans and supporters. I have loved you all so much and enjoyed making art for you.”

The post continued: “Last night we said farewell to Paul Reubens, an iconic American actor, comedian, writer and producer whose beloved character Pee-wee Herman delighted generations of children and adults with his positivity, whimsy and belief in the importance of kindness. Paul bravely and privately fought cancer for years with his trademark tenacity and wit. A gifted and prolific talent, he will forever live in the comedy pantheon and in our hearts as a treasured friend and man of remarkable character and generosity of spirit.”

More: ‘Let the artists take over the asylum’: Pee-Wee Herman remembered

Reubens spent his childhood in both New York and Florida before attending Boston University and decamping to Southern California to attend acting school at California Institute of the Arts. In the 1970s, Reubens cut his teeth performing at local comedy clubs and joined the iconic LA improv comedy troupe The Groundlings, of which he was a member for six years. 

As a member of The Groundlings, he began developing the fictional character Pee-wee Herman, originally conceived for a sketch as an inept, wannabe stand-up comic. Reubens debuted The Pee-wee Herman Show in 1981 as a stage production at The Roxy in LA, where it was filmed by HBO and broadcast on the network later that year, introducing the eccentric, beloved character to a national audience.

More: The Pee-wee Herman Radio Hour on KCRW

Subsequent success culminated in Reubens bringing Herman to the big screen with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in 1985, directed by Tim Burton and scored by Danny Elfman. The film was a commercial and critical success. Reubens went on to create the Saturday morning children’s television show Pee-wee’s Playhouse for CBS, which aired for five seasons from 1986 to 1990. The show earned 22 Emmy nominations, including 14 for Reubens himself, two of which he won. 

The Pee-wee character’s legacy endured over the decades, including a return to the big screen with 1988’s Big Top Pee-wee, the 2015 Judd Apatow-produced Netflix film Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, and an updated revival of The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway in the 2010s. 

In 2021, Reubens brought Pee-wee to the airwaves with The Pee-wee Herman Radio Hour on KCRW, produced by Maximum Fun. The special featured Reubens in character as Pee-wee, blending his trademark slapstick with appearances from characters within the Pee-wee universe and a DJ set featuring classic soul and more music beloved by Pee-wee and Reubens alike. 

Paul Reubens on KCRW

The Pee-wee Herman Radio Hour on KCRW

Pee-wee Herman on KCRW’s Guest DJ Project

Paul Reubens on KCRW's Guest DJ Project

Paul Reubens on The Treatment