Pee-wee Herman grew up in Sarasota, Florida, where his
parents owned a lamp store. During winters, The Ringling
Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus called Sarasota home, and
young Paul counted such big-top families as the Wallendas and
the Zacchinis among his neighbors. The circus sparked his
interest in entertainment. When he was 11 years old, he joined
the local Asolo Theater, and during the next six years, he
appeared in a variety of plays. After graduating from Sarasota
High School in 1970, he attended Boston University for one year
before deciding to seek his fortune in Hollywood, where he
enrolled as an acting major at the California Institute of the
Arts and accepted a string of pay-the-rent jobs ranging from
pizza chef to Fuller Brush salesman.
In the 1970s, Pee-wee Herman performed at local comedy clubs and made four guest appearances on The Gong Show. He soon joined the Los Angeles-based improvisational comedy team The Groundlings and remained a member for six years, working with Bob McClurg, John Paragon, Susan Barnes, and Phil Hartman. Hartman and Herman became friends, often writing and working on material together. Herman wrote sketches and developed his improvisational skills. He also forged a significant friendship and working relationship with Hartman, with whom he developed the "Pee-wee Herman" character. Pee-Wee was an eccentric man-child in a gray houndstooth suit which is a size too small for him, a short sleeved white shirt, and a small red clip on bow tie, with a buzz cut and a perpetually giddy disposition. His distinctive "Ha Ha" laugh became the character's catch phrase.
Pee-wee Herman auditioned for Saturday Night Live for the 1980-1981 season (along with future stars Jim Carrey, John Goodman, Dom Irrera, and Robert Townsend), but wasn't accepted into the cast. Instead, he started a stage show with the Herman character. Originally, Herman imbued "Pee-wee" with a s--uality that was later toned down as the character made the transition from raucous night club to children's television (though s--ual innuendo was still readily apparent, especially with the "Cowboy Curtis" and "Miss Yvonne" segments; Curtis was played by actor Laurence Fishburne and Miss Yvonne was played by Lynne Marie Stewart). The stage show was immortalized by HBO when The Pee-Wee Herman Show was aired in 1981.
The show featured the writing and acting of Groundlings alums Phil Hartman and John Paragon, who would both reprise their characters on Pee-wee's Playhouse. The Pee-wee Herman Show played for 5 sellout months at The Roxy Theatre in L.A., where upon HBO filmed it and aired it as a special on September 11, 1981.
In 1980, Pee-wee Herman landed a small role in the film The Blues Brothers. He also appeared in Cheech and Chong's Next Movie in 1980 and Nice Dreams in 1981, and Meatballs Part II in 1984 with Misty Rowe.
While on a Warner Bros. set, Pee-wee Herman noticed that most of the people rode around on bicycles, and asked when he would get his. Warner Bros. presented him with a refurbished 1940s Schwinn; Herman then abandoned the Pee-Wee Herman script he was writing in favor of one about Herman's love for his bike and his efforts to locate it once it was stolen. Hartman, Herman and Michael Varhol co-wrote the script for Pee-wee's Big Adventure, and in 1985 the film, directed by Tim Burton, was released. Pee-Wee was the originator of the "Pee-wee dance" in the movie.
The following year (1986), Pee-wee (along with Hartman) found a home on the small screen with the Saturday-morning children's program Pee-Wee's Playhouse on the American CBS network for the next five years (Hartman, Shirley Stoler, Johann Carlo, Gilbert Lewis and Roland Rodriguez only appeared on the show for the first 13 episodes before their characters were dropped from the show). In the case of Lewis, he was fired and a new actor, William Marshall, was hired to play the King of Cartoons. The show starred Pee-Wee living in a wild and wacky house, known as the Playhouse, full of talking chairs, animals, robots, and other puppet and human characters. During the time Pee-Wee's Playhouse aired it garnered 22 Emmy Awards.
On July 26, 1991, Pee-wee Herman was arrested in Sarasota, Florida, for allegedly masturbating in public during a screening of the adult porn film, Nurse Nancy in an adult movie theater. The news media went into a frenzy and the scandal marked the near-death of the character "Pee-wee Herman," reducing both the actor and the persona to a cruel punchline. Although the series Pee-wee's Playhouse had already ended by that time, CBS reacted by dropping its reruns from their lineup. Herman made a deal with the Sarasota County court: in exchange for a fine and a few public service announcements, he was given a clean record.
Pee-wee Herman appeared as Pee-wee for the last time in the September 5, 1991, MTV Video Music Awards, where he was given a standing ovation when Pee-wee asked the audience, "Heard any good jokes lately?".
Pee-wee Herman continues to appear in film and on television, with notable film roles in Batman Returns, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Dunston Checks In, Matilda, Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, Mystery Men, and Blow, as well as TV guest appearances on Murphy Brown, Fairy Tale Theater, Everybody Loves Raymond, Reno 911! and Ally McBeal. He also hosted a short-lived TV game show based on the popular computer game You Don't Know Jack.
In 2001, Pee-wee Herman announced plans for bringing Pee-wee Herman back for another film or two, or maybe a re-launch of Pee-Wee's Playhouse, which currently airs on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim.
Pee-wee Herman was arrested again in 2002 in connection with an investigation involving child pornography, which coincided with an unrelated child pornography case involving actor Jeffrey Jones. Public news stories concerning his case cast doubt upon the suggestion that Herman intentionally acquired child pornography, as he stated that he was a collector of "erotic artwork" and that he had a sizable collection of vintage erotica with samples dating back to the 18th century. On March 22, 2004, child pornography charges against him were dropped after he pleaded guilty to a separate "misdemeanor obscenity" charge.
According to NNDB.com, "The DA waited 364 days (one day before the statute of limitations would have run out) and then alleged that some of it was 'child pornography' -- decades-old physique poses, old art photos, and yellowed nudist magazines. Some of the nude photos were of minors -- when the pictures were taken, but most of the models would have been dead of old age before Herman was born. All of the photos, Pee-wee Herman maintained, were legal when they were first published. Again, though, he settled. The charges were reduced to 'obscenity', and Herman pleaded guilty and paid a $100 fine in exchange for probation."
Said Pee-wee Herman: "Personally, I think we're living in a very scary time. Do we let the legal system decide in a courtroom what's obscene and what's not obscene? I didn't want to be in a situation where there was a possibility I could go to jail... I mean, that just seemed insane to me."
"One thing I want to make very, very clear, I don't want anyone for one second to think that I am titillated by images of children. It's not me. You can say lots of things about me. And you might. The public may think I'm weird. They may think I'm crazy or anything that anyone wants to think about me. That's all fine. As long as one of the things you're not thinking about me is that I'm a pedophile. Because that's not true."
Pee-wee Herman resides in the Hollywood Hills area of Los Angeles, California.
In a 2004 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Herman said that he was working on a few television and movie ideas, and that Hollywood, he hopes, has not seen the last of Herman or his alter ego, Pee-wee. Herman has also stated a strong possibility of a Pee-wee's Playhouse movie on an NPR interview with Terry Gross on December 27, 2004. A third Pee-wee movie was also suggested. Both, said Pee-wee Herman, are actively being worked on, but no dates or official announcements were made as of this date.
Pee-wee Herman reprised his role as Lock in the video game The Nightmare Before Christmas: Oogie's Revenge.
Pee-wee Herman appeared in the second music video version of the Raconteurs song Steady, As She Goes. It showed the band in a comical soapbox car race.
In early June 2006, Cartoon Network began running a promo during its Adult Swim lineup. The promo consisted of a black screen with the text, "Remember This?" displayed, while the beginning of the Pee Wee's Playhouse theme song played in the background. The commercial then faded to the text "Coming July 10 2006." A later press release and many other promos confirmed that the show's 45 original episodes would air on the block Monday to Thursday at 11 P.M.(EST) starting on that date.
In the July 10, 2006 TV Guide, Pee-wee Herman says that he's delighted that Cartoon Network's Adult Swim will be airing the original series, plus the Christmas Special, and that when he was asked by the network, he said, "Of course!" He feels that the show will be a perfect fit. Also mentioned were the two new Pee-wee feature films, with one being a more "adult-oriented" film, "A 'Valley of the Dolls' Pee-Wee." The other is a movie that delves more into the visitors of the Playhouse, like Miss Yvonne and Cowboy Curtis. Herman is prepared to don the tight gray suit once again.
On July 11, 2006, Pee-wee Herman made a rare talk show appearance to promote Pee-wee's Playhouse on The Late Show with David Letterman, and made mention that a script was completed for a Pee-wee's Playhouse Movie which would take the characters from the 80's television show out of the playhouse for the first time and into the real world. In a Time magazine interview, Herman said production would start early next year for the film.
On July 13, 2006, Pee-wee Herman made an appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. When Conan O'Brien compared a Pee-wee doll to his own Conan action figure, Herman held the Pee-wee doll and called the Conan figure a "little shrimp" in the Pee-wee voice. Conan later produced a Pee-wee suit and tried to convince Herman to wear it, though Herman only tried wearing the pants over the clothes he was already wearing. Herman then did his famous dance as the Max Weinberg 7 performed "Tequila". Though he ultimately didn't appear in character as Pee-wee Herman, he came significantly closer than any other moment in the nearly 15 years since his last official Pee-wee appearance. He also appeared in VH1's The Best Week Ever on July 14, 2006.
On July 30, 2006 Pee-wee Herman played Lt. Rick of the citizen's patrol on the popular Comedy Central show Reno 911. The character, Lt. Rick, wore a red beret with numerous pins, a pair of gloves, and a small cape. Lt. Rick spoke with a scratchy whisper throughout the entire episode until near the end when officer Dangle plays a voice recorder where Lt. Rick is making chicken noises and laughs like Pee-wee Herman.
On July 31, 2006 Pee-wee Herman was shown on Entertainment Tonight in an "exclusive interview". In the interview he talked about the future Pee-Wee movies and Pee-Wee's Playhouse being shown on Adult Swim.
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