Five Lessons Learned from Pee-Wee Herman, From a Life-Long Fan

I was born in 1983. I am currently straddling the border between old enough to know what “cool” is and too old to be writing for a pop culture site. I’m married, I have a respectable day job, I’m thinking about babies (sort of, because I don’t really want to have to give birth to them because Jesus is that terrifying or what?!).

I first became aware of television when I was about three, and was fully in charge of the remote control on Saturday mornings by the time I was six. The children’s television show known as Pee-Wee’s Playhouse first aired in 1986, and reached the height of its popularity sometime around 1989. The young, impressionable mind of little Sara Clemens was ripe for the wit, wisdom, and hubris that was Pee-Wee Herman. This is her story.

The coolest kid you know.

Pee-Wee Herman was the first personal hero I ever had. It wasn’t just because he was unafraid to be genuinely excited about the mundane happenstances of everyday life, it wasn’t because he found a reason to laugh at most things, or because he had a million friends, or a souped-up scooter, bike, playhouse. It wasn’t because he had no parents telling him what to do, because he was a nouveau Peter Pan who dressed like some sort of fifties fop, and played with toys with the seriousness of a scholar. It wasn’t just because the amount of f***’s he had to give about other people’s opinion of him was zero to nil. It was all of these things. Here are the 5 major things Pee-Wee Herman taught me about life. And Pee-Wee Herman taught me everything I know.

1: Do Your Own Thang

Wait. What?

Back in 1980, Paul Reubens auditioned for Saturday Night Live. He didn’t make the cut. But instead of hunkering down, honing his comedian’s chops in order to be ready for the next season’s auditions, he said “f*** that” and started his own stage show. A show based on a character he had created in his early days with the LA based improv troupe The Groundlings. That character was a guy who was already a bad comic (a brilliant preemptive strike against critics and hecklers alike), a dude who couldn’t deliver a punchline to save his life or remember the best way to tell a joke, but was always able to retain the upper hand (“I know you are, but what am I?”). His show eventually evolved into a brilliant parody of a children’s show, rife with inappropriate humor. Pee-Wee played it straight though, never acknowledging any innuendo, always maintaining his innocent demeanor. He was so good at it that CBS eventually offered him a deal to do an ACTUAL CHILDREN’S SHOW. And being a working stiff, he accepted. Being a genius, he didn’t relinquish the off-color overtones, and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse ended up becoming one of the savviest “children’s” shows on television. Fast forward the better part of a decade, and we were all gifted with this little gem on Broadway:


What’s the big deal? She’s his special chair. He can sit on her. She can sit on him. Infinity.

Remember that time when Stephen Colbert was invited to the 2006 White House Correspondent’s dinner because nobody associated with it knew the definition of “ironic?” Yeah, me neither. Wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more, why don’t you take a picture it will last longer?

2: Go Big or Go Home

If you’re going to have a Christmas party, make sure you have at least two of the Supremes and a bevy of U.S. Marines. The end.

Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special has been an annual tradition in my house since it aired in 1988. I taped it on my mom’s VCR, and literally wore that VHS out watching it every year. I was ecstatic when I got it on DVD as an adult—until I realized I was seriously missing the commercials for Charlie Brown, Garfield, and Isotoner gloves. Oh my god, childhood nostalgia is flooding my living room as I write this. Isotoner gloves!

Pee-Wee’s Playhouse was king of children’s television at the time, and he managed to get an amazing all-star lineup for his show: Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Morpheus (okay, Cowboy Curtis was just a show regular at the time) Cher, Grace Jones, Little Richard, Magic Johnson, K.D. Lang, Joan Rivers, Dinah Shore, 80’s Guy, Eighty Lady McEightyson, and Sixteen Candles Breakfast Club McGee. But who gives a crap about guest stars when you’ve got an opening number like this? (Skip to :55 if you’re impatient.)


His annoyance at 2:45 is priceless. Also, I move to have this song inducted into the Library of Congress as an official Christmas carol.

Kids, if you’re going to do something, DO it. Life’s too short for half-assing.

3: Tequila (‘Nuff said)


From the cutting room floor of Sons of Anarchy Season 1.

4: Moderation (Tequila: Thumbs up. Crack: Thumbs down)


It must be impossible to talk seriously about a subject when your entire character was created to be walking sarcasm. He pulls it off, though. ‘Cause he’s a boss.

5: People F*** Up

Okay, but those glasses are fabulous.

People do. They f*** up. They get caught with their pants down, figuratively and literally. They gain success by being smarter than the average comic and get away with performing in a children’s television show that trucks in innuendo so parents have something to laugh at, and then it comes back to bite them in the ass. They live in a time without private internet access and sneak out to a darkened theater to do what every person on the planet does, albeit with a little more sketchiness thrown in. They get caught, they get arrested, they get thrown in jail, and the media turns the event into a circus.

I was way too young at the time to know what the hell was going on, but I’ve always been proud of my mom for realizing even then that the story of Paul Reubens’ arrest was blown waaaay out of proportion. I mean let’s get real for a second, twenty years later a comedy star has done the exact same thing and people could hardly give two sh*ts about it. I think it was trending on twitter for a whole minute.

Btw: Dear Mr. Willard, Please allow me to install the latest version of Firefox for you. I will even add a personally curated selection of websites I think you may enjoy. Sincerely, Sara

So let’s say you’ve sh*t the bed. What are you going to do? It’s cool with me if you want to take some time. You’re probably freaked out, and the rumor mill is already working against you. It’s working so well, in fact, that eleven years later when the little girl-nerd that idolized you pops in a dvd collection of your show, her dumbass housemate will comment with complete conviction, “that guy’s a child molester!” (She will punch him. Really. Not that punching’s okay. But f*** that guy.)

So take a break. Collect yourself. But holy hell, what if you came back? You could start small, be hilarious in a popular primetime television show, make a few movies here and there. Then maybe show up somewhere as your infamous character. By now, people have either forgotten the whole thing or realize there are worse indiscretions that have been committed by Hollywood elite (Roman Polanski, actual child molester, enjoy your thriving career and awards). But why not grab life by the cojones and see what happens if you make a triumphant return?


What’s that? Oh you did that already? F*** yeah you did. Clip courtesy of trashcanman.

You are, have been, and always will be my hero, P-Dubs. Because of you, I’m not afraid to be smart, funny, all-around awesome, over-the-top, wildly imaginative, or in possession of a better sense of humor than most people. I’m not afraid to dance on a bar in front of a bunch of dudes who want to kill me, or never age, or wear clothes just because I like them, or spend too long constructing a breakfast machine in my dining room, or scream real loud, or royally mess up in a big, messy, and public way. I meant to do that. And all my parties, Christmas or otherwise, will be epic.

I love you, Pee-Wee. (So why don’t you marry me?)

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  1. This might be the greatest article ever written. Pee-wee was a staple in my home growing up and he’s still a highlight on any talk show, Youtube clip or appearance he makes.

    Great skates!

  2. 705,500 likes on facebook, 1,304,240 followers on twitter, a reinvention of his original stage show that was so oversold in LA it had to be moved to a bigger theater, a Broadway run of said stage show, said stage show being taped and turned into an HBO special, an Emmy nomination for said HBO special, a digital short where he gets drunk with Andy Samberg and cracks Anderson Cooper over the head with a chair, all within the last three years.

    “Never recovered.” I do not think it means what you think it means.

    (winky face)

  3. Also thanks for linking to that clip! I didn’t even think to look for it or it would have been in this piece for shizzle. I may even go back and put it in (with all credit given where it’s due, of course).

    At 1:08 he breaks character just for a second as everyone chants his name and is genuinely moved. So boss. Love him.

  4. Pee-Wee Herman was awesome. My brothers and I broke our VCR rewinding and playing the ‘and when they pulled her body from the twisted, mangled wreck, it .. looked like thiS!’ scene. I have that Paging Mr Herman sound on my phone for text alerts. It’s the best.

  5. Sara great piece! I too learned from Pee-Wee as a child including what not to do in a public movie theater, well that and the fact that there’s no basement in the Alamo. Well done!

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