Paul Reubens’ final performance as Pee-wee Herman is widely considered to be the feature film Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, produced by Judd Apatow and released by Netflix in 2016. But Reubens actually returned as the character at least one more time, albeit in a completely different format: radio.
Airing Nov. 26, 2021, the Pee-wee Herman Radio Hour was a one-time broadcast that saw the iconic character play KCRW music DJ, with guest appearances from Jack White and Charo as well as Pee-wee’s Playhouse characters like Chairry (Alison Mork), Conky (Josh Myers) and Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart). While ostensibly a way to port Pee-wee into a new format, one of the broadcast’s producers — Maximum Fun owner/founder Jesse Thorn — says it also fulfilled a longtime fantasy for Reubens, who died Sunday (July 30) at age 70 following a six-year bout with cancer.
“We had ideas to incorporate elements of the Playhouse and all of that, but central to it was that Paul loved the idea of being an FM radio DJ” of the sort that dominated the airwaves during the FM radio revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, says Thorn. In fact, Reubens was so earnest about the gig that while recording the broadcast, Thorn says that he, fellow producer Julia Smith and Myers — who wrote much of the broadcast with Reubens — “had to remind Paul repeatedly that it was a comedy show,” adding, “It was very clear that this was a sincere career dream of his.”
While the press release announcing the project contained a letter written by “Pee-wee” that made it sound like the result of a last-minute, fan-driven campaign, in reality, the broadcast took nearly three years to come to fruition. It began, says Thorn, after a KCRW staffer read an interview with Reubens in which he mentioned his affinity for the station. That led to a meeting between Reubens and then-KCRW program director Gary Scott; the station subsequently reached out to Thorn to produce.
Thorn’s first meeting with Reubens about the project took place at Café 101 in Hollywood, where Reubens told him his reasons for wanting to debut the character in the radio format. “He loved doing Pee-wee Herman and was trying to find ways to do Pee-wee Herman without having to go through what he had to go through in his 60s to be Pee-wee Herman on screen,” Thorn remembers.
Produced on a budget of just $10,000, the show proved to be a time-consuming process in part because Reubens was “an extraordinary perfectionist,” says Thorn. Paul Bunnen, then KCRW’s chief content officer who oversaw the project for the station, says Reubens was “a natural producer” who was “punctilious and demanding” (the show went through countless rounds of edits before making it to air, says Thorn) but also “joyful and gentle and inclusive.”
“He found himself in this position with moral and commercial ownership over this character, and he wanted to make sure that it was projected in ways that were as true to his moral objectives as to anything else,” says Bunnen.
For added star power, Reubens enlisted celebrity friends Charo (who had previously appeared on a 1988 Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas special) and White — who first met Reubens when the actor appeared in a Raconteurs music video — to guest star on the broadcast.
For the show’s music playlist, Reubens leaned heavily on classic soul, weaving in such tracks as “Back Stabbers” by The O’Jays, “You’ve Got the Love” by Rufus, “I Can’t Get Next to You” by The Temptations and “Come Back Baby” by Aretha Franklin.
“Paul had a specific vision, and the vision was driven by that idea of being a classic FM radio DJ, like being Sly Stone on KSOL in San Francisco before he was a singer,” says Thorn. “There was never a moment where he said, ‘What if we threw Huey Lewis in there?’ It was always going to be Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin.”
Neither Thorn nor Bunnen knew that Reubens had cancer when they worked with him on the project, but in hindsight, Thorn believes Reubens’ desire to play the character on the radio — which exacted less of a physical toll — may have been a clue. “The only indications that I had were that I knew that he didn’t have it in him to do the character physically anymore,” he says.
While there were discussions to produce additional episodes, the Pee-wee Herman Radio Hour remained a one-off. Being the fastidious performer Reubens was, it simply couldn’t be done to his standards on a regular basis with the kind of budget the station had to work with. “[KCRW had] this idea, like, ‘Oh, we could just make a bunch more of these,’” says Thorn. “And I was like, ‘I would love to, but Paul does not want to do the cheap version of this.’”
“There was a lot of goodwill and we really wanted to find out a way of extending the life of that project,” says Bunnen. “But sadly, we weren’t in a position to make any very firm commitments at the time.”
Thorn and Bunnen both have fond memories of collaborating with Reubens.
“He was the sweetest, most humble person to work with…He really cared about how the character was portrayed,” says Bunnen. “It really mattered to him that the finest detail was going to be done in the way that Pee-wee would do it.”
For Thorn, who had watched Pee-wee on screen while growing up, working with Reubens was the realization of a childhood dream.
“My job is to meet people I admire,” says Thorn, who also hosts the Maximum Fun/NPR interview podcast Bullseye. “It’s a big deal to sit in a room with Pedro Almodovar or talk to David Letterman. But I was sitting in that studio in KCRW and I [thought]…the rest of my life I can say, ‘I made something with Pee-wee Herman.’”
You can listen to the full Pee-wee Herman Radio Hour broadcast here.