Raina Telgemeier, the graphic novelist behind middle-grade books like “Smile,” “Sisters,” and “Drama,” is a friend who also connects the dots of her own work to Reubens’s influence. “‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’ was released when I was 8 years old, right after my youngest sibling was born,” she told me. “At a time when my family expected me to be the ‘good’ oldest sister, along came Pee-wee Herman: a role model in silliness, play, and whimsy.” He was proof that “you can be the adult who is loyal, wise, and runs into burning buildings,” she said, “and also be the weirdo who revels in art, dress-up, and dinosaurs.”
Like SpongeBob, Pee-wee Herman was an adult, but not really an adult. Sure, he could legally drive the ice cream truck, though he’d be more likely to gleefully run out to the street with spare change upon hearing its familiar jingle. I see that ecstatic quality in my graphic-novel character Lunch Lady. She is a cartoonish adult who kids can befriend, wears a uniform (just like Pee-wee), and also has an arsenal of silly catch phrases like “Holy guacamole!” and “That just mashes my potatoes!”
Mindy Thomas, cohost of the podcast “Wow in the World,” strikes a similar tone via her audio adventures. “Our characters aren’t pretending to be kids, but they’re not burdened by any of the responsibilities that come along with being adults, either,” she told me. “My character, ‘Mindy,’ lives in a gingerbread mansion of her own design, has a giant pigeon for a pet, gets around in an ice cream truck, has access to all of the caviar sandwiches she can stomach, and exists in a world where imagination (and occasionally buttons) is really the only currency.”
Reubens also influenced Brad Montague, creator of the viral video series “Kid President.” “There are handmade pieces in every frame of ‘Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.’ That’s something I very much worked to do when creating ‘Kid President,’” Montague told me, also noting that “one of the great gifts of art is that it can help people feel less alone, and Paul Reubens did that.”
A shared sense of childhood nostalgia and wonder is now the bedrock of my marriage. My wife, Gina, and I both celebrate the pop culture that inspired our imaginations as kids — she with Popples, Cabbage Patch Kids, and Rainbow Brite. We also share a love of camp, which we honor via an annual Christmas drag brunch hosted by our friendly neighborhood drag performer, Hors D’oeuvres.
During lockdown, that IRL joy was taken away, so we rewatched 1988′s “Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special.” As kids, we had no idea how revolutionary and inclusive the show was at the time — but as parents, we couldn’t wait to share it with our three kids for that reason. “Jingle Bell Rock” is performed by k.d. lang; and Whoopi Goldberg, Joan Rivers, Cher, Grace Jones, Little Richard, Magic Johnson, Zsa Zsa Gabor, the Del Rubio Triplets, Charo, and more all join the regular Playhouse players.
As Latin Grammy and Emmy award-winning musician Lucky Diaz put it, “‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse’ was the first acceptable ‘alternative lifestyle’ I saw: ‘We can be this and not be judged?’”
In 2010, Gina and I saw the Broadway revival of the original Pee-wee Herman show. We sat front row center. Chairry hadn’t changed much, but under the stage makeup Reubens looked like an aging man.
At the end, when the actors took their final bows, I shouted out, “Thank you, Pee-wee!” And Reubens, in his full Pee-wee garb, mouthed “thank you” back.
Paul Reubens was 70 when he died, but Pee-wee Herman always seemed ageless. Perhaps that’s why so many of us fans were in shock to hear his creator had been mortal after all.
Jarrett J. Krosoczka is a National Book Award finalist for “Hey, Kiddo” and the New York Times best-selling graphic novelist of the Lunch Lady series. His latest graphic memoir, “Sunshine: How One Camp Taught Me About Life, Death, and Hope,” was published in April.
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