25 Big Facts About Pee-wee Herman

Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

In the summer of 1985, Paul Reubens introduced America’s youth—and millions of young-at-heart adults—to a new brand of comedy when his slim suit-loving, bow-tied alter ego Pee-wee Herman stormed the box office with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

Two sequels, one Saturday morning television series, and one Broadway show later, Pee-wee is still very much a part of the pop culture consciousness. Reubens—who is celebrating his 65th birthday today—helped us uncover 25 things you might not know about Pee-wee Herman. 

1. PEE-WEE HERMAN BEGAN LIFE AS A GROUNDLING.

Pee-wee Herman “came about from an extended improv at The Groundlings,” Reubens says of the character’s origin. “We were just given an assignment to come up with a character that one might encounter in a comedy club and I came up with Pee-wee Herman.” Pee-wee’s first stage appearance was in 1977. 

2. “PEE-WEE” WAS A HARMONICA.

Reubens says the character’s many distinctive traits were "a bunch of stuff all mixed in together. The voice came from a stage production that I was involved in. And then the name came from a kid I knew who was kind of off-the-wall. The name 'Pee-wee' came from a little harmonica I had that said ‘Pee-wee’ on it. I loved the idea of a nickname, because it sounded so real to me. ‘Pee-wee Herman’ sounds like a name that is so odd, how would you make that up? If you were going to make up a name, you’d make up a better name. It seemed real to me; it was a nickname with a last name that’s also a first name … And it went hand-in-hand with what I wanted to do, which was to make people think this was a real person, not an actor.” 

3. PAUL REUBENS IS ALWAYS CREDITED AS “PEE-WEE HERMAN.”


Shout! Factory

To further enforce the idea that Pee-wee Herman is indeed a real person, when Paul Reubens is appearing as Pee-wee Herman, the credits simply list “Pee-wee Herman as Himself.” 

4. PEE-WEE’S SUIT WAS A LOANER. (BUT NOT A REBEL.)

“The director and co-founder of The Groundlings, a man named Gary Austin, loaned me his suit, which I never gave back,” Reubens says of Pee-wee’s now-iconic gray suit. “Someone else gave me a kid’s black bow tie, which I later changed out for a kid’s red bow tie. And the white shoes were mine. That’s just sort of what I put on and I had success with it so I thought, why mess with it? If it ain’t broke ..."

5. PEE-WEE GOT THE GIRL ON THE DATING GAME.

Two years after making his stage debut with The Groundlings, Pee-wee made his first of three appearances on The Dating Game (totally in character) in 1979. “That was a little test experiment I was doing early on,” Reubens recalled to Interview magazine. “I went to a cattle call audition for The Dating Game, and before I even got home they called me back.” On one occasion, he even won the date! 

6. PEE-WEE WAS AN ANGRY HOTEL CLERK IN CHEECH & CHONG’S NEXT MOVIE.

In 1980, Pee-wee made his first big-screen appearance as a not-so-sweet hotel employee in Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie. 

7. THE PEE-WEE HERMAN SHOW WAS A FIRST FOR THE GROUNDLINGS.

On February 7, 1981, Reubens helped to take The Groundlings in a new direction when he premiered The Pee-wee Herman Show at midnight, a stage show that became the group’s first piece of alternative format programming. Shortly thereafter, it moved to The Roxy, where it ran for five months. But it wasn’t an adults-only kind of thing; matinee performances proved to be fun for the whole family. Miss Yvonne, Captain Carl, Jambi, Pterri, and Clocky are some of the characters that were there from the beginning. 

8. HBO WAS THE FIRST NETWORK TO COME CALLING.

Pee-wee gained national attention courtesy of HBO, which aired a taping of one of The Pee-wee Herman Show's performances in 1981.

9. PEE-WEE KICKSTARTED TIM BURTON’S CAREER.


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Following the success of The Pee-wee Herman Show, Warner Bros. approached Reubens about turning Pee-wee into a movie star. Though the studio originally had another director in mind, several people mentioned Tim Burton’s name to Reubens one night at a party. “I screened Frankenweenie and I spoke to Shelley Duvall, who was a friend of mine who was in Frankenweenie,” Reubens recalled to Ain’t It Cool News. “I knew Tim was the director about 15 seconds into Frankenweenie, like the second or third shot of it. I was looking at the wallpaper in this bedroom and the lighting and just going, ‘This is the guy who has style and understands art direction.’ Those were two really important things for me and my baby, I guess, and you know it just happened to luckily all work out." 

10. PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A REMAKE OF POLLYANNA.

The original concept for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure took much of its storyline from Disney’s classic Pollyanna, with Pee-wee as Pollyanna. Ultimately, this idea was scrapped in favor of the stolen bike road trip idea, though Reubens was able to recycle many of the original ideas for Big Top Pee-wee.

11. PEE-WEE’S BIKE SOLD FOR $36,600 ON EBAY.

In 2014, an original bike that was used in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure went up for auction on eBay. The seller was hoping to get $15,000 for the iconic prop; he ended up selling it for $36,600. Which isn’t quite "a hundred million, trillion, billion dollars,” but it’s still impressive.

12. PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE CLEANED UP AT THE BOX OFFICE.


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Shot on a budget of approximately $7 million, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure earned nearly $41 million at the box office. Which, not surprisingly, led to a sequel—1988’s Big Top Pee-wee

13. THE ORIGINAL CONCEPT FOR PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE WAS AN ANIMATED SERIES. 

Following the financial success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, CBS came to Reubens about creating a children’s series around the character—only they wanted it to be animated. “I'd had the stage show originally, so I was much more interested in doing something closer to that, something live-action,” Reubens told Rolling Stone. “So when they suggested doing a cartoon, I said ‘I'm not really interested in that; let's do a real kids' show.’ I was a big Howdy-Doody freak growing up—I was actually on one show when I was a kid, in the audience—and was more interested in doing something like that. Howdy-Doody, Captain Kangaroo, a lot of the local kids' shows that were on a long time ago—those were the influences.” 

14. CYNDI LAUPER SANG THE PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE THEME SONG.

Though the series’ theme song is credited to Ellen Shaw, Cyndi Lauper admitted in her autobiography that she is the voice behind it.

15. THE PLAYHOUSE WELCOMED A NUMBER OF SOON-TO-BE STARS.

A number of burgeoning stars got their starts on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Among them: Phil Hartman, S. Epatha Merkerson, and Natasha Lyonne. Both Laurence Fishburne and Jimmy Smits also made early-career appearances.

16. ROB ZOMBIE AND JOHN SINGLETON WERE PEE-WEE’S PRODUCTION ASSISTANTS.


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Pee-wee’s Playhouse had plenty of talent behind the camera, too. Five years before he wrote and directed Boyz n the Hood—for which he earned two Oscar nominations—John Singleton was a P.A. on the Playhouse set. Around the same time he formed White Zombie—and 17 years before he moved into the director’s chair with House of 1000 Corpses—Rob Zombie held the same title. 

17. PHIL HARTMAN LEFT AFTER ONE SEASON TO JOIN THE CAST OF SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Phil Hartman, Reubens’ longtime friend and collaborator (they co-wrote Pee-wee’s Big Adventure together), left the Playhouse—where he played Captain Carl—after the first season to join Saturday Night Live.

18. MISS YVONNE’S HAIR WON AN EMMY.


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Two Emmys, actually. One in 1987 and another in 1989. The show won a total of 15 Emmys throughout its five-season run. 

19. JAMBI SPOKE GIBBERISH.

On Shout! Factory’s Pee-wee’s Playhouse Blu-ray collection, writer John Paragon describes Jambi’s famous “Mekka lekka hi mekka hiney ho. Mekka lekka hi mekka chahny ho” chant as gibberish. “So I’m in The Groundlings and we’re doing a sketch and it’s customers in a Hawaiian restaurant and I’m wearing a Hawaiian shirt and doing Hawaiian gibberish. So that’s where that line came from. It was supposed to be bad Hawaiian.” 

20. LAURENCE FISHBURNE HAD A DARK TAKE ON COWBOY CURTIS.


Shout! Factory

During his original audition for Cowboy Curtis, Laurence Fishburne didn’t get the note that the tone of the show was rather silly. “I was in the D.C. area making Gardens of Stone, and I got this call that Paul wanted to see me,” Fishburne recalled to Entertainment Weekly. “I had almost no hair on my head because I had been doing this military picture. I [auditioned as] a Yul Brynner-esque kind of cowboy—very dark and serious. [Reubens and Paragon] both looked at me like, 'Could you lighten it up?'"

21. SEASON THREE HAD JUST THREE EPISODES.

Because of a 1988 strike by the Writers Guild of America, the third season of Pee-wee’s Playhouse is comprised of just three episodes—two regular episodes and one primetime special, Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special.

22. BIG TOP PEE-WEE MARKED THE BIG-SCREEN DEBUT OF BENICIO DEL TORO.

After a couple of small television roles, Benicio Del Toro landed his first feature film playing “Duke the Dog-Faced Boy” in Big Top Pee-wee. The film also marked the big-screen debut of Dustin Diamond, who would make his first appearance as Saved by the Bell’s “Screech Powers” just a few months after Big Top Pee-wee’s release.

23. DANNY ELFMAN HAD TO COMPOSE AN ALL-NEW SCORE FOR BIG TOP PEE-WEE.


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Like Tim Burton, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure marked the first feature film gig for Danny Elfman. Though the music he created for the first film is iconic, because Big Top Pee-wee was produced by a different studio, he was not allowed to use any of the elements from the original score and had to create a new one.

24. PEE-WEE CAME TO BROADWAY IN 2010.


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On October 26, 2010, Pee-wee was back—this time on Broadway—for a limited-run stage show.

25. PEE-WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY WAS PEE-WEE’S FIRST FILM IN 28 YEARS.

In 2016, Netflix released Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, Pee-wee Herman’s first film in 28 years. Officially, Netflix summarized the plot as follows: “A chance encounter with a mysterious stranger (Joe Manganiello) points Pee-wee toward his destiny—and his first-ever holiday!” For his part, Reubens told Mental Floss, “It’s a road picture and it’s an adventure story. It’s similar in tone and structure to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in that it is a road picture—I’m trying to get somewhere. I live in a real little small town and I don’t get much excitement.”

21 Fun Facts About Elf

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Everyone knows the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear! But the second best way is to enjoy Elf. Revel in the giddy glow of this modern holiday classic with a slew of secrets from behind the scenes.

1. Jim Carrey was initially eyed to play Buddy the elf.

When David Berenbaum's spec script first emerged in 1993, Carrey was pre-Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and attached to front the Christmas film. However, it took another 10 years to get the project in motion, at which time Saturday Night Live star Will Ferrell was signed to star. Carrey would go on to headline his own Christmas offerings—the live-action How The Grinch Stole Christmas and the CGI animated A Christmas Carol.

2. Will Ferrell worked as a mall Santa.


Warner Bros.

And his A Night at the Roxbury co-star Chris Kattan was his elf. This was back when the pair were pre-Saturday Night Live, and part of the comedy troupe The Groundlings. Ferrell recollected to Spliced Wire, "I have some experience playing Santa Claus … Chris Kattan was my elf at this outdoor mall in Pasadena for five weeks, passing out candy canes. It was hilarious because little kids could care less about the elf. They just come right to Santa Claus. So by the second weekend, Kattan had dropped the whole affectation he was doing and was like (Ferrell makes a face of bitter boredom), 'Santa's over there, kid.'"

3. Director Jon Favreau favored practical effects.

Inspired by the Christmas specials he grew up with, Favreau explained in the film's commentary track that he employed “old techniques” instead of CGI whenever possible. This included stop-motion animation, and using forced perspective to make Buddy look like a giant among his elf peers. For North Pole scenes, two sets were built—one larger scale for the actors playing elves, the other smaller to make Buddy and Santa look big. These elements where then carefully overlaid in camera, using lighting to blend the seams.

4. Snow was often computer-generated.


Warner Home Video

Some effects just couldn't be practical. These included the snowflakes that drift over the opening credits, and many of the snowballs in Buddy's pivotal fight scene. It's probably not much of a shocker that much of these were added in post, considering Buddy's perfect aim. But to further underscore the drama that is a snowball fight in frosty New York, Favreau asked composer John Debney to give this section a Western vibe that would recall The Magnificent Seven.

5. Elf's production design was heavily influenced by Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The classic stop-motion Christmas special from 1964 gave a memorable presentation of Santa's winter wonderland to which Favreau wanted to pay tribute. The elves' costumes in Elf were inspired by those worn by Hermey and his peers in the animated film. And Elf's workshops were modeled after the Rankin/Bass designs, as were the stop-motion animals of the area. The production did secure permission for these allusions, and was even granted the privilege of using the company's signature snowman.

6. There's a Christmas Story cameo.

Peter Billingsley, who memorably played the Red Ryder-wanting Ralphie in the 1983 holiday classic, popped in to play Ming the elf. It's an uncredited role, but between the glasses and those bright baby blue eyes, Billingsley stands out as an A Christmas Story Easter egg. This marks just one of many Billingsley and Favreau's collaborations. Billingsley has been a producer on several of Favreau's film and television projects.

7. Jon Favreau played multiple parts in Elf.

Jon Favreau directs Will Ferrell in 'Elf' (2003)
Alan Markfield, New Line Productions

As a writer/director/actor, Favreau has often appeared in his own films. He fronted Made with friend Vince Vaughn, and later found a sweet supporting role for himself in Iron Man. You may have picked him out as the doctor in Elf, but on the DVD commentary, Favreau revealed he also tapped in to his inner narwhal and provided the voices for some of the stop-animation critters who see Buddy off from the North Pole. He also voiced the rabid raccoon Buddy encounters.

8. Baby buddy was fired.

To play the bubbly baby version of the titular elf, Favreau had initially cast twin boys whose blonde curly hair made them great little doubles for the mop-topped Ferrell. However, the production ran into a problem when the boys couldn't perform. Instead of smiling and crawling as needed, they cried relentlessly. To replace them, brunette triplet girls were brought in, who were far perkier and more playful, and thereby ready for their close-ups.

9. Buddy was bullied in an early version.

In first drafts of Berenbaum's Elf script, Buddy's decision to seek out his dad was in part because he was being hassled by the actual elves for being different. Favreau pushed to take out this element. He preferred to keep the North Pole characters warm, even when Buddy bugs them. In the DVD commentary, Favreau offers, “It explained why Buddy was doing all these good things in New York if he grew up in a world where everybody was so sweet even when he’s obviously screwing everything up and doesn’t fit in at all.”

10. Elf hockey hit the cutting room floor.

Poor Buddy accidentally wreaks all kinds of havoc on his elf community because of his ungainly size. One such scene of his well-meaning mayhem featured Buddy playing hockey on a frozen pond. The friendly game becomes unintentionally violent when the too-big Buddy takes to the ice. Though it was shot, it ended up being chopped from the finished film.

11. Elf was shot on location in New York when it counted.

Like many productions, this one took advantage of the financial benefits of filming in Canada, and much of Elf was shot in sound stages in Vancouver. However, when Buddy comes to New York, it was important to Favreau to shoot on location whenever possible. This includes all the Manhattan exteriors, as well as scenes shot at Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and Central Park West, where Buddy's dad lives.

12. Some of Elf’s sets were built in a horror factory.

Okay, technically it was an abandoned mental hospital, where the production team constructed the interior sets for Walter's Central Park West apartment, Gimbels's lavish toy department, and that grim prison cell. The facility is called Riverview Hospital, and it has played host to a long list of film and television productions, including The X-Files, Final Destination 2, Jennifer's Body, and See No Evil 2.

13. Macy's stood in for Gimbels.

The sprawling department store that takes up a whole block in Manhattan was digitally altered to transform into Elf's Gimbels. A bit awkward: Gimbels was once a real department store, and a noted rival of Macy's. Though immortalized here and in the 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street, the department store closed its doors in 1987, its 100th year of operation.

14. Will Ferrell broke James Caan.


Warner Home Video

The Academy Award-nominated star of The Godfather was hired to play Walter in part because Favreau wanted a stern persona to play against Ferrell's giddy Buddy, and Caan took the comedy of Elf seriously. He knew it was crucial for Walter to be annoyed—never amused—by his supposed son's antics. But when it came to the blood test scene where Buddy bellows when pricked by a needle, Caan cracked. Watch closely and you'll see he turns away from the camera so as not to ruin the take.

15. The studio didn't get a joke from the mailroom sequence.

This was the last set piece shot for Elf, and one that filmmakers were wavering on from its conception late in production. Grizzled Mark Acheson's casting as Buddy's drinking buddy concerned execs because of the line, "I'm 26 years old." The studio noted the actor does not look 26, to which Favreau—who had previously cast Acheson in a small role that had been cut before production—responded that this disconnect was part of the joke.

16. Will Ferrell went method with those jack-in-the-boxes.

In the scene where Buddy suffers as a toy tester, he's subjected to popping open an endless stream of menacing jack-in-the-boxes. The anxiety etched on Ferrell's face in these scenes is real. Rather than standard jack-in-the-boxes that would pop at the song's end, these were remote controlled by Favreau, who purposely manipulated their timing to toy with his star and get authentic reactions.

17. Will Ferrell frolicked all over New York City in character.

The final day of Elf's New York shooting was pared down from a massive crew to just three people: its star, its director, and one cameraman. Together, this trio traveled around the city, looking for mischief for Buddy to get into with random passersby turned background extras. This included him leapfrogging across a pedestrian walk, happily accepting flyers, and getting his shoes shined, all of which made it into the movie's cheerful montage.

18. That epic burp was real, but overdubbed.

Though uncredited, that lengthy belch came not from Ferrell, but from noted voice actor Maurice LaMarche, who might be best known for Brain of Pinky and the Brain. LaMarche shared his secret to such an impressive burp with The A.V. Club, saying, "I’ve always been able to do this weird effect, where I turn my tongue, not inside out, but almost. I create a huge echo chamber with my tongue and my cheeks, and by doing a deep, almost Tuvan rasp in my throat, and bouncing it around off this echo chamber, I create something that sounds very much like a sustained deep burp."

19. Elf made its star stick.

In the movie, Buddy is happy to gobble down an endless supply of sweets, including maple syrup-coated spaghetti and cotton balls made of cotton candy. But this sugary diet played havoc on Ferrell, who told About Entertainment, "That was tough. I ingested a lot of sugar in this movie and I didn't get a lot of sleep. I constantly stayed up. But anything for the movie, I'm there. If it takes eating a lot of maple syrup, then I will—if that's what the job calls for."

20. Will Ferrell refuses to make Elf 2.

Though the comedian reprised the role of Ron Burgundy for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and returned as Mugatu in Zoolander 2, he flat out rejected the possibility of bringing back Buddy, even after being offered a reported $29 million. In December of 2013, he told USA TODAY, "I just think it would look slightly pathetic if I tried to squeeze back in the elf tights: Buddy the middle-aged elf."

21. Elf became a hit Broadway musical.

From November 2010 to January 2011, Elf the musical ran on Broadway, boasting songs like "World's Greatest Dad," "Nobody Cares About Santa," and "The Story of Buddy The Elf." This run was a huge success, taking in more than $1.4 million in one week, a record for the Al Hirschfield Theater where it debuted. Plus, The New York Times called it, "A splashy, peppy, sugar-sprinkled holiday entertainment." A revival hit in time for Christmas 2012, and national tours have been recurring.

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