A Pee-wee by any other name ...

There's something oddly familiar about the impish host of ABC's "You Don't Know Jack." Plus: Martin Short in "Primetime Glick."

Published July 9, 2001 7:07PM (EDT)

At some point or other, all of the obituaries for Carroll O'Connor turned into eulogies for Archie Bunker. And that may be the greatest tribute an actor could receive, being elbowed out of his own obit by a character he created.

Since TV actors stick with the same roles for years and years, it's no wonder that their characters take on lives of their own. In the end, the actor is only the conduit, the medium, through which Archie Bunker or Mary Richards or Fox Mulder communicates with viewers. You don't need a crystal ball to see the subheads on the TV-star obituaries of the future: "Played Tony Soprano"; "Best known as 'Xena, Warrior Princess'"; "Was Kramer."

Paul Reubens has already seen his obituary in print. It went something like this: "Kiddie star Pee-wee Herman arrested for indecent exposure in a porno movie theater." For that July 1991 misdemeanor, Reubens lost everything. The media coverage was cruelly efficient -- for his part, Reubens should have known that as an idol of children, he'd be held to higher standards of behavior. CBS promptly canceled "Pee-wee's Playhouse," the multi-Emmy-winning Saturday morning kids' show that wasn't quite a kids' show. Reubens -- or rather, Pee-wee -- became a punch line for talk-show hosts and a punching bag for pundits, politicians and anyone with a stick up his or her ass who had always been suspicious of Pee-wee's fey vibe. Pee-wee Herman was dead. And his fans never even got a chance to mourn.

Devastated by the harsh, swift judgment of public opinion (hang in there, Paula Poundstone), Reubens went into a long seclusion. His friend, director Tim Burton, lured him out for a poignant cameo in "Batman Returns," and he eventually took a small role in the original film version of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." But Reubens was, in effect, banished from TV until 1994, when the producers of "Murphy Brown" brought him on for a non-Pee-wee role as the boss's scheming nephew, Andrew Lansing. Reubens' overgrown brattiness caught on with viewers and he became a semi-regular, earning an Emmy nomination for the role. Since then, Reubens has taken on larger movie roles, most recently playing a hairdresser cum coke dealer in the Johnny Depp film "Blow."

On a promo tour for "Blow," Reubens made his first appearance in years on David Letterman's show. As Pee-wee, he'd been a Letterman regular, making Dave squirm with discomfort at his campy antics, but Reubens had never been on the show as himself. Speaking softly and wearing an incongruous shag hairdo, Reubens told funny stories about meeting his fans and going home with them for dinner. The audience bathed him in affection (even Dave seemed to be rooting for him) and burst into applause when he revealed that he was writing a new Pee-wee Herman movie.

America has learned a lot about celebrity shame and forgiveness since 1991. If only Reubens had had the foresight to not get busted until after O.J., after Hugh Grant, after Bill Clinton, after Robert Downey Jr., then perhaps his "shocking crime" would not have been pounced on by the media. Perhaps Reubens would have been able to retire Pee-wee in his own time, on his own terms.

But Reubens seems ready for a Pee-wee resurrection now. In order to be Pee-wee again, though, he has to go through a series of delicate transformations so that the vast, ticklish TV-watching public won't get freaked out. His "Murphy Brown" character, an adult brat with Pee-wee's close-cropped hair and nyah-nyah inflection, was Step 1. Step 2 is Reubens' current gig hosting ABC's game show "You Don't Know Jack," in the guise of a disco-suited scamp named "Troy Stevens."

"You Don't Know Jack" is based on the snarky, pop-culture trivia CD-ROM game that was fun in its day but now seems so 1997. As a CD-ROM, "Jack" looked to TV as its role model, spoofing the game-show form; it came with its own sleazy virtual host and stopped dead in its tracks for tedious "phone-ins" from special guests like Charles Nelson Reilly. On TV, "You Don't Know Jack" is still mining the same territory; it wants, a little too desperately, to be a hip parody of a game show.

As Troy Stevens, Reubens (strictly a hired gun here) is still sporting that suspiciously luxuriant shag hairdo; he exudes phoniness and turns to the camera to winkingly let us know that he knows that this is a really, really lame gig. Stevens' job is to read the tricked-up questions and annoy the three contestants. For the "$2 million question," he announces that $1 comes off the clock for each second it takes him to finish reading the question; of course, he then stalls until the prize money gets down to around 20 bucks. When silence is required for the players to concentrate on a math puzzle, he brings on a mariachi band or the USC Marching Trojans. There are walk-ons by goofy characters -- Ninja warriors, opera divas, cute puppies and kids -- and by semi-celebs, like former Olympian Carl Lewis. At least one contestant in the pilot episode, a middle-aged man named Valdemar, seemed confused by the whole thing.

At these moments of entertaining, low-budget chaos, "Jack" seems on the verge of becoming the new "The Gong Show" -- which is not entirely a bad thing, mind you. But let's face it, there's really only one reason to tune in, and Reubens couldn't be better. What's most interesting about Reubens' performance, though, is how it builds on the past without directly alluding to it. Troy Stevens, you see, can't quite suppress the Pee-wee within.

Stevens is snotty and mischievous, like Pee-wee in full imp mode. He flaunts his lack of interest in the contestants' backgrounds and in the game in general; he selfishly appropriates prizes meant for the winner; he pops a little girl's huge bubble-gum bubble. In one episode, he broke into a heh-heh chuckle as if possessed by the bow-tied one. In a perverse way, the prop-heavy and flashy "You Don't Know Jack" could almost be a mutated "Pee-wee's Playhouse," with adults playing amid the retro-pop-cultural detritus. (Watching "Jack" reminds you that "Pee-wee's Playhouse" started life as an R-rated parody of a kids' show staged by Reubens and fellow members of the Los Angeles comedy troupe the Groundlings.)

This is not to suggest, though, that "You Don't Know Jack" deserves to be invoked in the same breath as "Pee-wee's Playhouse," or Reubens' magnificent big-screen debut "Pee-wee's Big Adventure." "You Don't Know Jack" is an ephemeral, entertaining summer goof, nothing more. (Reubens ended up on "Jack" after a more intriguing TV comeback project, a series about a Victorian family that puts on a variety show every week, fell through.) But, still, it's heartening to see Reubens working again -- the man positively sparkles in front of a TV camera! -- and setting the stage for what will hopefully be Pee-wee's reemergence. Because, in Pee-wee Herman, Reubens created a TV character who was every bit as indelible and groundbreaking as Archie Bunker.

"Pee-wee's Playhouse" brought (coded) gay sensibility and postmodern conceptualism to television; it revived kids' television as a hip art form; it brought generations together to watch the same show at different levels of understanding. Tragically, Reubens' creation was far too complicated, and far too pure, to get mixed up in the vanilla minefield of children's programming, where any show with originality is a target for do-gooders with an agenda.

Pee-wee Herman made those do-gooders nervous (conservative, liberal, it didn't matter, they all ganged up and rode him out of town), because he captured the essence of childhood innocence. And it wasn't the party-line version of innocence, where children are regarded as asexual, sheltered little vessels for us to fill with thoughts of "love thy neighbor" and recycling. Instead, Pee-wee beautifully conveyed that time in a kid's life when innocent things seem dirty and dirty things seem innocent. He was childlike in the sense that children can be naughty little devils with richly creative inner lives all their own, from which grown-ups are barred.

Reubens may never be able to get all the way home to the Playhouse again, and he knows that -- he told Letterman that the Pee-wee movie he's writing is a PG-13 tale about the dark price of fame. But for those of us who've been worrying that Reubens would never return (thereby letting the bastards win), the mere news that he's readying Pee-wee for a curtain call is enough for a Big Shoe Dance of joy.

There remains, though, the final step in the transformation, the crucial prep work to ensure that his maybe-movie has an audience. Reubens has to be Pee-wee on television again. But how will he do it? Here's my fantasy: In the final episode of "You Don't Know Jack" (Hey, it can't be far off), Troy Stevens pulls off the wig and the leisure suit and reveals his true identity, little gray checkered suit, rouged lips and all. "Made you look! Heh-heh!" he screams with glee. Then, Pee-wee Herman jumps on his bicycle and rides purposefully into a blazing, smoggy Hollywood sunrise. He has miles to go before he sleeps.

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Talk about an actor disappearing into a role. Martin Short is almost unrecognizable under a round mound of latex flesh in his new Comedy Central series "Primetime Glick" (airing Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m.). Short plays Jiminy Glick, the world's most ill-informed celebrity interviewer -- a character who first appeared on Short's defunct (and not half-bad) syndicated talk show.

Jiminy is a bizarre creation. He's rotund and coy, with a speech pattern that wanders from a high-pitched lisp to a gruff, conspiratorial chuckle. But he's not gay! He's been married for 22 years to his wonderful wife Dixie and they have four strapping sons, Morgan, Mason, Matthew and Modine, so there! Jiminy, who began his career as a personal assistant to Charles Bronson, is a starry-eyed throwback to old-style Hollywood gossip hounds. He drops asides about forgotten Hollywood stars, yet he's an attention-span-challenged ignoramus when he sits down to interview current A-list celebs. He tells Jerry Seinfeld how much he loved him on "Benson," yet seems never to have heard of "Seinfeld." In the middle of a Steve Martin one-on-one, Glick suddenly blindsides his subject with an earnest question: "Catherine Bell of 'JAG' was born on your birthday. Do you think women should be in the military, Steve Martin?"

A little of Glick goes a long way (oh, wait until the fat activists get hold of him). But Short's ad-libbed interviews with pals Seinfeld, Martin, Dennis Miller and Bill Maher have been howlingly funny, with the stars often reduced to what appears to be genuine exasperation by Glick's fractured interviewing style. (Short's tantalizing list of guests includes Rob Lowe, Billy Crystal and Janeane Garofalo.)

The parodies of movie and TV trailers that air between interviews are, so far, hit or miss. But when Glick takes the stage and banters with his bandleader, overly tanned harpist Adrien Van Voorhees of the Van Voorhees 7, played by Michael McKean, no less, "Primetime Glick" approaches the delicious silliness of that seminal talk-show put-on, "Fernwood 2-Nite."

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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