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Pee-wee Herman appears on Jay Leno, but is all forgiven?

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I can remember the summer of 1991 like it was yesterday. My first summer as a teenager saw my hormones kick into high gear as I spent the Pee-wee Hermanmajority of my days at the local pool checking out the girls swim team. When the summer started, there was Michael Jordan FINALLY winning his first NBA Title with the Bulls. I also remember sneaking into "Point Break" (We'll miss you, Patrick Swayze) on the Ocean City Boardwalk with my sister (relax, we paid for another movie). Even the Phillies (they weren't the champs THEN) reeled off 13 straight wins.

However, one particular incident during that summer crept back into my memory this evening as pop cultural icon Pee-wee Herman appeared on The Jay Leno Show. You can't think of that summer without remembering Pee-wee getting arrested for "lewd conduct" in an adult movie theater in Florida.

Like I said, that summer the hormones went crazy, and certain things that weren't always "clear" to me suddenly had new meaning. In saying that, I was 13 not 30. And as a young kid who often watched "Pee-wee's Playhouse" on CBS Saturday mornings as an 8-year old, the 13-year old in me really didn't know how to put the pieces together for this one. And I sure as hell wasn't going to get anything out of my STRICT Catholic parents about this.

The mug shots of Pee-wee were shocking to say the least. I thought: "Pee-wee Herman doesn't have long hair and a goatee. Who is that guy? It can't be him!" When the summer ended, I was welcomed back at school with the news that a priest in our church had to be "transferred to another parish." Yep, I was lost on that one, too. My friends, who were a little more "knowledgeable" than I was at the time, filled me in on the whole church incident AND Pee-wee too. Man oh man, talk about an eye opener. I didn't lose my innocence in the summer of 1991, but let's just say I got a lot less naive.

Let's face it, it doesn't take a rocket scientist (even as a kid) to realize that Pee-wee Herman was a little odd. I mean come on, a guy in his thirties dressed in a glen plaid suit with a red bow tie and a trace of lipstick, riding his bicycle while repeating that high pitched laugh? This is the kind of guy your mom is supposed to keep you away from if he lives in your neighborhood, right? Wrong. As kooky as Pee-wee acted and looked, he was harmless as an ant, and ALWAYS portrayed himself as a positive role model for kids. You didn't want your kid to act like him, but you wouldn't exactly oppose your kid following the same code of morality that he did. Paul Reubens (Pee-wee's real name) sold that character better than almost any cultural icon of that era let alone the past fifty years. And the public bought it: hook, line and sinker.

This positive image that Reubens portrayed as Herman made his arrest all the more surprising. If he was trying to distance himself from the character (which he had been hinting at for some time), this incident sure sealed the deal. After mostly keeping out of the public eye in the years that followed, Reubens in July 1991 after his arrest in Florida. Reubens went on to guest star on "Murphy Brown," had a role in the comedy "Mystery Men," and also appeared in "Blow" with Johnny Depp. The public was starting to put the perception of Reubens as Pee-wee Herman behind them. Audiences now were beginning to appreciate him for his diverse acting talents. Just when all seemed well, Reubens was then promptly arrested for suspicion of child pornography in 2002. Although the charges were eventually dropped, talk of the 1991 arrest resurfaced again. I was twenty four at the time. Nobody needed to tell me what all of this was about anymore.

After years of discussing bringing back the character that made him famous, Reubens (who had only appeared as Herman three times in the last 18 years) guest starred on Leno's show last night in character as Pee-wee Herman. Reubens didn't offer as many high pitched laughs as he once did (probably because he no longer can), but surprisingly cracked a joke about that infamous night in July of 1991 when referring to what seemed like a wedding ring as his "abstinence ring." Reubens was obviously promoting "The Pee-wee Herman Show," which takes place at the "Music Box @ Fonda" (also known as the "Henry Fonda Theater") in Hollywood beginning in November.

Which brings me to the million dollar question: Will the public try and forgive Paul Reubens and his questionable behavior to openly embrace Pee-wee Herman the way they once did? If I were to guess, I would say probably no. After all, how many chances can a guy get? If Reubens himself is trying to make people forget about his past, cracking a joke about it the night he returns in character isn't the way to go. I know, I know, it's not like his wrongdoings were anything remotely close to that of a Michael Vick, or that he financially ruined people's lives with some ponzi scheme. What Reubens did do however, was personally tarnish the image of his on-screen alter ego with his deplorable and inexcusable actions off-screen. On most grounds, that is career suicide.  Just look at many stars who never recovered from their costly mistakes.

I must admit, seeing Reubens on stage last night reminded me of 1985 for a split second. At the same time, his joke took me right back to 1991. Reportedly, there is an overwhelming demand for tickets to his new show. So it seems for now, all may be forgiven.

Time will only tell if Paul Reubens gets back into the public's permenant good graces, or if he does something that makes us remember the summer of 1991- for all the WRONG reasons.

 

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