Pee-wee Herman is making a comeback, folks.
That’s right, you know who I’m talking about!
There’s something to be said for a character that after almost 20 years off the public radar, can come back into the mainstream with as much brand recognition as they day he left.
What a character he was! Both in costume, and in real life, Paul Reubens–the man behind the gray suit, slicked hair and red bow tie–has caused a stir. His breakthrough performance as Pee-wee, the strange, incomparable yet endearing, Peter-Pan, started as a comedy routine that quickly morphed into more: A movie (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure), a network television show (Pee-wee’s Playhouse), another movie (Big Top Pee-wee) and a multi-million dollar franchise.
Taking concepts from earlier educational children’s programming (think Rocky & Bullwinkle, The Mickey Mouse Club, and Captain Kangaroo) Reubens created a world where these ideas were amplified to epic, larger-than-life proportions. (Remember the elaborate way he made toast in his Big Adventure?) Pee-wee became a cultural phenomena, that somehow broached age barriers, allowing parents and children to identify, enjoy, and wonder at the chaos that was Pee-wee.
Part of the reason for this universality was that Pee-wee wasn’t afraid to take on taboo subject matter in a way that was so innocent, that it wasn’t overtly radical. Themes of race, inequality and loneliness were groundbreaking for children’s television at the time, and Pee-wee discussed them freely. Maybe his child-like, harmless, asexuality was part of the reason he could do it when others couldn’t. Until he wasn’t child-like, harmless or asexual anymore.
Pee-wee may have reached the ‘big top,’ but Paul Reubens took quite a fall. Although Pee-wee’s Playhouse had been off the air for over a year, it was still on CBS in reruns when Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure at an adult movie theatre in 1991. Major PR ensued with CBS, Toys R Us, and Disney-MGM pulling Pee-wee from shelves and airwaves. Despite best attempts to quell backlash, all the good that Pee-wee had done was very quickly erased by Reubens’ lack of judgment. A second arrest, which Reubens was later cleared of, on child pornography charges, was the nail in the coffin of the Pee-wee Herman brand. The innocent, man-child was no more.
But fast forward 19 years, and things have changed.
Reubens, now a 52 year old man, is back with a new Pee-wee Herman stage show and a screenplay. I have to admit that when I first heard this, I laughed (and not in the nice, supportive way). But there’s something about this comeback that has really stuck with me. It might simply be nostalgia, but that in itself can be a powerful thing. Is it powerful enough to bank a brand on?
Reading his recent interviews, what struck me is that Reubens gets that he’s messed up. He knows he’s not an easy sell. He’s honest about his indiscretions–admits the ones that are his, and adamantly denies those that he’s already been cleared of. We talk so much about building trust in brands in the social media and online worlds. What’s ironic is that I’m reading Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith while I’m thinking about whether I’d trust the Pee-wee brand again. For some strange reason, I do. I do trust Pee-wee!
Reubens is putting himself on the line in terms of professional transparency. (I’m not so naive as to believe he’s letting it all out, but that’s ok. I don’t want to know everything anyway.) Whether it’s in confessing that he’s obessive-compulsive, or being a little bit proud of the implications of the Pee-wee phenomena, Paul Reubens comes across as a real person–not a product of Hollywood publicists. And I like that.
It’s actually got me rooting for ‘Pee-wee’s Big Comeback.’ And I think it’s a good lesson in PR and branding: Building trust after a crisis is hard, but it’s possible. It might take 20 years, but if the repentence (so-to-speak) is real, it might just be crazy enough to work. Tequila!