Paul Reubens and Paul Rust spent five years on and off writing the new Pee-wee Herman movie, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, premiering on Netflix on March 18, so it wouldn’t be surprising to hear that they might want to take a break from each other. But both men would happily dive into writing another film together. “I’m crossing my fingers, hoping the phone is going to ring, and Netflix is going to be like, ‘Hey, how many more movies can you guys come up with?’ ” says Reubens, who first suited up as the endearingly odd man-child in the late 1970s.
“Yeah!” Rust cheers.
“One is not always in the situation of coming off of a five-year process like this—or even a six-month or one-year process—feeling like you just can’t wait to jump back in with the same person,” Reubens continues, adding, “I think it’s really going to be a question of whether Paul is too big of a star now from his own TV show.”
He’s referring to Love, Rust’s new Netflix series, which he stars in and co-created with his wife Lesley Arfin and Judd Apatow.
“No, never. I would never turn down an invitation to co-write another Pee-wee Herman movie!” Rust insists.
Looking back, Reubens admits he was skeptical when Apatow, who executive produced the first new Pee-wee Herman in nearly 30 years, insisted that he had the perfect writing partner for Reubens in Rust. “Judd said to me—I don’t remember if it was during the first meeting or the second meeting we had—’I have the exact right person for you to write the movie with. I’m so excited. You’re going to love this guy.’ “
Reubens didn’t understand how Apatow could be so certain—he had never even met Rust. “I immediately thought, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ “
Conversely, Rust was confident the pairing would work. “Paul’s work inspired me so much and sort of shaped what I think is funny, so I just knew. I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to get along with this guy because he shaped everything I like in art,’ so it was a little easier for me,” Rust says.
After meeting Rust, Reubens realized Apatow’s instincts were right on. The two men shared a similar sense of humor and had an easy rapport. “It was really an incredible experience, and I have an amazing new lifelong friend,” Reubens says.
Here, the two Pauls discuss the benefits of having a writing partner, the ins and outs of their collaboration and building a movie out of a series of jokes and gags.
Reubens has written all three of the Pee-wee Herman movies with other writers, teaming with the late Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol on the first, 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and George McGrath on 1988’s Big Top Pee-wee, and though he created the character, he likes having someone to work with.
“Here’s the thing, particularly in comedy, which is mostly what I have written, it’s just lonely to do it by yourself in my opinion,” Reubens says. “I think Paul has written a lot of stuff by himself—I could be wrong. But I think he knows how to do it more than me. I know how to do it, but I don’t like it. Comedy is fun. It’s supposed to be fun, and it’s supposed to be fun to write, and you’re supposed to laugh while you’re writing it. And doing that all by yourself is just sad. It’s not as fun, and the writing of it is one of the greatest parts of the whole process.”
“I hate writing alone, too,” Rust says. “It’s such a lonely, sad process, and yeah, it just makes sense for comedy. It’s an exchange of ideas between two people, and if you feel something’s funny, and the other person laughs, it confirms it. It also just makes writing really fun, getting together and giggling, basically.”
Neither Reubens nor Rust is a morning person when it comes to writing, by the way. “We’re kind of night owls,” Rust says. “Paul was very kind and would often offer to cook, so a lot of times I would go over to Paul’s house, he’d make a great meal, we’d sit there, we’d eat it, we’d sort of warm up, and then maybe two or three hours later, we would start writing and just work from there.”
When they weren’t in the same room, they would write together via Skype for hours at a time. “I don’t know what the real figure is, but I would say ninety, ninety-five percent of the movie we wrote together. We were together, or we were looking at the same page on the computer in two different locations,” Reubens says. “Then there were times when Paul would take a stab at something, and I would come back and sign off on it or tweak it. But for the most part we wrote everything together, which is a really fun, great way to do it.”
While the two men wrote the film together, Rust says he did view Reubens as “the captain of the ship” and trusted his instincts.
“A lot of times, it was about listening to Paul and getting to hear his great ideas and figuring out a way that the two of us could execute them. It would be as if you were collaborating with Chaplin, and I hope Paul will take this as a compliment. You wouldn’t go, ‘I don’t think the Little Tramp would do that, Charlie,'” Rust says, stressing, “It’s definitely nice to have the person who created the character and the universe there guiding things along.”
Did Reubens provide Rust with a list of rules for Pee-wee Herman and his universe? Nope. “There are guidelines that he upholds, but it’s less about rules and more about instincts and what feels right and what doesn’t feel right,” Rust reports, pointing out, “We didn’t have to uphold some sort of Star Wars-level canon.”
Writers who attended press screenings of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, including this one, were given a letter—from the desk of Pee-wee Herman!—asking them not to give away much of anything about what happens in the film, which has very few plot points.
Respecting the wishes of Reubens and Rust, all you need to know is that the cast includes Joe Manganiello, and Pee-wee is inspired to leave the familiar surroundings of his small town to go on a holiday, and he encounters all kinds of crazy characters and situations along the way.
“We were concerned many times, particularly when we were looking at the initial version of the script, that it almost has no plot—it has no villain. I think we were a few times kind of going, ‘Is this going to be okay? Are we making a mistake here?'” Reubens admits.
They decided they weren’t and stuck with their plan to make a movie with very little agenda that simply rambles along. “I learned so much from Paul as a writer about plot,” Rust says, “and one of the things that I remember and now reference in my own writing is Paul once said, ‘You don’t want to be on page 50 and have somebody reference something where they go, ‘Oh yeah, what was that?’ and then have to flip back to page 30 to figure out what they’re talking about. I think simplicity goes a really long way.”
Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is funny, but Reubens and Rust didn’t set out to make a film full of belly laughs. Instead, they tend to create long setups for quirky gags that might only take a second or two to reveal and aren’t gut busting moments. “If you like the movie, I think you watch it with a smile on your face,” Reubens says, “and I think it can make you happy, but I don’t think there is a gigantic, I laughed so hard my face hurt, my stomach hurt moment, and I really like that about it.”
There are certainly nods to Pee-wee Herman’s past in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. To wit: Reubens and Rust scripted a clever Rube Goldberg-inspired morning ritual for Pee-wee in the new film.
But they weren’t trying to relive the past. “Paul and I along with our director John Lee, all of us wanted to make sure we weren’t just coasting on familiar nostalgia stuff,” Rust says. “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to come up with new jokes and new gags. I think that comes from Paul just being an artist first and foremost rather than, let’s say, a comedian. I think a comedian would probably be more likely to be like, ‘Hey, I’m nervous about wanting to make sure that the audience gets this laugh and gets this catch phrase in the movie.'”
Once the movie went into production, the writing process continued. “We had this incredible luxury of Paul Rust being available, and Paul and I met every single weekend while we were in production, mostly on Sundays but sometimes on Saturdays. We looked at the upcoming week of work and re-wrote those scenes. There is incredible stuff that we both loved that we came up with on those weekends,” Reubens says, noting that they could only make these tweaks because they went into the shoot with a solid, well thought-out script. “I think if we were doing that desperately or sweatily, trying to come up with jokes out of necessity, it wouldn’t have been good.”
If the two men do indeed pair up to write another Pee-wee Herman movie, “I’d really want to do that again,” Rust says of the last-minute tweaks to the script. “With Paul being there day-to-day shooting, he would know what was working, how the vibe was working. All the comedy cylinders were firing at that point, and some good stuff came out of it.”