Vanity Fair has a new oral history out today of The Groundlings, LA’s legendary improv theatre that has spawned countless comedic talents on SNL, movies, and beyond like Paul Reubens, Lisa Kudrow, Phil Hartman, Kristen Wiig, Will Forte, and Melissa McCarthy. Here’s Reubens recalling the first time he tried performing as Pee-wee onstage:
I probably had eight or 10 pretty solid characters and maybe four or five of those were very popular and featured in the show. But when I [debuted Pee-wee Herman onstage], that got a completely different reaction. This was a reaction that made me think, Wow, this means something. And very quickly, I decided, “Yeah I am going to keep doing this.” Also, I came out of art school and, at the time, Cal Arts was all about visual- and performing-arts performance, and conceptual art was very big. I kind of viewed Pee-wee Herman as partially conceptual and partially performance because nobody knew it wasn’t a real character at that time. The very first thing I did outside of the Groundlings was put on my Pee-wee suit and answer a cattle call ad for The Dating Game.
It doesn’t matter who you are, who you know, or what you’ve done before, everyone starts at the bottom and they work their way up. It’s so hard and so incredibly fun. The Groundlings taught me how to write, how far I could push a character and still make it real, and also how to catch a man while wearing dumpy dockers and a short curly wig… not bad.