Akron native and Devo founder Mark Mothersbaugh had a friendship with Paul Reubens that pre-dated the comedian’s days as ’90s icon Pee-wee Herman and their collaboration on his titular television show.
Reubens died Sunday night, according to a post on his Instagram page.
Mothersbaugh composed the music for multiple episodes of the show over six seasons and it was among the first – if not the first – credits he received in television or film. It opened doors, and now Mothersbaugh is among one of the most prolific and respected composers in the industry and has been for decades with more than 250 credits.
The fact he was unaware of Reubens’ battle with cancer is indicative of just how private Reubens was.
“It was so shocking because, I mean, he would sometimes skip a dinner meeting or something, but he was always like that,” Mothersbaugh told the Beacon Journal on Wednesday. “He always had a little eccentricity to him that, especially after he got arrested, like he became a little more reclusive. And so sometimes he’d just say, ‘yeah, can’t, not going to be able to go out tonight. I’ll see you next time.’”
Paul Reubens death:Pee-wee Herman actor and comedian, dies at 70 after private cancer battle
Mothersbaugh didn’t think anything of that because the duo had discussed the possibility of bringing Pee-wee to the world of animation.
It’s difficult to think of Pee-wee without the offbeat, manically energetic sounds that Mothersbaugh supplied — a soundtrack that perfectly captured the character and Reubens’ eccentricity.
“He’d been Pee-wee for a couple years and I knew the sources. I mean, like he was drawing from Pinky Lee (a children’s television program host from the 1950s) who was around when we were kids,” Mothersbaugh said, “and wore a suit similar to the Pee-wee suit. And I don’t know, we just had similar aesthetics.”
Mothersbaugh understood what made Reubens and, therefore Pee-wee, tick courtesy of a friendship begun years prior. They were part of a group of artists who considered themselves part of the Southern California lowbrow art movement.
“He drew from his childhood and he loved all of the kitsch from the ‘70s, Spencer’s Gifts catalogs, stuff like that. We both loved that,” he said.
Trips to Palm Springs with Mothersbaugh, his first wife and award-winning songwriter Allee Willis (thank her for the Earth, Wind & Fire classic “September”), helped to shape the Pee-wee aesthetic.
“They knew all of the junk stores and antique stores and Salvation Armies along the way,” he said. “And every now and then, they’d just pull over and they’d see something in a window, maybe a crazy device where it looked like you had your feet in slippers that were also kind of half hair dryer, so that when you turn the thing on, it blew hot air on your feet. And that stuff totally cracked them up and both of them, and they’d fight for it.”
That will sound just as familiar to fans of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” and Mothersbaugh’s opening theme song for the show. And the character hadn’t been in the rearview for the duo. There was talk of the animated series as recently as 2019 that ultimately didn’t come to fruition.
He hadn’t thought anything the declined invitations because after his brush with infamy after being arrested for indecent exposure in 1991 in an adult theater in Sarasota, Fla., he believes Reubens grew more guarded about his private life.
“I guess, being in the tabloids just made him not want to tell anybody about his situation,” he said. “He didn’t want to start seeing himself in grocery stores next to the checkout counter talking about his cancer. …That’s what I think.”
George M. Thomas dabbles in movies and television for the Beacon Journal.