Inside the Book – Chapter Three
Someone much smarter than me once said that writing is rewriting. Even though I had heard that expression many years ago, and I had even said it to some of my high students, I didn’t realize the magnitude of those words until I sat down at my computer to begin writing Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse. The book went through more rewrites than I’d care to admit to, but I can offer a small glimpse into the self-editing process.
Before handing the manuscript in to my editor, I wanted to make sure the book was as tight as possible. I wrote the book out of order, which worked better than you might imagine. If I felt stuck on writing the chapter on Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special, I’d work on one of the pre-Playhouse chapters. If I hit a roadblock there, I’d love on to the chapter about Pee-wee Herman’s comeback, and so on. It enabled me to keep working when I had a bout with writer’s block or boredom. However, while this strategy was beneficial for me, it took me a little bit before I figured out the rhythm and pacing of the book.
While some chapters barely changed once I wrote them, others changed dramatically over the year-long process of writing the book before I handed in my first draft. The biggest changes came at the beginning and the end. I thought it might be clever and creative to start the book in an unconventional way, so on March 6, 2010, I wrote the first five pages of the first chapter. It began with Stephen Oakes and Peter Rosenthal, two producers for an animation studio called Broadcast Arts, in pitch-session with an executive from CBS in 1985. The duo, who had achieved success in using stop-motion animation in television advertisements, were trying to break in to the television industry. Through a series of lucky breaks, they ended up collaborating with Paul Reubens on the first season of Playhouse.
By starting the book this way, I tried to keep the reading audience waiting for Pee-wee’s arrival into the narrative, hoping they’d keep reading until they finally saw the famous character turn up in the book. I couldn’t have been more wrong. First of all, the original opening I wrote was dreadfully boring. In fact, it’s so boring that I was going to copy-and-paste the first few paragraphs into this post, but I thought it’d make you stop reading. One of my friends said it best when I told him of how I started the book: “You’re planning on starting a book about one of the most fun shows in television history in a business meeting where the star isn’t even present?” He was right and I started over. The new opening began in 1981, on the evening of the first performance of The Pee-wee Herman Show at The Groundlings Theatre. It’s much more effective.
And it went this way for a year. For a while the book was going to include chapter-length biographies about all of the Playhouse characters and the actors who played them, but I edited this information down and worked them into other chapters instead. Another unexpected hurdle came in how to end the book. When I first went under contract with ECW Press, the publisher distributing the book, Paul Reubens had yet to start his live run at Club Nokia from January through February, 2010. How do you write the ending to a story that hasn’t ended yet? This proved to be the most challenging aspect of the book long after I handed in the first draft, with substantial changes being made to the ending until about a month or so ago. I’m quite happy with the ending now and think it’s the best portion of the book.
Above all, what was most important to me was staying true to the book’s narrative structure. I wanted the book to not just be a collection of trivia – one can go to Wikipedia for that – but instead, I wanted it to tell a story that, when read to start to finish, actually took you through a journey like a novel might. Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse has a ton of photos throughout, but it is a text-heavy journey through the Pee-wee Herman phenomenon. In order to keep the book moving at a brisk pace, there are some interesting stories I chose not to include because they were too much of a diversion.
One story that I kept thinking I’d include in the book, but ultimately didn’t, was told to me by one of the series directors. He joined the show after filming for the season had already started as a replacement for another director and, during his first week on the set, had a small altercation with a crew member who was wearing a shirt with vulgarity on it. The director took the crew member aside, told the crew member he thought the shirt was inappropriate for the set of a children’s show, and the crew member walked away without saying anything. The director saw the crew member a few minutes later wearing a different shirt and appreciated that his concerns were listened to. Weeks later, when Paul Reubens thought it would be interesting to see Chairry walk in the “Why Wasn’t I Invited?” episode, the offered the crew member an opportunity to shine. He asked the crew member to figure out a way to get Chairry to walk and, in front of Reubens and the rest of the crew, the crew member made Chairry move by crouching down behind the puppet and moving it in a way that would give the illusion of walking. Ultimately, the director rewarded the crew member’s professionalism and respectability by turning him into a hero on the set for the day.
Was the story interesting? I think it is. Did the story “matter” at the end of the day? Not really. In order for me to tell the best story I could, I had to appraise what mattered and what didn’t, which is why this story remained untold in the manuscript. I keep thinking I’ll put some of these stories online as “bonus material” for the book once it is released, so at least they can be read by Pee-wee fans who want more behind-the-scenes stories from the set.
Ultimately, the writing process was fun, but demanding. Every word was questioned for its importance and I think the book is better for it. I can’t wait until you read the whole thing for yourself and can tell me what you think of it!