Inside the Book – Chapter One
On August 20, 2009, I heard that Paul Reubens was bringing Pee-wee Herman back for a limited run in Los Angeles. I purchased tickets immediately, even though I live on the East Coast, and began searching the Internet for clues as to which cast members might be returning. To my surprise, I found there was very little on the web about the original staging of The Pee-wee Herman Show and even Pee-wee’s Playhouse, despite the critical and commercial success the show had. Sure, they both had Wikipedia pages, but even as a casual fan I recognized that a lot of the information on the site was inaccurate. Through sheer accident, I found contact information for some original cast members and, without thinking, asked them for interviews. I told them I wanted to write a book about how Pee-wee’s Playhouse was made, how the show affected our popular culture, and why it’s stood the test of time. Frankly, I was shocked to find the people I reached out to very receptive and, on that day, Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse, my upcoming book about the making of the hit children’s television series, was born.
To be honest, at the time I didn’t really know what “writing a book” fully entailed. Even though I hadn’t written or published a book before, I was cautiously optimistic that I’d be able to interest a literary agent or publisher. With the show’s 25th anniversary approaching, the timing seemed right for a retrospective look at a program TV Guide recently cited as one of the top 25 cult shows of all time. Despite my optimism, I was largely unfamiliar with how to go about doing that. I consulted with some friends familiar with publishing and purchased two books from Barnes and Noble (How to Sell, Then Write Your Nonfiction Book by Blythe Camenson and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published by Sheree Bykofsky and Jennifer Basye Sander), reading them from cover to cover in a weekend. After conducting ten interviews, I wrote a 20-something page proposal and sent it off to a dozen or so publishers and literary agents. My first response came back from Jen Hale, an editor at ECW Press whose response included the following sentences: “Thank you for your query letter. I was actually a fan of Pee-wee’s Playhouse as a kid (and sadly, can still sing the entire theme song in the Betty Boop voice if pushed…) ”
I first learned of ECW Press when I went to picked up the aforementioned books. I went over to the pop culture section of the store and pulled out all the ones I liked. There were five that interested me and as I looked at their spines, I realized that four were published by ECW. They immediately shot to the top of my list. Jen’s response only reaffirmed my interest and desire to see the book at ECW. I received serious interest from a fairly well-known literary agency, but decided to hold out hope that I’d receive an offer from ECW. My faith paid off and, by January of this year, I had signed a contract and officially landed a book deal to publish Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
The next few months were complete and utter insanity. I conducted dozens of interviews and attempted dozens more. Ultimately, over 75 people were spoken to for the book, ranging from those who worked on the original live show in 1981, the children’s show from 1986-1991, both Pee-wee films, and the new live show that ran in Los Angeles and hits Broadway next month. I often pulled 15-hour research days, sifting through newspaper and magazine articles from since Paul Reubens was making appearances on The Gong Show, and making trips to Manhattan and Los Angeles to sift through archival footage and meet with those who were involved with the show’s creation. Although not all people who were interviewed have quotes in the book, I can’t tell you how appreciative I am of everyone who made time to speak to me. All of their memories, whether they’ve been directly quoted or not, not only informed the book, but provided me with a real perspective of how it was to work on a show I grew up watching and that means so much to me and hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. This book wouldn’t have been possible if these folks hadn’t made themselves available, allowed me to visit their place of work and take them out for coffee, and open their phone books and email lists for me to raid and contact more Pee-wee alum.
Of course, there were hurdles. As anyone who’s written a research-intensive book will tell you, it’s hard to figure out what to do with all your data once you’ve gathered it. There are anecdotes I love that won’t make the book, either because of space limitations or because they don’t work in the narrative I’ve constructed. Figuring out what’s important is a skill that took me months to learn and even longer to feel like I’ve come somewhat-close to mastering. While on the topic of time, the turnaround on my manuscript was relatively short, simply because of the number of sources that went into this book. From conception to completion, it took just about a year to write the book, which was really quite demanding on me as a first-time author. This was further complicated by the “necessary distractions” that often threw off my writing schedule — the quest for a foreward writer, my exhaustive quest for rare and never-before-published pictures, and the solicitation of people to read advance copies and write a short blurb for the back of the book.
By far, the most fun and draining process was the writing itself. I received great pleasure in turning what were seemingly rudimentary facts on sloppily-handwritten notes and audiotape into prose. Pee-wee’s fantasy world is visually rich, which really required me to bear-down and come up with ways to use words to describe an experience that must truly be seen to be believed. My goal was to write the book for Pee-wee enthusiasts, but in a way that was accessible to casual fans and, yes, even “Pee-wee non-believers.” The behind-the-scenes story of the Pee-wee phenomenon is a truly unbelievable one that can be appreciated by even those who haven’t seen the show. The naysayers can turn up their noses about the character and his fans if they want, but the show undeniably changed children’s television and our popular culture. There wouldn’t have been The Ren and Stimpy Show, Blue’s Clues, or, dare I say, arguably even The Simpsons, if it hadn’t been for Playhouse breaking all the rules and causing network executives to come up with new and creative ways to captivate the viewing audience. My goal was to communicate that point in an effective way, while also showing how an unknown comedian became one of the most recognizable figures on the planet in just a short period of time.
One of the unexpected pleasures of writing the book was sparking genuine long-distance friendships with several of the people I interviewed and hundreds of fellow Pee-wee fans. It’ s been great to connect with people via Facebook and Twitter and talk about our favorite Pee-wee memories, hopes for future projects, and things that they were most interested in hearing about inside the pages of my book. As I wrote in the book’s introduction, this project was written primarily for people who, like myself, kept their enthusiasm for Pee-wee Herman alive despite Paul Reubens’ scandals, silence, and sabbaticals.
On September 13, 24 years to the day after Pee-wee’s Playhouse first aired on CBS, I submitted my manuscript to ECW. It was a bittersweet moment. On one hand, I was so used to working on the book that it feels odd to no longer work on it. However, I do feel a great sense of relief that it’s now in the hands of my editor, who will undoubtedly help me craft the book into an excellent work. Of course, once that draft comes back, the work continues. When I finished my manuscript I said to my friend Chris Ryan that it felt like I had just given birth. He reminded me that it was merely a first contraction.
I look forward to keeping you updated on the rest of this process and hope you’re as excited as I was to take look Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse.