From the moment a book contract is signed, if not earlier, every writer imagines walking into their local bookstore and spotting their book on a shelf. The problem with that fantasy is that no author knows what their book will look like. Unless you’re J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, or someone with a similar level of name-recognition, most authors don’t have final say on what their books look like. In fact, from what I’ve read and heard, some authors don’t even have a vote in the process.
Why? Let me explain. In book publishing, authors are responsible for the content and the publisher is responsible for the packaging of that content. The text on the back of the book, the book’s size, and even the title are considered packaging, much like you would imagine different teams at Kellogg’s being responsible for the taste of breakfast cereal and the box it comes in.
In case you can’t see where I’m going with this, packaging also extends to the book’s cover. As much as I looked forward to holding my book in my hands, I was secretly afraid since day one that I would end up with a cover I was unhappy with.
Luckily, this wasn’t the case. Before work began on my cover, my editor asked if I had any design ideas. I had always liked the DVD art for the original staging of The Pee-wee Herman Show and thought that a comparable visual might be appropriate. While looking for a similar photo, I realized the exact same shot was available to us, so I opened up Photoshop and cooked this up.
The mock-up I made was fairly well received, but there were some concerns on my publisher’s end: the text wasn’t large enough; the cover didn’t convey that this was a “behind-the-scenes” book; and, most importantly, the cover was too dark. The book went to a designer, the incredibly patient and talented Scott Barrie of Cyanotype, based in Nova Scotia, and came up with three mock-ups that addressed the concerns of the team at ECW Press.
There were things I liked about all three, but I had some reservations about all of them. The first cover, I thought, looked a little sensational and “tabolidy” with the caution-tape. More importantly, I was concerned about Magic Screen being on the cover without the “magic” inside, and Globey being turned around. The second cover was fun, although I would have preferred some of the pictures changed. I didn’t really get where the spiderweb/broken-glass concept came from, but I thought it was original-looking. I liked the style and sophistication of the third mock-up, but thought it was a little bit dark for a book about Pee-wee Herman.
The team at ECW Press favored Scott’s first mock-up, as did I, and they suggested some really awesome revisions that resulted in a pretty eye-catching cover.
So, this cover was pretty cool, right? I only really had two concerns with it: Clocky’s face was covered and I didn’t like my name being on the top of the book. I thought it drew too much attention and, with all those colors and Pee-wee’s face predominately displayed, it would be best to keep the focus on him as much as possible. My editor had some further suggestions for Scott and this is what he came up with.
I loved the addition of the blue arrows and the blue in “pop phenomenon” (if you’re hip, you’ll notice the subtitle changed a few times throughout this process!). My only issue remained that my name was on the top. After some careful design work, and the input from the ECW sales team, Scott delivered the cover that, for several weeks, was our final version.
Ta-da! Everyone loved it! I loved it, my editor loved it, I’m pretty sure Scott loved it, and the rest of the crew at ECW Press loved it. However, there were some technical glitches with this cover. The background image, which you’ve probably seen before, was too small from the photo licensing agency we were using and it would have had to have been stretched for the book cover. While it probably looks fine in the size it appears above, blowing it up and stretching it would have meant pixelation, grain, and other no-nos for a picture on the cover of the book. After exploring several different options, and several frenetic emails back and forth between my me and my editor (and her and everyone she knew who might be able to help), this cover got placed ever so lovingly into the garbage. Once again, I was asked if I had any ideas and I shot off this email:
I have two ideas. The first would be something like this: http://www.amazon.com/Pee-wees-Playhouse-2-Seasons-3-5/dp/B0002IQB3U/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1296589022&sr=8-3, which is the cover of one of his DVD boxed sets. We could extend that green background to fill the entire cover, choose a big, wacky photo of Pee-wee, and make the title and subtitle a little bit larger. The only thing is, it’s a bit of a boring visual, perhaps? The second idea (and I actually like this one a lot, I almost suggested it once-upon-a-time ago, but I thought it might be too minimalist for everyone’s taste) is to “dress” the book in a Pee-wee suit. Frame it in that glen-plaid pattern, give it a little handkerchief in its pocket, and put the title and such over a white shirt. Over the white shirt it would read Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse, perhaps followed by a red bowtie, the book’s subtitle, followed maybe by a clear white button, then my name. Or my name can be along the bottom bottom of the book, whichever. Even though his face wouldn’t be on the front cover, I think the suit and bowtie are iconic enough. Have you seen his Foursquare badge? http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_NDJxUN-93Rg/TK6aj_TIwxI/AAAAAAAAACY/By05Ku4T8bs/s1600/Screen+shot+2010-10-08+at+12.13.38+AM.png –> even though that concept is simplistic, I think implied works better sometimes. I’m reminded of the book cover for Laura Zigman’s Dating Big Bird (http://www.amazon.com/Dating-Big-Bird-Laura-Zigman/dp/0385333412/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1296589504&sr=8-1), which I always thought was so cool, and was probably just a designer’s way of avoiding having to pay for licensing a shot of the bird.
After bouncing ideas back and forth a bit more with my editor, Scott (you already saw why he earned his title of “talented,” now you see why he earned his title of “patient!”) went back to work on three brand-new designs, about two months before the book was slated to go to print.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the first cover. I thought there was a lot going on, the green was a little bit off to me, and the foreground image was a pretty crummy shot of Pee-wee. The second image was pretty cool, but I thought it was a bit strange to have Jambi on the cover turned around. I loved the colors of the second one, but the third image was pretty striking to me. First off, my editor loved it and, the more I thought about it, the more I liked it too. It was different from anything else I had seen regarding my book cover mock-ups or, frankly, anything Pee-wee related. Also, it solved a central problem: Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse has a ton of photos, but it isn’t solely about the children’s show. The book starts in 1978 and moves all the way through 2011. Pee-wee’s Playhouse is a big part of the book, but as the subtitle suggests, the book really is a look at the entire Pee-wee Herman phenomenon; its inception, it’ s decline, and its resurrection — and the people, including the fans, that were there through all of it. This cover wouldn’t mislead anyone into thinking it was just about the CBS show.
My only concern with the third cover was that I thought it didn’t communicate to readers that the book was photo-heavy. I tinkered around in Photoshop again and made a very poor man’s version of something I thought Scott might be able to try to get some more photos on the front cover.
To her amazing credit, my editor was willing to make the suggestion to Scott, but it never got that far. She thought these additions made the cover a bit too busy, took away from the concept of Pee-wee against the white background, and that all the black-and-white photos looked more appropriate for a black-and-white TV show, not Pee-wee’s Playhouse. I agreed with her. After a few minor tweaks that I’ll leave you to spot, we arrived at the final cover.
I’m so incredibly proud of this cover, which I think gives a bit of mystery about what’s inside (you’ll have to wait a bit longer before you can get a sneak peek at a page or two!) and looks silly, yet serious — just the right tone for the book I’ve written. I’m happy ECW Press allowed me to be such a voice in the process and, most importantly, I’m thankful to Scott for his creativity and sense of style.
Last night I attended the first preview performance of The Pee-wee Herman Show, the psuedo-revival of the 1981 stage show that ran at The Groundlings Theatre and The Roxy in Los Angeles. The show had a limited run earlier this year at Club Nokia in Los Angeles. I saw the closing night performance of the recent staging, so I was excited to see that Pee-wee would be coming to Broadway with his colorfully creative cast of characters. What follows is an account of my night. Please be advised that I may give some things away about the show, so if you are opposed to spoilers, you may not want to read further. Likewise, I’m relying heavily on my memory, so if I make inaccuracies, please comment below and I’ll make corrections.
When I arrived at the venue, one of the first things that struck me was that it was a relatively controlled crowd. When I saw the show in L.A., the crowd seemed enthusiastic about the show from the moment you stepped onto the venue’s property. Instead, this crowd seemed more like theater-goers than rabid Pee-wee fans. There were people dressed in Pee-wee t-shirts, but for the most part, everyone seemed relaxed. Also, I was appreciative that the temperature wasn’t as freezing as it was at Club Nokia. The show started a few minutes late, but it was forgivable.
The real excitement came as soon as the lights went down. The crowd went completely wild. Then the crowd went even crazier when a lone spotlight hit the curtain. Then the room went absolutely bananas when Pee-wee emerged from off-stage. We stood for what must have been a few minutes and Paul seemed genuinely appreciative of the reception. We didn’t allow him to audibly deliver his first few lines because we cheered, clapped, and some even chanted, “Pee-wee! Pee-wee!” The indifference I sensed among the crowd was quickly erased in the show’s first few minutes.
Without giving away every little detail, those who saw the show at Club Nokia will be glad to know that this version is actually much better. The plot has been fleshed out more and there is certainly much more adult humor. For example, the puppets consider staging a revolt when Pee-wee wants to hook up a computer in the playhouse and get new cyberbuddies. One of the puppets says, “But we’re your friends, Pee-wee!” and he replies, “Yeah, but you’re old! You’re not modern!” This leads to some kid-friendly tension with the puppets considering different ways to pay Pee-wee back for his impending neglect. There’s another really amazing new sequence that pays homage to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. The power goes out in the playhouse and there are a few minutes where all you can see are the characters’ eyes. There’s a great deal of naughtiness that will go over the tops of of your kids’ heads (Pee-wee says, “I think I found my flashlight!” and Conky replies, “That-that-that’s not a flashlight, Pee-wee.”) There’s a number of really amazing visual surprises when the lights come back on, but I won’t ruin them for you!
All together, the show was pretty well done. There were a number of technical glitches (a prop got stuck under Chairry, a number of sound and light cues were off, Miss Yvonne had a wardrobe malfunction more tame than Janet Jackson’s), but the show kept the audience engaged and laughing. For those familiar with the 1981 production, which was aired as an HBO special and released on DVD a few years ago, you’ll be happy to know that a lot of the dialogue has been carried over to this show — even more than what was on stage at Club Nokia. As someone who’s seen that original special more times than I’d like to admit, there are still things I missed. Captain Carl’s absence was noticeable, especially with large portions of his dialogue given to Phil LaMarr, who fills in for Laurence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis. I missed Brian Seff and Monica Ganas as Mr. and Mrs. Jelly Donut, the singing next door neighbors that perform the Sly Stone medley. I also missed the Balloon Land cartoon, which was replaced with two or three Penny cartoons (that were edited together to appear to be one long clip).
After the show, I spotted Alex Timbers, the director, sitting in the back row taking notes with two assistants. I asked him for an autograph and he politely and enthusiastically signed my Playbill. I proceeded to the merchandise stand and found myself to be disappointed. There wasn’t much there. There were glow-in-the-dark Silly Bands, magnets, several t-shirts (the coolest one had a picture of Pee-wee next to a giant mountain of tin foil and it said, “World’s Largest Foil Ball” or something like that), a baseball hat, and not too much else. Perhaps they’ll get more merchandise as the show goes on. The pricing for the items wasn’t inexpensive, but was fair by Broadway standards. I spent $20 on my magnet set and it came with 12 inside.
After I left the theater, my friends and I headed to the stage door. There were several hundred people crowded around. The security team instructed us that Paul would be coming soon, had his own Sharpie, and would be signing things. This ended up not being the case. He came out, and to his credit, stayed outside for several minutes and made small-talk with some people, but left without signing anything or posing for pictures. Ordinarily, I don’t think this would have been a problem, considering the number of people, but I do think it’s unfortunate that we were told he would be signing things and then he didn’t. Fans that choose to swing by the back door should measure their expectations of a meet-and-greet with Paul after the show.
After Paul left, I think it’s fair to say that several people were in the crowd were a little disappointed. However, as I was walking away, I spotted Lance Roberts, who plays the King of Cartoons. He posed for a picture and signed my Playbill. Then I saw Jesse Garcia, who plays Sergio, a new character, who did the same. I also saw Lexy Fridell, who replaced Lori Alan as the voice of all the female puppets, who signed my Playbill, as did Caesar Samayoa, an understudy for a handful of characters. They were all in great spirits and I appreciate them taking their time to not only meet with me, but other fans that were lingering around the theater.
As we were walking back to my car, my friend Allie spotted Lynne Stewart, who has played Miss Yvonne for nearly 30 years, coming out the main entrance. I recognized John Paragon, who has portrayed Jambi for the same length of time, and we spoke to them briefly, asked for autographs, and took pictures. It was very cool to meet two actors that have made such sizable contributions to the Pee-wee brand, not only in terms of acting, but also behind the scenes. John Paragon co-wrote and co-directed dozens of Playhouse episodes and Lynne Stewart co-wrote what I consider to be one of the series’ best episodes, “Rebarella.” Meeting them was an absolute pleasure and an excellent end to a night that was really FUN (which, by the way, was the secret word of the day!)
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.
92 minutes. While it’s far from unusual for movies to clock-in at insane lengths, even the average Judd Apatow film is over 2 hours long, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure put an irremovable imprint on our popular culture in a mere 92 minutes. The film, produced on a shoe-string budget of $6 million, not only converted Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee Herman character from a quirky cult figure to a household name, it also jump-started the cinematic careers of both Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, the powerhouse duo that have since gone on to collaborate on more than a dozen films. The film was among the 20 highest grossing films of 1985, along with Back to the Future, The Color Purple, The Breakfast Club, and The Goonies, despite having never played in more than 900 theaters at a given time. How is it possible that a film about a man-child trying to find his bike, a tricked-out vintage Schwinn, could have achieved such a degree of success?
It’s hard to say, exactly. Like most things in life, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure seems to have benefited by being placed at the right place and right time. The film was green-lit by Warner Brothers, primarily on the success of Pee-wee’s national tour, which included a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall, and his regular appearances on Late Night with David Letterman. The film’s plot was nearly based on a different adventure all together, Pee-wee playing Pollyanna, influencing a town of old-grumpies to turn their collective frowns upside-down. Think Big Top Pee-wee, Big Adventure’s less successful 1988 follow-up, without the circus and the hot-dog tree. Instead, Reubens found himself captivated by the near-obsession people had with bicycles on the Warner Brothers lot. He typed “Pee-wee loves his bicycle more than life itself” into the typewriter and movie history was soon to be made. The script was turned out fairly quickly, co-written with Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol, and shot almost entirely based on its first draft. Barring some changes made in the editing room, what was in the script is virtually identical to what appears on the screen.
However, as detailed as the script was, it was Tim Burton who ultimately gave the film it’s unique sense of style. Under his watch, the breakfast machine sequence went from a one-line description in the script to a nearly three-minute extravaganza that has made for numerous YouTube parodies. The animated dream sequences were included largely because of Burton’s own familiarity with stop-motion, harkening all the way back to his days at Disney working on short films like “Vincent.” The movie’s infamous Large Marge, a phantom truck driver who gives Pee-wee a ride, induced nightmares for a generation of children, including Disney celebrities Dylan and Cole Sprouse from The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. The amazing effect, created with assistance from The Chiodo Brothers of California, was recently featured in the Tim Burton exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Not bad for 92 minute movie with a $6 million budget.
Although many still choose to view Pee-wee’s Big Adventure as Burton’s “film before he got famous,” that’s simply an unfair claim. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is the movie that made Burton famous. By the director’s own admission, the success of the film was the catalyst for Warner Brothers giving the green-light not only to Beetlejuice, but also Batman. The collaboration between Burton and Elfman, that began on Big Adventure, has lasted twenty-five years and will certainly continue for many more, creating memorable themes for films like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands. Of course, the biggest achievement of the film’s may be that it sparked the interest of an executive at CBS, who saw an advance screening and perused Reubens for months to take his unique fantasy-world and bring it to Saturday morning children’s television. While a lot of convincing was required to get Reubens to put his movie-star aspirations on hold for Saturday morning, when he realized the freedom he would have to essentially do whatever he wanted, the actor jumped at the chance. Of course, Pee-wee’s Playhouse went on to an unprecedented amount of commercial and critical success, winning more than a handful worth of Emmy Awards over its short 45-episode run. For a period of time in the 1980s, Pee-wee Herman, with his tight gray suit, red bowtie, and schoolyard taunts, captivated the nation. He taught us how to remain young at heart and win over a crowd of angry bikers by dancing along with “Tequila,” all in 92 minutes. So, happy birthday to a truly amazing film that despite it’s cult status, is still under-appreciated by the mainstream. I know you’re cool, but what am I?