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NYCC 2019: Paul Reubens says Sly Stallone was his inspiration for his Pee-wee director search

By Brian Silliman
Paul Reubens (Batman Returns)

It's an old saying, but it applies here: What would New York Comic Con 2019 be without some kind of panel featuring Paul Reubens? It wouldn't be anything, that's what. Thankfully the actor behind Pee-wee Herman didn't let us down, as Reubens came to the con and had a "big panel" all to himself — and SYFY WIRE was there to bear witness. 

Reubens entered immediately, and told the audience that there was supposed to be a moderator, but there was no one there. He admitted that he was supposed to have some stories prepared beforehand, but that he didn't prepare anything. He immediately asked if anyone had questions. 

Someone in the audience instantly did: What was today's secret word? Naturally, it was "New York." He then joked that he rode over to the convention in a golf cart. The jokes, quips, and kindness flowed out of him as if by magic. 

It wasn't long until photos started going off left and right, to which Reubens remarked (in a hilarious deadpan), "Why don't you take a picture, it'll last longer."

One fan then asked about why Pee-wee changed his precious bike into a scooter for Pee-wee's Playhouse, and Reubens (though perplexed by the question), revealed that the bike itself was trademarked, and could not be used. He kept going on with the story, before realizing there was no way to end it except to say, "Ha, I love that story." 

It soon became apparent that Reubens is a man who does not suffer fools. One fan asked a question about Tim Burton, and Reubens heckled the fan (with good cheer) into repeating it again and again. He did ultimately have a Burton story to tell, however. 

Upon finishing the script for Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Reubens consulted a book called Directors to create a list of collaborators that he wanted to work with on the film. The list had at least 150 names on it, and the studio brought it down to one. It was someone that Reubens didn't want, so he took strength from an unlikely source; Sylvester Stallone. Stallone never directed if he wasn't the star, and was always very particular about such things in general. Why should Pee-wee be any different? Reubens drew power from the legends of Stallone, stuck to his guns, and refused the name that the studio gave him. 

In turn, the studio then told him to find someone "approvable, available, and affordable." He had a week to do it in the midst of his working with The Groundlings, and it was during an evening with the famous comedy troupe that he heard of Burton and Burton's short, Frankenweenie. Reubens had always had a soft spot for Shelley Duvall (who appeared in Frankenweenie), and one of his first big starring roles was in Duvall's Faeire Tale Theater. He called Duvall, Duvall sang Burton's praises, and after watching the first 30 seconds of Frankenweenie, Reubens was convinced. The short had style, and that's what Reubens wanted for his Big Adventure

Warner Bros. was then convinced that Burton wouldn't even read the script (he had turned down many scripts already), but Reubens' manager got the script to him, Burton read it, and decided immediately that it was his feature debut. As Reubens said, "That's what happened." Reubens then got rather emotional when recalling the beauty of Burton's stylistic work on the film — especially the reveal of the dinosaurs. 

Another fan brought up Reubens' recent return to his classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer role on What We Do in the Shadows (in the star-packed trial episode), and how people really felt like he should work with Taika Waititi. He was hesitant, if only because it shot on Oscar Sunday, and Reubens likes to watch the Oscars at home, "angry and bitter." He did it anyway (especially after hearing who some of the other guests were going to be), and then watched the Oscars later. He also recounted how Tilda Swinton asked to meet him, which he was happy to accommodate. None of them shot the scene at the same time, and there was no script — Waititi and company just stood on the sides and told them what to say and what to riff on. 

Reubens then professed his admiration for Danny Trejo (who also appears in that episode), before proceeding to deliver a "made you look!" to an audience member. He went back to Waititi and Shadows, mocking how they asked if he still had his wig from Buffy and if he could bring it to set. He laughed at the very notion, saying that people don't necessarily make sure that you keep the wigs when you do a movie — he then said that he absolutely did still have the wig, and that he used it on the show. 

"New York" had gotten two big screams from the audience by this point, by the way. 

A friendship also got Reubens involved in Gotham — his friend Carol Kane (Penguin's mother on Gotham) wanted him to meet Robin Lord Taylor (Penguin), and when they met, she mentioned that the show was casting his father. Wouldn't it be great if that person was Reubens, who already played that part once in Burton's Batman Returns? After watching a few episodes of Gotham, Reubens was sold. 

Reubens then asked for a burning question, as time was short and everyone wanted to ask him something. The lucky chosen fan asked about Pee-wee's Christmas Special, especially the episode with Grace Jones. Reubens said that Jones was dating Dolph Lundgren at the time, so Lundgren was on the set. He also said that Jones travelled to that shoot next to David Bowie, who suggested to her that he use his version of "The Little Drummer Boy." The version of it that Jones sings in that special, therefore, came from Bowie...and it was being observed by Lundgren. 

He didn't neglect to mention that he'd turned down the opportunity to open for Bowie twice...and turned it down twice, saying, "I don't open for anybody." He said that he very much regrets that decision now.

Was there anything better than having Paul Reubens, by himself, just endlessly riffing (and messing) with an audience for an hour? If there is, we don't know what it could possibly be. 

UPDATE (10/5/19): An earlier version of this article wrote that Mr. Reubens said that Sylvester Stallone himself was the studio's choice to direct Pee-wee's Big Adventure. This was inaccurate, and has been changed accordingly. Someone said the secret word too many times. 

Click here for SYFY WIRE’s full coverage of New York Comic Con 2019, including up-to-the-minute news, exclusive interviews, and videos.