Pee-wee Herman is too big for his britches.
The cuffs of his gray plaid suit ride up his calves. The sleeves of his skinny jacket flirt with his elbows.
"Currently I have about 40 of these suits, all exactly identical," he says. "My tailor is Mr. Jay."
Then he must be a very bad tailor.
"It's a matter of taste -- wouldn't you say?"
So, it would seem, is Pee-wee Herman.
With his teensy red bow tie and cheesy white shoes, his crew cut waxed to pointy perfection, he looks spiffy enough for a date with Betty Boop -- or Diane Arbus. His frequent appearances on MTV and "Late Night With David Letterman," where he is known to fidget with "cool" toys, babble and show off like a spoiled prepubescent, or else just bug out his eyes and shriek, have made him something of a cult hero -- the Tiny Tim of the '80s, the high-muck-a-muck of the Me-Me-Me Decade.
And now, as Warner Bros. brings out a $12 million epic titled "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," with yesterday's Hollywood premiere to be followed by a mass nationwide release on Aug. 9, he is poised on the brink of stardom.
Or at least perched, squirming, on the edge of a sofa.
In his tastefully plush suite at the elegant Carlyle -- a hotel, he points out, "just full of famous celebrities" -- he answers questions in a pimply whine, his knees periodically jiggling.
"It's what they call an 'accessible first Pee-wee movie.' But I feel like I haven't had to sell out at all really. I mean, that's one thing I pride myself on. I mean, I like everything I've done so far. If I don't like it, I just don't do it usually. I just figure out a way to keep paying the bills and eating and that kind of stuff, you know, go over and beg Olivia Newton-John for dinner or something like that."
It is Pee-wee's policy, his publicist has warned, to do interviews only in character. Thus there's no point inquiring about a driven 32-year-old named Paul Reubens -- a coolly exacting writer/performer with a finely honed ego who likes to fly Regent, the airline of the rich and famous, and recently bought himself a half-million-dollar house in the Hollywood Hills, filling it with plants and toys.
And no point asking about Paul Rubenfeld, first born of Milton and Judy -- now retired from the retail lamp business in Sarasota, Fla. -- who remember him as a good student at school, a tireless jokester at dinner, and a dazzling star of his own stage shows in the basement. "A wonderful son," Judy Rubenfeld says.
Try to press him -- and Pee-wee sulks, going as blank as a slice of Wonder Bread.
"I don't have anything to say," he allows, in a bored tone reserved for the hopelessly uncool. "I mean, the choice that I've made really is that I just don't like to do it really. It's just sort of the way I am about it."
He does brighten, occasionally, to boast about his famous friends ("I've had automobile accidents with stars before"), talk about his toys ("You don't have a Vroom Motor by any chance, do you?") or chirp about his plans for an amusement park to be called Pee-wee Land ("You don't believe me, but you'll be singing a different tune come February, when everybody's going, 'You mean you had the exclusive story on it and you DIDN'T EVEN REPORT IT?!' ").
Twice during the interview he actually does some clowning around -- once when presented with a pair of "Hello Kitty" castanets (he wields them with the savoir-faire of Carmen Miranda), the other time when claiming (deceitfully, it turns out) that his bow tie is not a clip-on. Otherwise, he seems awfully cranky this afternoon.
"It's been a really horrible day all day today," he says. And the kneecaps jiggle in earnest.
Pee-wee Herman was born in 1979 at the home of a West Coast improv comedy troupe called the Groundlings, where Paul Reubens ne' Rubenfeld, four years out of the California Institute of the Arts, was establishing himself as a clever caricaturist with a knack for getting laughs.
He created, among other characters, a monstrously fat junk food eater who spoke only in grunts, and a razor-tongued, Yiddish-accented elderly cartoonist. He even went on "The Gong Show" to impersonate Martian static and other strange noises. But, judging by public response, Pee-wee was the joke whose punch line had arrived.
He deftly milked five minutes of shtick into a kiddy show for grown-ups, featuring daffy toys, a campy supporting cast, vintage cartoons and educational films about comportment and personal hygiene. After a year's run at L.A.'s trendy Roxy Theater, he starred in a much-praised Home Box Office special and, thanks largely to his TV following, played to sellout houses from California's Universal Amphitheater to New York's Carnegie Hall.
His success lay partly in the total conviction of his performance, partly in his direct appeal to the unabashed childhood id. Pee-wee's humor, although aimed at adults, is pointedly unconcerned with the adult world or, for that matter, anything outside of its smart-alecky self. Rooting around in his bag of toys, making various goofy faces and using mirrors on his shoes to look up ladies' dresses, Pee-wee is the petulant god of his own comic universe. It is fun without content -- the moral equivalent of Silly Putty.
"What makes me laugh about this character," says prominent Pee-wee loyalist David Letterman, "is that it has the external structure of a bratty little precocious kid, but you know it's being controlled by the incubus -- the manifestation of evil itself. I think it has something to do with an important stage of embryonic development -- some terrible intrusion or maybe a nutritional deficiency, I don't know what exactly."
"I don't like to get too intellectual about it, you know, about what's funny," Pee-wee says. "To me, something is either funny or it's not funny. I don't like stuff that's funny because it's making fun of somebody or you have to know some particular thing for it to be funny, or you have to have some particular background. I like just funny."
Says former Warner Bros. president Robert Shapiro, producer of the present adventure, "He's kind of a lovable bad boy, but there's also a sweetness to him and a vulnerability that you find apparent in many stars -- Eddie Murphy, Goldie Hawn, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand."
Pee-wee apparently feels quite at home in such company.
"I've had pretty limited exposure really. You know, a lot of people haven't ever seen me do anything because I'm either on cable TV or I'm on really late at night on 'David Letterman.' So that's my theory on why I'm only a cult star at this point. Limited exposure -- not cult appeal."
Pee-wee has spent the day -- and the day has spent him -- on promotional spots for MTV and interviews for his movie. He has wilted by now into the slouch of a dying puppet. Occasionally one of the knees gives a forlorn jiggle.
"Not too much makes me angry. I get impatient a lot. I guess I get like angry if I feel people are taking advantage of me, you know, like sometimes I got angry at Warner Brothers a few times just 'cause my trailer wasn't big enough. I'd just walk off the set and walk in my trailer but then I'd get angry because my trailer wasn't big enough.
"I've been really lucky. I never bombed out anywhere. You see, I didn't play that many clubs, you know. I played one theater in Los Angeles for a long time and then I did a TV special and then I went out on the road so people already knew me when I went to clubs. I wasn't coming out of the blue. So I did it a little backwards.
"For one thing, I'm not an opening act. I won't open for anybody no matter who it is, not even Prince, as many times as he's begged me to open for him, I still won't do it. The other thing is, as soon as I'm finished with this, I'm going to be doing a record album as my next project.
"That's gonna be really cool 'cause all like my musical friends want to play on it and sing duets with me and all that stuff. It's sort of hard to figure out who to use and who to -- you have to treat everybody real gingerly. You don't want David Bowie bad-mouthing you and that kind of stuff.
"I know Bob Dylan. I know his kids too. I entertained at his kid's birthday party. And I entertained at James Caan's birthday party and a whole bunch of people's. There was a period when I was appearing at celebrities' birthday parties for quite a while. It was all celebrities' kids, definitely. I mean, I won't go to some normal plain kid.
"I never watch the news. Couldn't tell you what's going on in the world. What do I read? Nothing. People magazine, that's about it. And now Us, since Jann Wienerhead took it over. I like pretty much every style of music. The only thing I don't like is opera -- just too high-pitched.
"I watch a real lot of television. I watch a few hours every night if I can, if I'm not too busy, if I'm not out dating a famous, you know, celebrity. I usually watch like the Christian Broadcasting Network. My favorite show is between 'Bachelor Father,' 'The Jack Benny Show' and 'I Married Joan.' I watch all three of those, practically every night. As soon as they start with the 'Christian Broadcasting' stuff, I turn it off.
"I really like L.A. It's sunshine, oranges on the trees, celebrities. It's really, I mean, it's the film capital of the world and that's why I'm living there. I don't come to New York that much because I don't like to leave my cool bachelor pad.
"I told Warner Brothers I wouldn't come here unless I got a limo. I get too mobbed in the subway. If you've been in a movie or on TV, people think you're wealthy, so as soon as like somebody recognizes you and thinks you've been on TV then they think you're loaded, you know, it's too uncomfortable, you know. 'Hey Pee-wee, give me some money!' I go, 'Forget it! I don't have enough money yet.'
"I think I'm pretty smart, yeah. I'm smart to the point of knowing that I shouldn't try to explain or understand too much about myself as far as like why it works and why it doesn't work."
Is Pee-wee the shape of comedians to come?
"I don't know. I have no idea. Now that I've made it, I don't care about anybody else." CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 3, Pee-Wee Herman: "I like just funny"; Pictures 4 and 5, Scenes from "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," a $12 million Warner Brothers ecpic, to be released Aug, 9