A struggling comedian in the late '70s, Paul joined a comedy troupe called the Groundlings. The name was a reference to Hamlet, where Shakespeare refers to the poorer members of the audience in Elizabethan times. He also legally changed his last name to Reubens, because he preferred it as a stage name.
Pee-Wee Herman, a quirky bow-tied man-child, debuted in 1978. The character was inspired by a boy Reubens met in camp when he was younger. His voice was modeled after a role he played as a child actor. Pee-Wee was able to get gigs in many clubs that would not hire Reubens.
Reubens was also in a number of films in the early '80s, including Cheech and Chong's Next Movie, where he is a hotel clerk and appears as Pee-wee, Cheech and Chong's Nice Dreams, where he is a coke-snorting psycho "Hamburger Man," and he was Pinocchio in the Faerie Tale Theater production.
As Pee-Wee, Reubens tried out for Saturday Night Live. When he didn't make it, he appeared in more movies and tv shows, and began writing a feature length film starring Pee-wee. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, directed by Reubens' friend Tim Burton, was a great success. Reubens was soon offered a deal to do a children's show.
Pee-Wee's Playhouse had an enormous budget of $325,000 per episode. Reubens had complete creative control, except he wasn't allowed to say, "If you show me yours, I'll show you mine." Although the Playhouse was considered a children's show, many of the viewers were adults who had been fans of Pee-wee's stage show. During the Playhouse's five-year run, Reubens never appeared in public without the customary grey suit and red bow-tie. He even granted interviews in full Pee-Wee regalia.
In 1991, he appeared as Pee-Wee on the MTV Video Music Awards as a guest. Having been the butt of hundreds of jokes, he asked the audience if they'd "Heard any good jokes lately?" His last-ever Pee-Wee appearance was on the TV special 'Hats Off to Minnie Pearl: America Honors Minnie Pearl' in 1992.
After retiring his favorite alterego, Reubens went on to star in and do voices for several movies. In 1992 he could be seen biting people's necks in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and as the Penguin's father in Batman Returns. He was Professor Spatz, a gorilla expert, in 1997's Buddy, and he wielded a shotgun in Dunston Checks In. His most recent movie is in 1999's Mystery Men as "The Spleen."