In 1981, Lee Leonard of CNN sat down with Paul Reubens, not as his alter ego Pee-wee Herman, but as the actor himself. In their conversation, Reubens spoke about the origins and evolution of his iconic character.
Leonard asked Reubens which was real — Paul Reubens or Pee-wee Herman. Reubens confessed his own confusion, stating, "I'm having trouble figuring that out myself lately." Having played Pee-wee for such a long time, Reubens admitted that he often found himself slipping into the character, even when not on set.
The genesis of Pee-wee Herman came from a surprising source. "Pee-wee was, is a conglomerate of me and a couple of other little kids that I knew when I was a little kid," Reubens said. He traced the character's voice back to a time when he was working at the Oslo Repertory Theater in Florida. He had been playing a role in Life with Father and found himself unintentionally turning the character into a cartoonish figure, utilizing a voice that would later become Pee-wee's signature tone.
As for the name Pee-wee, Reubens simply thought it was "attractive."
Reubens told Leonard that Pee-wee Herman did not come to life overnight. Rather, the character took about three years to fully evolve. Reubens worked at the Groundlings, an improvisational group in Hollywood, for about three years, during which he performed a 10-minute stand-up act as Pee-wee. Feeling the need to expand Pee-Wee into something more, Reubens came up with the idea to put the character in a playhouse and develop a show reminiscent of children's programs from the 1950s.