For an entire generation of performers, directors and writers, recent comedy history can be divided into two distinct categories: "Before Pee-wee Herman" and "After Pee-wee Herman." The signature childlike creation of actor and comedian Paul Reubens first graced Los Angeles improv stages in the late 1970s, but became a global phenomenon in the 1980s after Pee-wee made the leap to film and television courtesy of Tim Burton's 1985 hit, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, and the blockbuster children's series Pee-wee's Playhouse, which ran from 1986 to 1990 on CBS.
Those young fans — plus those who were young at heart when Pee-wee mania was at its height — are now paying tribute to their hero following Reubens death at age 70 after a private battle with cancer. Representatives for the actor confirmed the news with a public statement on Instagram, writing: "Last night we said farewell to Paul Reubens, an iconic American actor, comedian, writer and producer whose beloved character Pee-wee Herman delighted generations of children and adults with his positivity, whimsy and belief in the importance of kindness."
"A gifted and prolific talent, he will forever live in the comedy pantheon and in our hearts as a treasured friend and man of remarkable character and generosity of spirit," the statement continued.
Poker Face star Natasha Lyonne was one of the first celebrities to thank Reubens for his inspiration. The actress made one of her earliest onscreen appearances in the first season of Pee-wee's Playhouse as Opal, one of the kids that gets to spend time at the star's magical retreat. "Thank you for my career and your forever friendship," Lyonne wrote on the X platform, formerly known as Twitter.
Love you so much, Paul. One in all time. Thank you for my career & your forever friendship all these years & for teaching us what a true original is. ♥️♥️💔 #PaulReubens #PeeWeeHerman ♥️ pic.twitter.com/GMcBaEgWix
— natasha lyonne (@nlyonne) July 31, 2023
Before he became a Saturday morning staple, Pee-wee's first big TV showcase — HBO's The Pee-wee Herman Show — was aimed at the late night crowd. So it's only appropriate that two contemporary late night stars, Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel, recognized Reubens's influence on their own shows. O'Brien's longtime collaborator, Andy Richter, also took a moment to thank the actor for bringing him "so much joy," as did regular late night guest — and expert comedian — Dave Foley.
No tweet can capture the magic, generosity, artistry, and devout silliness of Paul Reubens. Everyone I know received countless nonsensical memes from Paul on their birthday, and I mean EVERYONE. His surreal comedy and unrelenting kindness were a gift to us all. Damn, this hurts.
— Conan O'Brien (@ConanOBrien) July 31, 2023
Just heard that Paul Reubens died. He brought me so much joy, and getting to know him was a gift. Truly one of my heroes. @peeweeherman
— Andy Richter@actualandyrichter.bsky.social (@AndyRichter) July 31, 2023
Paul Reubens was like no one else - a brilliant and original comedian who made kids and their parents laugh at the same time. He never forgot a birthday and shared his genuine delight for silliness with everyone he met. My family and I will miss him.
— Jimmy Kimmel (@jimmykimmel) July 31, 2023
Very sad to hear Paul Reubens died. I was a big fan and I was fortunate enough to hang out with him occasionally over the years. Always kind, charming and funny. His creation, Pee Wee Herman, made life brighter and sillier for us all.
— Dave Foley (@DaveSFoley) July 31, 2023
Reubens's gifts translated behind the camera as well, with writers and directors like Bridesmaids helmer Paul Feig, Pan's Labyrinth's Guillermo Del Toro, Moon's Duncan Jones and Powerpuff Girls creator Craig McCracken citing his profound impact on their profession.
This is devastating. Truly heartbreaking. Paul was such a comedy genius. From his Letterman appearances to his TV shows and movies, he was so original and hilarious. And such a sweet man too. This is a huge loss for comedy. Thanks for all the laughs, Paul. https://t.co/l76VIXHl50
— Paul Feig (@paulfeig) July 31, 2023
One of the patron saints of all misfitted, weird, maladjusted, wonderful, miraculous oddities. https://t.co/4TJAObpO2M
— Guillermo del Toro (@RealGDT) July 31, 2023
Very sad to hear about the passing of the inimitable Paul Reubens. A lovely, kind man who I met years ago & who's comedy was much beloved both by @rodeneronquillo & myself, and by my dad & sister. Thank you for existing, PeeWee.
You helped make the world FUN! pic.twitter.com/L1j0f4J9Am
— Duncan Jones (@ManMadeMoon) July 31, 2023
Thank you Paul Reubens. Thank you for your genius, for opening up the doors for smart, silly, subversive, & sweet entertainment for viewers of all ages. Thank you for the CalArts class ring, for the annual Christmas cards. Thank you for welcoming generations to the playhouse. RIP pic.twitter.com/aynM3hCGp9
— Craig McCracken (@CrackMcCraigen) July 31, 2023
It breaks my heart to hear that Paul Reubens died. He was one of the kindest souls I’ve known. We worked together on Mosaic (in this picture I was an extra - playing his husband). Every year since, I’d hear from him on my birthday & on every holiday. He was a good good sweet man. pic.twitter.com/SrVTRyFKGe
— Ed Solomon (@ed_solomon) July 31, 2023
One of the most heartfelt tributes came from filmmaker Judd Apatow, who first discovered the magic of Pee-wee as a comedy-obsessed high school student. "There are very few characters in comedy history as strong and hilarious as Pee-wee Herman," the Knocked Up writer/director told The Los Angeles Times in 2016.
And Apatow paid Reubens forward for the early inspiration by bringing Pee-wee into the streaming age. He and Reubens collaborated on the Netflix film Pee-wee's Big Holiday, which counted Joe Manganiello, Stephanie Beatriz and Paul Rust among its star studded cast.
"Judd said, 'First of all, I want to prove to you that I’m a serious, longtime Pee-wee fan,'" Reubens said of their fateful first meeting. "He pulled out some Polaroid pictures he had taken of me at Caroline’s Comedy Club in New York, right before I made Big Adventure. It was staggering."
Ever the storyteller, Apatow closed out the tale of their collaboration with the best of all possible cappers: "We always need more Pee-wee Herman."