12/30/1991 at 01:00 AM EST
The headlines were as shocking as the coarsest of parodies, and beneath them, the very picture of humiliation, was haggard-looking kiddie-show host Pee-wee Herman, shaggy as an undercover narc, looking as if his world had come to an end. Which, in fact, it seemed to have done. Herman, 39, creator of a performing persona so infantile that it cast doubt on the faculties of the man who inhabited it, had been arrested on July 26 for masturbating in a so-called adult movie theater in Sarasota, Fla., not far from the home of his parents. It seemed a pointless arrest for the most trivial and foolish of crimes, but his offense was not likely to be tolerated in any public figure, let alone one who made his living as an entertainer of children. Pee-wee Herman looked to be finished.
Paul Reubens, the actor who plays Pee-wee, immediately dropped out of sight. "Paul was very hurt," says his friend songwriter Allee Willis. "He was just crucified in the press." While psychologists counseled parents on how to break the news to their children ("People touch themselves privately, not in public," was Dr. Joyce Brothers's approach), CBS removed the five remaining episodes of Herman's previously canceled Saturday morning show, Pee-wee's Playhouse, from its schedule, and stores pulled Pee-wee merchandise from the shelves.
Not all factions, of course, were anti-Pee-wee. Admiring his nerve, The Wall Street Journal designated him "hero of the hour," and celebrities including Bill Cosby and Cyndi Lauper rushed to his defense. Nearly 15,000 letters reached Pee-wee's publicist, Larry Goldman—98 percent of them supportive. Says Goldman: "Paul was overwhelmed that the public rallied around him."
Enough so that in September, wearing his trademark goofy gray suit and red bow tie, Pee-wee made a surprise appearance to open the MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles. Wide-eyed and simpering, this target of a thousand barbs asked innocently, "Heard any good jokes lately?" The audience roared—and rose to its feet, cheering.
In November, Reubens, who, according to his lawyer, maintained his innocence but wanted to avoid the publicity of a trial, pleaded "no contest" to charges of indecent exposure, paid a $50 fine and was ordered to produce an antidrug public-service announcement. Professionally, he has signed on for a cameo in the Batman movie sequel and agreed to lend his voice to an animated character in a film titled Nightmare Before Christmas. He is also coproducing an album featuring the score from Pee-wee's Playhouse. Personally, he is on the rebound as well. Pee-wee's trial by humiliation didn't change him, says his pal Willis, who accompanies him to thrift shops on collecting sprees near his L.A. home. "But it took a while for the old Paul to come back."
That he was able to do so at all suggests that, in some respects at least, the world has become a more tolerant place. "In the old studio system he could easily have been banished," says veteran literary agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar. "That Hollywood doesn't exist anymore." Nor, perhaps, does the censorious American public which that Hollywood would have striven to appease.