Bringing back Pee-wee

Posted on Monday, October 26th, 2009 at 4:51 pm by bryna

I might have a Pee-wee Herman doll...that was given to me...when I was 25.Pee-wee Herman is making a comeback, folks.

That’s right, you know who I’m talking about!

There’s something to be said for a character that after almost 20 years off the public radar, can come back into the mainstream with as much brand recognition as they day he left.

What a character he was! Both in costume, and in real life, Paul Reubens–the man behind the gray suit, slicked hair and red bow tie–has caused a stir. His breakthrough performance as Pee-wee, the strange, incomparable yet endearing, Peter-Pan, started as a comedy routine that quickly morphed into more: A movie (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure), a network television show (Pee-wee’s Playhouse), another movie (Big Top Pee-wee) and a multi-million dollar franchise.

Taking concepts from earlier educational children’s programming (think Rocky & Bullwinkle, The Mickey Mouse Club, and Captain Kangaroo) Reubens created a world where these ideas were amplified to epic, larger-than-life proportions. (Remember the elaborate way he made toast in his Big Adventure?) Pee-wee became a cultural phenomena, that somehow broached age barriers, allowing parents and children to identify, enjoy, and wonder at the chaos that was Pee-wee.

Part of the reason for this universality was that Pee-wee wasn’t afraid to take on taboo subject matter in a way that was so innocent, that it wasn’t overtly radical. Themes of race, inequality and loneliness were groundbreaking for children’s television at the time, and Pee-wee discussed them freely. Maybe his child-like, harmless, asexuality was part of the reason he could do it when others couldn’t. Until he wasn’t child-like, harmless or asexual anymore.

Pee-wee may have reached the ‘big top,’ but Paul Reubens took quite a fall. Although Pee-wee’s Playhouse had been off the air for over a year, it was still on CBS in reruns when Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure at an adult movie theatre in 1991. Major PR ensued with CBS, Toys R Us, and Disney-MGM pulling Pee-wee from shelves and airwaves. Despite best attempts to quell backlash, all the good that Pee-wee had done was very quickly erased by Reubens’ lack of judgment. A second arrest, which Reubens was later cleared of, on child pornography charges, was the nail in the coffin of the Pee-wee Herman brand. The innocent, man-child was no more.

But fast forward 19 years, and things have changed.

Reubens, now a 52 year old man, is back with a new Pee-wee Herman stage show and a screenplay. I have to admit that when I first heard this, I laughed (and not in the nice, supportive way). But there’s something about this comeback that has really stuck with me. It might simply be nostalgia, but that in itself can be a powerful thing. Is it powerful enough to bank a brand on?

Reading his recent interviews, what struck me is that Reubens gets that he’s messed up. He knows he’s not an easy sell. He’s honest about his indiscretions–admits the ones that are his, and adamantly denies those that he’s already been cleared of. We talk so much about building trust in brands in the social media and online worlds. What’s ironic is that I’m reading Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith while I’m thinking about whether I’d trust the Pee-wee brand again. For some strange reason, I do. I do trust Pee-wee!

Reubens is putting himself on the line in terms of professional transparency. (I’m not so naive as to believe he’s letting it all out, but that’s ok. I don’t want to know everything anyway.) Whether it’s in confessing that he’s obessive-compulsive, or being a little bit proud of the implications of the Pee-wee phenomena, Paul Reubens comes across as a real person–not a product of Hollywood publicists. And I like that.

It’s actually got me rooting for ‘Pee-wee’s Big Comeback.’ And I think it’s a good lesson in PR and branding: Building trust after a crisis is hard, but it’s possible. It might take 20 years, but if the repentence (so-to-speak) is real, it might just be crazy enough to work. Tequila!


{ 2 comments to read ... please submit one more! }

  1. a less-reluctant blogger

    Hey B,

    “Building trust after a crisis is hard, but it’s possible.”

    Maple Leaf Foods would certainly want to hear this. It has only been a year or so, and they have worked very hard from they very start of their own crisis. Their repentence and immediate responsibility-taking has in some ways set a standard for large corporations.

  2. Maple Leaf is a really great example of building trust after a corporate crisis. Comparing Pee-wee to ML is apples and oranges, but the idea is the same: How do you do it? In the past year, I’ve come to appreciate that time really does heal all wounds, in most cases. However, the death of a loved one is a scar that never goes away; especially when the death is accidental, and preventable.

    Now that the ML crisis has died down in the news, it would be interesting to see how many people have regained trust (or at least forgotten) enough to purchase their products again. I have to admit, after that incident I started looking at all packaged meat products a little sideways–regardless of who manufactured them.

    I think the latest corporate crisis was bank/government related, and speaks to the greater crisis of global recession; which by many critics opinions was much more preventable then once thought. I’m going to blog about it soon. I found an article in the new Fast Company magazine that really got me thinking. The idea is global, but financial trends obviously trickle down. The post-recession era is going to change how we do business, and I think more people might look at the rural models of co-operative capitalism as the new, responsible way to go. Lots of big power-players could be shifted. Scary for them–revolutionary for the rest of us. Interesting things are brewing. I wish I knew more about economics.

    Anyway, that’s a far cry from Pee-wee, but how we recover from personal judgement lapses is important, and we can take tenets from any level of brand reputation management (even individual), and apply them to other cases. Truth is truth–whether we like it or not.

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