Last week, news broke that Judd Apatow would be producing a new Pee-wee Herman movie, with the stellar writing team of Paul Reubens and Paul Rust, which basically made every comedy nerd on the planet grin for nine straight hours. I had the pleasure of sitting down earlier today with Rust to discuss his career and how it lead to the job of a lifetime for a life-long Pee-wee Herman fan.
How did you first get in touch with Judd Apatow?
I met Judd Apatow through Charlyne Yi. Charlyne and I were co-writing a screenplay called Cheese Pizza and she had a previous relationship with Judd because he directed her in Knocked Up. They got along well and I think there was an open door that if Charlyne had an idea, she could take it to Judd. Charlyne and I had known each other for a few years by then – we had coincidentally gotten cast together in the movie Semi-Pro, where we played Wheelchair Darren and Jody. She had a guitar, so in the downtime between scenes, we would write songs together, so our band [The Glass Beef] came out of that. While we were shooting, we had a lot of downtime, so she showed me the first twenty pages of this script she had written called Cheese Pizza. I’m not normally forward like this, but I said to Charlyne, “If you ever want to have somebody write this with you, I love what you have, I’d love to write it with you” – because I did. It was really really funny and great and inventive. She called me a few months later and said “Yeah, let’s do it.” We came up with an outline and pitched it to Judd and that’s when I first met him.
What’s the current status with Cheese Pizza?
We turned in our first draft to Universal and we’re waiting to get notes from them.
Did you seek out the collaboration with Paul Reubens or did it just come to you?
I met Paul Reubens through Judd Apatow. He had gone and seen the Pee-wee’s Playhouse live show that had come to the Nokia Theater that everybody saw and loved. He and Paul just struck up a conversation after the show and Judd let it be known that he was interested in making a new Pee-wee movie. Judd called me up and explained that he and Paul Reubens had been talking about doing a new Pee-wee movie, and asked if I would be interested in writing it with Paul. Before I knew it, Judd arranged a meeting where Paul and I got to meet each other.
I grew up with Pee-wee’s Playhouse and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure…even Big Top Pee-wee. We’re from the same generation. Did you have the same type of connection with Pee-wee Herman?
I grew up absolutely loving Pee-wee Herman. I won a Halloween costume contest in the 2nd grade by dressing up as Pee-wee Herman. Whenever Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was on TV, I was allowed to go up to the TV and do the Tequila Dance with Pee-wee on screen. Because doing that is so obnoxious for your family members, I was only allowed to do it during that one scene, otherwise I would have done it for the whole movie. I grew up loving him. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Pee-wee’s Playhouse – all that stuff was something I loved. As I got into high school, I kept re-watching and there were different qualities I appreciated as a teenager. And then in college, there were new qualities I appreciated. And now even as an adult, I appreciate different qualities in his work. As a child and as a grown-up, there are many things I love about it.
Do you feel a lot of pressure to live up to the Pee-wee that you were inspired by as a child to do the same for kids being introduced to Pee-wee for the first time or even the adults who grew up with Pee-wee?
In my mind, I’m oscillating between “Oh my god! This is going to be so much fun!” to “Holy shit! I don’t want to fuck this up”. For me, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is a perfect film. Even before there was the chance of co-writing this, if you would have asked me what the best comedy is, I would have said Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is a flawless movie. When I would write comedy screenplays before, I was stacking it up against Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. It’s like “that’s the perfect comedy. Can you write something as good as that?” You know you can’t, but that’s what you aspire for. And now, to be in the position of writing something that IS a Pee-wee movie, against Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, it does seem daunting at times. It will be a great experience. So far, we’ve been working on this for a few months. It’s been an amazing, satisfying experience. I can only imagine great things to come.
I would actually like to say some things about Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, if that’s cool.
When I re-watched it in college, I acknowledged a choice for the first time, that the movie makes that is small, but very significant. There’s a part after he makes his breakfast where he yells out to the neighbor, “Hey! I’m gonna water my lawn now!” and he turns on the faucet and the neighbor says “OK!” and the sprinkler starts going and it starts spraying the neighbor’s windows and you can see the neighbor inside and he’s laughing. He’s okay with it. What’s interesting about that choice is that 99% of these movies where it’s a wild character like Pee-wee Herman or Ace Ventura [Pet Detective] or something, usually it’s that this person is irritating other people. In Ace Ventura, he’s an irritating person in a world of ordinary people and he’s getting under their skin. Look, I love Ace Ventura, but Pee-wee, in my mind, is the only move where he’s a weird character that isn’t constantly being told he’s weird. Everybody is a fun character and they’re fun to watch. It’s a small choice, but it’s one that shapes the entire movie and, for me, more pleasurable to watch than other movies because you’re not watching somebody being told over and over that they’re weird or being pointed out that “our world doesn’t accept those people”. Instead, you’re just seeing a movie where everybody’s different and everybody likes each other. That’s pretty rad. That’s probably one of my favorite things about Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
In Big Top Pee-wee, he did have very human qualities. He was the weird guy in a town of ordinary people that constantly reminded him of that. Apatow has a track-record of highlighting very human characters. Will this incarnation of Pee-wee reflect the original man-child or more or his human side, like Apatow tends to portray in his films?
Big Top Pee-wee did have some amazing stuff. I love the old people turning into kids at the end. He has a pig-friend that talks to him. He had a hot dog tree. I liked the triangle of having to choose between a schoolmarm and an exotic seductress-type. That’s really great. One thing that Paul Reubens and Judd Apatow do share in my mind is that they DO both have characters that are man-children. It’s a different type of man-child. The character in Knocked Up, the comedy comes from this adult man is acting like a child. Or The 40-Year-Old Virgin: Andy is kind of a Pee-wee Herman-type in that he’s sort of bright-eyed and naive. Judd produced one of the great comedies of the past decade: Anchorman, and the idea is that they’re a bunch of kids hanging out at recess. They just happen to be adults who are Anchor-persons. The station is like a clubhouse where no girls are allowed. Step Brothers, which Judd also produced, is two guys who haven’t moved out of their parents’ house and they act like kids. Pee-wee is also a man who is acting like a child. They’re different: Judd’s are more real and identifiable to our world, but I think the basic science that he and Paul think that this type of character is funny is a shared sensibility. Paul really respects Judd. Judd really respects Paul. What’s great about Judd is that he does love comedy, which means he loves the wide spectrum of voices in comedy. He can like something like The Last Detail, but also love something like Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, of which he is a big fan. For him, a lot of it is: This is someone I think is great and I want to give them a venue, so in my mind, he would want to make it appear as much as a Pee-wee movie as it could. That said, if Judd did have any touches he would give would only help the movie even more.
So, you acted in I Love You, Beth Cooper and Inglorious Basterds. Do you identify more as an actor or as a writer?
I consider myself more as an actor, mainly because acting…you have to put in parentheses “rolls eyes, knowingly”….is a form of writing in a way that you are being creative and you’re getting the added touch of performing. I would always prefer acting to writing, but writing is great.
Are you writing a role for yourself in the movie?
Every moment when I meet either Judd or Paul, I will say “give me a part”. (Laughs) No, nothing’s been talked about.
If you have the chance to write any one character from a previous Pee-wee movie, who would it be? Note to readers: this does NOT mean that this character will appear in the movie.
I’ll take your question as “what’s one of your favorite Pee-wee characters that you would like to see him interact with, whether in the script or in your imagination / dream-scape?” (laughs) I really like Amazing Larry. It would be great if we could get Amazing Larry back in the movie.
As far as I have read, the only three names attached are you, Judd and Paul Reubens. Are any directors’ names being tossed about? Have you talked to Tarantino yet?
Ha! No…directors? No. That hasn’t been discussed at all.
So, you have Cheese Pizza in the works with Universal. You have Pee-wee. Is there anything else in the pipeline?
I just shot a pilot for Comedy Central called This Show Will Get You High, which was created by Matt Bessar of the UCB Theatre and directed by Eric Appel. All of the cast is people from UCB; like myself, Brett Gelman, John Gemberling, Betsy Sodaro, Jessica Williams. So that’s in Comedy Central’s hands and we’re waiting to get the official word on if we’re picked up or not. It was great getting to do comedy with people I’ve been doing comedy with. It was a really great environment and we had a lot of fun shooting it.
One last question: will you hire me on the new Pee-wee movie?
Yes. You can be the official holder of the bow-ties. There’s a special container that they go into.
Rust is a regular at the UCB Theatre in Los Angeles. He co-hosts “Not Too Shabby” with Neil Campbell on Friday nights at midnight. If you do go, try not to bother him. He has a lot of homework to do.