Mark Mothersbaugh is one of film and television’s most respected and in-demand composers, writing music for hit children’s fare like Rugrats and The Lego Movie and the Wes Anderson features Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. But it all started back in 1986, when the Devo frontman and co-founder got a surprise phone call from longtime friend Paul Reubens, aka Pee-wee Herman, who died Sunday evening at age 70.
“I’d never done a TV show before,” Mothersbaugh marvels, recalling when Reubens asked him to compose the theme song and weekly episodic music for the groundbreaking and subversive Saturday morning kiddie program Pee-wee’s Playhouse. “That took me into the world of film and television and video games. It totally changed the trajectory of my career.”
Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment from his Mutato Muzika headquarters in Hollywood on the afternoon of Reubens’s death announcement, Mothersbaugh is still processing the tragic news; like many of Reubens’s friends and colleagues, he had no idea that Reubens had been fighting a private cancer battle for the past six years. “He always had a good personality and a good heart. … It’s just shocking and sad that he’s gone,” Mothersbaugh says. “I really didn’t expect it. We’d even been talking about working on an animated version of Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” But Mothersbaugh chooses to mainly focus on his happy memories with Reubens and express his gratitude for the Playhouse opportunity, which could not have come at a better time.
Mothersbaugh and Reubens’s friendship pre-dated Playhouse by almost a decade. The two had met when Mothersbaugh was dating original Saturday Night Live cast member Laraine Newman, a founding member of the pioneering comedy improv theater the Groundlings. It was there that Reubens, along with future SNL star Phil Hartman, created the nerdy, childlike Pee-wee Herman character — a process Mothersbaugh got to witness firsthand. “The character came from a [1950s] show that we both watched when we were kids, Pinky Lee. Paul wore something similar to what Pinky wore. I mean, there were three channels on TV in those days; there wasn’t much choice. You had Captain Kangaroo, and then later in the day, you had Pinky Lee,” Mothersbaugh chuckles.
“We were all just artists in L.A., a group of people that we kind of loosely associated as ‘Southern California lowbrow art,’” says Mothersbaugh, recalling how he and Reubens would hang out in the ‘70s and early ‘80s with painters and illustrators like Robert Williams, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Gary Panter (who later became Playhouse’s Emmy-winning set designer), Georgeanne Deen, and Neon Park; future Emmy-winning Playhouse animator Prudence Fenton; and hit pop songwriter Allee Willis.
“It was good times,” Mothersbaugh says, remembering their own real-life big adventures when they’d embark on road trips to Palm Springs. “Paul would search out all these theme hotels, like a log-cabin hotel or a Russian motel; most of the time they were pretty seedy and decrepit, but that made it all the more fun, and funnier. … We had a lot of similarities outside of business, where we all were collectors of kitsch. Paul and Allee would stop the car at a junk shop and both get out of the car, running, trying to get a Barbie lighter or something before the other one did.”
Mothersbaugh and Reubens’s first film collaboration of sorts was as surreal as anything that could have sprung from either of their imaginations: the 1980 cult flick Pray TV, with Reubens, in his first-ever movie role, playing a sassy aerobics instructor, and Devo (as Dove, the Band of Love) performing a song called “Shrivel Up” while dressed in “Century 21 outfits.” Five years later, after building a buzz with his Pee-wee stage show and HBO special, Reubens was ready for his real big-screen moment with the Tim Burton-directed breakout film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and he originally approached Mothersbaugh to write the score. However, a conflicting touring schedule with Devo prevented Mothersbaugh from accepting that offer. (Rookie film composer Danny Elfman, of Oingo Boingo, famously ended up getting the Big Adventure job instead, and the career trajectory of that eccentric new wave frontman was also forever changed.)
By the time 1986 rolled around, Devo had signed a “bad deal” with Enigma Records, which would go bankrupt and close its doors by ‘91, and the band was “kind of in a cocoon/slumber/siesta state.” So, Mothersbaugh was thrilled to get another shot at working with Reubens, and he was ready to try something totally new.
“I was used to writing 12 songs, the band learns ‘em, goes into a studio, records them, starts rehearsing for a tour. Then we go out on tour for six or seven months, come back, and write 12 more songs a year later. We did that six or eight times, and it was starting to feel like Groundhog Day to me, because the fun part for me was writing the music, not going out and playing the songs we’d written years ago,” explains Mothersbaugh, who soon found out that he loved working at television’s much brisker pace. “[Pee-wee’s Playhouse producers] would send me a three-quarter tape on Monday, I’d write 12 songs’ worth of music on Tuesday, record on Wednesday, put a tape in the express mail on Thursday, they’d mix it into the show on Friday… and on Saturday morning, we’d all watch it on TV. And then the next Monday, I’d get another tape in the mail. I was like, ‘Sign me up for this job!’”
Mothersbaugh’s most iconic Playhouse composition was of course the Spike Jones/Esquivel/Martin Denny-inspired theme song, the perfect soundtrack for Pee-wee’s own space-age bachelor pad. The song’s vocals were credited to an unknown mystery singer named Ellen Shaw, but it turns down that familiar-sounding squeak belonged to another new wave sensation of the era: Cyndi Lauper. Mothersbaugh chuckles recalling what happened on the “very odd day” that Lauper secretly recorded the theme.
“She had agreed to sing the theme song for it. She was all into it, because she does a great Betty Boop voice, and that’s what we thought would sound so cool on the song,” says Mothersbaugh. “So, we get to New York and we’re in the studio, and she comes in and sings. And meanwhile her boyfriend/manager [Dave Wolff] goes into the next room with Paul’s manager, and while we’re recording her voice, we’re hearing all this yelling coming out of this other room. They were fighting about something. And when they came back in, [Wolff] said, ‘All right, I’m telling you what’s going on. Cyndi is a serious singer now. We don’t want her associated with kids’ shows. We’re gonna take her name off of this.’ And Paul and I were going, ‘Um, wasn’t she just on MTV with that blond-haired wrestling guy [Hulk Hogan] last weekend? What is he talking about?’ We were kind of all in shock.
“Cyndi just kind of looked at us like, ‘Eh, what am I gonna do?’ Like, she thought it was silly, but she said, ‘We’re going to Hawaii to get married tomorrow.’ And we’re like, ‘Er, OK. Sorry for you!’ [Editor’s note: Lauper and Wolff never married.] So, I put an effect on her voice and it just kind of garbled her voice so you couldn’t tell it was her. And then they had us put the name of her assistant down as the singer. But when she left, we just took the effect off the voice — and nobody even noticed!”
Mothersbaugh reveals that he “got to put in subliminal messages and a lot of in-jokes between Paul and me in the songs,” along with a lot of “Devo references — if you knew to listen to it for it, you would find it.” But there was one funny message, after the Lauper incident, that stayed between Mothersbaugh and Reubens. “I don’t think we played this for anybody,” Mothersbaugh laughs. “You know how on the theme song, Paul goes, ‘Why, Chairry?’ Like, after there’d be a line about Cherry or the Countess, he’d say their names in all these little voices in between every line? Well, we did an [unreleased] version — and I still have it — where he goes, ‘Hey, is that Cyndi Lauper? I think that’s Cyndi Lauper! I’m sure it’s Cyndi! That’s Cyndi singing!’ That was definitely our own private in-joke.”
There were really no rules when it came to creating the Pee-wee’s Playhouse score. “When I got the first episode slot, Paul said, ‘Here’s my only notes. When it’s something sad, make it really, really sad. When it’s something happy, make it really, really happy. When it’s something shocking, make it really, really shocking.’ He just wanted everything to be done to extremes. That was the only request he made,” Mothersbaugh chuckles. As a first-time TV composer, Mothersbaugh didn’t realize then how unique this working environment truly was.
“Maybe with a different television show, I might have said, ‘I never want to do this again!’ But it was such an ideal, perfect situation,” Mothersbaugh says. “We were all thinking outside of the traditional box. Paul had never done [a TV series] before, so he had no reason to be worried or think maybe it’d be a bad idea to take a chance on somebody who’d never scored a TV show before. It was one of those shows that I don’t know if it could ever happen again. They gave him so much artistic leeway. They don’t do that anymore, and they haven’t done it since. It was kind of funny, because people would hire me for shows after that and they’d go, ‘This is the new Pee-wee’s Playhouse!’ That’s how they’d pitch their shows. And then you’d see it and go, ‘That’s not anywhere near as good as Pee-wee’s Playhouse!’ Maybe the closest show to creating an energy and enthusiasm like that was Yo Gabba Gabba!. You don’t see that very often.”
Pee-wee’s Playhouse ended its five-season run on CBS in November 1990, but reruns continued to air — until Reubens was arrested for exposing himself in a Florida adult movie theater in July 1991. Reacting to that scandal, CBS pulled the remaining reruns from its schedule, and it seemed like the show’s legacy might be ruined forever. “It was an awful time. It was so awful. I remember when he first told me what happened, he goes, ‘You know, Mark, I have nightmares remembering being at the police station,’” says Mothersbaugh. “It took him a while to go out again. We stayed friends through the whole thing, and we talked about it if he wanted to, but most of the time he didn’t want to. It was just a horrifying thing that kind of put a speed bump in his career.”
But fortunately, fans rallied around Reubens, and that incident turned out to be just that: a speed bump, not a total, irreparable career-derailer. “It was just terrible to see everything happen, but it was wonderful to see him make a comeback,” says Mothersbaugh. And even though that animated version of Pee-wee’s Playhouse sadly never came to fruition, Mothersbaugh feels fortunate that, in a full-circle moment, he was able to compose the music for the Judd Apatow-co-produced third and final installment in the Pee-wee film series, which turned out to be Reubens’s final film role.
“I ended up dong Paul’s last movie, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, in 2016. We had a really great experience on that,” says Mothersbaugh fondly. “There’s some sweet, emotional moments in that movie, and I liked that I got to make him cry.”
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