Paul Reubens inspired comedy stars like Judd Apatow, Conan O’Brien and Natasha Lyonne: Read their tributes

Paul Reubens photographed for Vanity Fair in 1999. The actor/comedian died July 30 following a private battle with cancer. (Photo:  Photo by David LaChapelle/Contour RA by Getty Images)

Paul Reubens photographed for Vanity Fair in 1999. The actor/comedian died July 30 following a private battle with cancer. (Photo: Photo by David LaChapelle/Contour RA by Getty Images)

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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