December 7, 2023

Origin tales are notoriously onerous to pin down within the humor enterprise, since solely the creator is aware of the place the joke started. Lineages, then again, are loads simpler to hint. The comic Paul Reubens, a.okay.a. Pee-wee Herman, who died this week of most cancers at 70, belongs to an extended line of American comics stretching again to the golden age of tv and, past it, to the early days of vaudeville and burlesque.

Although Pinky Lee is an unfamiliar title right now, it could not have been to a person of Mr. Reubens’s era. As a child boomer, he would certainly have grown up on the televised antics of a comic famed for most of the similar tics, bits and gimmicks that Mr. Reubens would later undertake — starting with an absurdist stage title.

Pee-wee Herman was born Paul Rubenfeld in 1952 in Peekskill, NY; Mr. Lee was born Pincus Leff in 1907 in Saint Paul, Minn. Rubenfeld, who was a proficient baby actor, would rename himself Reubens and change into an improv comedian. His early work with the The Groundlings in Los Angeles, notably in a Pinky parody skit, would finally type the idea for one of many extra indelible characters in present enterprise. Mr. Lee got here up by way of the ranks as a faucet dancer on the vaudeville circuit. After turning to comedy routines, he made a tidy if minor profession for himself as a supporting participant in movies like “Girl of Burlesque” (a nutty 1943 thriller that facilities on a G-string as a homicide weapon). He additionally starred in a collection of westerns with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, together with the eminently forgettable “South of Caliente” (1951), during which Lee took fourth billing, beneath the display screen cowboy’s palomino, Set off.

A lot of what we consider as uniquely Pee-wee Herman may be readily traced to Pinky Lee: There was the shrunken baby’s-size hat his character wore, the rapid-fire method of speaking. There have been additionally his goofy, mincing soft-shoe dances, his trademark lisp. And there was a signature catchphrase — a model of the slowburn comeback echoing within the thoughts of each subteen.

“Oooooh! You make me so mad!” Pinky Lee would say.

“I do know you might be, however what am I?” was the Pee-wee Herman model.

A forerunner of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” “The Pinky Lee Present” ran in the course of the Fifties earlier than “The Howdy Doody Present,” a top-rated afterschool tv program starring a gaptoothed, flame-haired and rubber-faced ventriloquist’s dummy.

“Yoo-hoo, it’s me,” went the opening theme music Mr. Lee performed (sang will not be fairly the phrase): “I skip and run and convey plenty of enjoyable/To each she and he/It’s plain to see which you could inform it’s me/In my checkered hat and my checkered coat.”

After which there was the outfit.

Pinky Lee slicked down his hair and wore mismatched checkered shirts and jackets; dishevelled pegged trousers; a neatly knotted four-in-hand necktie; and a completely supercilious expression.

Mr. Reubens as Pee-wee Herman pomaded his hair, wore a go well with, albeit with shrunken proportions (the jacket too cosy, the pants hemmed to floodwater top, the neckwear a fussy bow-tie), and had a completely supercilious expression. The air of disbelief, the prissily crossed told-you-so arms, even the moue that Mr. Reubens affected have been all, it could seem, studiously tailored. As Pee-wee later would in his tv comedy, Pinky delighted in taking part in reverse inanimate objects, amongst them the lovable, bendable humanoid Claymation character Gumby.

And so it appears solely simply, as Instagram and the remainder of the web mourns Mr. Reubens’s Pee-wee, to offer a tip of the shrunken, roll-brimmed pork pie to his progenitor, Mr. Leff’s Pinky.

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