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Pee-Wee Herman's First Appearance Wasn't On A TV Show You'd Expect

Paul Reubens died at the age of 70 on July 30, 2023, devastating a generation who grew up on "Pee-wee's Playhouse" and his irreverent, playful sense of humor. Fascinatingly enough, it turns out that Pee-wee's television debut didn't involve cutting it up with kids, but an attempt at finding love under the spotlight. Reubens appeared as Pee-wee on a 1976 episode of the syndicated game show "The Dating Game." He ultimately wasn't selected by the bachelorette in that episode, but did manage to get out a funny pick-up line, and establish Pee-wee's expertise in tightrope walking. "Hey baby, you know I might not be old enough to drink, but you look like you're old enough to drink," he told the bachelorette in question.

Reubens told Variety in 2017 that he credited "The Dating Game" creator Chuck Barris with keeping him financially afloat in Hollywood during this early years. He also said playing Pee-wee on the game show helped him hone his improvisational skills. "It helped me in terms of understanding the power of the character and how the outside world reacted to it. It made me realize that I was really going to be this person on stage."

Reubens was also a regular on the Barris-hosted "The Gong Show," appearing as part of a variety of acts. He appeared in disguise to avoid detection by the show's producers, who were bound by strict FCC rules which govern how game shows run. Repeated acts were thus verboten, but Reubens managed to make it on "The Gong Show" multiple times. He ultimately won enough in residuals and prize money to keep his Hollywood hopes up.

Reubens went on to parody his experience (and he was no stranger to game shows)

Paul Reubens was never one to avoid using any material that life threw him for his comedy routines; he parodied his experience appearing on "The Dating Game" in "The Paragon of Comedy," a Showtime special created by fellow Groundling and longtime collaborator John Paragon in 1983. In "The Mating Game," Reubens plays Happy Joe, a man looking for love by interviewing a panel of female hopefuls. Adding to the segment's star power, fellow Groundling and longtime friend Cassandra Peterson appears in the sketch as her own legendary character, the horror hostess Elvira. 

Game shows would go on to define the career of Reubens and his alter ego. The actor appeared on multiple game shows during his lifetime in multiple capacities. He popped up as a guest on "To Tell the Truth" as part of a pick-out-the-real-Pee-wee panel, after having appeared as a panel member in an earlier episode. He was a contestant on "Celebrity Wheel of Fortune" and "Celebrity Family Feud." Reubens also hosted the pilot for a version of "You Don't Know Jack," a game show based on the popular computer game. The fun-loving actor will forever be remembered for his ability to roll with the punches — and take home the prize.