How Pee-wee Herman Sparked Gilbert Gottfried’s Passionate Pro-Masturbation Rant
When the late Paul Reubens showed up at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards, the crowd went wild. It had been a minute since he’d made a public appearance as his alter-ego Pee-wee Herman, thanks to a very public embarrassment. “Thank you very much,” he told the ecstatic audience. “Heard any good jokes lately?”
The crowd had heard a few, and they were so funny that Reubens forgot to laugh. In 1991, he was the punchline du jour, courtesy of an arrest in a Sarasota, Florida movie theater for public masturbation. Reubens pleaded no contest to the charge on the advice of his lawyers, who thought a trial would make the incident even more infamous. (Pee-wee’s Playhouse, a Saturday morning show for kids, was still fresh in peoples’ minds even though it had recently been canceled.)
Reubens always denied the charge, telling Playboy years later that an expert from the Masters and Johnson Institute had proof of his innocence. The self-pleasure expert “was going to testify that in 30 years of research on masturbation, the institute had never found one person who masturbated with his or her nondominant hand,” Reubens said. “I’m right-handed, and the police report said I was jerking off with my left hand. That would have been the end of the case right there, proof it couldn’t have been me."
Hmm. Not sure that’s exactly an ironclad defense, but never mind that part of the story. While several people were scandalized by the idea of a kid show actor enjoying an adult film, most of Reuben’s fellow comics saw no harm in it.
Among his defenders was comedian Gilbert Gottfried, hired to be a presenter at the 1991 Emmy Awards. Gottfried was assigned the category of Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program, but when it was his turn to honor the scribes, Gottfried went off teleprompter and riffed on the ludicrousness of the whole affair.
Here’s Gottfried’s rant — you can fill in the raucous laughter after each joke: “You know, I’ll tell you something, ladies and gentlemen. I sleep a lot better since Pee-wee Herman has been arrested. Masturbation’s a crime? I should be on death row! Masturbation’s against the law — I should have been sent to the electric chair years ago. To think that by the age of 14, I was already Al Capone.”
Despite the huge laughs, Gottfried landed in his own pot of hot water for the impromptu defense of discovering one’s own potential. Fox went nuts, censoring the West Coast version of the telecast. Emmy officials vowed to ban Gottfried from any future appearances on the show. Of course, the controversy just meant more people got a chance to see it. “Every news show would pick it up and they would introduce it as a horrible moment that doesn’t belong on television, and then they would broadcast the entire thing,” Gottfried told The A.V. Club. “‘It’s okay, because we’re a news show. We’re not happy showing this, but we have to.’”
The irony, according to Gottfried? “A short time later, Jerry Seinfeld does a masturbation episode that is looked upon like a classic of television,” he complained. “But me? I was responsible for killing people.”