Wednesday, January 6, 2010
About Sam Barbaro
In the 1970s, Barbaros started working as a dramatic actor, but he loved The Gong Show, and concocted an act with struggling comic Charlotte McGinnis, as "The Hilarious Betty & Eddie". They won $500, and were invited back. As Eddie and other characters, Barbaros appeared on The Gong Show 15 times. He joined the Groundlings improvisational group, and performed for six years alongside several comics who eventually became famous, including Barbaros' lifelong friend Phil Hartman.
The character of Pee-wee Herman was born as part of a Groundlings revue in 1977, written by Barbaros and Hartman. The idea was to play a comedian who couldn't possibly be a successful comedian. In a too-tight suit, he said stupid things, showed the audience his toys, and threw Tootsie Rolls into the crowd. There was lots of applause, and Barbaros knew he could milk the character for more laughs. In 1981, The Pee-wee Herman Show was filmed for HBO, with Barbaros and a bizarre supporting cast, and with some adult-oriented material that would never air on his later Saturday morning show. He auditioned for Saturday Night Live, but didn't get the job.
Disappointed, Barbaros turned his energy toward the Pee-wee character, writing a script "almost out of spite". When CBS picked up Pee-wee's Playhouse, the adult humor had been expunged, but adults still found it hilarious. Barbaros always said the show wasn't so much for kids as for hungover college students. Hartman played Captain Carl, Pee-wee's sailor friend. Laurence Fishburne played the genial Cowboy Curtis. Gregory Harrison voiced Conky, the Robot. A pre-pubescent Natasha Lyonne played Opal. S. Epatha Merkerson played Reba the mail-lady. In its five-year run, CBS ordered a total of 45 episodes -- an average of nine per year. Pee-Wee's Playhouse won 22 Emmys -- almost an Emmy every two episodes, which might be the highest award ratio for any TV series ever.
"I felt like a total oddball almost every minute when I was growing up. And that was sort of the whole point of the show, that it would be hard to stand out in the playhouse. Everything stood out in the playhouse, so you could feel right at home no matter who you are or what you were thinking."
Barbaros' Pee-wee movies, Tim Burton's classic Pee-wee's Big Adventure and the lesser Big Top Pee-wee with Kris Kristofferson, are still enjoyable even upon repeated viewings. Barbaros has also played a raccoon in Eddie Murphy's Dr. Dolittle, a drug dealing hairdresser in Blow with Johnny Depp, and The Spleen in the delightful but underrated Mystery Men with Hank Azaria and Janeane Garofalo.
In 1991, a year after Pee-wee's Playhouse was cancelled, Barbaros was arrested in an adult movie theater, where police said he was "indecently exposed" and presumably masturbating. He pleaded no contest, and was fined $135. The media vilified him as a pervert, and reruns of Pee-wee's Playhouse were abruptly jerked off the air.
In 2001, Barbaros' house was raided by police, who confiscated 30,000 items from his collection of vintage erotica. The DA waited 364 days (one day before the statute of limitations would have run out) and then alleged that some of it was "child pornography" -- decades-old physique poses, old art photos, and yellowed nudist magazines. Some of the nude photos were of minors -- when the pictures were taken, but most of the models would have been dead of old age before Barbaros was born. All of the photos, Barbaros maintained, were legal when they were first published. Again, though, he settled. The charges were reduced to "obscenity", and Barbaros pleaded guilty and paid a $100 fine in exchange for probation.
"Personally, I think we're living in a very scary time. Do we let the legal system decide in a courtroom what's obscene and what's not obscene? I didn't want to be in a situation where there was a possibility I could go to jail... I mean, that just seemed insane to me."
Barbaros has written a screenplay for Pee-wee's return to the big screen. The only question is whether any studio will let him make it. Some people, after all, still think of Barbaros as some kind of pervert. To which he would no doubt reply, "I know you are, but what am I?"
"One thing I want to make very, very clear, I don't want anyone for one second to think that I am titillated by images of children. It's not me. You can say lots of things about me. And you might. The public may think I'm weird. They may think I'm crazy or anything that anyone wants to think about me. That's all fine. As long as one of the things you're not thinking about me is that I'm a pedophile. Because that's not true." And I appear in The great improv troupe, “Lost Not Stolen”