Paul Reubens Faced Controversies That Were Parallel to His On-Camera Career

Following news of his death at the age of 70, many want to learn more about the incident that left Paul Reubens in jail, and his other controversies.


Aug. 1 2023, Published 10:19 a.m. ET

Paul Reubens at the 2016 South by Southwest festival.
Source: Getty Images

The gist:

  • Comedian Paul Reubens, best known for his character Pee-wee Herman, was arrested in 1991 during a raid at the South Trail Cinema in Sarasota, Fla., an adult movie theater.
  • Paul and three others were charged with indecent exposure, though Paul maintained that he didn't actually expose himself in the theater.
  • In a 2002 incident, Paul was charged with possession of photos of minors engaged in sexual conduct. The case was settled, and Paul agreed to plead guilty and register as a sex offender, but he never spent time in jail. He also maintained that the photos he was charged for were in no way pornographic.
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Since news broke on July 31, 2023, that Pee-wee Herman creator Paul Reubens had died, there has been plenty of discussion of the legacy of both the character and the actor who made him so famous.

In addition to all the praise for Paul's genius as a comedian, there has also been some acknowledgment of the darker parts of his past, and those acknowledgments have left some fans with questions.

Near the top of that list of questions is the one about Paul's 1991 arrest. Here's what we know about the charges and why he was in jail.

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Why was Paul Reubens in jail?

Paul Reubens as Pee-Wee Herman in an official portrait.
Source: Getty Images

Paul was arrested in 1991 after a raid was conducted on the South Trail Cinema in Sarasota, Fla., an adult movie theater. Paul was charged with indecent exposure along with three others. Paul pleaded no contest to the charge, which meant that it didn't go on his record. However, it also meant that he would have to complete 75 hours of community service.

In an interview in 2004, Paul maintained that he had not actually exposed himself in the theater.

"Well, obviously I wasn't thinking," he said. "You know? I certainly wasn't thinking to myself, 'You're a children's show host. Your show is [still] on television.' I wasn't making those lists. I felt like they were insinuating like, well, I was sitting in you know, a darkened movie theater, in my Pee-wee suit."

“I maintained at the time that it didn't happen and I maintain that still,” he added.

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Paul was also charged with having child sexual abuse materials.

In addition to his indecent exposure charge, Paul was also charged in 2002 with possessing materials depicting children under the age of 18 engaged in sexual conduct. The materials were discovered in his home in the Hollywood Hills.

Paul turned himself in on the charge, and his publicist said at the time that the “claims are completely without merit. He's going to be completely vindicated at the end of the day."

Paul eventually settled the case and agreed to plead guilty to possession of an obscene image in exchange for prosecutors dropping the more severe charge. He was given a $100 fine, received three years of probation, and agreed to be registered as a sex offender.

After settling the case, Paul went to the press and claimed that the photos he was charged for weren't in any way pornographic.

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”You can say that I’m different, that I’m freaky, that I’m weird — you can say lots of stuff about me. But you can’t say I’m a pedophile. That’s just not a part of who I am. I am not a child pornographer," he told Entertainment Weekly at the time.

He said that the stuff he had was “really camp, kitschy, funny stuff from the '40s, '50s, or '60s."

Paul told ABC News that he knew the charge would impact his reputation.

“The moment that I realized my name was going to be said in the same sentence as children and sex, that's really intense. That's something I knew from that very moment, whatever happens past that point, something's out there in the air that is really bad," he said.

So, despite getting arrested and facing several serious charges throughout his life, Paul never actually served any long-term jail time. He completed community service, paid a fine, spent three years on probation, and registered as a sex offender.

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