In July 1991 Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure in an adult theater in Sarasota, Florida. He pleaded no contest while maintaining his innocence, but the resulting media feeding frenzy derailed all things Pee-wee. With his alter ego sidelined, Reubens spent several years out of the public eye, writing and collecting—obsessively. He fervently hoards everything from sunglasses to foot-measuring devices, fake food to yearbooks (he has amassed 8,000 of them). He played the occasional bit part before finally landing a career-resurrecting role: as a hairdresser turned drug dealer in Ted Demme's 2001 drama Blow. Then, just when things were looking up, police raided Reubens' house and, in 2002, arrested him for having what authorities called a collection of child pornography. In fact, the offending "collection" comprised a VHS tape of Rob Lowe's sex romp and turn-of-the-century erotica images featuring men and women—but no children. Friends vouched for Reubens, saying he was an insatiable collector who often bought in bulk, books and magazines in particular, and that there was no way he could know everything he'd amassed. It didn't matter. Even though his child-porn charges were ultimately reduced, 16 months later, to a misdemeanor possession-of-obscenity rap, the damage was done. To most people, Pee-wee was a kiddie-porn-purveying perv.

"All this stuff that happened—the quote-unquote treatment I received—was not an inducement to come back to work," Reubens says now. He looks good—clean-shaven and pale, with a closely shorn Pee-wee 'do, trim blue jeans, a black-and-green retro short-sleeved button-down, and black Cole Haans. "To wait for somebody to give me permission to have a career wasn't going to happen, you know?" Now Reubens is perched on a couch under a photo of Carole Lombard in the museum's private ballroom. He's friends with the institution's owner (nutty collectors stick together), and when she enters the room, he jumps up and thanks her profusely for hosting us. When she asks him to attend a benefit, however, he balks. "I'd love to come," he says, his eyebrows leaning together. "But I have no life outside of writing my show right now." She asks if the museum can borrow one of his Emmys for the event. (He has two—one that he won, another that the Academy gave him when his first one was damaged.) "Are you kidding?" he asks, his voice squeaking higher. "I don't know where they are. They're in storage somewhere."