R.I.P. John Paragon, Pee-wees Playhouses Jambi the Genie – The A.V. Club

John Paragon

John Paragon
Photo: Albert L. Ortega (Getty Images)

John Paragon has died. An actor, writer, and director, Paragon was best known for his work alongside his fellow veterans of the Groundlings comedy team—and especially with long-time collaborator Paul Reubens, who tapped Paragon to help him write his early Pee-wee Herman stage shows, and to portray Pee-wee’s stalwart, box-based companion: Jambi The Genie. Per TMZ, Paragon died back in April of 2021, but his death only became widely known tonight; no cause of death has been made available. Paragon was 66.

Originally from Alaska, Paragon got his start with the Groundlings in Los Angeles, where he worked alongside Reubens, Phil Hartman, Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson, and many other future comedy stars. (He and Peterson would have a long and fruitful collaboration together, with Paragon co-writing the 1988 Elvira movie, writing and producing on some of her various TV series, and appearing, in a recurring part, as the irritating “Breather” who regularly harassed the horror host during breaks.) When Reubens began developing Pee-wee for the stage, Paragon was part of the team that helped write the original shows, shoving his head into a box for a (far more winkingly adult) version of Jambi The Genie. When Reubens was given an offer to take Pee-wee over to CBS to create Pee-wee’s Playhouse (shaving off many of the original show’s more “mature” edges in the process), Paragon was right there with him, continuing to play Jambi with a hearty cry of “Mecca lecca hi, mecca hiney ho!” (He also voiced Pterri the pterodactyl, wrote multiple episodes, and directed a large swathe of the show’s run; there’s a great deal of John Paragon in the joy and brightness of Pee-wee’s Playhouse.)

After the series ended, Paragon continued to chart a somewhat unconventional course through Hollywood; he directed multiple episodes of USA’s Silk Stockings, and directed two separate features (Double Trouble and Twin Sitters) starring muscle-bound twins Peter and David Paul, the “Barbarian Brothers.” He also picked up a semi-regular gig on Seinfeld, appearing in three episodes as Cedric, half of a duo who periodically menace Michael Richards’ Kramer, most memorably by stealing a plot-pivotal armoire under his watch in “The Soup Nazi.” (We talked to Yul Vazquez, who played the other half of Bob and Cedric, last year; he recalled “completely nerding out” over getting to do scenes with Jambi The Genie.) 

When Reubens brought Pee-wee back for a 2010 revival, Paragon and Jambi were right there with him, appearing in both the Los Angeles and Broadway runs of The Pee-wee Herman Show. Per TMZ, his most recent gig was at Disney, where he was reportedly working as an Imagineer developing ideas for improv routines used by performers as the company’s theme parks.

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