“How’s your wiener, Cowboy Curtis?”
In 1977, Pee-Wee Herman was born. He began as an example of a guy you’d see in a comedy club who you’d know would never make it as a stand-up comic. With a borrowed suit, a bagful of toys, and a voice developed while doing “Life with Father” on stage, Pee-Wee was an instant hit. He was the brainchild of Paul Reubens, at the time a member of the famous Groundlings comedy troupe (their list of alums is a comedy who’s who: Laraine Newman, Phil Hartman, Lisa Kudrow, Phil LaMarr, and Will Ferrell, just to name a few). Pee-Wee became a recurring ten-minute bit in the Groundlings’ revue show, and after Reubens was turned down as a cast member of Saturday Night Live, he turned it into a HBO special. Acclaimed punk artist and “king of the preposterous” Gary Panter designed the sets, and it contained several of the characters (most played by other Groundlings members) who would appear later on his regular series. Pee-Wee Herman became Reubens’s alter ego; he would rarely appear in public not in character, including his many appearances on David Letterman’s late-night show and as a host of (oh, the irony) SNL in 1984. Reubens and Phil Hartman wrote a screenplay based on the character, eschewing Pee-Wee’s horny adolescent characteristics, opting to make a family-friendly adventure flick that still contained his absurdist sensibilities. Reubens found a kindred spirit in Tim Burton. The former Disney animator was looking for a project to make the move to directing big-screen films, and after Reubens saw Burton’s animated short film Vincent…well, the rest is history. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was released in 1985 and was a surprise hit, grossing over $40 million (a respectable sum for 1985, putting it in the top 20 with the likes of The Breakfast Club and Fletch, though well behind that year’s box office champ, Back to the Future). Pee-Wee’s Playhouse debuted in 1986, and ran until 1991. Forty-five episodes were produced, though the final six episodes would never see the airwaves. On July 26, 1991, Paul Reubens was arrested in an adult theater for allegedly exposing himself. He denies it to this day, but the stench of scandal was enough for CBS to pull broadcast of the remaining episodes (it had already been cancelled).
Describing Pee-Wee’s Playhouse is difficult, and giving detailed episode summaries would be impossible (or at least pointless). It is set in “Puppetland,” with the only set being the eponymous playhouse. Stocked with kitschy art, toys aplenty, and animated characters of all sorts (marionettes, animatronics, claymation), the playhouse is every kid’s dream of someplace where “anything can happen.” There really isn’t such a thing as a typical episode, though there are many common elements that can appear in any order or combination that worked for that particular episode. Pee-Wee had many friends who would drop by, such as Miss Yvonne (Groundlings member Lynne Stewart), Cowboy Curtis (Laurence “Larry” Fishburne, then relatively unknown other than his small role in Apocalypse Now), Captain Carl (Phil Hartman), Jambi the Genie (another Groundling, John Paragon), Miss Steve, the King of Cartoons, Mona the mail lady (seemingly the only “normal” person in Puppetland), and Dixie the cabbie (Johann Carlo, who has had a distinguished career with everything from Reversal of Fortune to The Sopranos). The King of Cartoons would play a vintage cartoon when he would stop by. Mona’s visits would prompt a letter from Pee-Wee’s many penpals. Jambi would grant a wish. Snack time meant visiting the claymation, anthropomorphic fixin’s in the fridge. Beatnik puppets would present interpretative dance, jazz, and poetry. Randy (a marionette) was a bully and would cause trouble, such as smoking or nearly burning down the playhouse, and was often the source of the episode’s educational lessons. The magic screen was there for a game of checkers or a blue-screen session of connect-the-dots. And who could forget Conky 2000, the beatbox/turntable/robot who would generate the day’s secret word…which if anyone would say, everyone would have to scream really loud.
To be honest, I never watched Pee-Wee’s Playhouse when it aired — I simply didn’t watch Saturday morning TV. I didn’t discover Pee-Wee until I became a Tim Burton fan and saw the movie. I was so stoked to be able to get the DVDs of this series to discover that piece of my childhood (well, tweens to mid-teens) that I missed. But a truly great thing happened — my two-year-old son absolutely loves the show. He begs to watch it. He does his own sing-song version of the opening theme. He yells at the TV along with the secret word. He’s mesmerized by the Penny cartoons (odd, since he didn’t react too well to the other claymation I’d shown him, namely Wallace and Gromit). While I’m sitting here writing, he’s trying to tell me a knock-knock joke. Since I have a kid in that age bracket, I’ve been exposed to all manner of modern kid’s programming, from the wretched Barney and The Teletubbies, to the mediocre (to me, at least) Dora the Explorer, to the decent modern Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues. There’s a sharp contrast between today’s kids shows and this throwback to the 1980s, and I wish they’d learn a lesson or two from Pee-Wee…
* Kids’ programming doesn’t have to appeal to only kids: Have any of you adults tried watching any of the shows I listed above? Found anything that appealed to you? Probably not. The best kid’s shows have multiple layers — kids can appreciate the bright colors and merriment, adults can listen in for the sly innuendo. This is why other, non-morning cartoons like Spongebob Squarepants are so wildly popular.
* Kids don’t need structure: Watch a few episodes of Dora or Blue’s Clues, and you’ll see they’re all the same. They’re rigidly structured, with the same segments or events in every episode, running the same length, with the thinking that kids require that “sense of order.” Bullplop. You’re stifling their creativity and imagination by putting their programming in such a straitjacket. Give kids more credit.
* Use a ball peen, not a sledge, hammer: Where the sense of discovery when you spell out the moral of the story, the lesson to be learned, when no thinking is required? I don’t think anyone would call Pee-Wee’s Playhouse educational, but like any show for kids, the creators often worked in some sort of moral: be nice to your friends, leave operating the oven to adults, smoking is bad for you. But it’s worked in gently, not wielded like a cricket bat.
* Have fun!: Kids need to get their ya-yas out. Give them the chance. Pee-Wee’s Playhouse encouraged running around, singing, dancing, yelling, using your imagination…acting like a kid! Let kids be kids!
Image Entertainment has released all 45 episodes in two volumes of five discs apiece. As there’s no real distinction between the seasons, and the discs themselves are numbered one to ten across the volumes, I’ve opted to review them together. The technical presentation leaves much to be desired; truth be told, it’s pretty atrocious. There’s no extra content whatsoever, and considering this show begs for context, it’s a loss indeed. A retrospective interview with Paul Reubens and others behind the show would have been very beneficial; after all, he did quite a bit of promotional work for the DVD release, so why wasn’t he asked to participate? The episodes are typically presented four to a disc, though the first disc of each volume has a few more (seven episodes on Disc One, six episodes on Disc Six). The video quality is probably all you can expect from a filmed-on-video Saturday morning series from the 1980s. The picture is grainy and the colors subdued, though it is sharp without appearing over-processed, which gives it a leg up over the VHS releases. Audio is Dolby Digital Stereo. It’s actually a fair bit better than the video, with nice frequency range and channel separation. Dolby Pro-Logic II enhancement spreads it out quite nicely. (Writer’s Note: After publication, several readers, more alert than me, have notified me that the first volume is actually mono, not stereo. I’ve updated the disc specs accordingly.)
Unfortunately, the quality of the series declined as it went along. When it first started, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse had a budget rivaling primetime sitcoms. However, after the inaugural season, changes started. Phil Hartman, Johann Carlo, Gilbert Lewis (the original King of Cartoons), and Roland Rodriguez (Tito the Lifeguard) left the show. So did the trio of neighbor kids — Cher, Elvis, and Opal (played by Natasha Lyonne of American Pie). Some of the more surreal (and costly to produce) elements were either phased out or appeared less frequently, like Pee-Wee’s toy collection, or Knucklehead, or the Salesman (one of my favorite aspects of the first season), or the Magic Screen’s blue-screen powered “connect the dots” game. There were fewer claymation interludes. By the final season, stock footage and public domain films were taking up too much time. The innuendo that tinted some of the early episodes became more obvious coloring. The episodes became more straightforward stories and more preachy. The abrupt cancellation due Reubens’s adult theater shenanigans was almost merciful — the episodes on the final disc are almost unwatchable, except for what was planned to be the final episode. In “Playhouse for Sale,” the gang thinks Pee-Wee is selling the playhouse and reminisce about the good times they’ve had. Pee-Wee finally arrives to tell them it’s a big mistake, and closes the episode by telling the kids at home that the playhouse will always be there. It’s touching, in its own way.
Every era has its piece of sheer childhood nostalgia. What you have here is, for the children and adults who also appreciated its humor, one of the most enduring characters and series of the 1980s, if only the career of its creative genius had not imploded. Pee-Wee’s Playhouse stands the test of time — not only is it as creative and fresh as you remember, it is ready to be embraced by a new generation of fun-loving youngsters. You won’t be disappointed!
Please, be sure to check out the National Public Radio Fresh Air interview with Paul Reubens linked in the Accomplices. It was conducted in November 2004 to promote this DVD release, and is very informative and very entertaining.