1 9 8 6 – 1 9 9 1 (USA)
This half-hour CBS-TV Saturday morning live-action ‘children’s show’ was enormously popular with children and adults alike – winning six Emmy Awards and a host of other accolades during its first season.
Incorporating clips from vintage cartoons and old educational films, newly produced 3-D animation, hand puppets, marionettes, and a cast of endearingly eccentric characters led by a grey-suited and red-bow-tied Pee Wee Herman, Pee Wee’s Playhouse might best be described as a flamboyant take off on the genre of children’s educational TV – sort of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood meets MTV.
The childlike Pee Wee welcomed viewers into his Technicolor fantasy-land, and led them through crafts and games, cartoon clips, secret words, and ‘educational’ adventures via his Magic Screen.
In stark contrast to the high moral seriousness of its predecessors, Pee Wee’s Playhouse was marked by a campy sensibility and frequent use of double entendre, allowing different age-groups of viewers to enjoy the show in many different ways.
Pee Wee Herman was the brainchild of Paul Reubens, an actor who developed the rather nasal-voiced and bratty character through routines in comedy clubs. Reubens as Pee Wee appeared on comedy and talk shows and in a successful Los Angeles theatre production, The Pee Wee Herman Show, which quickly developed a cult following after it was taped and aired on HBO.
In 1985 the character starred in Tim Burton’s debut feature film Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), and the next year Pee Wee’s Playhouse premiered on CBS.
Based on The Pee Wee Herman Show, the Saturday morning series was considerably less “adult” than the theatre piece had been, although it incorporated many of the same supporting characters, including lusty seaman Captain Carl (Phil Hartman in his pre-Saturday Night Live days) and the magical genie Jambi (co-writer John Paragon), the latter a disembodied head in a box who granted Pee Wee’s wishes.
Other human characters included Reba the mail lady, the pretty girl-next-door Miss Yvonne, the King of Cartoons, Cowboy Curtis, Tito the lifeguard, Ricardo the soccer player, and the obese Mrs. Steve.
Puppetry was employed to create the characters of bad-boy Randy, The Countess, Pteri the Pterodactyl, Conky the Robot, Globey the Globe, Chairy the Chair, and many others.
Newly produced animated sequences focused on a young girl named Penny, a family of miniature dinosaurs who lived in the walls of the Playhouse, and a refrigerator full of anthropomorphised food.
Music for the shows was provided by artists such as Todd Rundgren, Danny Elfman and Van Dyke Parks.
Dolls and toys of Pee Wee and other Playhouse characters were successfully marketed, and something of a Pee Wee craze spread through popular culture, and another movie, Big Top Pee Wee, was released in 1988.
That same year Pee Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special aired in prime time, featuring most of the regular characters plus a plethora of special guest stars including K D Laing, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Little Richard, Cher, Grace Jones, Dinah Shore, Joan Rivers, Annette Funicello, and Frankie Avalon.
Unusually for ‘childrens’ television, the show challenged sexual and racial stereotypes with both cast and situation:
The mail-man was actually an African-American mail-lady; Latino soccer player Ricardo often spoke Spanish without translation; the white Miss Yvonne went on a date with African-American Cowboy Curtis;, tough-as-nails cab driver Dixie (Johann Carlo) was a possible lesbian; and Jambi was played as a dishy gay man.
Pee Wee himself often poked fun at heterosexist conventions – he “married” a bowl of fruit salad – and the campy double entendre (“Is that a wrench in your pocket?”) and use of icons from gay and lesbian culture – perhaps most infamously on the Christmas special, which, aside from its guest stars, featured two muscular and shirtless workmen building a “blue boy” wing to the playhouse out of fruitcakes – furthered this interpretation.
This outbreak of playful queerness during the politically reactionary Reagan/Bush/Moral Majority years was a key factor of many adults’ enjoyment of the show, although some parents did object to the show’s anarchic approach to childhood – encouraging children to “scream real loud” or jump around the house.
When Paul Reubens was arrested for allegedly indecent behaviour inside an adult movie cinema in Sarasota, Florida in August 1991, the Pee Wee craze came to an abrupt end.
The show was cancelled and many toy stores removed Pee Wee merchandise from their shelves.
A few years later Pee Wee made an appearance at an MTV event, but it seemed as if his days as a television host were over.
Pee Wee Herman
King of Cartoons
Gilbert Lewis (1)
William Marshall (2)
Conky the Robot
Reba the Mail Lady
S. Epatha Merkerson