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 22 Daytime Emmy Awards and a host of other accolades.
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 (born Paul Rubenfeld), 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 Genie’s head in a box who granted Pee-Wee’s wishes.
Other human characters included Reba, the mail lady (S Epatha Merkerson); the pretty girl-next-door Miss Yvonne (Lynne Stewart); the King of Cartoons (Gilbert Lewis then William Marshall); Cowboy Curtis (played by future Hollywood star Laurence Fishburne); Tito the lifeguard (Roland Rodriguez); Ricardo the soccer player (Vic Trevino); and the obese Mrs Steve (Shirley Stoler).
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 children’s 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 ended abruptly.
The show was cancelled, and many toy stores removed Pee-Wee merchandise from their shelves. A few months later, Pee-Wee appeared at the MTV Video Music Awards, but it seemed his days as a television host were over.
Paul Reubens died on Sunday 30 July 2023, aged 70, years after he had been diagnosed with cancer.
Cyndi Lauper sings the show’s opening theme song, although it is credited to one of her backing singers, Ellen Shaw, as Lauper was about to release the serious album True Colors.
The show’s first season was shot in New York City in a SoHo loft. Production moved to Los Angeles for season two.
King of Cartoons
Gilbert Lewis (1)
William Marshall (2)
Conky the Robot
Reba the Mail Lady
S Epatha Merkerson