State of Play

Nick Pinkerton on Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Complete Series

Pee-wee’s Playhouse, 1986–90, still from a TV show on CBS. Cowboy Curtis and Pee-wee Herman (Laurence Fishburne and Paul Reubens).

PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE ran for five critically acclaimed seasons on CBS Saturday mornings from 1986 to 1990, producing a grand total of forty-five episodes. The third season was limited to two episodes by the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike. After the fifth season, burned out by the workaday grind of the production, Paul Reubens, the creator of the Pee-wee Herman character and star of the show, put the character on hiatus. (The attrition is even evident in the product—the series finale is a clips show!) When, in the following summer of 1991, Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure while leaving the XXX South Trail Cinema in his hometown of Sarasota, Florida, the widely circulated mug shot showed that he’d grown Pee-wee’s close-cropped black hair out long and ratty.

Reubens’s career as a children’s performer was ignominiously ended, and in the aftermath of his public yank, his show, winner of twenty-two Emmy awards, was unceremoniously yanked from reruns. Nevertheless, the dear, sweet, vulnerable children couldn’t be retroactively protected from the deviant entertainment that they’d already been submitted to, and the influence of the Playhouse on impressionable minds has in subsequent years proved to be inestimable. In 2010, Reubens returned to the stage as Pee-wee, playing for an audience undoubtedly comprising in large part grown-up kids whom he’d helped to raise, and in a recent Rolling Stone interview, he alluded to Pee-wee’s forthcoming return to the big screen. And now, courtesy of Shout Factory, the entire run of Pee-wee’s Playhouse is available with heretofore-unseen image quality on eight Blu-ray discs—a fresh opportunity to contemplate what a strange and remarkable thing this show actually was.

Shortly after the story of Reubens’s public humiliation broke, Dennis Miller, manning the desk of Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” cracked that “Pee-wee Herman finally reached puberty.” In his gray glen plaid suit and red bow tie, Pee-wee had the aspect of a boy who’d been dressed up as a little gentleman by some doting parent with a bizarre idea of decorum. He was, of course, a grown man, though his waxy make-up job gave him a preternaturally smooth complexion. (While removing a whipped-cream beard: “I’m shaving just like daddy.”) He lived in the titular Playhouse, where darn near every object from floor to chair to window was anthropomorphized, with no real adult supervision but with a pet Pterodactyl, Pterri, and Jambi (both John Paragon), a downright swishy genie in a box.

While Pee-wee was distinctly presexual, the show was rife with elements associated with gay camp. In a 2012 essay, “Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp,” the queer writer and filmmaker Bruce LaBruce places Pee-wee Herman in the category of “Subversive Camp,” alongside “Roddy McDowell’s Tam Lin” and “Brett Anderson of Suede.” In the first season of Playhouse, Pee-wee is keeping company with Dixie, a butch lady cab-driver; Mrs. Steve, a houseboat-size neighbor woman made up like a drag queen (Shirley Stoler, star of family-friendly fare like Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties and The Honeymoon Killers), and an absolutely ripped pool boy named Tito, never seen with a shirt. (In the second season, when the show moved from New York to Los Angeles, he was replaced by the no-less-handsome-but-slightly-more-clothed Ricardo.) In the show’s 1988 Christmas Special, a veritable parade of gay icons stops by the Playhouse to pay homage to Pee-wee, including Joan Rivers, Grace Jones, Little Richard, and k.d. lang.

On the inside the Playhouse looked like a cluttered vintage shop, on the outside, a roadside attraction. The show appeared in the midst of a Golden Age of weird Americana, when the symbols of 1950s car culture and suburban prosperity were reemerging in distorted form, a phenomenon which was occurring simultaneously in the gallery (the paintings of Eric Fischl) and the funny pages (Gary Larson’s Far Side). Playhouse arrived on the air in the year of David Byrne’s True Stories and Blue Velvet—when Pee-wee’s lip-synchs “So long and goodbye for now” to a scratchy record at the conclusion of one episode, he recalls nothing so much as Dean Stockwell in David Lynch’s picture. With Pee-wee, Reubens was doubling down on the inherent oddness of the Eisenhower-era kids’-show hosts that he’d grown up with—Pinky Lee most particularly—while adding an element of Jerry Lewis simpering and just a sprig of Mister Rogers’ Gayborhood.

The camp element was lost on child viewers, this author included, and probably many an adult as well. I’m not sure what my father, also a regular viewer, made of it, but I do remember that he impressed upon me the sheer amount of work that went into each episode, chock-a-block as they were with all manner of animation. The average Playhouse is a cabinet of curios, full of self-contained “features” like little drawers to be pulled out, their contents examined, and then closed again. Arranged as a sort-of variety show, each episode was a weekly history of animation techniques—“I wanted to try to use every kind of animation that was being done,” says one of the show’s architects in an interview included in the Shout Factory set, and the contemporary fetish for the handmade and artisanal is very much present here. Pee-wee’s Ant Farm was rendered with a silhouette animation technique reminiscent of that created by Lotte Reiniger in the 1920s. The disoriented, possibly sloshed King of Cartoons came by to screen 1930s animations by the likes of Ub Iwerks and Max Fleischer. When Pee-wee would visit to his “toy shelf,” he was greeted by stop-motion creations as disturbing as anything in the Quay brothers’ corpus, while a distinctly Ray Harryhausen–esque Dinosaur Family lived in the Playhouse wall. The recurring “Penny” skits, which illustrated the free-associative ramblings of six- and seven-year-old girls in Claymation, were courtesy of England’s Aardman Animations, the home of Wallace & Gromit. There was even early computer animations: Pee-wee’s “Connect the Dots” adventures, courtesy Ellen & Lynda Kahn’s TWINART.

Reubens was the linchpin of the show, but he surrounded himself with talent, and the Playhouse was in fact a workshop that brought together and activated a plethora of creative minds. Wayne White, who just ended his show “Invisible Ruler” at New York’s Joshua Liner Gallery, won three Emmys for his puppetry and design on the show, and voiced J.D. marionette bully Randy. (Spazz Pee-wee probably would’ve been a punching bag in the schoolyard, but Randy was the only threat at the Playhouse.) The underground cartoonist Gary Panter was honcho of the set design squadron and created the Playhouse’s aesthetic of jaggedly clashing patterns and bric-a-brac business. The score was provided by a revolving cast of hip musicians—the Residents, George Clinton, Van Dyke Parks—with the reliable standby being Mark Mothersbaugh, who joined the show on a hiatus from his band Devo. (I still remember the wistful longing his closing theme created, signifying that you were now leaving Pee-wee’s world—you couldn’t wait until next week to come back.)

Reubens was an art-school kid who knew how to engender creative collaborations. He’d attended CalArts in the 1970s before joining the Los Angeles improv troupe the Groundlings, where he’d premiered the Pee-wee character and worked closely with Phil Hartman, who played sea salt Captain Carl on Playhouse before departing for SNL. Rounding out the show’s flesh-and-blood cast was future Law & Order star S. Epatha Merkerson as Reba the Mail Lady, seen to best advantage in the “Playhouse in Outer Space” episode, and Laurence Fishburne as Pee-wee’s best friend Cowboy Curtis—the concept is a little Gene Autry, a little Gene Nabors, and a little Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys.

Pee-wee’s Playhouse isn’t P.C.—Pee-wee’s pen-pal letters from around the globe all riff on national stereotypes, and there is a slanty-eyed egg roll with a Fu Manchu mustache in his freezer box—but the cast is, in an offhand, no-big-deal way, quite diverse. (I almost wrote “for the time,” before realizing that very little has changed. In an interview on the set, Fishburne confirms that this diversity existed on the behind-the-camera crew as well.) On revisiting the show, what is striking is its embracing, absolute decency—a decency that’s in no way at odds with the happy perversity bubbling under its surface, and which in fact makes the very thought of such a dichotomy seem absurd. Reubens, whose shyness when out of character has only been exacerbated by legal harassment, doesn’t appear on camera for any of the boxed set features. Which is to be regretted—but then, he’s already given us quite enough.

Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Complete Series is now available on Blu-ray from Shout Factory.