PRINT March 1987



A CUTE LITTLE GIRL SITS amid a fuzzy heavenly wonderland, lazily daydreaming and musing, “If I had my way, I’d spend all my day with Ronald and his friends.” No, this is not a wish for a vacation in the White House, but rather a burning yearning to kill some time at McDonald’s, to trade this woozily gorgeous locale for a seat in some orange plastic meat-palace. Such is the stuff of one of the many scrumptiously spurious commercials that dot the terrain of Saturday-morning TV, making it a veritable meringue of aerated kid-vid, a zappy pitchfest for cereal, bubble gum, robots, cereal, dolls, candy, cereal, and cereal.

The programs between these sticky spots, usually elementary animations that make old Disney stuff look like Leonardo in a slump, tell simple moralistic tales, which are signed, sealed, and delivered in tight ideological envelopes. The Care Bears Family is a veritable position paper, a saccharinely preachy manifesto on “caring.” “There’s nothing like a successful caring mission to make you feel good,” oozes one cute citizen of “the Kingdom of Caring.” This “have a nice day” domain, however, is fraught with close calls, near misses that threaten to collapse the fur-bundle heaven, where caring is presented not as an ongoing, changing procedure but as an ossified state. Take one of the worldly jolts that briefly interrupt this constant high-caloric intake: in order to punish the Care Bears, a scary villain named No Heart concocts a not unfamiliar scheme—he floods “the Forest of Feelings” and forces its non-Care Bear denizens to join the Care Bears’ closed colony. This overcrowds the bears, causing quarreling and tearing families apart. (Surprisingly, there is no mention of the alien animals taking away jobs from resident Care Bears.)

Following suit, the rambunctious stars of Muppet Babies get a lesson from Nanny on the need for rules as she intones, “It’s not right to be totally out of control.” In response, the “Muppies” raucously burst into song: “We lost control, we went insane and now we’re dragging that ball and chain. We learned our lesson and now we know, playin’ by the rules is the way to go.” Nanny proceeds to give Kermie and the gang a book on democracy, followed by a tour of the nation’s capital, replete with visits to the legislature and the Lincoln Memorial. Once again, this treacly lesson is disturbed by the decapitating fact that Nannie’s face is never shown. Who is this cropped crusader, drenching the kiddies in pompous pieties? Considering the menu of the A.M. announcements, one wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Jeane Kirkpatrick had taken some time off to care for the little tykes.

Recently, however, this paradigmatic, trancelike sugar coma has been thankfully interrupted by a slightly different kind of show, a visual treasure of gorgeous live action dolloped with baroquely adorable animations and hosted by the ridiculously compelling nerd Pee-wee Herman. Not unlike Mr. Rogers, Mr. Herman offers us a meandering view of his turf and of all the neighbors who clutter, visit, and fly through it. Behind a neocolonial, faux tudor, semibungalowian facade resides an interior of ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, googie zigzag proportions, which is graced by the sporadic visitations of Pee-wee’s gang: Chairry, Conky, Jambi, Globey, Pterri, Miss Penny, the Dinosaur Family, the ant farm, Miss Yvonne, Reba the mail lady, Dixie the trumpeteer, the King of Cartoons, Cowntess (a cow), some kids, Tito the lifeguard, Randy the Puppet, and Knucklehead (a huge hand, which appears at the window and must be the offspring of Senor Wences’ act). Eschewing cheap sticklike cartooning and protracted story lines, Pee-wee’s Playhouse is an amalgam of incidences: a rambunctious chunk of minidilemmas, quasi adventures, and corny, jokey play. Pterri the pterodactyl flies in and offers Pee-wee a piece of aluminum foil for his growing foil ball, Conky the robot spits out the secret word for the day, and Pee-wee plays havoc with a salad bar, commenting that “Voila . . . the cauliflower looks like brains . . . the sprouts look and taste like hair,” but still the whole kit and caboodle tastes so “mmmmm . . . salady!”

Pee-wee’s Playhouse rejoices in novelty, leaking virtuoso visual effects like a damaged lava lamp. With its mischievous suggestions, sexual ambiguities, and contempo world-weary humor, it is a pleasurable refuge for both kids and adults. But the playhouse exhibits another trait that bears acknowledgment. As compared to the “people who need people,” “up with people,” empty people of kids’ cartoons, Pee-wee shows the actual displacement of caring from people to objects as the motor that makes the world go round. As in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Herman’s hit movie from 1985, the playhouse is a domain where things, from bikes to knickknacks to appliances, reign supreme. Human beings are garni, little extras that brighten up the room. The “Forest of Feelings” is exposed as the scene of a crime, as a site of human exclusion located somewhere on a path between Ronald’s White House and Ronald’s Golden Arches. And Pee-wee’s place, the result of a zanily serious love affair with domestic interiors, begins to look more and more like some curiously effusive halfway house between the Salvation Army and House and Garden.

Barbara Kruger is an artist who writes. Her column appears regularly in Artforum.