Pee-Wee's Playhouse


The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents

02:26

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About

This half-hour CBS-TV Saturday morning live-action "children's show" aired from 1986 until 1991 and was enormously popular with both children and adults. The program won 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 gray-suited and red-bow-tied Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens), Pee-wee's Playhouse might best be described as a flamboyant take off on the genre of children's educational TV--a sort of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood meets MTV. The childlike Pee-wee each week welcomed viewers into his technicolor fantasy-land, and led them through a regimen of crafts and games, cartoon clips, "secret words," and "educational" adventures via his Magic Screen. Yet, in stark contrast to the high moral seriousness of its predecessors, Pee-wee's Playhouse was marked from its outset by a campy sensibility and frequent use of double entendre, allowing different types of viewers to enjoy the show in many different ways. As The Hollywood Reporter put it, Pee-wee's Playhouse was "TV gone Dada....skillfully balanc[ing] the distinction between low-camp and high performance art."

Pee-wee Herman was the brainchild of Reubens, an actor who developed the rather nasal-voiced and somewhat bratty character through routines and skits in comedy clubs. Reubens as Pee-wee (the ruse was to present Pee-wee as a "real" person and not just a character) 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 Home Box Office. In 1985 the character starred in Tim Burton's debut feature film Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, 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 appearing on the TV show included Reba the mail lady (S. Epatha Merkerson), the pretty girl-next-door Miss Yvonne (Lynne Stewart), the King of Cartoons (William Marshall and Gilbert Lewis), Cowboy Curtis (Larry 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 Cowntess, 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 anthropomorphized food. Music for the shows was provided by cutting edge artists such as Mark Mothersbaugh, Todd Rundgren, Danny Elfman and Van Dyke Parks. Dolls and toys of both Pee-wee and other Playhouse denizens were successfully marketed, and something of a Pee-wee craze spread through popular culture. Episodes of the series were aired in prime time in November of 1987, and another feature film, 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. lang, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Little Richard, The Del Rubio Triplets, Cher, Grace Jones, Dinah Shore, Joan Rivers, Annette Funicello, and Frankie Avalon.

From its debut, Pee-wee's Playhouse attracted the attention of media theorists and critics, many of whom championed the show as a postmodernist collage of queer characters and situations that seemed to fly in the face of dominant racist, sexist, and heterosexist presumptions. (Some accounts of the show were less celebratory and criticized the show's regular use of comic fat women as sexist.) The show was forthrightly multi-cultural in cast and situation: the mail-man was 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 once "married" a bowl of fruit salad. The smirking irony, the campy double entendre ("Is that a wrench is 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 apparent outbreak of playful queerness during the politically reactionary Reagan-Bush/Moral Majority years was a key factor of many adults' enjoyment of the show. Yet that same queerness lurked in the realm of connotation, where it was just as easily ignored or dismissed by other, more mainstream critics. Some parents objected to the show's polymorphous and anarchic approach to childhood (encouraging children to "scream real loud" or jump around the house).

When Paul Reubens was arrested inside an adult movie theatre in August 1991, the Pee-wee craze came to an abrupt end. The show was canceled and in many toy stores Pee-wee merchandise was removed from the shelves. A few years later, Reubens as Pee-wee made an appearance at an MTV event, but it seemed as if his days as a television host of a "children's show" were over, despite the fact that his pre-(hetero)sexualized antics and progressive social attitude had captured America's imagination so strongly--for a few years at least.

-Harry M. Benshoff

 

 

CAST

Pee-wee Herman...................................... Paul Reubens  

Miss Yvonne........................................... Lynne Stewart

Dixie......................................................... Johann Carlo  

King Cartoon.................... Gilbert Lewis/William Marshall  

Conky the Robot................................. Gregory Harrison  

Reba............................................ S. Epatha Merkerson

Jambi ......................................................John Paragon  

Elvis....................................................... Shawn Weiss

Cher ...........................................................Diane Yang

Opal.................................................... Natasha Lyonne  

Captain Carl............................................ Phil Hartmann

Cowboy Curtis....................................... Larry Fishburne

Tito................................................... Roland Rodriguez

Ricardo........................................................ Vic Trevino  

Mrs.Steve................................................ Shirley Stoler

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

CBS
September 1986-August 1991             Saturday Mornings

FURTHER READING

Balfour, Ian. "The Playhouse of the Signifier." camera obscura (Berkeley, California), May 1988.

Bryan, Bruce. "Pee-wee Herman: The Homosexual Subtext." CineAction (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), Summer 1987.

Doty, Alexander. Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Jenkins, Henry. "'Going Bonkers!': Children, Play, and Pee-wee." camera obscura (Berkeley, California), May 1988.

Penley, Constance. "The Cabinet of Dr. Pee-wee: Consumerism and Sexual Terror." camera obscura (Berkeley, California), May 1988.

Highlights
Steve Binder on producing Pee-Wee's Playhouse
05:50
Who talked about this show

Steve Binder

View Interview
Steve Binder on producing Pee-Wee's Playhouse
05:50

Kevin Carlisle

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Kevin Carlisle on choreographing Christmas at Pee Wee's Playhouse
00:54

S. Epatha Merkerson

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S. Epatha Merkerson on getting cast as "Reba" on Pee-Wee's Playhouse
08:06
S. Epatha Merkerson on improvised and scripted scenes on Pee-Wee's Playhouse and the show moving to Los Angeles
05:40
S. Epatha Merkerson on working with puppets on Pee-Wee's Playhouse
01:10
S. Epatha Merkerson on kids and adults enjoying Pee-Wee's Playhouse
02:52
S. Epatha Merkerson on the campy element of Pee-Wee's Playhouse
01:45
S. Epatha Merkerson on her favorite episodes of Pee-Wee's Playhouse
00:36
S. Epatha Merkerson on the Christmas special for Pee-Wee's Playhouse
01:59
S. Epatha Merkerson on the legacy of Pee-Wee's Playhouse
01:17

John Singleton

View Interview
John Singleton on casting Laurence Fishburne in "Boyz n the Hood," who he had met while working on Pee-Wee's Playhouse
01:06
John Singleton on working as a production assistant/security guard on Pee-Wee's Playhouse and what he learned from Paul Reubens
00:53

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