“Pee-Wee’s Playhouse wasn’t geared towards children, it was for adults,” my wife continues to argue when she isn’t mouthing lines from various episodes that fanned out across the airwaves 20 years ago, before actor Paul Reuben’s (Pee-Wee) sexual proclivities became fodder for endless bad press. She is right, per usual. Against the backdrop of late-period Reagonomics, with its uneasy trickle-down economics, rampant AIDs crisis, and last coughs of the Cold War, Pee-Wee was welcomed looney fantasia – an escapist kitsch paradise rendered in low budget perfection – that became a refuge for adults who needed to deflect crack cocaine epidemics and spandex hair metal ballads.
The best children’s shows are entire micro-worlds rendered with an eye for detail that would make even the great painters wink in delight. From Pufnstuf and Sesame Street to Fraggle Rock and Spongebob Squarepants, these worlds are effusive and eye-gobbling, places that fully immerse and suspend a viewer’s disbelief. In doing so, they become more believable, more poignant, and more long-lasting than any Miley Cyrus show could ever drum up with forced dialog, crimped posing, prosaic plots, and utterly dull set design. Landmark television shows convey certain ‘otherness’, as well. They unspool lands of imagination and wondrous wackiness, not a boring backyard or mall, where dreams go to die of suffocation by credit card debt.
Many people blindly associate the punk era with splotchy, tattered faces and baby-pinned clothes, an edgy mix of anarchism and nihilism, and the rough raw power of noise rock. But this is far from the total truth, for another side of punk existed as well, embodied by the mondo, B-Movie romp of bands like the Misfits and Cramps; the dayglo plastic world of Woolworth’s lyrically evoked by X Ray Spex, and the gay-friendly, campy, surfadelic flair of the B-52s, with their towering beehives and vintage dresses. For every Johnny Rotten, there was a drag queen like Wayne/Jayne County. For every scummy leather jacket, a heavily dolloped face with zigzag make-up and purple socks perched in Beatle boots existed. This is the context to the original Pee-Wee Herman Show, a 1981 stage production in Los Angeles, which eventually morphed into the successful Tim Burton extravaganza Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), a madcap bit of cinema perhaps best known for Pee-Wee’s goofball strut to the song “Tequila” in a dank biker bar.
Paul Reuben’s talents ripened during punk’s tumultuous times, when he appeared on the Gong Show, joined the improv theater group the Groundings, and acted in the Blues Brothers (John Belushi was a fan of the punk band Fear) and Cheech and Chong’s (whose Up in Smoke featured political punks The Dils) Next Movie. The entire show is a keen product of its time, reflecting children’s theater as performance art, in which forms of play can effortlessly embody and unmask ideological messages. As a whole, the shows convey an uncanny meld of camp, Dada-meets-Surrealism, and pop art. They echo an unhesitating platform for post-punk liberalism, diversity, and tolerance. Plus, they were an antidote to a generation deeply impacted by new technologies, such as home computers, game consoles, and remote controls, which quickly shrank the attention span of children. Pee-Wee pushed back against the horror genre, too, which had grown so ominous in the video age. Where as Poltergiest and Amityville Horror made kids frightened of homes lurking with ghosts and monsters, Pee-Wee made them realize their house was not only a bountiful playland but a secret garden, as well.
Rendered partly by the genius of art director Gary Panter and others, the physicality of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse is almost impossible to catalog fully. By the middle episodes, the opening sequence shows a trek through the forest to the hill where a giant cupcake tower connects to a metallic home, housing the action. Inside lies the museum of fun. A TV dinner mural stretches across the wall near the jagged soft red door. Anthropomorphized floors (Woodey), globe (Globey), kite (Mr. Kite), fish, refrigerated food, chandelier, etch-a-sketch lookalike (Magic Screen) and sofa (Chairry) mix freely with Conky the Robot (who acts like a kind-hearted, wonky reject from both Star Wars and The Day the Earth Stood Still), a decapitated genie in the TV, dinosaurs in a small cave, a stuffed animal beatnik lounge band, not too mention a loose talking Pterodactyl (Pterri) who offers mucho comic relief. Meanwhile, the show’s visual palette is augmented with recycled old school cartoons, the naïve wordplay and mindbenders of Penny – the claymation little girl with pennies for eyes— and non-stop visitors like Captain Carl, the indefatigable Phil Hartman, and the wise and patient King of Cartoons, who presents classic film strips.
Each episode not only offers a secret word that makes the entire ensemble howl and hoot when someone is tricked into saying it, Pee-Wee also weaves a series of articulated axioms, rendered carefully in sub-plots, all of which reflect the ethos of the show. One of my favorites is the “Let’s Play Office” episode, which features no less than three various routes to understanding the show’s not-so-latent worldviews. Miss Yvonne arrives, ready to play make-believe. She desires to act-out the roles of the common workplace, but as a boss, not as an underling. Pee Wee balks and has to be reminded that, “Girls can be bosses, and boys can be secretaries,” though she concedes to let him start the game. He quickly morphs into a ruthless head honcho, and she quickly falls victim to his cost-cutting. It’s a gender lesson far more poignant than page after page of Camille Paglia, especially knowing that women still earn less than men on the same jobs. Despite 20 years gone by, the glass ceiling is still there.
Cowboy Curtis (a lively Lawrence Fishburne), replete with his laser-colored lasso, pink shirt, purple chaps, gap tooth, and Elvis sideburns, shows up, as well. Pee-Wee wishes to serve up drinks, but all the characters desire different flavors. Pee-Wee senses an easy solution: make a melting pot—a combo of fruit juices that become a tangy and bright mishmash cocktail. Mmm, the elixir of multiculturalism reaches the tastebuds with ease and comfort, satisfying the desire for harmony and co-existence. Even the cartoon El Hombre, entirely in Spanish, offers up manifolds subtexts. As the super-hero teaches a young kid to shape up, take pride in his neighborhood, and send all the basura (trash) away, he also shows him the skills of rasquache – making do in the barrio. Used tires can become a perfect planter and a leftover automobile fender can double as a bench. Such a Do-It-Yourself push, recycling plea, and self-esteem booster, combined with lessons of feminism (the world should celebrate and honor free and flexible gender roles) and diversity (we can melt together in this progressive America) is mounted in just a single episode. The others are par for the course.
This collection, featuring all the seasonal episodes plus the Christmas special, testifies to both the scope of Paul Reuben’s particular vision, the sometimes astounding details and craft of his designers and writers, and offers contemporary messages that seem apropos in the present age of economic disparity, ethnic strife and suspicion, and ongoing fights for gay rights. Whereas this show may be considered too ‘trippy’ to those who prefer the straight-laced paradigms offered by anemic Disney productions, most counterculture folks will consider Pee-Wee’s Playhouse as one of the last great surges of mainstream post-modernism – a cut-and-paste visual feast that hijacked the best parts of American pop culture and reassembled them into a TV circus that likely appealed not solely to wide-eyed TV babies but their parents as well, who still had one ear plugged into Blondie songs, and the other listening for the microwave’s signal. Saturday morning boxed bacon was ready!