Few actors are more caught up in their roles, so associated with a single character, than Paul Reubens and Pee-wee Herman. Indeed, the two are quite synonymous, with Reubens willing his persona into reality, appearing as the character in interviews, downplaying his own history, and fervently controlling his image as a moral guide for children. Reubens studiously refused to licenses his likeness in endorsements for sugary foods and went out of his way to never be shown smoking, a heavy habit for him.
This closeness creates a complicated legacy. On the one hand, Pee-wee Herman, goofy, child-like, utterly idiosyncratic, appearing in comedy specials, Tim Burton’s 1985 film, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and CBS’s Pee-wee’s Playhouse from 1986 to 1990, is an iconic character, one of the most beloved of the ’80s. However, this celebrity, and the affection fans have for Pee-wee, will always come with an asterisk, given the infamous 1991 case of indecent exposure in a Florida adult theatre, and a murky (albeit, eventually, cleared of any wrongdoing) connection, in 2002, to the child pornography sting of actor Jeffrey Jones.
Reubens had so utterly convinced the public he and his character were one and the same that the 1991 mugshot, showing a man so unlike the squeaky clean Pee-wee, cast a shadow over both actor and pop culture mainstay. This is not original to Reubens. Jermone Howard, better known as Curly from The Three Stooges was, unlike his screen persona, painfully shy and introverted. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop eager fans from taking whacks at his famously, fictitiously indestructible cranium, much to Curly’s distress.
With the recent Blu-ray release of 1988’s Pee-wee’s Playhouse: Christmas Special, this tangled web of past and present, character and actor, comes into full focus. But of course, Pee-wee Herman has always been a tangle.
The character is a fusion, with one glistening white saddle shoe set firmly in the era of ’50s children’s television with their large ensemble casts and positive, moral messages; the other, facing forward like Pee-wee’s crimson bowtie, in a postmodern pastiche, an educational program laced with absurdity, featuring, among other things, a talking chair that Pee-wee sits on and Laurence Fishburne as a Jheri curled cowboy in Roy Roger’s fashion.
Pee-Wee’s Playhouse: Christmas Special is emblematic of Pee-wee Herman as a larger cultural force, something both old and new. There are fewer traditions in television older than Christmas specials, making it the ultimate throwback. The plot revolves around the regular Playhouse cast (along with guest stars Cher, Magic Johnson, Little Richard, Charo, Oprah, and more) celebrating Christmas, with Pee-wee eagerly writing his wish list, growing it to such proportions that he leaves scant little left for the children of the world, much to Santa’s chagrin.
This touches on themes running throughout the entire series. Reubens, in interviews, usually as Pee-wee, desired to craft a series with a moral message, one focused on accepting others, of sharing, reciprocity, and of engendering empathy through play and entertainment. In 1988, the domain of Gen X, what could be more unhip than that? But it’s this knowing sincerity, this willingness to be corny, that makes the show in general, and this special in particular, so subversive. Huey Lewis said it best: “it’s hip to be square.” Pee-wee’s Playhouse: Christmas Special is as blocky as they come.
The visual upgrade afforded by Blu-ray emphasizes many of the endearing aspects of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. A magic sleigh ride with (who else) Magic Johnson, courtesy of Chroma key expert and cast regular Magic Screen, is laughable. Of course, Johnson’s acting is partly accountable, but the effects, in all their ’80s TV show excellence, take the cake. It’s this cheapness, enhanced by HD, that I find so lovable. It’s made endearing simply because it’s played straight. There might be a wink and nod smuggled in, but it’s a welcoming one, rather than a distancing one.
Couple that with the guest musical numbers (which certainly benefit from the upgrade) and Pee-wee’s Playhouse: Christmas Special is a veritable throwback of goodness, well worth this re-release. The extras (audio commentary and a short) add a little flavor but the main feature is the prize. In fact, the commentary, though informative, seems counterfactual to the unbridled id that is Pee-wee.
Does it matter what Reubens did? Certainly. Should that discount Pee-wee Herman from broader consideration? Certainly not. Though Reubens has his personal failings, his biggest might be creating a character that was too perfect. Pee-wee Herman is as far from flesh and blood as possible. In an era of TV antiheroes, of irony, grittiness, postmodern sensibilities galore, a character like Pee-wee Herman, emphasized in Pee-wee’s Playhouse: Christmas Special, is cutting edge.