"Pee-wee's Playhouse" debuted on Blu-ray this week
The cult classic ran for 45 episodes on CBS from 1986-1991, netting 22 Emmy Awards
Paul Reubens originally created, and portrayed, the character in a stage show
Pull yourself up a chair (“Like Chairy!”), because everyone’s favorite nasal-voiced man-child in the red bow tie and too-small gray suit is back.
“I know you are, but what am I?”
Earlier this week, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” was released on Blu-ray by Shout! Factory.
The restoration of the series was truly a labor of love for Paul Reubens – the creator and alter-ego of the Pee-wee Herman character. Reubens personally supervised the frame-by-frame remastering of the original 16mm film – a yearlong project. The set includes all 45 episodes, over four hours of all-new bonus features, and the beloved Christmas special.
It’s hard to believe that “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” – the critically-acclaimed, whip-smart show that garnered 22 Emmy Awards – actually got its start as a parody of children’s television shows. Reubens drew inspiration from the shows he loved as a child, such as “The Howdy-Doody Show,” “Captain Kangaroo” and “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.”
The character of Pee-wee originated in Reubens’ stage show, “The Pee-wee Herman Show” at The Groundlings theater in Los Angeles, later transferred to The Roxy theater and was turned into a 1981 HBO special.
The stage show garnered Reubens a deal for the 1985 feature film “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” which was directed by then-newcomer Tim Burton; which led to the TV series.
Premiering on CBS in 1986, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” was a modified, made-for-kids version of the stage show. It became appointment television right out of the gate. Children, parents and even college students couldn’t wait for Saturday mornings with the mischievous, fun-loving, obnoxious, sweet, curious, hyperactive Pee-wee Herman.
In one of the interviews featured in the Blu-ray extras, executive producer Richard Abramson recalled that on the morning of September 13, 1986, the day the show premiered, CBS still hadn’t seen the pilot. The network had been begging for a screener for weeks, but Abramson, Reubens and staff were editing the episode down to the wire. Abramson hand-delivered the final product to CBS at 6:45 a.m. It was broadcast at 9 a.m.
That’s not to say that the “Playhouse” crew was lax in any way, shape or form. On the contrary, the series’ attention to detail was one of the attributes that made it so special.
These were the pre-digital art days, and “Playhouse” featured a mind-boggling medley of Claymation, stop-motion animation, cartoon animation and live action including puppetry. All the artwork was either hand-painted, hand-drawn or sculpted. As if that wasn’t quite enough art, the show was shot on film.
Clocking in at just under two-and-a-half minutes, the “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” theme song was, and remains, exceptionally long. It opened with a Claymation beaver and slowly segued into the hyper-fast song, sung by Cyndi Lauper under the pseudonym “Ellen Shaw,” then name-checked every inhabitant of the Playhouse.
Most household items were alive, from the windows to the flowers to the floor to the ham in the fridge. There was also the wacky Magic Screen (which feared the dentist and was a cousin of Magic Johnson), Conky the robot (who provided each day’s secret word), Globey the globe, Clocky the clock and Chairy the chair. Humans who dropped by the Playhouse included Miss Yvonne, Cowboy Curtis and Reba the mail lady, among many others. Some of the other Playhouse regulars were Jambi the genie, Pterri the Pterodactyl and the Puppet Band.
As educational as it was artistic and offbeat, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” contained enough double-entendres to keep the adults chuckling, and it sure wasn’t afraid to be just plain silly.
One of the running Pee-wee jokes was the “why don’t you marry it?” comeback in which someone would proclaim their love for something, and Pee-wee or another character would challenge the person with the aforementioned retort.
In the season-two slumber party episode, Pee-wee did, in fact, marry a bowl of fruit salad.
Pee-wee: “Mmm! Fruity! I love fruit salad!”
Slumber party attendees in unison: “Then why don’t you marry it!”
Pee-wee: “All right then. I will.”
Smash-cut to Pee-wee and a bowl of fruit salad (wearing a veil) saying vows and sealing it with a kiss.
Paul Reubens had total creative control over “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” and he also insisted on a racially and ethnically diverse cast and crew. Much of the early staff had never worked in TV before. Most were still in film or art school or had just graduated.
During the summer of 1987, one-day-to-be Academy Award-nominated director John Singleton was a security guard on the set who occasionally took on “Playhouse” production assistant gigs. At the time, he was a film school student at the University of Southern California.
Laurence Fishburne (Cowboy Curtis) recalled Singleton telling him about the screenplay he was writing, and that he would one day direct Fishburne in a film.
The script Singleton was working on became 1991’s “Boyz n the Hood.” True to his word, the young director fought, and won, for Fishburne to play the now-iconic role of Furious Styles.
“Pee-wee’s Playhouse” ended its original run in November 1990 and since then, it’s been a mixed bag. There was Reubens’ shocking 1991 arrest, his triumphant return as Pee-wee later that year at the MTV Awards and then, not much. More recently, 2010’s popular “The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway” was turned into an HBO special and now it seems like the Pee-wee machine is kicking into high gear. Reubens told Rolling Stone this week that a big announcement about a new Pee-wee movie is “imminent.”
Today, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” is a pop culture staple. A cult favorite, it taught lessons in an off-the-wall way that was rooted in never, ever talking down to kids.
The points Reubens really wanted to get across were: Don’t repress your creativity, never stop asking questions, and it’s OK to let your freak flag fly. Above all, however, he wanted to make children laugh.