Pee-wee's Playhouse

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Pee-wee's Playhouse

Despite the taint of scandal, Pee-wee's Playhouse, a live-action Saturday morning children's television show, stands as a singularly creative example of successful children's programming. First airing in 1986, Pee-wee's Playhouse starred actor and stand-up comedian Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman and featured the multicultural Playhouse gang, talking puppets, a robot, and occasional celebrity guests. Despite its time slot, Pee-wee's Playhouse appealed to adults as well as their children as Pee-wee led viewers through inventive educational activities that did not condescend to young audiences and held enough double entendres to keep adults laughing. When Reubens was arrested in the summer of 1991 on an indecent exposure charge, CBS pulled the five remaining episodes from its schedule and canceled the series entirely. The scandal and CBS's subsequent action sparked intense public debate and nearly ruined the actor's career.

Reubens conceived of the character at the Groundlings Theater in Los Angeles in 1980 and introduced him to audiences in a sketch that became the basis for the 1981 HBO special The Pee-wee Herman Show. The actor claims he took the first name from a toy harmonica with the word "Pee Wee" printed on its side, while the character's last name was borrowed from a disliked childhood acquaintance. Audiences appreciated Pee-wee's obnoxious attitude and silly humor. In 1985, Reubens starred in the summer film Pee-wee's Big Adventure. The film cost about six million dollars and earned nearly 50 million, becoming a sleeper summer hit. The film's main character, Pee-wee Herman, was a hyperactive man dressed like a boy in a tight-fitting, grey, glen plaid suit with a perky red bow tie. Although Reubens always maintained in interviews that Pee-wee was male, some critics thought that Pee-wee's effeminate body language and mincing manner made the character's gender, not to mention his sexuality, ambivalent at best.

CBS executives liked the character so much that they invited Reubens to develop a children's television show based on Pee-wee Herman. While the network laid down some ground rules (no toilet paper sticking to Pee-wee's shoe as he emerged from the playhouse bathroom, for instance), Reubens basically had carte blanche in developing Pee-wee's Playhouse.

Compared to the other Saturday morning television, Pee-wee's Playhouse was a breath of fresh, wacky air. While Sesame Street was the undisputed leader in children's programming for its seamless blend of education and puppet magic, Pee-wee's Playhouse stood out as a smart, creative show among the formulaic animation typically pitched to smaller viewers on weekend mornings. From its carnivalesque score written by former Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh to its visually stimulating set design that mixed vintage decor with plastic toys, Pee-wee's Playhouse distinguished itself through sheer difference. This difference was essential to the message that Reubens wanted his character and the show to project to kids. "I'm just trying to illustrate that it's okay to be different—not that it's good, not that it's bad, but that it's all right. I'm trying to tell kids to have a good time and to encourage them to be creative and to question things," Reubens told one interviewer in Rolling Stone during the program's first season. Ultimately, this message championing difference would come back to haunt the performer in 1991 upon his arrest.

Gary Panter's art direction, the program's title design, and its sound mixing all were recognized with Emmys throughout the program's five-year run. At a time when many children's shows were experimenting with new effects in computer animation, Pee-wee's Playhouse was using seemingly outdated techniques such as stop-motion photography to set itself apart. The program also made use of claymation designed by Aardman Animations in Bristol, England, the company that brought to life the beloved Wallace and Gromit characters.

Each episode of Pee-wee's Playhouse began with a wild ride through its opening graphics accompanied by a zany theme song. Viewers would learn the day's secret word and were instructed to "scream real loud" every time a character on the show said the word, which was given to Pee-wee by his robot friend, Conky. Although the episodes were guided by Pee-wee's childlike stream-of-consciousness, each show revolved around a loosely structured narrative dilemma such as Pee-wee's winning a Hawaiian dinner for two and having to decide which Playhouse friend to invite along. Such plots embodied basic values such as loyalty, honesty, and sharing. Helping Pee-wee to have fun and negotiate personal dilemmas were Playhouse regulars such as the glamorous Miss Yvonne (Lynne Stewart), curmudgeonly Kap'n Karl (the late Phil Hartman), sneaky neighbor Mrs. Steve (Shirley Stoler), and amiable Cowboy Curtis (actor Laurence Fishburne).

While many critics faltered in trying to categorize Pee-wee's Playhouse, all agreed that its fast pace and frenetic energy made it a natural for children, whose nonlinear thought patterns and short attention spans were matched by Pee-wee's near-manic behavior and the program's quick-moving visuals, which critic Jack Barth described as "a fast-paced technologically updated Ernie Kovacs in color."

Given its action-packed innovation, Pee-wee's Playhouse was an exhausting show to produce, and by 1989 Reubens decided not to renew his contract with CBS. Instead, he spent the next year working overtime to produce two years' worth of episodes so that he could fulfill his contract to the network and retire the character for good. In the summer of 1991, having completed production on the final episodes, Reubens was visiting family in Sarasota, Florida, when he was arrested in an adult theater for indecent exposure, touching off a media scandal whose hallmark was witty headlines such as "Today's Secret Word: Suspended." CBS abruptly canceled the remaining episodes of Pee-wee's Playhouse, and Reubens spent months trying to resuscitate his career while parents tried to explain to their children what had happened to their favorite television character.

Reubens's career did continue, although not with the same pre-scandal promise of success. Episodes of Pee-wee's Playhouse were packaged as a set and released for home video rental in the early 1990s. In the fall of 1998, the newly created Fox Family Channel included reruns of Pee-wee's Playhouse in its weekday programming blocks.

—Alison Macor

Further Reading:

Barth, Jack. "Pee-wee TV." Film Comment. Vol. 22, No. 6, 1986, 78-79.

Doty, Alexander. "The Sissy Boy, The Fat Ladies, and The Dykes: Queerness and/as Gender in Pee-wee's World." Male Trouble. Edited by Constance Penley and Sharon Willis. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, 182-201.

Gertler, T. "The Pee-wee Perplex." Rolling Stone. Vol. 493, 1987, 36-40.

Jenkins, Henry. "Going Bonkers!: Children, Play, and Pee-wee." Male Trouble. Edited by Constance Penley and Sharon Willis. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, 157-180.

McNeil, Alex. "Pee-wee's Playhouse." Total Television: The Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to the Present. New York, Penguin Books, 1996, 648.

Wilkinson, Peter. "Who Killed Pee-wee Herman?" Rolling Stone. Vol. 614, 1991, 36-42.