Pee-wee Herman burst onto the pop culture scene in the 1980s with his outlandish persona and subversive humor. But it was his Saturday morning children’s television show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, that cemented Pee-wee as a cultural icon and paved the way for future generations of avant-garde kids’ programming.
An Overview of Pee-wee’s Playhouse
Pee-wee’s Playhouse aired on CBS from 1986 to 1991 and centered around childlike Pee-wee Herman living in a colorful, imaginative “playhouse” filled with puppets, talking furniture, and offbeat characters. The show broke the mold of typical children’s programming with its use of adult humor, edginess, and post-modern sensibility.
Some of the show’s classic elements included:
- Pee-wee Herman – The bowtie-wearing, giggling protagonist played by comedian Paul Reubens. His personality was both childlike and subtly subversive.
- Pterri the Pterodactyl – A prehistoric puppet friend who lived in a volcano-like doghouse and spoke in dinosaur screeches.
- Chairry, Mr. Window, Flowers, Globey – The various anthropomorphic furniture and fixtures in the Playhouse.
- Secret Word Segments – Game show bits where a “secret word” was revealed that sent the characters into hysterics if mentioned.
- Guest stars – Eccentric guests like kiddie rap duo Kid ‘n Play, magician Amazing Johnathan, and oddity singer Cyndi Lauper made appearances.
- Dance numbers – Elaborate, kitschy production numbers with characters singing and dancing.
- Zany animation – Brief animated segments like “Penny” cartoons offered surreal diversions.
The Show’s Humor Pushed Boundaries in Children’s Entertainment
Pee-wee’s Playhouse broke the mold with its off-kilter sense of humor that often operated on two levels – one for kids, and one for adults. Punchlines frequently contained double meanings and innuendo that adults could appreciate. This “over the kids’ heads” approach was largely unprecedented in kids’ TV at the time.
Examples of the show’s boundary-pushing humor included:
- Characters like eccentric “dirty old lady” puppet Miss Yvonne, flamboyant King of Cartoons, and rough-and-tumble ex-convict character Reba the Mail Lady.
- Jokes containing mild profanity or risqué content that narrowly dodged network censors.
- Parody sketches skewering pop culture or mocking conventions of children’s television.
Pee-wee’s sly winks to grown-ups helped build an intergenerational following. Both kids and parents could laugh together, albeit sometimes for different reasons.
The Show Pioneered Postmodern Style on Saturday Mornings
Beyond humor, Pee-wee’s Playhouse stretched the aesthetic possibilities of children’s television with its aggressively postmodern style. The show revelled in kitsch, camp, and pop surrealism.
Postmodern touches included:
- Repurposed cultural debris – The cheap, gaudy set decoration relied on repurposed items like detergent bottles to achieve a pop art aesthetic.
- Parodies – Short films, cartoons, and commercials parodied classic genres from soap operas to Japanese monster movies.
- Non-sequiturs – Zany characters and plots intentionally defied logic or continuity. Random digressions and non-sequiturs ran rampant.
- Breaking the fourth wall – Pee-wee regularly talked directly to viewers, shattering the conventional illusion of a self-contained fictional world.
By embracing artistic weirdness and absurdity, Pee-wee’s Playhouse offered young viewers their first taste of avant-garde style far removed from Sesame Street.
Why Was the Show So Groundbreaking and Subversive?
Several factors came together to make Pee-wee’s Playhouse a genuine TV novelty that pushed boundaries in children’s entertainment:
- Paul Reubens’ punk aesthetic – Reubens brought an edgy, DIY sensibility from his roots in underground stage shows to create authentic eccentricity.
- Post-Bakshi influence – Earlier shows like The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse normalized irreverent humor and sophisticated parody in kids’ cartoons.
- MTV era – Fast pacing, quirky visuals, and pop culture commentary mirrored an MTV aesthetic then dominating youth culture.
- Friendly Reagan-era transgression – Hints of PG-rated rebellion and eccentricity resonated in more conservative 1980s America.
- Pre-internet novelty – Zany shows like Pee-wee’s Playhouse stood out more starkly in a world before the internet mainstreamed quirkiness.
The show’s gender-bending protagonist, surrealism, and mild boundary-pushing added up to something viewers young and old had never quite seen within Saturday morning’s usually sanitized confines.
Behind the Scenes – How the Show Was Made
The madcap style and visuals of Pee-wee’s Playhouse were crafted through innovative production techniques and an obsessive attention to quirky details:
- The interior playhouse set was filmed on a soundstage in New York, going against the standard practice of filming in Los Angeles.
- Production designer Gary Panter (credits: Punk magazine, Saturday Night Live) created the playhouse’s unique aesthetic.
- Post-production tricks like chroma key, rotoscoping, and green screen enabled fantastical effects and backgrounds.
- Rapid-fire editing set a fast, MTV-inspired pace with an average of 3-5 scenes per minute.
- Directors maintained a chaotic, spontaneous feel but used meticulous storyboarding behind the scenes.
- Crafting each puppet took weeks of design, sculpting, and casting elaborate molds.
- Over 300 puppets populated the playhouse, the most ever built for a TV series.
- The puppet wrangler team numbered over 85 people. Some puppets required 4 operators to control their elaborate movements.
The Show Attracted a Diverse Host of Guest Stars and Musical Acts
The show’s hip cachet attracted an impressive array of guest stars and musicians to provide cameos and performances:
- Child stars – A teenage Drew Barrymore, Screech from Saved by the Bell.
- Comedians – Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, Adam West as Batman.
- Media personalities – Phil Donahue, Joe Franklin, Elvira.
- 1980s musicians – The Del Rubio Triplets, Cyndi Lauper, k.d. lang.
- Oddball novelty acts – Like rapping comedy duo Kid ‘n Play, tiny au pair Emmanuel Lewis, and little-person wrestler La Luna.
- Performance artists – Avant garde personality Laurie Anderson as a hapless lifeguard.
- Prestige actors – Morgan Fairchild, Cher, Laurence Fishburne.
Booking such an eclectic, counter-cultural array of talent cemented the hip outsider appeal of Pee-wee’s enterprise.
Why Pee-wee’s Playhouse Achieved Lasting Cultural Impact
Pee-wee Herman and his Saturday morning foray made an indelible impression on pop culture by:
- Introducing an enduring icon – Pee-wee stands alongside Kermit the Frog and Mickey Mouse as one of the most influential pop culture comedy characters ever.
- Pushing boundaries – The show expanded the parameters of children’s entertainment into more irreverent directions other shows soon followed.
- Inspiring future creators – Artists from The Ramones to Cyndi Lauper cite Pee-wee as formative influence. Shows like SpongeBob SquarePants borrow tics from Pee-wee.
- Garnering awards/acclaim – During its run, Playhouse won 8 Emmys. TV Guide named it one of the top 50 greatest shows of all time.
- Enduring fandom – Pee-wee attracted a cult following that has persisted decades later through revival tours and the Netflix film Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.
Thirty years later, Pee-wee’s Playhouse remains a nostalgic favorite that helped redefine what zany children’s entertainment could look like.
FAQ About Pee-wee’s Playhouse
Pee-wee Herman and his iconic Saturday morning show left many fans with questions over the years. Here are some common FAQs:
What was Pee-wee’s real name prior to creating his character?
Pee-wee Herman was originally a stage character portrayed by comedian Paul Reubens. Reubens was born Paul Rubenfeld and later changed his legal last name to Reubens.
How did Pee-wee Herman get his start?
Reubens debuted the Pee-wee character in stage performances with the L.A.-based improv group The Groundlings in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This led to an HBO special and later the Playhouse TV show.
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Why did CBS eventually cancel Pee-wee’s Playhouse?
Though critically acclaimed, ratings had declined by 1990. The network dropped the show as part of a shift away from live-action Saturday morning programs. Controversy over Reubens’ 1991 arrest also made CBS skittish.
What was the creative process behind the show’s distinctive visual style?
Designer Gary Panter, experienced with 1970s counterculture art, deliberately used cheap, everyday items to create surreal imagery. He looked to pop art and punk culture over traditional kids’ show aesthetics.
How did they pull off the seemingly continuous shots inside the playhouse?
Through creative editing tricks and movable walls/props, scenes appeared to roll continuously from one to the next without cuts. This kept the manic energy flowing.
Why didn’t Laurence Fishburne enjoy his guest role?
Fishburne regretted playing cowboy role Cowboy Curtis, finding it too frivolous. He said, “It was a bad choice and I thought it was going to be fun.” Fishburne avoided children’s TV after.
Though niche in its day, Pee-wee’s Playhouse ultimately reshaped youth entertainment with its Dadaist sensibility and introduction of a true original in Pee-wee Herman. This primer on the show’s creation and impact shows how it endures as a pop culture touchstone.