Pee-Wee Herman, Paul Ruebens' claim to fame before that unfortunate incident in an adult theater more or less buried his career, had his own kids television show that many of us, myself included, watched religiously when it was originally broadcast from 1986 until it was 'yanked' off the air in 1991. I was probably a little too old to be watching kids shows at that point in my life, but only just barely, and seeing as I knew most of the other acne clad pre-teen students at my school were tuning in too, I could get away with it without too much of a hassle. In fact, it wasn't uncommon for the entire class on Monday morning to break out screaming if the teacher uttered what Pee-Wee declared on Saturday morning to be the secret word. Ah, those were the days.
At any rate, this forty-eight minute Christmas episode begins with Pee-Wee making up his Christmas list (which is of course the size of War And Peace). He sends it off to Santa Clause and then gets a visit from a few friends, including Miss Yvonne, Cowboy Curtis (a young Lawrence Fishburne, looking very strange in his cowboy gear), and of course The King Of Cartoons (played by Blacula himself, William Marhsall). Once that's done with, it's time for the mandatory celebrity guest appearances, and what a selection we have! Pee-Wee goes sledding with Magic Johnson, plays Piñata with Charo, watches K. D. Laing dance around and sing with that Puppet Band and more (like Frankie and Annette, Joan Rivers, Little Richard, Dinah Shore and, for some strange reason, Grace Jones). That's not even touching on the phone calls the guy gets. First Whoopie Goldberg gives him a ring to wish him seasons greetings, and then Oprah calls him up (no seriously, Oprah really does call Pee-Wee).
With all the merry making going on, you'd think that Pee-Wee would get distracted and forget all about his Christmas list but no sir, that is not the case. He's super stoked when Santa Clause shows up but his joy soon turns to sadness when the beaded one tells Pee-Wee that after filling his Christmas list he didn't have any toys for any of the other good girls and boys in the world. Begrudgingly, and under pressure from his celebrity guests, Pee-Wee decides to do the right thing and give Santa back all the toys he asked for so that the other kids can have them. Santa rewards him by letting him help him deliver the toys, and off the go in the flying sled to make it all happen.
Aside from the obvious whacked out antics of Mr. Herman, this special really holds up well and plays better know as an adult then it did when I first saw it back in the days when I really wanted to be able to grow facial hair but couldn't. A lot of that has to do with all of the bizarre celebrity cameo appearances. When you take into account the fact that a lot of those famous folk have gone through some pretty interesting changes in the fifteen years or so since this special aired, seeing Magic Johnson and Pee-Wee sledding or seeing Pee-Wee and Oprah talking on the video phone, well… this all takes on a very strange new kind of 'wow is this ever in bad taste' kind of feel. Sure, at the time it was all innocent fun but there are just way too many jokes to make about way too many of the participants for it to stay that way – even if it really should (unless it's just me and I have an unusually perverse sense of humor).
Celebrity gossip aside, this isn't a bad little special. It's full of some cool jokes, the Playhouse is a great set for it all to go down, and it moves at a lighting pace.
Seeing as this was a television special before it was a DVD, it makes perfect sense for the image to be displayed fullframe, and that is its original aspect ratio. Image quality is quite good and there's virtually no dirt or debris visible on the picture at any given time. Colors are bright and strong and nicely reproduce the bizarre 'art deco gone wrong' color scheme of the Playhouse. The only real problem with the visuals is the edge enhancement, which is noticeable a few times, and the shimmering effect that is noticeable almost any time the camera closes in on Pee-Wee's suit. This does prove to be a bit distracting and slightly sours what is otherwise a very nice looking presentation.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix on this DVD is in English with no subtitle options. Audio quality is pretty decent with a few moments where some mild channel separation is present. Dialogue is always easy to understand and there aren't any problems with hiss or distortion on this DVD. There are a couple of times where things sound a tiny bit flat, but other than that, for a television special recorded close to twenty years ago, this sounds pretty good.
Aside from scene selection, Image has given viewers the option of watching the special with one of two commentary tracks which can be selected either off of the menu screen or using the audio button on your remote control.
The first track features Pee-Wee himself, Paul Ruebens, as well as co-writer John Paragon, animation producer Prudence Fenton, and Lynne Marie Stewert, the actress who played Miss Yvonne. This is a lively track and the cast members in particular have a lot to say about how things went over. Everyone seems to be having a good time looking back on their work and while nothing here is going to come as an Earth shattering surprise to anyone, there are plenty of fun anecdotes and stories to be told about the Christmas special and about the series in general.
The second commentary features the puppeteers who worked on the special: Alison Mork, Wayne White, Ric Heitzman, Kevin Carlson, George McGrath, and John Paragon again. This track is just as lively as the first one, with a bit more of a technical focus. Again, everyone is pretty jovial and having a good time here. The puppeteers have an obviously very different working experience than the performers and writers do, so this commentary track serves as a nice contrast to the other one in that there isn't (thankfully) a whole lot of repeated information.
The Image Entertainment release of Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special looks and sounds pretty good and the commentary tracks were an unexpected surprise in the extra features department. If you enjoy Ruebens' most famous character and his always on type of humor, or just want to watch a Christmas Special with an inordinate amount of oddly chosen celebrity guest stars, then this DVD is the one for you. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.