Pee-wee's Playhouse came on the heels of Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985) the sleeper hit directed by 26-year-old Tim Burton. Man-child (or child-man?) Pee-wee, the creation of Paul Reubens, moved to Saturday mornings, and with Pee-wee's Christmas Special (1988) and the disappointing Big Top Pee-wee (1988), Herman/Reubens became an instant pop culture icon whose career -- if not the popularity of the character -- quite unfairly crashed and burned for the most absurd of reasons. A comeback is long overdue.
The playhouse expands on the toy-filled, contraption-heavy fantasy home of Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Each show opens with Pee-wee firing up a fully-charged Conky the Robot (Gregory Harrison/Kevin Carlson) to get the day's "secret word." Throughout the show, when anyone says the secret word, the cast of characters -- and the audience -- is instructed to "scream real loud!" And many did, to the consternation of parents, recalling Bullwinkle Moose's legendary instructions to the kids at home to pull the tuner knob of their TV sets off so their parents couldn't switch to another channel.
During the course of each show, Pee-wee is visited by various recurring characters, including "the most beautiful woman in Puppetland," busty Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart), ever-cheery Cowboy Curtis (Laurence Fishburne; yes, the), mail lady Reba (S. Epatha Merkerson), lifeguard Tito (Roland Rodriguez), and others. Pee-wee's playhouse is also home to a wide range of fantasy characters, mostly puppets and marionettes, including Pterri (voiced by John Paragon), a skittish Pterodactyl, and Jambi, a genie (also Paragon) who grants daily wishes. There's also a regal talking cow, the Cowntess; a magic screen; and a friendly, comfortable talking chair. ("Sit on me!" she often says.)
The show is at once old-fashioned and progressive. Both the program and the Pee-wee character are clearly patterned after Pinky Lee who, as one observer on the IMDB points out, is eerily similar, "right down to the little slanted window on the set, the ill-fitting checked suit, the laugh, the hat, the behavior [and] even the eyebrows." Beyond Lee, there are direct and indirect references from Howdy Doody (Randy, Pee-wee's marionetted nemesis) to Betty Boop (the show's title tune). The set is dominated by antique furniture, knickknacks and toys, many of them probably belonging to Reubens, an inveterate flea market junkie. Indeed, the show has a wonderful timelessness about it, from Miss Yvonne's early-'60s bouffant hair and wardrobe to the puppet beatnik jazz trio: Chicky Baby, Cool Cat, and Dirty Dog.
Conversely, the program is admirably all-inclusive, rather like the unassuming Our Gang comedies made at Hal Roach studios in the '20s and '30s. Everyone's invited, regardless of race or creed. There's a black cowboy (the pre-Matrix star here is like a cross between The Mickey Mouse Club's Jimmy Dodd and an early '80s Rick James), a Hispanic lifeguard, Asian kids come to visit. Beyond that, the playhouse is open to geeks, fat kids, the unattractive and lonely -- everyone. (Sharp-eyed viewers will note Suzanne Kent's recurring role as Mrs. Rene; Kent first earned nation-wide attention as an overweight blind date on a famous episode of Taxi.)
One of the best things about Pee-wee's Playhouse is the way it reintroduced retro pop culture to younger generations. Each show, for instance, features abridged vintage cartoons. Unlike the one-reelers produced by Disney and Warner Bros., the cartoons shown on Pee-wee's Playhouse are mostly forgotten except by animation buffs, from such long-defunct studios as Van Beuren and Ub Iwerks, as well as even more obscure material from Europe and Central America. Some of these excerpts are tantalizingly bizarre. One features the now-politically incorrect Bosko dancing with a roll of toilet paper. Animation shot specifically for the show, including stop-motion dinosaurs, claymation food in the refrigerator, and "Penny" segments, compare quite favorably to the classic cartoons.
Many of the animated segments are introduced by the King of Cartoons, a role played through most of the series' run by Blacula star William Marshall. (This reviewer once met the naturally imposing Marshall and, with a minimum of coaxing, got him to deliver his character's signature line, "Let the car-to-o-o-o-n...begin!" It was a big thrill.)
Though parents might worry that their children would adopt Pee-wee's squirrelly, spastic energy, the show in fact has just the right balance of entertainment and education. The late Bob Keeshan, Captain Kangaroo, was an advocate for responsible children's programming, and was pretty vocal in his dislike for almost everything on TV. But he liked Pee-wee's Playhouse, and with good reason. Secret words and Pee-wee's wacky mannerisms aside, the show subtly teaches good manners (there are more "please" and "thank yous" on this than most adult shows), telephone etiquette, sharing, and other basic social skills. It also incorporates little bits of science, geography, astronomy, social sciences, and other little lessons without ever calling attention to their function.
Parents probably blanched when, in the show's first episode, a regular segment called "snack time" has Pee-wee instructing viewers on the finer points of making Ice Cream Soup. But later snack times slyly emphasize healthy eating -- one segment actually features water as that week's snack ("Mmm, watery!" exclaims Pee-wee).
Video & Audio
Pee-wee's Playhouse Volume 1 is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio. The image is quite soft at times, almost like a bad analog cable TV reception, though this reviewer remembers it looking murky when it originally aired. The show seems to have been shot on a mix of film (possibly Super-16?) and video, and the multiple layering and conversions from one format to another may partly explains this. Nonetheless, some episodes (which run 23 minutes apiece) look softer than others, and none of it is as pristine as its animated menus would suggest. Possibly eyeing single-disc volumes down the road, Image has crammed seven episodes onto the first disc, and four episodes each on the remaining four. (The same format is followed on Volume 2.) The stereo sound is solid but not aggressive.** There are no subtitles, a shame.
There's a lot of talk about the absence of Extra Features on these sets. Many buyers may opt to hold out for a rumored deluxe edition down the road, as this release is clearly designed for people who mainly want the shows. This reviewer was sent check discs with no packaging, so it's possible the set might include a booklet with airdate and background information on the show, but the discs themselves offer nothing beyond the episodes.
Pee-wee's Playhouse is highly recommended for parents and their kids wanting to see the show and unconcerned about the lack of bells and whistles with this set. It's the best children's show of the last 20 years and word that Reubens is at work on a new Pee-wee movie is welcome news indeed. Welcome back, Pee-wee.
Note: The Pee-wee saga continues with Pee-wee's Playhouse, Volume 2.
** Reader Robert Pronovost writes, "if you re-listen carefully (with headphones, if you want to be certain) to any episode, you'll discover that the product is erroneously (!?) identified as Dolby Digital Stereo when it is clearly a Mono product." (Addendum: Pronovost adds that Image Entertainment has told him the show was "originally broadcast in mono and...changed to stereo somewhere between seasons two and three. The packaging lists the audio as stereo for both volumes 1 & 2 for continuity purposes.")
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.