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Pee-wee's Playhouse: The Complete Series
Back into the playhouse, which looks better than ever
Loves: Pee-wee Herman, sharing my favorites with my daughter
Likes: Quality clean-ups, great in-depth extras
Dislikes: The death of Saturday-morning TV
Hates: The lack of a Pee-wee for today's kids
It is kind of ironic that this show returns just as Saturday-morning television breathes its last breaths. For a kid who grew up in the ‘80s, Saturday morning was a time of wonder, where all your favorite characters were waiting after a long week at school. For some kids, like yours truly, one of the most important among them was Pee-wee Herman, whose bizarre clubhouse, full of oddball people, weird puppets and strange cartoons, was like a world you weren't supposed to see, but somehow got a chance to sneak into once every seven days. You knew there was something different about this show, and, more than likely, your parents wouldn't approve of it (especially when you've got Sandra Bernhard seductively talking to Pee-wee.) That was part of why it was so exhilarating.
As an adult, looking back at Pee-wee's Playhouse, your childhood suspicions are proven correct. This was no PBS series, or a toy commercial disguised as narrative. The playhouse was a comedic art project perpetrated by a team of bohemian artists and improvisors, a subversive treat in a kid-friendly shell. You may learn some good life lessons along the way, but the main goal is having fun. It's all there in the theme song, sung by Cyndi Lauper: "It's gonna be that kind of mornin' - For bein' wacky! For getting nutty! Golly, it's cuckoo! At Pee-wee's Playhouse !"
It all starts with the titular man-child, Paul Reuben's besuited Pee-wee, a friendly chap with a predilection for ‘50s kitsch. Mostly innocent, but with a mischievous streak and something of a temper, Pee-wee is a child stretched into the proportions of an adult, right down to his lacquered-down hair and rosy-red cheeks. Treat him right, and he'll treat you right. Cross him...and he'll still probably treat you right, but he'll let you know just how he feels. Thankfully, most of the time that feeling is goofy and/or silly, and that feeling is contagious.
Pee-wee is joined by several human friends in his playhouse in Puppetland, including his pal Cowboy Curtis (Laurence Fishburne), flirty Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart), mystic genie Jambi (John Paragon), manly Captain Carl (the late Phil Hartman) and Reba the Mail Lady (S. Epatha Merkerson), as well as any number of puppets. Pee-wee's puppet pals were, aside from the gorgeously eclectic set, where the artistic geniuses working on the show truly cut loose, whether it's in the design of Conky the robot who provides Pee-wee with the day's secret word (if you hear it, scream!) or the great Puppet Band, with Cool Cat, Chicky Baby and Dirty Dog. It could be argued that the manipulated inanimate cast of this series, like the adorable Chairy and the slightly disturbing Globey, was just as filled with personality as any other kids series. This show though is a work of art from all directions and is populated by an incredibly talented group of people that actually do make learning fun.
As much as the show would educate, speaking out against smoking, embracing racial equality in a natural, not forced way and encouraging the use of imagination, it was also about fun, and the cartoon segments carried a lot of the weight in that regard. The series featured some truly iconic segments over its five seasons, like Penny, which animated a clay girl with coin eyes to the stories of real-life girls, the dinosaur family that lived in the walls of the Playhouse, and the secret stories of what the food in the fridge is up to when the door is closed. Pairing these fresh concepts up with old-timey animation and stock films made for a schizophrenic experience that just further emphasized the point that anything could happen on this show (though it normally had to fit into the show's mildly formulaic construction that ended with Pee-wee taking off for adventure on his scooter.
What's great about this set, in comparison to the one that was released by Image in 2004, is that this time the show's Christmas special is included, in chronological order. The Christmas special is, in the word of Penny Hartz, "ah-mazing." Just the guest list alone should tell you the level of insanity you're dealing with: Cher, Magic Johnson, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah, Charo, Grace Jones, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon (and now I need to watch Back to the Beach), k.d. lang, Dinah Shore and Little Richard. That is a stunning line-up, and they are all great fun to watch, from Grace Jones singing "Little Drummer Boy" in her usual wacky outfit to Little Richard's attempt at ice skating. They should forget about airing It's a Wonderful Life and just show this slice of delightfulness annually.
This set, which collects the 45 episodes that make up the five seasons of Pee-wee's Playhouse, arrives on eight Blu-ray discs, packed in a pair of slightly thick dual-hubbed Blu-ray keepcases with dual-hubbed trays and dual-sided covers that feature episode listings (which come in a sturdy matte-finished slipcase.) The animated menus include options to watch all the episodes, select shows, adjust the settings and check out the extras. There are no audio options, but subtitles are available in English.
Before diving into this set, I popped in the original Image DVDs. After watching a few, I switched over to these 1080p, AVC-encoded, pillarboxed transfers, and the difference is astounding. Taken from the show's original film and treated to an extensive clean-up, the image on these disc looks better than the show ever has; better than when it aired on TV. The show's candy-colored set comes across brilliantly on these discs, and the level of detail and the image quality are incredibly improved, resulting in a look that, while still a touch dated, inconsistent in brightness over the course of the run and slightly soft in spots, is tremendously impressive overall (though the archival stuff, like the filmstrips and old cartoons, remain purposefully aged.) The animated segments in particular look wonderfully clear and vibrant. The level of clarity has its downside though, as the old-school visual effects are more obvious now, but otherwise, the presentation is well worth the time we've waited for this set.
The audio is delivered in LPCM 2.0 tracks that, like the video, allows you to really appreciate the quality of the show's sound, as the music is strong and deep, the voices are crisp and clear and the sound effects, which are frequent and important, are very detailed. There's an impressive separation between the two channels in the mix, resulting in a very engaging listening experience.
I took a peek at my colleague (and fellow suffix-possessor) Stuart Galbraith IV's review of the original DVD box sets for this show, and got a chuckle from the line "Many buyers may opt to hold out for a rumored deluxe edition down the road." Well, 10 years later, that rumored deluxe edition is finally here, and Shout! Factory has made certain that the wait was worth it, packing this set with 10 featurettes, which act like an oral history that delivers a combined four-plus hours of insight from the people who made the series so special. Unfortunately, there's one major player missing in action, and that's Reubens, who doesn't appear in any of the featurettes. Fortunately, pretty much everyone else does, including Fishburne, Stewart, Paragon, composers Danny Elfman and Mark Mothersbaugh, make-up artist Ve Neill, puppeteer Wayne White and animator Peter Lord, along with 12 other collaborators in a mix of talking-head interviews and a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage and old photos.
Up first is "Building the Playhouse" (51:48), which is a broad overview of the series' origins, featuring thoughts from pretty much every person who appears in an interview in this set. Starting with Reuben's adult Groundlings version of the character and following through to the formation of the team and the artistic vision that guided the group, there's a little bit of everything in this fascinating history, including Boyz N the Hood director John Singleton, who has a unique connection to the series. If there's an element of this show's development not at least touched on here, it probably didn't happen.
"Opening the Playhouse" (10:53) follows, focusing on the show's opening titles. This is a trivia dream, and alternate versions are discussed, along with Mothersbaugh offering the story of the music, while footage shows the stop motion rig and sculpture used to create the shot. Then there's "Writing the Playhouse" (18:42), naturally telling the tale of the series' writing staff, while looking into their relationship with the network the lessons inserted into the shows, dealing with censors and the success they experienced.
"The Look of the Playhouse" (29:49) turns the spotlight on the artists and technicians who crafted the show's style, including the set, props, wardrobe, hair and make-up and the lighting. This is honestly one of the most interesting of these pieces, because of the unique people and the old set footage that shows how shots were achieved on what was a rather innovative series visually. Then, from the image, we move to the sound with "Music of the Playhouse" (17:39) which looks at the incredible musicians who were a part of the show's audio mix, including Todd Rundgren, Dweezil Zappa, Cliff Martinez, Mark Snow and George Clinton, as Mothersbaugh and Elfman tell the musical story of the show.
The stars shine in "Cast of the Playhouse" (48:15), an opportunity to look at all the actors and puppeteers who played in the Playhouse, as well as some guest stars, like Jimmy Smits and Bernhard. Each of the leads gets ample time to talk about working with Reubens, the diversity on the set, working with kids and how they joined the team. There's also discussion of Hartman's contributions on-screen and on-set, which is simultaneously great and a bummer.
Though the puppeteers got some representation in the "Cast" featurette, they get more of a focus in their own segment, which runs 30:19, and tells the stories of the tech that went into the various creatures. You also get to hear stories about Fishburne and the puppets and see clips from a show the puppeteers created separately from the series. "Animating the Playhouse" (20:39) picks up the inanimate ball and runs with it, touching on all the major segments and their creation, like Penny, the dinosaurs and the food in the fridge.
We're not done, as the Christmas special gets its own featurette (10:02), the shortest in the set, which is mainly about the special guests who visited and stories about their experience, especially Little Richard, who is the subject of a very fun story. Then, finally the show's fans get some representation, as the creative team talks about the show's impact, the different generations of fans and the assortment of product available to buy, as well as Reubens' tight control over the license.
Though Reubens isn't heard from in the featurettes, he does make an appearance on one of the two audio commentaries available for the Christmas special. Reubens is joined by Paragon, Stewart and animation director Prudence Fenton, and though he's soft-spoken in talking about the show, joking around and sharing some memories with his compatriots, it's great to have him on-board, especially for such an epic episode. On the other track, Paragon returns, sitting with a raft of behind-the-scenes talent, including White, puppeteers Allison Mork and Kevin Carlson, writer George McGrath and designer Ric Heitzman. This one is a bit more of a friendly, fun track, as there are some outsized personalities involved, and the mix of memories and info makes for a quality listen.
The Bottom Line
All these years later, the silly fun of Pee-wee's Playhouse remains a joy to watch, and now, a new generation mostly unspoiled by the star's darker days can enjoy it with the same enthusiasm, as I've found in sharing the show with my eight-year-old. The quality of the set in high-definition is outstanding, and Shout! Factory has loaded the set with a fantastic amount of retrospective bonus content, even if Reubens is mostly absent from it. If you were a fan, it's the kind of collection you'll want on your shelf, especially if you've got a little one you'd like to introduce to the man known as Pee-wee.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.