Pee-wee's PlayhousePee-wee's Playhouse is an American children's television program starring Paul Reubens as the childlike Pee-wee Herman which ran from 1986 to 1990 on Saturday mornings on CBS, and airing in reruns until July 1991. The show was developed from Reubens' popular stage show and the TV special The Pee-wee Herman Show, produced for HBO, which was similar in style but featured much more adult humor.
In 2004 and 2007, Pee-wee's Playhouse was ranked #10 and #12 on TV Guides Top Cult Shows Ever, respectively.
A special one-hour primetime airing occurred on CBS on Wednesday, November 11, 1987. "Pee-wee's Store" and "Pee-wee Catches a Cold" were the two episodes shown that night.
DevelopmentThe Pee-wee Herman character was developed by Reubens into a live stage show titled The Pee-wee Herman Show in 1980. It features many characters that would go on to appear in Playhouse, including Captain Carl, Jambi the Genie, Miss Yvonne, Pterri the Pterodactyl, and Clocky. While enjoying continuous popularity with the show, Reubens teamed with young director Tim Burton in 1985 to make the comedy film Pee-wee's Big Adventure. It became one of the year's surprise hits, costing a relatively modest $6 million to make but taking in $45 million at the box office.
After seeing the success of Pee-wee's Big Adventure, the CBS network approached Reubens with an ill-received cartoon series proposal. In 1986, CBS agreed to sign Reubens to act, produce, and direct his own live-action Saturday morning children's program, Pee-wee's Playhouse, with a budget of per episode (comparable to that of a half-hour prime-time sitcom), and full creative control although CBS did request a few minor changes over the years.
Reubens assembled a supporting troupe that included ex-Groundlings and cast members from The Pee-wee Herman Show, including Phil Hartman, John Paragon, Lynne Marie Stewart, Laurence Fishburne, and S. Epatha Merkerson. Production began in New York City in the summer of 1986 in a converted loft on Broadway, which one of the show's writers, George McGrath, described as a "sweatshop". Reubens moved the production to Los Angeles for season two in 1987, resulting in a new set and a more relaxed work atmosphere.
The creative design of the show was concocted by a troupe of artists including Wayne White, Gary Panter, Craig Bartlett, Richard Goleszowski, Gregory Harrison, Ric Heitzman, and Phil Trumbo. The first day of production, right as Panter began reading the scripts to find out where everything would be situated, set workers hurriedly asked him, "Where's the plans? All the carpenters are standing here ready to build everything." Panter responded, "You just have to give us 15 minutes to design this thing!" When asked about the styles that went into the set design, Panter said, "This was like the hippie dream ... It was a show made by artists ... We put art history all over the show. It's really like ... I think Mike Kelley said, and it's right, that it's kind of like the Googie style – it's like those LA types of coffee shops and stuff but kind of psychedelic, over-the-top." Several artistic filmmaking techniques are featured on the program including chroma key, stop-motion animation, and clay animation.
Playhouse was designed as an educational yet entertaining and artistic show for children, and its conception was greatly influenced by 1950s shows Reubens had watched as a child, like The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, The Mickey Mouse Club, Captain Kangaroo, and Howdy Doody. The show quickly acquired a dual audience of kids and adults. Reubens, always trying to make Pee-wee a positive role model, sought to make a significantly moral show that would teach children the ethics of reciprocity. Reubens believed that children liked the Playhouse because it was fast-paced, colorful, and "never talked down to them", while parents liked the Playhouse because it reminded them of the past.
ProductionAt the start of season two, the show moved from its New York City warehouse studio to facilities at the Hollywood Center Studios, creating changes in personnel and a change to the set that allowed the show to take advantage of the additional space. The show changed production facilities again in 1989 during its fourth season, this time at the Culver Studios, also in Los Angeles.
FormatThe premise of the show is that host Pee-wee Herman plays in the fantastic Playhouse in Puppetland. The house is filled with toys, gadgets, talking furniture and appliances (such as Magic Screen and Chairry), puppet characters (such as Conky the Robot, Pterri the baby Pteranodon), and Jambi (John Paragon), a disembodied genie's head who lives in a jeweled box. The Playhouse is visited by a regular cast of human characters, including Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart), Reba The Mail Lady (S. Epatha Merkerson), Captain Carl (Phil Hartman), Cowboy Curtis (Laurence Fishburne), and a small group of children, The Playhouse Gang.
Although primarily a live-action comedy, each episode includes segments featuring puppetry, video animation, and prepared sequences using Chroma-key and stock footage (for example when Pee-wee jumps into the Magic Screen), as well as inserted clay animation sequences (some made by Aardman Animations, who would later make Wallace & Gromit) and excerpts from cartoons from the Golden Age of American animation, usually presented by the character "The King of Cartoons". Each episode features specially written soundtrack music by rock and pop musicians such as Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo), Todd Rundgren, Mitchell Froom, and The Residents. The show's theme song performance is credited to "Ellen Shaw", though in her autobiography, Cyndi Lauper admits to being the actual singer.
The show has many recurring gags, themes, and devices. Each episode usually contain a running gag particular to that episode, or a specific event or dilemma that sends Pee-wee into an emotional frenzy. At the beginning of each episode, viewers are told the day's "secret word" (often issued by Conky the Robot) and are instructed to "scream real loud" every time a character says the word.
CBS and Reubens mutually agreed to end the show at the end of the 1990–91 season after 5 seasons and 45 episodes. The last original episode aired on November 17, 1990. In July 1991, Reubens was arrested for exposing himself in a Sarasota, Florida, adult movie theater, prompting CBS to immediately stop airing its Playhouse re-runs, which were originally intended to air until late 1991. The show was replaced by reruns of The Adventures of Raggedy Ann and Andy.
SoundtracksThe music for the show was provided by a diverse set of musicians, including Mark Mothersbaugh, The Residents, Todd Rundgren, Danny Elfman (who provided the score for both of the Pee-wee movies), Mitchell Froom, Van Dyke Parks, George S. Clinton, and Dweezil Zappa with Scott Thunes (spelled 'Tunis' in the credits).
Mothersbaugh, who later went on to become a fixture in composing music for children's shows like Rugrats, joined the show on hiatus from recording with Devo.The opening prelude theme is an interpretation of Les Baxter's "Quiet Village". The theme song, which originally followed the prelude, was performed by Cyndi Lauper (credited as "Ellen Shaw"), imitating Betty Boop.
For the final season in 1990, a new version of the prelude theme was recorded, and the opening theme was slightly edited. This plastered the season 2 opening on the season 4 episodes in all post-1990 airings and video releases.
Cast and crewMany now-well-known TV and film actors appeared on the show, including Sandra Bernhard, Laurence Fishburne, Phil Hartman, Natasha Lyonne, S. Epatha Merkerson, Jimmy Smits, and Lynne Stewart. Future heavy metal musician and filmmaker Rob Zombie was a production assistant, and future filmmaker John Singleton was a security guard.
Season 3 (which consisted of only three episodes) included an all-star Christmas special featuring the regular cast, with appearances by Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Magic Screen's Cousin played by Magic Johnson, Dinah Shore, Joan Rivers, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Little Richard, Cher, Charo, k.d. lang, the Del Rubio triplets, and Grace Jones.
Puppet and object characters
Critical receptionAs soon as it first aired, Pee-wee's Playhouse fascinated media theorists and commentators, many of whom championed the show as a postmodernist hodgepodge of characters and situations which appeared to soar in the face of domineering racist and sexist presumptions. For example, Pee-wee's friends, both human and not, were of diverse cultural and racial origins. In its entire run, Pee-wee's Playhouse won 15 Emmys, as well as other awards. Captain Kangaroo's Bob Keeshan hailed the show's "awesome production values". Adding, "with the possible exception of the Muppets, you can't find such creativity anywhere on TV."
"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 an interviewer in Rolling Stone.
On November 1, 2011, in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the show, a book by Caseen Gaines called Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse: The Untold, Unauthorized, and Unpredictable Story of a Pop Phenomenon, was released by ECW Press.