When I thought back to my time watching "Pee-wee's Playhouse" as a child, the vision in my head was a mish-mash of pastels, wacky music, and Paul Reubens (as the titular Pee-wee Herman) in his trademark grey suit. Despite the frequency with which I watched the show -- probably every week of many childhood years -- the specifics of it were gone from my adult brain.
To combat my own Pee-weenesia, I rewatched the classic 1980s TV series over again (technically it ran from 1986-1991), and was surprised at how much came flooding back. New realizations popped up too; my no-longer-malleable brain saw things through adult eyes, and I heard things through adult ears. Make no mistake, it makes a massive difference.
I can say with certainty they don't make kids' shows like this anymore. At no point does Reubens ever pander or "talk down" to the viewers (children and adults); what's silly for kids is a wink-wink nudge-nudge for the grown-ups. If you stop to think about it, it's genius. Here are my top 10 rediscoveries upon rewatching Pee-wee in action:
(You too can experience a return to Pee-wee: "Pee-wee's Playhouse," the complete series, is available on Blu-ray as of today.)
Of course it all begins with the theme song, which is actually sung by '80s icon Cyndi Lauper. The credits use the stage name "Ellen Shaw," but Lauper herself has admitted to performing it. Take a listen:
Visually, it's like someone took a cross-section of Reubens' imagination and splashed it up onscreen. There's so much going on here it's nearly impossible to take it all in, but everything from the beaver at the beginning to the pterodactyls flying overhead to Pee-wee's wicked house rang bells in my head. I don't know if it's frightening or reassuring that these images were seared in my brain all those years ago.
Interesting tidbit: Mark Mothersbaugh, co-founder of Devo, wrote the opening and closing themes.
2. Star Power
Straight-up, the number of now-famous celebrities who appeared on "Pee-wee's Playhouse" is shocking. It may set some sort of record (outside of "Sesame Street"). Short of listing them here, I was tickled to see a very young Natasha Lyonne ("Orange Is The New Black") with crooked teeth and all, yelling in a cute kid's voice in the very first episode. Alongside her was a young Shaun Weiss, who you probably know better as Goldberg from "The Mighty Ducks." When I saw Laurence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis and the late Phil Hartman as Captain Carl, I came to the realization that this was some high-calibre s**t.
3. So Many Little Gems
It's like "Pee-wee's Playhouse" is one gigantic collection of Easter eggs; the show is filled to the brim with random tidbits, and it often jumps from one segment to the next with little segue. So technically you can go from watching Reubens et al in live-action, then flip right to a classic cartoon (we're talking old animation), and then suddenly it's claymation. I'd forgotten about how quickly the show transitions. As an adult, I'm inclined to say that there must have been some drugs in the writers' room -- but of course that's just speculation.
4. Characters Abound
So many. Aside from the others I've already mentioned, think about it: Pterry the Pterodactyl, Miss Yvonne, Clockey, Chairry, Jambi the Genie, The King of Cartoons, Reba the Mail Lady, Tito the Lifeguard, Mrs. Steve/Renee, Magic Screen, Conky 2000, Globey, The Dinosaur Family ... I could go on. The ultimate, though, is Penny. I remember living for her little cartoon segment -- one per episode. Here's one. Oh, and I still hate Randy, that obnoxious ginger puppet.
5. I'm Sorry, Mom
Watching as an adult, I'm not going to lie -- I got annoyed at a few junctures. (Hey, to its credit, at least "Pee-wee's Playhouse" doesn't make me want to smash things like Barney or "Dora The Explorer.") The theme song can be grating if you hear it more than once in a short period of time, and after a while, Pee-wee's laugh made me twitch. If you're not a person who likes yelling or sudden loud noises, a pro tip: don't revisit this series. The Secret Word screaming will make you insane. Consider this an apology to my mom for the five consecutive years of "Pee-wee."
6. This Is For You, Adults
That's not to say a lot of the humour isn't directed at adults (rather transparently). It can't be more obvious than when the camera pans in on Tito the Lifeguard, and slowly rises from his muscular quads to his stupidly sculpted pecs. Surely that's not for the children. There are also very subtle jokes about dating, sex, and the "differences between men and women." As a kid, that stuff flew miles over my head, but at the very least it should have provided some amusement for the parents roped into watching.
7. "Connect The Dots, La La La" & Others
I must've quoted this every single day when I was a kid. How, how could I forget? Also, "If you love it, why don't you marry it?"
8. The Genie. Oh, Jambi
One of the most crucial characters on "Pee-wee's Playhouse," is, of course, Jambi the Genie. He closes up every episode by granting Pee-wee a wish, and making the entire cast and you, the viewer, recite the special phrase in order for the wish to come true. The phrase is: "Mekka lekka hi mekka hiny ho." I could quote it no problem, and you can easily gauge your age by whether or not you can, too.
9. Ahead Of Its Time
This show was smart. I know the phrase "ahead of its time" is used rather freely, but Pee-wee was a step up, especially in the late '80s. Not only did he have the adult humour described above, but the show is fully engaging. It plays almost like a variety special or talent show, with something from every genre mixed in. Before you have time to get bored, it switches up and is onto another segment. This might go a long way in explaining why my generation flits from one interest to another; I actually have a lot of theories about kids who grew up in the '80s after re-watching "Pee-wee's Playhouse."
10. New Sympathy/Respect For Paul Reubens
Let's face it: doing that voice and playing Pee-wee Herman couldn't have been easy. Seriously, that voice probably put a serious strain on his vocal cords, especially when you consider that Reubens would be in character even when he was technically "off." So that means talk show appearances, out on the street, guesting on other programs -- he was always Pee-wee. Re-watching the show as an adult also made me realize his creative genius, and how he's undoubtedly a trailblazer for most future children's programming.
For maximum effect, re-watch "Pee-wee's Playhouse" on a Saturday morning in your pajamas. You'll understand once it starts.
"Pee-wee's Playhouse" is available on Blu-ray as of today.