Every Saturday morning, kids — and a good deal of teenagers, twentysomething hipsters, and in-the-know thirtysomething adults — would tune in to see a claymation beaver gnawing on a wooden sign, then be whisked through a jungle and across a field to an odd-looking house. Monkeys and pterodactyls flit and fly onscreen; a giggling guy in a thin gray suit unexpectedly walks by, very close to camera. A giant Sphinx (!) on the roof winks at us, in time to some Polynesian-sounding vintage bachelor-pad music. Then we zoom in lightning-speed to the front door, and one sugar-rush of a theme song begins. “Come in!/And pull yourself up a chair… .”
From 1986 to 1991, Pee-wee’s Playhouse brought the manic, madcap world of Pee-wee Herman into living rooms and let folks hang out in the ultimate tricked-out rec room, one stocked with beatnik puppets, magic genies, very animate household objects, bovine royalty, video telephones and wacky bells and whistles. Occasionally, another quirky neighbor — a cowboy, a bouffant-sporting beauty queen, the King of Cartoons — would stop by to join in the fun. For those of us who’d loved the HBO 1981 special that introduced comedian Paul Reubens’ creation and wished the opening breakfast-machine sequence of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) would go on forever, the fact that we could count on a half hour of sheer P.W. goofiness once a week was a dream.
And now, thanks to Shout! Factory, we can drop by the playhouse once again. After remastering and overhauling all five seasons’ worth of this landmark series, the home-entertainment company is releasing a Blu-ray set of the complete Pee-wee’s Playhouse this week; supervised by Reubens himself, the show now seems brighter, battier and even more singular than it did back in the late Eighties.
Rolling Stone got Reubens, 62, on the phone to talk about the making of the show, revisiting the series for this set and what’s up with the long-rumored new Pee-wee movie. (Hint: A big announcement is coming.)
Let’s go back to the beginning: CBS had originally approached you to do an animated kids’ show, correct?
Yeah. I’d had the stage show originally, so I was much more interested in doing something closer to that, something live-action. So when they suggested doing a cartoon, I said “I’m not really interested in that; let’s do a real kid’s show.” I was a big Howdy-Doody freak growing up — I was actually on one show when I was a kid, in the audience — and was more interested in doing something like that. Howdy-Doody, Captain Kangaroo, a lot of the local kids shows that were on a long time ago — those were the influences.
The stage show you did back in 1981 wasn’t that much different than what you did on Playhouse. A bit more risqué, maybe, but…
I’ve never agreed with people when they’ve said that last part, actually. When we were doing the midnight show back in the early Eighties, we’d do a kid’s matinee show as well. I never felt like anything was changed, really. It was a bit slicker. It was made for Saturday-morning TV. But it wasn’t like the character changed. Everything was like a toilet joke, but it wasn’t like we gave the censors a lot to worry about. When you’re writing a show for six-year-olds, you know, pee-pee and poo-poo…that’s your bread and butter [laughs].
That’s comic gold.
Right. But if you’re a kid and you understand a joke that may have been quote-unquote risqué or an innuendo that might have made it in to a Playhouse episode, then you learned it from your parents or the schoolyard. I didn’t teach them that.
How involved were you in the look and design of the playhouse?
I was involved in pretty much every aspect of it. I’d hired the design team and came up with conception of stuff overall. I mean, someone designed and built Chairy, obviously, but it was my idea.
The team was basically Gary Panter and two associate production designers he brought in, and these guys were really, truly brilliant. We talked every day about where things would be laid out — where was the kitchen, where was the window, where did the genie live? Then they drew hundreds upon hundreds of sketches of what everything would like, and I’d basically weigh in. I don’t think there’s one aspect of what you see on the show where I didn’t have the ability to say, “I don’t like the way this looks” or “Let’s redo that.”
Were there elements that did get drastically redone?
The magic screen was originally about the size of a double-door entrance…it was gigantic! [Laughs] I think the door was a different color, too. But yeah, I was involved in every minute detail.
Did that level of involvement extend to the show’s theme and the score as well?
I worked really closely with [series composer and Devo founder] Mark Mothersbaugh on the music for every episode, but the theme was a little different. It’s essentially in two parts: there’s the actual theme and the music that leads up to the theme. You know, that Martin Denny-esque lounge music as you watch the beaver gnaw on the wood, and everything sort of winds around as you eventually end up at the playhouse’s door. Mark, the director of our first season Stephen R. Johnson and I talked a lot about the feeling that bit of music was supposed to evoke — the words “dream-like” and “hypnotic” were used a lot. I wanted kids to feel like they were being drawn into this world.
While Mark was working on that, one of the writers on the show, George McGrath, and I started writing the lyrics to what would be the theme. You know, [sings] “Come in, and pull yourself up a chair…” We sang that in to one of those tape recorders that was roughly the size of a hefty book, the kind you could carry around, and then sent the tape to Mark. He arranged the theme and I think he was the one who got Cyndi Lauper to sing it.
What sort of feedback did you get from young fans about the show? Did that affect the making of it?
You might find this hard to believe, but I got virtually no feedback the whole time we were making the show! In the ensuing years, since we stopped making it, I’ve met hundreds of fans, from little kids to grown-ups who watched it as kids when the show was originally on. But I was so busy with the making of it that I just didn’t have much of life outside of the show. I was very rarely in situations where I’d meet fans. It was staggering when I finally did start to hear all that stuff, because I just didn’t have an outside picture of it all.
That being said, when I would meet a kid occasionally on the set, it was always odd because the parents would be like, “Oh, he or she will be so confused by all this, because you’re not in character and you don’t have on your suit.” There was always some sort of disclaimer. And the kids — they weren’t affected by that at all. So long as I was clean-shaven and had short hair, they recognized me. It was never [in horrified voice] “You’re not Pee-wee!” [Laughs] You’d have adults freaking out and then the kids would just come up and say “Hi Pee-wee.”
It didn’t faze them.
Not at all. And they’d be very serious about talking to you. You know, “I have a lot of questions to ask you, Pee-wee…we only have a minute, so let’s get to it. Where exactly is the playhouse? What’s Chairy doing right now?” [Laughs] All the stuff we purposefully never disclosed in the show, that was what they wanted to know. Kids weren’t going crazy and wild around me. They wanted to have a conversation.
What I think a lot of people didn’t realize was, this wasn’t a goof on kids’ shows. I felt like it was a mission and this was what I was supposed to do; I considered it important work. I always sort of thought that this would have a positive effect on kids. And they picked up on that, I think. [Pause] I’ve spent a lot of time rewatching these episodes during the restoration process for this set, and I’m still really proud of what we all did.
These remastered episodes on the Blu-ray set look pretty astounding, to say the least.
What a lot of people don’t realize is, the show was shot on film. But it’s never been seen on film — we’d shoot it and immediately transfer it to tape, then we’d edit it on tape and add the effects in on tape. The whole thing is then put on a “broadcast tape,” for airing. You lose information and clarity the more you dupe, so in some cases, we’re talking six generations of loss. We’ve cleaned all that up. I’ve spent over a year in a lab helping the folks putting this out with color corrections, helping them find the right source material for some of the effects — many of which they recreated from scratch for the Blu-rays. The amount of work that went into this was huge.
One of the things I always loved about the show was the amount of detail we were able to pack into the show, how great everything was made to look — and so much of that got lost because of transfers and time. Someone told me that it’s basically impossible to show Playhouse re-runs on TV over the last five years, because they would just look horrible — and he was right. But we’ve rescued these episodes now. You can see all the details and the vibrancy now. I was looking at the box of the DVD set that came out in the early 2000s, and it says something like “as you’ve never seen them before.” This is really how you’ve never seen them before. Fans are going to freak out.
It’s one thing for fans who grew up with this to get excited watching these episodes, but I showed some to my kid and she was immediately hooked. Why do you think this show has been able to maintain its appeal to youngsters, while a lot of other kids’ shows from the past just feel like relics?
This is territory I always shy away from; if I have to dissect what I do, it stops being fun for me. I give this kind of thing very little thought. But if you’re just asking my opinion…
Just your personal opinion, yeah.
Well, what it comes down to is: I really love kids. I’m always knocked out by kids, how funny they are and what they appreciate. The greatest moments in the writing room were always when myself or someone else would come up with something that would make us say: This is going to make a six-year-old fall off the couch [laughs]. It was so much fun and so rewarding to do something where the goal was to just make kids laugh, entertain them and show them a world that embraces creativity and nonconformity.
And one of the few things I feel that the show did really well was that we never talked down to kids. It was a show that assumed its viewers were very young but very smart. It never seemed like a kid’s show if you actually were a kid. Does that make sense? We weren’t under the auspices of something like the Children’s Television Workshop, where a certain part of the content has to be educational, I’m guessing. We tried to disguise anything that might seem overtly like a lesson or a lecture, but we still got some important points across. It’s tough to make a kid’s show; it’s even tougher to make a kid’s show that real kids like. And I take great pride in the fact that that’s what we did.
One last question: There were some rumors going around that you were working on another Pee-wee movie. Any updates on that?
There’s going to be a big announcement any minute now.
Yes. It’s been months and months of being right on the verge of being announced…I thought something was going to go public yesterday, actually, and that you’d be the first person I’d be talking about this with. But I’m thinking there will be something made public very soon. It’s going to get made shortly after the new year. I wish I could tell you about it right now, because…I mean, it’s amazing. It’s going to be amazing. It think it first got leaked four years ago or so that the movie was going to be made, and ever since then it’s just been stalling and stalling. So I’m really ready for this to happen. But I’m not kidding: It’s very imminent.