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.