He is totally weird. I think he is tapped into something weird and magical.
—Wayne White, a designer for Pee-wee’s Playhouse, on Pee-wee Herman
Is that good or bad?
That’s good. He’s an asshole, too.
Is being an asshole good or bad?
—Shane, aged six, being interviewed about Pee-wee Herman
I don’t have much to say about what it is that I do. I feel that it, by and large, speaks for itself — or I hope it does.
This season, cartoon-numbed Saturday-morning TV has offered kiddies of all ages only one live person to watch: the profoundly odd Pee-wee Herman, shrieking and swooping around Pee-wee’s Playhouse. To lure the boy-man’s fetal charms to its schedule, CBS offered to give him money and then leave him to his mischief. In return, CBS asked three things: (1) Pee-wee should not stick pencils in potatoes; (2) Pee-wee should not emerge from the bathroom with a trail of toilet paper sticking to his shoe; (3) Pee-wee should not say, in the context of a certain presumably innocent scene, “I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours.”
Pee-wee Herman ended up doing all three things. He also ended up with high praise from The New York Times, which called the new series “this season’s most imaginative and disarming.” The Washington Post said, “All right, so Pee-wee Herman is an acquired taste. But how sad for those who are just too darn uptight to acquire it.”
And he got the ultimate accolade each time a football player scored a touchdown and, instead of spiking the ball, triumphantly did the Pee-wee, a dance resembling the efforts of a patient to show a doctor the source of lumbar or gastric distress
At first, ratings for the show, while respectable, didn’t match critics’ and wide receivers’ enthusiasm. The audience for animated guano like Smurfs and Real Ghostbusters remained true. By November, though (thanks in part to a move to an earlier time slot), the Playhouse had established itself among the top Saturday-morning shows in households with children aged two to eleven — the target group for kid-vid advertisers pushing toys and glucose. And apparently lots of superannuated children have been watching, too, some setting their alarms, others their VCRs. Pee-wee’s audience is so eclectic there’s now talk around CBS of running the Playhouse twice — Saturday morning for kiddies and late night for culties. The show, like its star, defies categories.
In one episode, Captain Carl (played by Phil Hartman, now also on Saturday Night Live) growls, “You know, Pee-wee, there’s a real twisted side to you.”
“Thank you, Captain Carl,” Pee-wee answers with becoming modesty.
He seems harmless enough, frolicking in his nerdy, shrunken suit, with short cuffs revealing white socks, and with his fine-wristed hands fluttering in independent Zasu Pitts imitations. He even has a beslimed crew cut — none of this long hair whipping around, like Ted Nugent in a blow-dryer square-off with David Lee Roth. He sports clean white shirts and a red bow tie, probably a clip-on. He could be a high-school chemistry teacher from the Sixties. Problem is, this guy is wearing makeup. Yes, sir, he’s got on your face powder, your rouge, your lipstick — more like a Sixties home-ec. teacher. Then there’s his voice, which sounds like a blender with sinus problems, whining at high speed through taco dip.
His playhouse, which might be the collision of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with a raspberry-and-lime Jell-O mold constructed by Disney technicians recovering from Taiwan flu, is crammed wall to wall with toys and tchotchkes reminiscent of every flea market, swap meet, garage sale and New Wave gallery between SoHo and Sausalito. It features a resident genie and drag queen manqué who grants wishes, a mouse hole with tennis-playing dinosaurs, an antic ant farm, a fridge where food wears sunglasses, a chair with arms that hug and a robot who outacts Olmos on Miami Vice. Its style completely reflects Pee-wee Herman, who exercises auteur-like control over every detail, according to the artist Gary Panter, the show’s design director.
“He’s got a strong sense of everything he likes,” Panter says in laid-back Texas tones. “He’s really smart, and he’s a collector of all the kind of stuff that’s on the set, so he knows that genre inside and out. He’s got a great collection of children’s textbooks from the Thirties and Forties. His old house in L.A. was covered with toys and art and objects.”
Pee-wee’s friend Allee Willis, a Grammy-winning songwriter who collects “Atomic Fifties” memorabilia and has a garden planted with multicolored bowling balls, says approvingly, “Pee-wee Herman is completely into bad taste, completely into cheese, It’s a very Jayne Mansfield mentality.”
Pee-wee Herman is the creation of an actor named Paul Reubens, who is the creation of a man named Paul Rubenfeld. They’re all thirty-four years old, but Pee-wee doesn’t act it. Paul Rubenfeld’s parents are Judy and Milton Rubenfeld. Pee-wee Herman’s parents are Honey and Herman Herman. Judy Rubenfeld finds her mythical counterpart “real weird. When you’re a Mrs. Reubens or Mrs. Rubenfeld and Mrs. Herman, it gets very confusing.” As a matter of fact, she says, “I’m not sure where Paul ends and Pee-wee begins.”