Has there ever been a more surreal and bizarre opening sequence to any show ever made in America than that of PEE WEE'S PLAYHOUSE? The Surrealists felt that one of the keys of art lay in our dreams, and the intro to this show seems like a happy nightmare of sorts. The music, Pee Wee's odd vocal interjections, the variety of visual images, the introduction of the strange group of inhabitants living in the playhouse, all combine to announce to the would-be viewer that his was a show that wasn't going to go down any path that had been traveled by any previous show.
For five seasons beginning in 1986, this was simply one of the most amazing shows TV has ever produced. Paul Reubens was amazing as Pee Wee Herman, literally a child with the appearance of an adult, who was a veritable encyclopedia of irritating habits that kids can assume, with every annoying verbal come a kid has ever used. Armed with a great group of writers, a stellar cast, and some remarkable set and character designers, this show did things that no kid's show had ever done before or has done sense, though the influence on the more anarchistic line of kid's cartoons can still be detected. I would be willing to be that the makers of shows like SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS are fans of Pee Wee.
Unfortunately, this all came crashing to an end when a sex scandal caused CBS to pull the show off TV. In fact, before the scandal they had already ceased making new episodes of the show. But the incident did two things: 1) it caused CBS to cease showing the show in reruns and 2) killed off any future use of the Pee Wee character by Reubens. The series has been re-released on video, though it has been out of print for a number of years, and because of the sexual nature of Reubens demise, few networks have been willing to rebroadcast the show. Until this DVD release, PEE WEE has been more or less unavailable to the public.
Although Paul Reubens dominated the show as Pee Wee, the show is amazing today for the remarkable amount of talent on the show. Over the years I have been amazed at how many people remember Cowboy Curtis from the show, but are unaware that Laurence Fishburne portrayed him. Captain Carl was played by Phil Hartman before he went on to star on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE for years. The second actor to play the King of Cartoons was William Marshall, star Blaxploitation cult classic vampire film BLACULA. Natasha Lyonne, who played Opal, went on to additional success as a child actress and as a young adult, including THE SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS and BUT I'M A CHEERLEADER. S. Epatha Merkerson, who played Reba the letter carrier, has gone on to a long career on LAW AND ORDER. And of course the woman who made Pee Wee's heart skip a beat, the beautiful Miss Yvonne, was played by Lynne Marie Stewart, who has gone on to plays a host of supporting roles on TV and in film. All in all, you have to acknowledge that this was far from a normal children's cast.
But it wasn't merely the human cast that made this show so remarkable. Inhabiting Pee Wee's playhouse were an extraordinarily odd group of denizens, from Pterri the Pterodactyl to Mr. Kite to Mr. Windows to Cool Cat and talking chairs, flowers, and fish. Conky the Robot would each week dispense that show's secret word, a stunt seemed designed to irritate parents' as much as possible. One of my favorite recurring characters was the Salesman, whose appearance at Pee Wee's door would cause panic and disconcerted screaming each week. And how could you describe Jambi to someone who hadn't seen the show before? A disembodied genie's head who each week could solve whatever problems facing either Pee Wee or his friends with those amazing words, "Mekka Lekka Hi-Mekka Hiney Ho!"
I'm delighted that these are available now on DVD. A whole generation of kids has passed not knowing what a great thing they missed. Kids who are in high school today have only a vague idea about Pee Wee, though they might know his two movies. For many he was someone whose career ended because he did something very, very bad, though not many seem to know what that was. Now we get to see all of these great shows again, and they get to discover him for the first time.