Search This Blog

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Saturday Morning - Pee-wee's Playhouse

Hello, everybody, and welcome to October!

Can you believe that 2012 is just a little over 90 days away from now? It's absolutely crazy how fast 2011 has flown by. Of course, as I pick and choose topics to talk about in this blog each day, it almost amazes me just how much time really has passed. It seems hard to believe that it was twenty-five years ago on a Saturday morning where I would run downstairs in my pajamas, grab a bowl of whatever sugar-loaded cereal happened to be in the pantry at the time (usually Corn Pops or Cap'n Crunch at my household), and just stare at the television watching cartoons.

The show that I'm featuring in today's blog entry debuted on September 13, 1986. I was only five years old then. Just even looking at that date and realizing that I was old enough to remember watching the first episode of the show makes me feel old. Really old.

Wow. You know, just re-reading that last paragraph, I have used the word old quite a bit. You know what? Just for today, I'm going to make the word old the secret word of the day.

Why have I done this? I'll explain it later. For now, let's take a look at the opening theme of today's blog subject.

Today we're going to take a look at the cult classic Pee-wee's Playhouse, which ran from 1986-1991 on the CBS Saturday morning line-up.

The star of the show obviously needs no introduction as I'm sure anybody who is roughly my age probably knows who he is. Pee-wee Herman (a.k.a. Paul Reubens) could be best described as an overgrown man-child who has a playhouse filled with gadgets and friends and furniture that comes to life. Yet the kids loved him and his show. I can actually remember watching the show as a youngster trying to write a letter to Pee-wee asking him if I could come and see the playhouse close-up in between heaping spoonfuls of Corn Pops.

Of course, the letters never did get mailed, and I never did get to see the playhouse close up, but man, oh, man it was cool.

The whole house looked almost like the entire decade of the 1980s threw up all over it...but in a fantastic way! Bright colours, goofy gadgets, claymation was basically an visual acid trip for people who grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It was so engrossing and so eye-catching that you really could not look away.

Pee-wee's Playhouse was a huge hit for CBS, and millions of kids tuned in each Saturday morning to watch Pee-Wee interacting his friends, both human (such as Miss Yvonne and Captain Carl) and non-human (such as Pterri and Chairy). But, did you know that the concept for Pee-wee's Playhouse actually kicked off six years before the debut of the show? And that when it first kicked off, it wasn't exactly suitable for minors?

The year was 1980. That year, Paul Reubens had tried out to become a cast member for the NBC late night show Saturday Night Live. As many of you who watched Saturday Night Live know, 1980 was a year filled with changes. It was the first year that Lorne Michaels stepped down as producer, and it was also the year that many longstanding cast members left the show due to a myriad of reasons. As a result, the show was forced to find all new cast members to replace the ones who had left the series, and Reubens was one of twenty-two finalists to be chosen as a regular cast member. Unfortunately for Reubens, he lost to Gilbert Gottfried, and Reubens was ready to give up on the dream of having a career in the entertainment industry.

But then he came up with an idea to start up a stage show using a character that he created back in 1977. A character that had a cameo in a Cheech & Chong movie.

The character? Pee-wee Herman.

So, with $3,000 cash (funded by his parents), as well as a work force of sixty people (one of which was the late Phil Hartman who like Reubens was a member of the improv group The Groundlings), he created The Pee-wee Herman Show, for the cable channel HBO for the 1980/1981 television season.

There really wasn't a whole lot of difference between the Pee-wee Herman Show and Pee-wee's Playhouse. They both took place inside a giant playhouse. Pee-wee entertained guests by showing old...


Oh...erm...sorry about that.

Anyways, the show showed cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s (as those were the cartoons that Reubens himself grew up with), and had a lot of the same characters in both shows. But as I said earlier, the 1980 version was a lot more adult oriented. For example, Pee-wee would often get pen pals from prison in the 'Pen Pals Around The World' segment. Yeah, I can see that not working on a kids show, can you? And in some instances there were segments where Pee-wee conducts a puppet show where a puppet hypnotizes a female audience member to undress.

Needless to say, the CBS version was a lot tamer in nature.

Whatever the case was, Pee-wee's Playhouse was a program that attracted a lot of attention, and quite a few celebrities either appeared on the program or got their start on the program.

Did you know that before Laurence Fishburne made a name for himself as a well-known film and television actor that he was the original 'Cowboy Curtis'? And before S. Epatha Merkerson achieved fame on the television drama Law & Order, she played Reba the mail lady? Of course, everyone knows that Phil Hartman (Captain Carl) made a name for himself on Saturday Night Live, Newsradio, and The Simpsons before his tragic death in 1998. And Rob Zombie actually worked on the show as a production assistant before embarking on a recording career.

And when Pee-wee's Playhouse aired a Christmas special during its third season run, lots of stars signed on for a cameo role. Stars such as Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Charo, Whoopi Goldberg, and Zsa Zsa Gabor made guest appearances on the show, which added to the success of the program.

The show was very successful with children, but a lot of adults watched the show as well, based on the retro feel of the show, and because of the classic cartoons that the King Of Cartoons would bring with him each episode.

Another part of the charm that Pee-wee's Playhouse had were the various collection of running gags that the show would have. Probably the one that most everyone remembers is the one that involves the secret word of the day. Usually within the first three minutes of each episode, Conky the Robot would print out the secret word of the day. Pee-wee would show the audience the word, and if any character on the show said the word, then everyone (including presumably the television audience) would have to scream really loud. Because the words were different each episode, the gag never got old.


Oh, yeah, that's right...I had forgotten that the secret word for today's blog was old.


Of course, that was just one of the many gags that was present in the show's five year run. Another gag involved the character known as Magic Screen. Pee-wee would hop into the screen through a portal, take out a bunch of dots from his pockets, throw them up into the air and sing the Connect The Dots song. Here's an example of this below.

Other running gags involved the pen pals sketch that Pee-wee acted in the original HBO show (with Globey the globe pointing out the locations to teach kids about geography), the refrigerator where claymation animation was used to make the food in Pee-wee's fridge come to life, and the 'Marry It' joke, where whenever someone admitted that they loved something, Pee-wee would retort 'if you love it so much, why don't you marry it?'

The joke backfired though in one episode, which saw us witness the marriage of Pee-wee to a bowl of fruit salad.

The show was quite a spectacle to be had, and upon its debut in 1986 attracted mostly positive responses from media sources and television viewers. Most praised the show's postmodernistic tendencies and wide array of characterization by representing all kinds of people from all walks of life. During the whole run of the series, the show won fifteen Emmy awards. Bob Keeshan (who most know as Captain Kangaroo) had nothing but praise for the show, citing its 'awesome production values' and creativity.

So, why did the show end in 1991 after five seasons?

I'm sure most of you will probably remember the incident that happened back in July of 1991. For those of you who don't, or were too young to understand what had happened, here's the basic info. Paul Reubens was arrested in Florida for allegedly committing lewd acts inside of an adult movie theater. This incident caused CBS to pull the show off of the airwaves, but I want to make clear that by this time, Pee-wee's Playhouse was on hiatus anyways. His arrest had nothing to do with the show stopping production, as the last original episode had aired eight months prior to the arrest, on November 10, 1990.

Still, with the news of Paul's arrest being front page news in the summer of 1991, it proved to be quite damaging to his career. While hardly his first brush with the law (he was arrested twice in his lifetime when he was younger), the fact that it had been made so public definitely caused Paul Reubens' career to stall. With the television show being pulled off the air, many other companies followed suit in removing Pee-wee Herman memorabilia from their stores and projects. A home video that showcased Pee-wee talking about how voiceovers were made was suspended, and Toys R Us pulled all Pee-wee Herman merchandise from its store shelves.

Paul Reubens attempted to try and clear his name, and issued a statement proclaiming his innocence, but by then, the media was so engrossed in the scandal that his pleas went ignored. Eventually, Paul made a plea of no contest while maintaining his innocence to avoid what would have likely been a highly publicized trial. The charges were not listed on his record, but he did have to perform seventy-five hours of community service, including filming a public service announcement that he would write, produce, and finance. I believe this is the very ad that he in fact did as part of his community service.

Although the publicity surrounding Paul's arrest was decidedly negative, he did have quite a few supporters in his corner. His Pee-wee's Playhouse co-star, S. Epatha Merkerson, and several crew members spoke out on his behalf and criticized the media for treating Reubens like a monster. Other people who spoke out defending Reubens included many of the people who starred in the Christmas special, like Annette Funicello and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Cyndi Lauper (who sang the theme song for the show, albeit under a different name) also defended Reubens, as did Bill Cosby, who believed that the story was being blown way out of proportion. Many people took to the streets of major cities, protesting the arrest, and many polls at the time supported Reubens. However, the shock of the arrest and surrounding media coverage really affected Reubens, and he refused to give any more interviews or make talk show appearances for several years after the fact.

At this point in time, I don't know whether Reubens was guilty of what he allegedly did in that movie theater twenty years ago. So much time has passed now that I honestly don't care whether he did do it or not. I really don't want to make this blog one that accuses him or clears him either way, as everyone has their own opinions about the case. Certainly his 2002 arrest for possession of pornography got tongues wagging, but when the allegations were that he was in possession of child pornography, he immediately went on the offense, stating that he would never support that. Eventually, the child pornography charges were dropped, although he still had to register his address with the sheriff's office for the next three years.

It's really all a matter of perspective really. I mean, keep in mind that when the arrest occurred, I had just turned ten, and wasn't really at the age where I even knew what Paul Reubens was being charged with. My perspective might be different than that of say, someone who was thirty years old...

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!!! the time, or someone who had a child that watched the show. The only one who really knows the truth about what happened is Reubens himself, so it's not really my business to judge him at all. I do have my own thoughts about what really happened on that fateful day in 1991, but this isn't the place to talk about it.  Though just to put it out there, it is telling just how many of his work colleagues went to bat for him, and who continue to work with him even today despite the allegations.  Just a little food for thought there.

Anyways, I want this blog to have as much positivity as possible, and in the case of Paul Reubens, he certainly found a way to make lemonade out of the lemons that were dealt to him. By 1992, he had taken bit parts in feature films such as Batman Returns and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and in 1995, he received his one and only non Pee-wee Emmy nomination for his guest role on the sitcom Murphy Brown. His role proved to be such a hit that he appeared on the show for six guest appearances in total, the last one being in 1997. He also earned critical acclaim for his role in the movie Blow.

In 2009, he revived The Pee-wee Herman show as a Broadway stage show, and had hosted performances in various cities all over the United States between 2009 and 2011. He guest starred on Saturday Night Live as Pee-Wee on January 15, 2011, and he has talked about wanting to bring Pee-wee Herman back to the big screen. If successful, it would be the first motion picture made since 1988's Big Top Pee-wee.

There does seem to be a resurgence of people who are rediscovering the program. A retrospective book entitled Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse: The Untold, Unauthorized, and Unpredictable Story of a Pop Phenomenon is slated for release on November 1, 2011, and with the success of the Broadway show, it appears as though Reubens has moved on from the scandal, which has since become old...


Regardless of what his personal life was like back then, you can't deny that Pee-wee's Playhouse was the pinnacle of 1980s entertainment for children, and that it remains one of the most creative and outstanding shows of the entire decade. Paul Reubens actually said this about the show in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine.

I'm just trying to illustrate that it's okay to be different – not that it's good, not that it's bad, but that it's all right. I'm trying to tell kids to have a good time and to encourage them to be creative and to question things'.

Well said, Mr. Reubens.

No comments:

Post a Comment