Anyone who grew up in the 1980’s and 1990’s likely watched Pee-wee Herman in Pee-wee’s Playhouse at least once, even if by mistake or simply as a result morbid curiosity. If you’re one of the many weirdoes, like me, who loved Paul Reubens’ plucky character, Pee-wee, you not only watched the show, but looked forward to it every week! While I much preferred the movies in which Paul portrayed Mr. Herman, there is one episode of the Playhouse that I love even more than the movies: Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special (1988).
Before going into the Christmas Special,and for those who didn’t have this awesome experience growing up, there’s a few things you need to understand about the cultural phenomenon that Pee-wee’s Playhouse was in the 80’s. The show starred Paul Reubens’ child-like alter ego, Pee-wee Herman, a wiry young man in the now iconic tailored grey suit, white loafers and red bowtie. The weekly show was hosted in The Playhouse, a fantastic house, located in Puppetland, a place filled with toys, gadgets, inanimate-objects-come-to-life such as Chairy, Floory and Magic Screen and puppet characters such as The Conky 2000 Robot, Billy Baloney and Pteri the Pteranodon. The Playhouse was also visited by a regular cast of human characters, including Miss Yvonne, Reba the Mail Lady, Captain Carl, Cowboy Curtis and a small group of children, dubbed “The Playhouse Gang.” All of these characters, minus The Playhouse Gang, originally appeared with Reubens in the stage production of Pee-wee (The Pee-wee Herman Show, 1981), which was a more adult version of Pee-wee’s Playhouse and originated before the wildly popular CBS series, which ran from 1986 to 1991.
Media commentators of the time hailed the show as a post-modernist mix of characters and situations, which often pushed gender and racial boundaries to the max. For example, Pee-wee’s friends, both human and otherwise, were made up from a wide range of cultural and racial backgrounds. One of the most remarkable things about the development of the show is that Reubens demanded full creative control of the show before signing the contract with CBS. Not only did CBS agree, they gave him a $325,000 per episode budget. After 5 seasons and 45 episodes, Pee-wee’s Playhouse had won 15 Emmys, an Artios and a TCA Award. Captain Kangaroo’s Bob Keeshan has been noted as saying “The show has awesome production values; with the possible exception of the Muppets, you can’t find such creativity anywhere on TV.” (http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,295123,00.html)
Paul Reubens actually broke into the show biz circuit in 1980, when he was one of 22 finalists to be chosen for a regular spot on Saturday Night Live. Unfortunately, Gilbert Gottfried won the spot (I know, right?). Before giving up completely, Reubens decided to try out a character he had developed in 1977, Pee-wee Herman, in front of an audience when he made a cameo appearance in Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie. Realizing the popularity of the character, Reubens, with the help of money from family and friends, created his stage show.
Kids loved Pee-wee’s Playhouse for all the obvious reasons: loud noises, bright colors, fast pace. They also loved it for the not so obvious reasons, such as the fact that Pee-wee Herman never talked down to them. Instead, he was “one of them;” someone kids could connect with on their own level. Unbelievably to some, The Playhouse had just as many adult viewers as it had child viewers and not just parents who watched it with their kids. There was a large population of kid-free adults who watched it on their own, mostly for the challenge of catching all the double-entendres that were sprinkled throughout. Now-a-days, Pee-wee’s Playhouse has become somewhat of a cult favorite among people who grew up with it. When asked what he thought of the outpouring of fan adoration in reaction to the revival of his stage show, Paul Reubens is quoted as saying he found it, “so weird and so great at the same time. It was odd and it was fantastic, both rolled into one.” (http://theater.nytimes.com/2010/10/31/theater/31peewee.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&)
Notable names of people who have worked with Pee-wee over the years include Danny Elfman (who did both movie soundtracks), Cyndi Lauper (as Ellen Shaw, who did the Playhouse theme song) and Jimmy Smits (who played The Conky 2000 Repair Man).
The Christmas Special, which was made in the style of an old school variety show, has been officially released three times: the original airing in 1989 and the subsequent VHS, the VHS re-release in 1999, and the DVD re-release in 2004. One of the most notable things about the Christmas special is that it was one of only three episodes in that season (Season 3. Do we see a pattern here?).
For this Christmas special Pee-wee’s usual playhouse pals are visited by a multitude of famous friends. The show opens with the UCLA Men’s Chorus (posing as a military choir) singing Christmas in The Playhouse while Pee-wee dances around them, adding his own bit of lyrical musings to the song, including announcements of some of his special guests. As anybody who’s ever seen an episode of The Playhouse can tell you, Pee-wee has an unusual and wide ranging group of (usually inanimate) buddies who call the place “home.” Some fan favorites include Chair-y, Chicky Baby, Magic Screen, Dirty Dog, Floor-y, Clock-y and Cool Cat. While most of these comrades had to have come from a very “vivid” imagination, there are a handful of human cohorts who hang around too. The one who always sticks out in my mind is Cowboy Curtis. Why? Because he’s played by Laurence Fishburne! Fishburne, who is generally, now, known for playing Morpheus in The Matrix as well as a host of other weighty roles, portrays the spirited, vivacious and boldly dressed Curtis with ease.
With the large number of Special Guests on The Christmas Special, it would take me all day to give them each their due, so for this article, we’ll focus on just a favorite few.
The first musical guest is Grace Jones. As a kid, this lady had me somewhere between creeped out and fascinated. Dressed in what seems to be a molded metal (in reality likely formed latex) breast plate, a flowing A-line skirt, slate gray dish washing gloves and a strange, metallic head dress, Grace comes to Pee-wee via a shipping container. She’s actually slotted to perform at the White House, but Reba the Mail Lady misreads the label and delivers her to the Play House instead. Before being shoved back into the shipping crate to be delivered to the correct destination, Ms. Jones graciously serenades the Playhouse with a short rendition of The Little Drummer Boy.
Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello are found making homemade Christmas cards using tooth brushes in place of paint brushes and carved potatoes in place of stamps. After they show Pee-wee what pretty cards these odd items make, he demands that they make him 500 of each type of card. While bemused, they oblige. When Pee-wee runs around screaming about how it’s snowing outside and they should all go out to play in it, Frankie and Annette try to join in, but Pee-wee quickly and rudely reminds them that they are stuck creating cards until they make the allotted amount. At this point, I should probably point out that running throughout the entire special we see Pee-wee’s exceptional selfishness and that will come into play more, later.
Before running outside to play in the snow, Pee-wee meets up with Cher and Conk-y the Robot to let us all know what the word of the day is. For those of you who don’t know, whenever anyone says the word of the day (in this case, the word is “year”), everyone screams. It’s a quaint, if annoying little tradition in the playhouse. As Cher leaves, The King of Cartoons arrives to show us an old school Christmas cartoon featuring a man who treats an orphanage full of kids to homemade gifts and decorations, including a tree he makes out of umbrellas!
Once outside, Pee-wee joins a very sparkly, very youthful looking Little Richard skating on an iced over pond. Little Richard can’t seem to stay on his feet and when Pee-wee comments about how ice skating doesn’t look THAT hard, Little Richard challenges him to do better. We see Pee-wee spin out onto the ice and do complicated figure skating moves before gliding back over to his guest to gloat. Unfortunately, the professional skater he hired to dress like him and make him look good comes over to ask Pee-wee if he did a good job. Busted!
Back inside the playhouse, Pee-wee and friends have hot chocolate and hang Christmas stockings on the fireplace as he introduces us to a Penny cartoon. Penny is a weird little girl made of clay with pennies for eyes. She regales us with a childish tale of why she loves Christmas so much. After Penny, we check back in with Annette and Frankie, who complain of being thirsty and hungry. Pee-wee, ever so generous, gives them a tray with what looks like stale bread and water. Ah, the diet of a medieval prisoner. Subsequent to visiting with Cowntess (the cow) and Zsa Zsa Gabor, Pee-wee receives a call from Dinah Shore who begins to croon out the full (or rather, more than full) version of 12 Days of Christmas. Before she can get past the second day of Christmas, Oprah Winfrey butts in on the other line. When he returns to his call with Dinah, she’s still singing the song! Having never paused, she’s already on the fifth day of Christmas. At this point, Pee-wee slips out and replaces himself with a Pee-wee doll. While he should be attentively listening to Dinah, Pee-wee is instead swinging away at a Piñata while Charo sings Felíz Navidad.
While everyone is enjoying all the Christmas Festivities, Santa shows up to the Play House. Santa tells Pee-wee that because he asked for so many presents, Santa was unable to make any presents for anyone else and asks Pee-wee to sacrifice all of his presents so that others can enjoy Christmas as well. After having a little side talk with himself, Pee-wee decides in favor of sharing his presents and is rewarded with a ride in Santa’s sleigh.
As cheesy as it may sound, the “moral to the story” is my favorite part of the entire special. To me, teaching kids that Christmas is about more than presents is a wonderful lesson to add to an already spectacular Christmas special. I also enjoy the fact that Pee-wee is the one being taught the lesson. There is no “bad guy” who is always getting into trouble and has to learn right from wrong, just a normally good guy who got too wrapped up in himself. While some will watch this special once and move on, this is one of the handful of shows that make it into my yearly tradition of Christmas Cartoon viewings.
All in all, Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special is an awesome example of late 1980’s pop culture, but also a great example of how some things never change.