The magic of Pee-wee Herman in a dark time

The day the World Health Organization called Omicron a “worrying variant” felt as heavy as any since the start of the pandemic, and I listened to Pee-wee Herman making bad jokes with it. a talking chair. For one night, his puppet friends from Pee-wee’s playhouse, the hit ’80s children’s TV show, had gathered on the radio for an hour of jokes and old soul records. Their jokes were stilted but comfortable, the kind that made you roll your eyes and laugh at the same time. But the episode almost felt like a transmission from another planet, or at least at a simpler time. For me, sitting on the sofa in my living room, trying to push back the fear of this mysterious new strain of coronavirus, it was a light shining in the dark.

I was in college when Pee-wee’s playhouse came out of. The show was a jubilant and chaotic mix of live action, puppetry and animation that was nothing like the typical, cheap Saturday morning cartoons of the time. The pop-art set had talking furniture and a refrigerator full of live food, and was frequented by characters played by Phil Hartman and a pre-Matrix Laurence Fishburne. The tone blended the cheesy innocence of 1950s children’s television with the mirror-and-laser-beam aesthetic of the new wave of the 80s. At the helm was the slim-as-a-rail Pee-wee Herman, clad in ‘a close-fitting gray suit, a red bow tie and white leather moccasins. It was an adult who behaved like a 5 year old who had just swallowed a box of Frosted Flakes. The Smurfs had no chance.

I was a few years too old to watch children’s TV, but the Playhouse felt like a secret, surprisingly mature room that had been unlocked just for me. The garish colors and contrasting patterns (the design was directed by punk artist Gary Panter) match the other weird culture I loved at the time: designer Lynda Barry, avant-garde band The Residents, folk artist Howard Finster. All this upset the monotony of the suburbs. He didn’t do it by raising a middle finger like punk music did, but by refracting the clichés – the perfect lawns, the potlucks at church and the similitude of everything – through a funny looking mirror. .

Because I was scared and different, the Playhouse was where I wanted to live, for a while. There was Jambi, a floating head in a wish-fulfilling box; Conky, a stuttering robot who provided the “secret word” for each episode; and the king of cartoons, who played dusty black and white clips. None of it made sense and it all made sense. Those of us who thought we it didn’t make sense to have a place where we belonged. So there I was, adjusting the foil attached to our little TV’s antenna every weekend. I didn’t really have any friends when I was in seventh grade in 1986, so it wasn’t like I had anything else to do. I haven’t had much to do in the past 21 months of the pandemic either. My house is cramped, with me, my wife, our two children and our dog all together during this desperate time. Who hasn’t looked for a place to escape?


Maybe Pee-wee resonated with my teenage self because her attraction to Peter Pan belied more adult origins. The character was born from the improvisations of Paul Reubens while he was a member of influential Los Angeles comedy troupe The Groundlings. These led to a living act, The Pee-wee Herman Show, in 1981 at the Roxy Theater. A mildly exciting parody of the 1950s children’s shows held at an infamous LA rock club, it performed for five months before ending with an HBO special. Her success ultimately led to the 1985 film Pee-wee’s great adventure, who took the character on a surreal quest to find his stolen bike. The film introduced the world to Reubens’ quirky humor, as well as the hallucinatory vision of a not-quite-Gothic director named Tim Burton. Pee-wee’s playhouse debuted on CBS in 1986 and quickly became one of the most popular Saturday morning TV shows of its time, garnering a regular audience of around 10 million people. There were Pee-wee figures from Toys “R” Us, a clothing partnership with JCPenney, and collectible cards from Topps.

Five years later, Reubens was arrested for indecent assault in a Florida porn theater; he did not dispute the charge, although he and his lawyers maintained his innocence. Reubens’ arrest is widely believed to have led to the death of Theater, but the show was actually canceled months earlier (however, the event apparently influenced the network’s decision to stop reruns). Either way, Pee-wee was no longer on the air. Reubens built a new acting career before another arrest in 2002, when he was charged with an offense of possession of child pornography, to which he pleaded not guilty. This was then reduced to an obscenity charge, to which Reubens pleaded guilty, while insisting that the police seized vintage works of art he bought from a collector. Reubens served three years of probation, registered as a sex offender during that time and once again retired from the public eye. These incidents are now as indelible a part of Pee-wee to me as the Playhouse puppet group. They are difficult to reconcile except knowing that Pee-wee is a character and Reubens is a mortal, fallible human.

But Pee-wee has reappeared sporadically and through mediums since then. Theater aired on Adult Swim in 2006, followed by a rework in 2010 of the live Pee-wee Herman Show. In 2016, Netflix released Pee-wee’s big vacation. Five years later, Pee-wee played records on public radio overnight. At this point, his periodic appearances seem to be part of the character’s mystique.

After all, Pee-wee has always existed outside of linear time. In his world, pewter toys sit alongside retro-futuristic videophones that we could recognize as perfect for Zoom today. the Theater Miss Yvonne Regular, “the most beautiful woman in puppet country”, dressed like a 1950s cake, while Reba the Mail Lady dressed like a regular USPS employee. The outfit Pee-wee wore on stage in 1981 is the same outfit he wore on Netflix in 2016; her signature chuckle and schoolyard taunt of “I know you are but what am I?” and “Made you look” are also identical. The peewee exists as a memory: an amalgamation of past and present, familiar but not too familiar.

By standing out of time, Pee-wee invites you to see the world differently, to witness the miraculous in the mundane. The most magical characters in the Playhouse weren’t the dinosaurs that lived in a mouse hole or the wish-granting genie, but the talking chair, the window, and the floor. When you followed Pee-wee, you never knew where you would end up. A missing bike could lead to an epic road trip. You could win a bloodthirsty biker gang with a dance. Everything was alive with the possibility.


As we approach the third year of the pandemic, I have moved beyond burnout into a space that feels utterly devoid of joy. Everything is gray. Any hope of ending this situation is met by another letter of the Greek alphabet. Sometimes I feel like I have lost something fundamental in my being. What are my desperate late night scans on Zillow, if not a search for wonder? What is flipping through TikTok’s endless scroll, if not a hunt for the tiniest nugget of surprise? I am desperate to find fear in the monotony of today. I am desperate to see the Playhouse again.

That’s why, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, I listened to Pee-wee playing tunes, making jokes, and welcoming a few strange guests (the frequent Love boat guest star Charo played flamenco guitar) on KCRW, a Santa Monica-based public radio station. Conky the robot gave Pee-wee the secret word (microphone), and an hour later it was over. There was no reference to the grim reality we currently live in. But the series’ innocence was surprisingly subversive.

The peewee may be timeless, but not Reubens. He will be 70 next year. His voice on the radio was noticeably deeper and thicker than a few decades ago. In an interview for the release of Summer holidays, Reubens admitted that Pee-wee was digitally aged. The Playhouse is also emptying. John Paragon, the actor who played Genius Jambi and wrote and directed numerous episodes of Theater alongside Rubens, who died in April. Reubens mourned the death of Lou Cutell, who played Amazing Larry in Great adventure, several days before the broadcast of his radio show.

We all know mourning now. We mourn the people we loved, but also the people we were before this pandemic began. If you’re old enough, you add it to the grief you’ve accumulated over the years: for the children we were, the hopes we had, the people we dreamed of being. But if you’re lucky, the art you need will always find you. It reminds you of who you are when you’ve forgotten and empowers you to imagine a life beyond it. It lets you believe that what you were stolen will be found, that your home will come back to life.

This year, we decided to light our front yard for Christmas. My wife and I swept the The Home Depot’s holiday aisle like we were possessed – all to keep the darkness at bay. Standing outside at 4:30 p.m. recently, I realized that our house, glittering with Christmas lights and inflatable animals, looked familiar to me. It looked like the Playhouse.


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