Over the years, I’ve tried plenty of times to get the children to watch the shows I loved as a kid. I’ve learned not to push too hard because down that road leads madness, but I still make the attempt. Last year, I saw that Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was on Netflix and gave it a shot. At the time, we’d had a few bits of good luck showing the kids movies they weren’t sure about, but wound up enjoying. The timing and my description worked out because we gave the 1985 Tim Burton movie a watch and the children were hooked leading to an epic watch of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special and the more recent The Pee-Wee Herman Show release!
I honestly wish I could remember what I said to the kids to get them to watch the film. I think it might have been something about a guy with a really cool house who did a fun dance and went on a wild adventure looking for his bike. As a kid, I was a huge fan of the Saturday morning series, but probably only saw the film a handful of times. So, the viewing experience was as fun for me as it was for them and, as you might expect, the “Tequila” bar scene was a gigantic hit with them. The Large Marge bit was a little scary and a lot went over their heads, but that’s okay.
From there, we jumped into Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, which is also on Netflix. The show ran for five seasons, though the third only has two episodes thanks to a writer’s strike and the last two filmed back-to-back. I had a great time and the kids also took very quickly to the likes of Captain Carl (Phil Hartman), Chairry, Conky, Jambi, Ms. Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart), Cowboy Curtis (Laurence Fishburne) and, of course, Pee-Wee himself as played by Paul Reubens.
If you’re not super familiar with the show’s conceit, Pee-Wee, an adult with a childlike personality, comes to his playhouse in Puppet Land every day to hang out with a variety of puppets and other beings who live there, like Magic Screen and Conky. Other human characters like Cowboy Curtis and the King Of Cartoons show up to participate in the day’s activities which also include classic golden age cartoons and some incredible stop motion shorts.
Given the prominence of CGI in the shows my kids usually watch, it was neat to expose them to these more classic forms of cartooning. They especially liked the Penny cartoons which featured audio of real girls talking about their lives that would then be animated in a claymation style. On the few occasions when Penny didn’t show up, they noticed and were not pleased.
There was a bit of a road bump between the first and second seasons, though, because the show itself moved from New York to California and lost a few of the castmates (including Hartman) as well as a few puppets, leading to new characters, new versions of existing characters and a few drastic changes, mostly when it comes to Globey. The kids never really got used to that one, even though we only saw the original in 13 episodes as opposed to the 32 we saw of the newer one!
The further we got into the show, the more curious I got about it and read a great book by Caseen Gaines called Inside Pee-Wee’s Playhouse that chronicled not only Reubens’ life from childhood on to super-stardom, but also the character’s life as he appeared in a variety of different film, television and commercial projects. It also got into the various controversies that Reubens has been involved in, which put him out of the limelight for a long time. Of course, I didn’t get into any of that with the kids, but I was able to impart a lot of interesting facts to them while we watched about how various aspects of the show came to be, including the changes between the first and second seasons.
It also helped me figure out what else we should watch. HBO recorded the original stage version called The Pee-Wee Herman Show way back in 1981. That one’s a lot more bawdy, apparently, so I’ll be watching it on my own instead of with the kiddos. It also sounded like the second film, Big Top Pee-Wee, might be a little too out-there. I’ll give that one a watch on my own and see if it makes sense for them.
We did watch The Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special, though, thanks to a DVD borrowed from the library. Unlike the series, this one featured a lot of celebrities making cameos and having a great time with the holiday season including Cher, Little Richard, Whoopi Goldberg, Magic Johnson, Grace Jones and others. The kids had no idea who any of them were, but it really didn’t matter because the show is jam-packed with real life people they didn’t know ahead of time. I had a great time basking in the festive weirdness, though.
Finally, we ended the journey (for now) with the 2011 DVD of HBO’s The Pee-Wee Herman Show On Broadway, which featured Reubens’ super-fun return to the character by way of a stage show. The general idea revolved around Pee-Wee’s pal Sergio, an electrician, rewiring the Playhouse so Herman can get a computer, which does not sit well with Conky, Globey or Magic Screen. We also get to see Miss Yvonne (still played by Stewart) and Cowboy Curtis (now portrayed by Phil LaMarr) and have a generally awesome time.
It’s wild to think that, even with as much Pee-Wee as we’ve watched, we still have a few more things to check out like Big Top — if it seems appropriate — and the latest installment, Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday, a Netflix original. For a while, all the kids wanted to watch was Pee-Wee, which was actually pretty great. The nostalgia was definitely there for me, but I also realized that it’s a damn good show that’s funny, entertaining, artfully crafted, wonderfully weird and educational. Pee-Wee might not be the most rational or level-headed guy on the planet, but that’s how a lot of kids are too, so it makes sense that they enjoy him so much.