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‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse’: Avant-Garde Art, But, You Know, For Kids!

'Pee-wee's Playhouse': Avant-Garde Art, But, You Know, For Kids!

The era of Saturday morning cartoons may have ended (at least on network TV), but it’s a safe bet there’s never been more entertainment aimed directly at children. The trouble is, as any parent can tell you, the vast majority of it is garbage — sub-par junk aimed at consumers presumed to be too indiscriminate to care. It is, sadly, true that kids like crap, but the lack of oversight and lax quality control for children’s programming means that it’s possible to get away with murder, artistically speaking. If you want to do something crazily inventive without being restrained by what audiences will and won’t get, aim it at children (or stoners, or children and stoners). 

“Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” whose five complete seasons have just been released on Blu-ray by Shout! Factory, represents one of the strangest confluences of pre-established talent in the history of television. The show’s set was designed by underground cartoonist Gary Panter, a veteran of Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s landmark anthology Raw; the theme was sung by a pseudonymous Cyndi Lauper and composed by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh; other music was contributed by The Residents, Van Dyke Parks, Todd Rundgren and many more. And it was all overseen by Paul Reubens, Pee-wee himself, who told Rolling Stone’s David Fear that he was “involved in pretty much every aspect of it.”

And that cast! Phil Hartman, a veteran of Pee-wee’s first incarnation at Los Angeles’ Groundlings theater; S. Epatha Merkerson as Reba the Mail Lady; a pre-teen Natasha Lyonne as part of the Playhouse gang; and Laurence Fishburne as the genial Cowboy Curtis. Casting an African-American actor as an avatar of the American West is typical of the show’s plainspoken subversion; as Fisburne told Entertainment Weekly, “I always wanted to play a cowboy… He’s just a little different than the cowboy I expected I would wind up playing.”

With the cleaned-up image of Shout!’s Blu-rays — derived, for the first time ever, from the original 16mm elements — the hyperreality of “Playhouse’s” supersaturated colors is clearer than ever, as is the Rube Goldberg intricacy of Pee-wee’s fantastical home. If Tim Burton’s “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” thrived on dropping his manchild into the real(ish) world, where he could be laughed at by the likes of Jan Hooks’ Alamo tour guide, “Playhouse” is set entirely in his world, a place that feels both elaborate — per-episode cost estimates range from $350,000 to over half a million — and handmade. 

“Playhouse’s” secret is simple, although not easy to put in practice. As Reubens told Rolling Stone:

One of the few things I feel that the show did really well was that we never talked down to kids. It was a show that assumed its viewers were very young but very smart. It never seemed like a kid’s show if you actually were a kid. Does that make sense? We weren’t under the auspices of something like the Children’s Television Workshop, where a certain part of the content has to be educational, I’m guessing. We tried to disguise anything that might seem overtly like a lesson or a lecture, but we still got some important points across. It’s tough to make a kid’s show; it’s even tougher to make a kid’s show that real kids like. And I take great pride in the fact that that’s what we did.

When adults say that something brings out the kid in them, they usually means it appeals to a kind of naïve, pre-cynical sweetness. But “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” appeals to a different kind of inner child, the one who’s willing to set what few preconceptions he or she has accumulated aside and disappear into an utterly fantastic world, only to find that it’s not so strange after all.

Here’s a look at the restored opening sequence in all its glory:

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