To watch “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” which debuted on CBS in 1986, is to find oneself tossed headlong into wonder. An amalgam of allusions, textures, and styles, creator and star Paul Reubens’ cracked vision registers as both nostalgic and ahead of its time — the bridge between the children’s television of midcentury (“The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” “Captain Kangaroo,” “Howdy Doody”) and the new millennium (“Spongebob Squarepants,” “Phineas and Ferb,” “Adventure Time”). “This place is a madhouse!” the haughty, snooping Mrs. Steve (Shirley Stoler) proclaims in the series premiere, and she’s right. “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” asks viewers to hole up in their imaginations and throw away the key.
Though I’m old enough to remember sitting on the floor in front of the television each Saturday morning, enveloped by “Playhouse,” “Land of the Lost,” and candlepin bowling as I sipped my strawberry milk, my formative experience of Reubens’ cult classic came in college. During the series’ brief syndication by Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim,” I watched “Playhouse” half-stoned on more than one occasion, unable to follow the antic proceedings but nonetheless convinced that what I was seeing couldn’t possibly be for children. I marveled at the idea, for instance, of a seven-year-old listening in as the beatnik avian puppet Chicky Baby (voiced by Alison Mork) recited this poem:
Reality is so unreal, like walking up a flight of stairs that lead nowhere. Swimming in mashed potatoes. Where’s the gravy, baby? If you wish to make a call, please hang up and dial again. A bunch of balloons, a funny clown, is the circus in town? The end.
With the release of Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray edition of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Complete Series,” I realize that I undersold both “Playhouse” and its young audience. Profoundly resistant to received wisdom, the series is a subversive paean to the democracy of play: for Pee-wee and his anthropomorphic cast of friends, no diversion — grotesque toys, talking armchairs, pearl-wearing cows — is too outlandish to consider. “Get outta bed, there’ll be no more nappin’,” as Cyndi Lauper sings in the series’ theme, “’cause you’ve landed in a place where anything can happen!”
Indeed, if “Playhouse” can be said to possess a narrative through-line, it’s the antipathy for those adults who arrive, on occasion, to impose order. Whether it’s Mrs. Steve, the traveling salesman (Ric Heitzman), or Reba the mailwoman (S. Epatha Merkerson), the closest the series comes to a villain is logic itself. “Are you sure there’s nothing wrong with you?” Reba asks Pee-wee in one early episode, just before making him sign for a package in a dozen places. In “Playhouse,” the rules we learn to follow as we age turn out to be a flight of stairs that lead nowhere, scarcely more sensible than any childhood game.
As evidenced by Shout! Factory’s superb re-mastering of the series’ visual and aural collage, the very form of “Playhouse” illustrates this point. The craftsmanship is remarkable, and remarkably varied: animation, claymation, animatronics, puppetry, and live action coalesce in a set that suggests what might happen if your little brother commissioned Takashi Murakami to decorate a backyard fort in the style of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” (In this vein, my favorite regular feature is “Penny,” which transforms a young girl’s rambling, quotidian anecdotes into a series of surrealist animated shorts.) As imagined in the wistful title sequence, scored by Wes Anderson stalwart Mark Mothersbaugh, the playhouse itself is a paradisiacal mash-up in a pristine forest — a dreamscape mercifully isolated from the strange and unreal reality that is adulthood, as seen through children’s eyes.
This is, of course, the central premise of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” which for all its anarchic influence on the children’s television I loved growing up (“Ren & Stimpy,” “Rocco’s Modern Life,” and especially “The Animaniacs”) offers a much gentler view of the universe. Against the evil masterminds, apocalyptic landscapes, and Manichean battles that comprise so much of the material marketed to children and young adults, “Playhouse” seems especially humane in its argument for creative freedom and a diversity of perspectives. Penny, Chicky Baby, Pee-wee, and the other residents of this wondrous madhouse become the narrators of their own stories, which may be the most liberating role of all.
“Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Complete Series” is now available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory.