“Pee-wee’s Playhouse” premiered on CBS in 1986, the year I graduated from high school, which means I was probably too old for it. Or maybe too young. Or possibly just right.
That was the thing about Pee-wee Herman, the creation of Paul Reubens, who died on Sunday at 70, and the character’s combination of child’s play, burlesque comedy and avant-garde art. You were either ready for it or you never would be.
Those of us who were on its wavelength gained admission to a play-date in a kooky living room, full of anthropomorphic toys and furniture, hosted by a bow-tied pogo stick of a man-boy who bopped off the walls and opened his door to a string of eccentric neighbors. (Among them was a young Laurence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis, wielding an animated lasso.) The overstuffed set, with its midcentury candy palette and zigzag angles, looked like a B-52s album you could live inside.
Pee-wee the character was a parody — a high-on-Pixy-Stix exaggeration of the clean-cut kids’ hosts of the 1950s, a Howdy Doody who brought himself to life. But he was also the thing itself.
There was nothing mocking about Reubens’s performance. It was exultant and joyful. He grimaced and giggled and barked. His character wasn’t a Mister Rogers or Captain Kangaroo, a wise grown-up who kept the fun under control. He was a kid himself, who knew that kids wanted to lose control for a half-hour, to laugh at dumb jokes, to scream real loud! at the secret word.
An earlier version of the Playhouse, based on a Reubens stage show, aired on HBO as “The Pee-wee Herman Show” in 1981. It was as much downtown art performance as variety show and more explicitly adult than “Playhouse” would be. (Jambi the Genie, a disembodied head who floats in a magic box, receives a pair of mail-order hands and tells Pee-wee, “I’ve had something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”)
“Playhouse” premiered a year after the Tim Burton movie “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” elevated the character from cult favorite to mass phenomenon and minter of catchphrases. (“I know you are, but what am I?”) But “Playhouse” seemed more radical by virtue of its placement: Saturday mornings on CBS.
The era “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” aired in, from 1986 to 1990, was an anarchically in-between time for TV. The big three networks still dominated, with cautious programming; “The Cosby Show” still served up hugging and learning.
But pockets of weirdness were starting to bubble up from the deep. David Letterman was making late-night on NBC into a comedy mad-science lab. “The Simpsons” made the leap from “Tracey Ullman Show” featurette to global obsession. “Twin Peaks” briefly showed that TV’s most enigmatic show could be its most popular.
“Playhouse” was possibly the most unlikely experiment of this time, yet it made perfect sense. Kids are wigged-out surrealists by nature; it takes grown-ups to regiment their impulses into predictable TV formats. This is why “My 5-year-old could make that” has always been a misguided insult. Maybe a 5-year-old could imagine something like “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” but only a genius like Reubens could do it as an adult.
In the Playhouse, everything was alive — a globe, the floor, the food in the refrigerator. People could be however, and look however, they wanted. Everyone was invited, including the androgynous and queer. (The show’s Christmas special, one of the wildest creations in the holiday’s 2000-year history, included appearances by Grace Jones and k.d. lang.)
But to call “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” ahead of its time would unduly flatter ours. Yes, Reubens, always suspect among a certain sector of killjoy parents and scolds, was taken down by the pieties of his time. When he was arrested at an adult movie theater in 1991, CBS pulled reruns of the series off the air.
But I can only imagine the freak-outs our umbrage industry would have over the show if it were new today. Are people mad about drag queen story hours? Everything on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” was a form of drag, a glitzy dress-up party that played around with definitions of gender and propriety and normalcy. In one episode, Pee-wee married a fruit salad (a play on the show’s running joke of, “If you love X so much, why don’t you marry it?”). Surely there would be a law against fruitrimony in Florida by now.
But in the Playhouse, which recognized no governing authority other than the King of Cartoons, the only rule was that there were no rules. Reubens, as Pee-wee, pushed his audience to be accepting of the weird and ambiguous and uncategorizable. We know he was. But what are we?