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Still From ‘Pee Wee’s Playhouse’ Photo by John Kisch Archive/Getty Images

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Paul Reubens challenged TV to be weird with Pee-wee’s Playhouse

The campy counterculture of the show is so much of what’s missing from today’s pop culture

The world of Pee-wee’s Playhouse was a realm of kinetic fantasies. A home where your imaginary friends might live. Claymation dinosaurs resided in the walls. All the furniture was alive and chatty. There was an in-house band of puppet beatniks. The exterior of the Playhouse, a lush and ornamented brush that yearned to be explored, sat snowmen next to sphinxes.

In reality, Pee-wee’s Playhouse was a converted loft below a garment sweatshop at Bleecker and Broadway, around the corner from CBGB. The show, which ran on Saturday mornings on CBS, clearly drew from the surrounding scenes. Sets and props were designed by underground cartoonist Gary Panter. Music was composed by Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh with an uncredited Cyndi Lauper on vocals. Young Rob Zombie and John Singleton happened to be PAs. CBS gave Pee-wee Herman creator Paul Reubens near unlimited creative control, albeit no TV studio. The result was a one-of-a-kind kids’ show that didn’t seek to subvert as much as awaken a greater appetite for outsider art and idiosyncrasies. It would echo for generations.

In Reagan’s reactionary America, politics and pop culture hewed to a certain vision: aspiring to a tidy, 1950s-style inverse to the perceived degeneracy and decadence of the decades since, as if to say that the root of Western decay was a lack of heteronormative single-income families and lawn care. It was an easy target for underground and emerging artists, who remembered a pre-Civil Rights, pre-Sexual Revolution era as hardly idyllic. This tone became the default for most American countercultures. John Waters, David Lynch, The B-52’s, The Cramps, the Church of the SubGenius, and Tim Burton all investigated these themes. Reubens was no different. His Americana was a blur of Florida tourist traps, B-movies, and outsiders. Rejected from SNL, he and comedy collaborators Phil Hartman and John Paragon created a boozy LA stage show send-up of Soupy Sales and Captain Kangaroo.

Doll-faced and over caffeinated, Pee-wee Herman would transcend the Saturday morning clowns and captains whose image he was created in. After Letterman appearances and Tim Burton’s feature film debut, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, the giggly manchild became a phenomenon, a prism for new wave art as much as a portion of it. Counterculture clung to Pee-wee’s Playhouse like a giant ball of foil, welcoming all the camp, kitsch, and clutter that motivated Reubens. Even Herman himself has an air of drag, living in a toybox while dressed like an accountant, fidgety like a boy forced into his Sunday best for school pictures.

It was a collage of pink flamingos, pogo punk, puppetry, public domain cartoons, singing, dancing, and screaming. The most curious thing about Playhouse’s success and its menagerie of material was how little it had to be translated for young audiences. Pee-wee’s Playhouse believed that children had the capacity to understand art if given the opportunity. With only minor tweaks from the adult-aimed stage show that ran on the Sunset Strip, millions of children tuned in weekly to wonder at this free-form dream in action.

TV welcomed weirdness for many years after. You can use crayons to draw the lines from Pee-wee to The Simpsons, Animaniacs, Twin Peaks, Get a Life, Mr. Show, SpongeBob SquarePants, Adventure Time, MTV, and Adult Swim (where Pee-wee’s Playhouse would end up rebroadcasted). Each built on Pee-wee’s legacy of irreverence and adoration for counterculture with new genre-bending, medium-mixing, taste-shattering, brain-melted, no-brow heights. Traditions of very smart people in love with pulp and trash. But it didn’t last forever.

Still From ‘Pee Wee’s Playhouse’ Photo: John Kisch Archive/Getty Images

Today, commercial entertainment too often feels assembled in a sterilized lab. Netflix boasts about its internal metrics to investors and how it crafts television around user trends. Disney — who should never be trusted as an arbiter of cool — has assimilated the lion’s share of entertainment into its bloated Magic Kingdom. I’m not going to be precious and pretend that Viacom or Warner Bros. were altruistic. Greenlighting Space Ghost or Liquid Television (also produced by Playhouse’s Prudence Fenton) was almost certainly as profit-driven as anything else. At the very least, the environment exposed an artistic possibility that new generations are clearly craving, culture can service raw creative impulses instead of a 20-year plan.

Digital platforms and streaming libraries are, at best, mirages of cultural democracy. Unseen algorithms service themselves. Streamers have forgone archiving even their own original material. But, going off-road, teens are carrying TikTok trends that resemble Hieronymus Bosch triptychs. The kids got the stuff. They should be entrusted to interpret all the splendors of risk, past, present, and future, without necessitating it be viral or an Easter egg on Stranger Things.

The culture wars, fixated on pop culture but especially cartoons, are exhausting. Which isn’t to say good, weird art is apolitical, but to draw a door with your finger and walk through it. Transcend routines that bad faith and online feedback loops thrive on. Be loud, earnest, and out there.

Playhouse was an inverse of the TV landscape and hyper-conscious of the political atmosphere. Herman, snooty and at times narcissistic, left a lot of room for a lesson of the week about kindness and acceptance, but he was hardly a Punky Brewster. A grown man learning to share his toys from an actual child is in itself a high-camp separation from reality. The queer undertones of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, the fact that Black performers like Laurence Fishburne and Gilbert Lewis played cowboys and kings, that there was a welcoming space where all this could happen — all intentional. You can only imagine what the world’s most annoying people would have to say if a new Christmas special featured a carol performed by k.d. lang.

When I spoke to Reubens in 2015 ahead of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, directed by Wonder Showzen’s John Lee, he emphasized how happy he was to be surrounded by creative people. It’s no mystery how he magnetized the fringest and strangest of his time. What was supposed to be a 15-minute call went on for hours as he kept asking about my own niche interests (pinball, monster movies, the fact my dad makes teddy bears).

Even then, Reubens suffered a lot of doubts. Interrogating and questioning why people would continue to adore a nearly 40-year-old children’s show, doubting his fan base’s persistence, if not existence. I assured him his fans were very real, very passionate, and the influence of his genius was obvious. He was very sensitive to receiving love, and I’m glad he received so much of it. The best wish we can grant going forward is to ensure a platform and appetite for the next great, unhinged Pee-wee Herman. That they aren’t denied whatever puppets and potpourri needed to fly.

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