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TBTS Reviews: The Pee Wee Herman Show

March 27, 2011

When I was a kid, I grew up very near to a small video store attached to a grocery store, in walking distance from my house. Since, at that age, I was a virtual sponge for anything committed to celluloid, and since my parents had a fairly lax policy concerning R-rated movies on video (nothing too in-your-face inappropriate, but iconic 80’s films like Police Academy or The Untouchables slipped through often, along with your standard Private Resorts and Easy Moneys and April Fools Days), I’ve often believed that it’s not much of a stretch of imagination that I may have viewed many, if not most, of the major-release films from the years of 1983 to 1993. Easily almost all the ones skewing PG-13 and younger, along with many of the R-rated movies, and it didn’t even really matter what the film was. I wasn’t discerning. Could’ve been great, could’ve been terrible. And some were even rented and watched repeatedly within the three days I had the tape. This is why today I can claim to be able to make a legitimate run at the world record for number of times I’ve seen The Man with Two Brains. Or any of the Nightmare on Elm Streets.

But my childhood of absorbing terrible movies isn’t the point here. My point is that one VHS tape in particular at the Clyde’s Supermarket Video Store bore traces of my Doritos’-smeared fingerprints more than any other. That video was the original Pee Wee Herman Show, a live taping of Paul Reubens’ midnight Groundlings show in L.A., which aired on HBO in 1981. It was one of my absolute favorites. I loved it so much that when that video store went out of business, I bought the videotape, which stayed with me for years until I believe I sold it to POPS Resale, the finest re-sale shop in the tri-state area, after I realized it was all DVDs for me from there on out.

To say that the character Pee Wee Herman was a major comic influence on my youth was a given. Each Saturday morning I’d eat my fourth bowl of Apple Jacks on the floor of our living room as Pee Wee’s Playhouse aired on Channel 9. I still count Pee Wee’s Big Adventure as one of my top five movies of all time; it’s a magnificently absurd version of Kerouac’s On the Road, and still likely Tim Burton’s best film. I know I’m not the only one among us, either, who holds Pee Wee in an elite pantheon of childhood favorites. Truly, Paul Reubens’ is a wild story of stardom, fall from grace, and triumphant return to the hearts of those who’d never forgotten him (the entire origin story of Pee Wee’s beginning and early days is chronicled beautifully by Reubens himself on a recent SXSW episode of Comedy Death-Ray Radio, which I highly recommend it if you’re interested).

In some weird, bizarre way, the character of Pee Wee was not unlike a Winnie the Pooh for a certain generation — truly, you cannot be of a certain age demographic and not have been affected by the mania with which he swept the country in the late 80’s. Then, just as we were growing up, Pee Wee simply disappeared. Yes, yes, we all know the story, let’s move on. But it was as if Reubens had let Pee Wee go, just as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle literally dropped Sherlock Holmes off a cliff when he felt the character had run its course. Now he’s back, perhaps just in time to rescue those thirty-something year-old kids from a world of cynicism they’ve grown into, in a recent Broadway retooling (now airing on HBO) of 1981’s The Pee Wee Herman Show. And, like Pooh, he’s back when we need that return to innocence most.

As the show begins, Pee Wee emerges from behind a red curtain to greet the audience, leading them in the Pledge of Allegiance before the show begins. But as that curtain pulls back, it’s nearly impossible to contain a gasp as the set  reveals a to-the-letter reproduction of Pee Wee’s infamous playhouse from his morning show, complete with the entire gang: Globey, Mr. Window, Chairy, Terry, Magic Screen, Randy, even the King of Cartoons makes a stop in to say hello. Believe me, it’s all there. Just as we remember it.

The new Pee Wee Herman Show follows the same similar structure of the original, with many of the same actors returning in the same roles: Lynne Marie Stewart as the “lovely” Miss Yvonne, John Paragon as the disembodied head of genie Jambi, and John Moody as Mailman Mike. The only omission is the absent  but not forgotten Phil Hartman as theCaptain Carl (Hartman died tragically in 1998). Veteran comic Phil LaMarr fills in for Laurence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis, and new cast members dot the landscape — though not so much to take away from the good feelings of the original.

The plot, of course, remains the same — Miss Yvonne pines desperately for Cowboy Curtis as Pee Wee longs for his wish to be able to fly to come true. A new millenium sublot exists in electrician Sergio’s (Jesse Garcia) attempts to wire the playhouse for Pee Wee’s new computer, with ample nods given to the thought that Pee Wee doesn’t really need to be plugged in to the modern world — there’s even an, easy, winking throwaway joke that Magic Screen pre-dated laptops and iPads. A scene where Pee Wee dances a spotlit choreographed number with Chairy is almost wistful, as if we’re watching two old pals reunite. 

The amazing thing about The Pee Wee Herman Show is that Reubens himself, who is now nearly sixty years old, has stepped back into the role in an almost Dorian Grey-esque fashion; he doesn’t miss a beat as he calls back Pee Wee’s trademark bon mots, he hasn’t aged a day, and his precocious energy remains at eleven. And perhaps that’s what makes this production so special — truly, it exists precisely how we remembered it, in all its wide-eyed and unsarcastic glory. There are few things which could disappear for over twenty years and return unscathed. Yet it has, completely. It’s a throwback that works. It’s not a money grab; it feels at its core to be a true, return to form.

Both The Pee Wee Herman Show and Pee Wee’s Playhouse were odd creatures in that they were nods to children’s programming of the fifties and sixties, yet were still geared to young viewers. It would have been too easy for Reubens to design the new Pee Wee Herman Show as a revue of past glories seen through the sardonic filter of adulthood, especially for the generation this show is geared toward. But Reubens has kept it simple and youthful throughout, realizing that his demographic may well be bringing their own children to the production. The only “adult” jokes in the show pertain to Pee Wee’s abstinence ring, an amusing and subversive setpiece about a deep-fat-frier, and a farcical sequence wherein Sergio shuts off the power in the playhouse. Even at that, however, none of the jokes are broad or obvious enough for a child to “get” them, and that’s the beauty of the entire endeavor. Reubens isn’t sending-up the character or the medium — he seems to have kept it frozen and true for the past many years, and he’s inviting us to become children again, alongside our own children, and it gives one goosebumps to discover how well that works.

The new Pee Wee Herman Show is, down to every subtle nuance, an antidote to the adage “you can’t go home again.” Reubens proves you can go home again, and that not everything has to morph into a dirty joke or hipster recollection. We’re in an age where twenty- and thirty-somethings are being barraged by re-imaginings of their childhoods, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Tron to G.I. Joe. Yet nothing seems to me to have worked quite as well as The Pee Wee Herman Show. It proves that not everything needs to be run through the creative process to be “updated,” nor do we as a generation really need anything more than simply what we loved to begin with. Reubens gives us that reprieve, if only for an hour and a half. That, in all its glorious splendor, is why Pee Wee, his playhouse, his friends and his complete purity of character, will always doggedly guard and keep cryogenically frozen a youth to which we can never physically return — yet offer to let us have it enjoy it again whenever we seem to need it.

Though live performances of The Pee Wee Herman Show on Broadway have ended,  a broadcast of its live performance can currently be viewed on HBO.

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