I can distinctly remember watching Batman Returns as an 11-year old kid and being confused by the fact that Pee-wee Herman was throwing a baby into the Gotham City sewage system. The brief role of the Penguin’s father at the beginning of the film was played by Paul Reubens and not his grey suit-wearing alter ego. But, for my money, there was no difference. I was aware of the fact that Pee-wee wasn’t a real person. But it still didn’t make sense to see Reubens as anything other than the eternal man-child that made him famous.
After springing into worldwide fame in 1981 with the premier of HBO’s The Pee-wee Herman Show, Pee-wee set off on two cinematic adventures and stared in five iconic seasons of the Saturday morning staple Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
But after that, the world didn’t hear much of Pee-wee for most of the next twenty-plus years. Had he grown up? Matured? Traded in his bicycle for a mini-van and a quiet adult life in the suburbs?
Thankfully, the answers to these horrifying questions — as well as a giant dose of nostalgia — came last year with Reubens returning Pee-wee to the stage in an updated revival of The Pee-wee Herman Show. After wildly-successful runs in LA and on Broadway, the brand new show made its television premiere last Saturday on HBO. And it did not disappoint.
In signature Pee-wee fashion, the new 90-minute show brilliantly balances adult humor with childlike wonder and mischief. Topical barbs about global warming, same-sex marriage, and abstinence rings — as well as a series of bawdy one-liners taking place during a risqué playhouse power outage — should fly comfortably above the heads of any children in the viewing audience.
As Reubens shared in his recent interview on the Comedy Death-Ray podcast, it was actually a scene involving a deep fat fryer that made him the most nervous. But the scene, which depicts the untimely end of a new playhouse character via boiling hot fryer grease, is really pretty innocuous.
All in all, the time is spent reconnecting with old friends. The memory-rich playhouse set is revealed with a unique flourish, and receives a rowdy ovation from the crowd. As do the characters that fill it up. Chairry, still sitting in the same spot, enjoys her own musical duet with Pee-wee. Jambi still waits inside his box, ready at any minute to let out a “Mecca lecca hi, mecca hiney ho.” Pterri swoops down occasionally to brag about his ability to fly. Conky reveals the scream-inducing word of the day. Globy takes every opportunity to provide a geography lesson. The King of Cartoons and Mailman Mike make their usual deliveries.
As before, the plot of the show bounces back and forth between several different story lines. Pee-wee laments his inability to achieve human flight. Sergio spends the duration wiring the playhouse with new neon cables in anticipation of Pee-wee’s first foray into the world of computers (a sharp sequence that provides a skewering of the dangers of social networking). And, of course, there is the beautiful Miss Yvonne and her quest for love. Most notably, her affection is trained this time on Cowboy Curtis instead of Captain Carl, a change necessitated by the fact that no man could ever fill the seafaring shoes of the late Phil Hartman, who originated the role.
But perhaps the show’s greatest achievement may be that the nearly 60-year old Reubens is able to seamlessly resurrect the character, preserving all of his wacky peccadilloes, without any visible cracks. It’s a huge achievement. Though his face may show a few more wrinkles, Pee-wee still plays as a uniquely-timeless character: a product of 1950’s nostalgia, a product of 1980’s nostalgia, and a product of today — just as able as ever to delight a new generation of giddy children.
Here’s hoping it’s not years before we see Pee-wee again. There is a lot of talk of a new movie coming down the pike, courtesy of Judd Apatow. While it remains to be seen if that will ever materialize or instead disappear into the huge pile of discarded Pee-wee projects the years have amassed, but for at least one night it was really great to be back in the playhouse.
Colin Perkins is an author and comedian who has written for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,
McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, CollegeHumor, Cracked and mental_floss.