When Pee-wee’s Playhouse opened its red vinyl door to viewers on Sept. 13, 1986, it didn’t look like anything else on children’s TV — and that’s not just because the host was a gleefully immature grown man in a too-small suit. At the time, most kids’ shows were thinly veiled toy commercials (Pound Puppies) or brainless movie spin-offs (Teen Wolf), but what creator Paul Reubens — who’d been playing Pee-wee on stage, TV, and the big screen for eight years — wanted to produce was a series that could captivate both hyperactive kids and their pop culture-savvy parents. ”I was a huge fan of Rocky and Bullwinkle,” he says. ”When I saw that as an adult, I went, ‘Look at all the stuff that went over my head!’ [I felt] it would be fun to put stuff in there that operated for adults.” He thus balanced the show’s child-friendly aspects — characters like a talking chair and a gaggle of chatty window-box flowers, and Pee-wee’s random assortment of toys (e.g., a gigantic ball of aluminum foil) — with double entendres, a cast of improv stars, and a Cyndi Lauper-crooned theme song composed and co-written by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh.
Over its five-year run, Playhouse won 22 Emmy awards, furthered the careers of Laurence Fishburne and S. Epatha Merkerson, and cemented Pee-wee’s status as one of the most beloved antiestablishment heroes in recent comic history. As the series’ 20th anniversary approaches, Cartoon Network is airing all 45 episodes on its late-night Adult Swim programming block, and Reubens is readying the first Pee-wee film in nearly two decades. EW tracked down the cast and crew for a nostalgic look back at Playhouse’s construction — a tale of malfunctioning puppets, clog-dancing divas, and the most famous black cowboy of all time. Intrigued? Well, come in…and pull yourself up a chair.
I: CHILD’S PLAY
In 1978, Reubens, a Sarasota, Fla., native in his mid-20s who’d made a few Gong Show appearances, was performing as a member of L.A.’s Groundlings improv troupe when he debuted a new character, a ”comic who was never gonna make it.”
Reubens: It came out fully fleshed. Director Gary Austin gave me a suit that was handmade for him. Somebody handed me a tie before I went on: ”Here’s this little-kid bow tie.” The voice was from [when] I was in a production of Life With Father in Florida — I turned the character into this cartoon.
By the end of the 1970s, Pee-wee was a recurring Groundlings character, and Reubens was drawing casting agents’ attention on both coasts. He soon scored an audition for a regular gig on Saturday Night Live.
Reubens: I was starting to be in a lot of those ”up and coming” sections of magazines. It really seemed like I was going to be on SNL. It was a year Lorne Michaels did not produce. I walked in the room, [saw comic Gilbert Gottfried], and I said, ”It’s not going to be both of us. We’re the same type of performer.” I knew then I wasn’t going to get it.