Henry 3: Parents at the time were nervous about the show and the influence it might have on young people because they were “spooked” by the Pee-Wee personality. Mr. Rogers seems much more contained in his effeminacy while Pee-Wee was flamboyant and in your face, yet they are drawing on the same cultural reservoir, where men who spend too much time and show too much interest in children as seen as, well, a little abnormal. Yet, children always felt a strong kinship with Pee-Wee, embraced his innocence and playfulness, and that may be why the character is receiving such an out-pouring of love and affection from young adults right now.
Where adults some ambiguities about gender and sexuality, kids saw a “mystery” about how an adult could act like a kid or how a kid could look like an adult. Here’s what I wrote in “Going Bonkers” about the appeal of the show to you and your kindergarten classmates: “What makes Pee-Wee’s Playhouse ‘fun’ for the preschoolers, then, is the way that it operates as a kind of anti-kindergarten where playful ‘misbehavior’ takes precedence over ‘good conduct,’ children are urged to ‘scream real loud’ at the slightest provocations, making a mess is an acknowledged source of pleasure, ‘grown-ups’ act like children and parental strictures no longer apply.”
So, it sounds like I may have gotten it right if you imagine yourself seeing Pee-Wee’s campy moments in terms of “getting wacky…being snotty…going cuckoo” as the title song for the old series put it or “going bonkers” as you described it to me so many years ago. The point I made was that you and the other kids used the phrase, “going bonkers” to refer to what they found amusing about Pee-Wee and what embarrased them about the behavior of their classmates at school. Pee-Wee somehow created a space where it was OK to “go bonkers” and it may also have been a space where sexually charged jokes can never-the-less come across as sexually innocent.
Pee-Wee always surrounds such jokes with an air of plausible deniability. That’s why one of the most striking moments in the stage performance for me was when the show does an overt shout out to the progress towards gay marriage in response to a “why don’t you marry her” joke between Pee-Wee and Chairy. It’s impossible to imagine such a joke on the original show, where the gay references were a matter of coding — the use of iconic gay figures like the black cowboy or the fireman, use of sexually ambiguous figures like Reba the Mail-Lady or the drag queen like persona of Miss Yvonne, campy re-readings of vintage educational films (like the manners film so ripe in subtext shown during the play), and prissy gestures (especially around Pee-Wee and Jambi) and campy jokes (like the Sham-Wow or other infomercial themed gags running through the show) — but this gag rests on a shared understanding between the performers and the audience that the show is actively promoting gay marriage.
We can think of this as the moment Pee-Wee comes out of the closet, only to close the door again. By comparison, characters spend half of the play coming in and out of the bathroom and Pee-Wee could joke about “playing with himself” on the original series while taping up his face in front of the bathroom mirror. The networks famously prohibited the show from depicting Pee-Wee exiting the bathroom with tissue stuck to the bottom of his shoe, a joke that nevertheless made it on the air during the first season.
So, yes, adults and children watch different shows — and that’s always been part of the fun. The original stage production had both late night shows with all-adult audiences and early matinees just for kids, but they met happily in the middle, laughing at the same gags, often for very different reasons.
Henry 4: One of the best discoveries for me in reading you article was your fairly deep psychological analysis of the ways kids distance themselves from Pee Wee, even as they identify with him. You’re certainly right that I cringed when classmates ran around knocking things over and screeching because I wanted to feel more grown up than they were. I was an only child, and I wanted to feel special. In a family of graduate students that meant being serious all the time. But watching Pee-Wee’s Playhouse did give me a safe time to be a kid, if only vicariously.
One of the kids you interviewed, Kate, described her dream of opening a construction company – a surprisingly practical goal for a five year old girl. But when you asked her if she would build a playhouse for Pee-Wee she said, “I would tell them that I saw that show that they wanted, but I have a lot of work to do and I can’t do it… And I don’t like, when I go home home, you see, my boss, he likes me to work and not go home and watch TV all the time.” Kate’s story makes me really sad. She’s trying so hard to earn respect that she can’t allow herself to be five. It starts that young.
I could be way off, but I’m guessing Kate’s father worked for a construction company, and that she was basically modeling her ideal future self after him.
You, of course, spent a lot of your time writing; so one of the ways I learned to feel grown up and earn approval was to write. Perhaps partially because you studied fan cultures, and partially because I had such a mismatched pile of action figures, I found it natural to write crossover stories about TV characters. As you accurately describe one of my typical plots, “Batman and Dr. Who can join forces to combat Count Dracula and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.” (That’s The Doctor, by the way. Not Dr. Who.)
Anyway, I may not have put myself in a room with Pee-Wee either, but I liked the idea that I could control what happened next in the story. I came up with hypotheses – “What if…?” or “What would Pee-Wee say if…?”
I therefore find it all the more revealing that I ended up following such a similar path when I grew up.
For a while after college I became a screenwriter for a regional professional wrestling company. As it happens, wrestlers, like Pee-Wee, tend to go bonkers and act like children in grown up bodies. Every Saturday night we held another show – another installment of the story – and I had a definite role in deciding what happened next. In learning to write for the characters, I often tried to capture the voice of particular WWF and WWE wrestlers who represented similar archteypes.
I thought of my job in very practical terms. I was trying to build my resume, collect a portfolio, make industry contacts. But turn the picture around just slightly and you see a very different picture. In a sense, I was able to make my childhood idols act out stories like giant action figures and use the crowd the way a child would use teddy bears at a tea party. They were there to enjoy my presentation.
Currently I am a TV critic and entertainment reporter at BuddyTV, a Seattle dot com. Last week I attended a party at CBS to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Survivor. 250 of the 301 former contestants were there, dancing and talking all around me. Since I have seen every episode of the show’s 19 seasons to date, that was a hair-raisingly exciting opportunity for me as a fan, let alone a reporter. To add to the crossover feel, I was especially excited to run into former WWE wrestler and Survivor contestant Ashley Massaro, who I had previously only encountered from the stands of 70,000 seat stadiums.
As it happens, I had already been friends with past contestants, and had known a few before they became TV “characters.” I have a far more nuanced sense than most of the line between the people and their on-screen counterparts, the real life events and the TV storylines. But none the less, blogging could legitimately be seen as another opportunity for me to tell stories surrounding my favorite TV characters. Since I have no control over what they say or do, the only thing left to dream up are the questions. It may sound like a loss but it doesn’t feel like one. There are no action figures here. You don’t have to pull anyone’s red bow tie to make them talk. I can just ask them questions and they’ll tell me things.
My original goal had been to set up a face to face interview with Paul Reubens (or, if he preferred, Pee-Wee Herman.) It would have been a surreal and awesome moment of life coming full circle. Lots of people had childhood dreams. I guess, in a way, that was mine. Unfortunately, I couldn’t ascertain who his agent is, or how to contact them, as we normally rely heavily on long standing relationships with network laisons. Perhaps I’ll work that one out eventually.
I would like to see these career directions as a very happy ending to the dilemmas you pose about children feeling pressured to become practical and to deny their impulse to play. I play for a living, and then I do improv theater and compete on a co-ed kickball team with other young professionals for fun.
Still, I do have to admit that the fact I can’t remember Pee Wee’s Playhouse very well – or that reading about my five year old self feels like reading a fictional story – is disconcerting. Did I, at some point, divorce this other, playful personality in order to join the adult world? Are they gone? Or did I simply incorporate them?
Henry 3: When we were packing up our stuff at Senior House to get ready to move from Cambridge to Los Angeles, we stumbled upon your old Pee-Wee’s Playhouse action set in the basement. It had already survived multiple moves since Madison, but we’ve never wanted to be the parents who could be accused of tossing out our son’s old collectibles and besides, if you didn’t want it, I sure as hell did, so even though it was a bit musty and mal-shapen at this point, we packed it for another move and it remains in our new storage unit. I don’t know what it says that I can still tell you where the toy resides, more or less, while you may well have forgotten you had it.
What does this say about how childhood experiences inform parent’s cultural memory as much or more than they inform children’s recollections?
For me, there was something breathtaking when the curtains opened for the first time and we saw the playhouse there on stage (redesigned slightly by Gary Panther but more or less as we remembered it) and when we saw Pee-Wee being cradled in the loving and anthropomorphic arms of Chairy once again. The Playhouse itself was a magical place — whether as a small scale play set or as a full sized set in front of us in the theater. I felt a similar sense of breaking down the walls between fantasy and reality when I visited the Hollywood Museum recently and discovered that Pee-Wee’s legendary missing bicycle was on display there. No wonder he couldn’t find it in the basement of the Alamo, I thought; it’s been on the third floor of the old Max Factor factory all along.
In the essay, I wrote about how central the playhouse itself was in the kids drawings and the stories. Certainly they were fascinated by Pee-Wee but the Playhouse was a space “where anything could happen” and that incited their own interactions with the story. They might imagine themselves playing with Pee-Wee or not (as in Kate’s story above, where Pee-Wee could only exist as a character on a television show or another classmates where Pee-Wee lived “once upon a time in a place called Pee-Wee Land where everyone looked and acted like Pee-Wee”) but the playhouse was a space where they, too, could come and play — if only in their fantasies.
And part of what I described in the essay was the ways they interacted with and around the television show, how they “played” with its content, activity that often looked very different from adult expectations about what it meant to watch the show. Indeed, it’s content was being integrated into their everyday life and as your action figure reference above suggests, mixed up with other stories. Here’s part of how I described the party: “A large stuffed He-Man doll was used alternately as a ‘seat belt,’ lying across the lap of several children or as an imaginary playmate, addressed as a ‘naughty’ child and even spanked to the objection of some participants who felt he was not being ‘bad.’ One girl watched part of the episode through the eyes of a Man-At-Arms mask….A Silverhawks doll, with a telescopic eye, was passed around the circle so that all could get a chance to look at the ‘tiny tiny tiny TV set’ with its distorting lens.” In another words, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse had become the site of play (and provided the soundtrack for play with other television content), with kids drawing each other’s attention back to the screen when something silly or interesting happened.
A very different mode of engagement takes place when these 5 year olds, now in their late 20, go to see Pee-Wee on stage now. The Pee-Wee Herman Show is one of the most richly interactive experiences I’ve ever had in the theater. Some of it starts with Pee-Wee’s invitation to “shout real loud” whenever he says the secret word and thus the encouragement to make ourselves part of the experience of the show — an act which breaks down the fourth wall and gives us a much more immediate access to what’s happening in the playhouse. Often, interactive theater crashes and burns, producing displeasure, because the audience doesn’t know what’s expected of it, and here, we know the rules, we know what our role is, and participating is a way of returning to a more child-like state of enjoyment.
Of course, this level of passionate engagement starts well before we are invited to join — with the opening ovation we talked about earlier — and extends beyond the requested participation — the audience ended up singing along with an opening segment that incorporates familiar television jingles or in response to Magic Screen’s “connect the dots” jingle. Here, as with the Playhouse Play Set, we are invited not just to watch the show but to join the play. And for me, that was an experience I faced with uninhibited delight.
Of course, I’m still trying to adjust to a world where I can shout loud enough that Pee-Wee actually hears me. Last week, when I sent out a tweet expressing my enthusiasm about the show, Pee-Wee Herman retweeted the message to his followers with the simple addition, “fun!!” I certainly hope Pee-Wee’s having the time of his life up there. He deserves it.
Welcome back, Pee-Wee. We love you and we’ve missed you.