Thirty years ago, on September 13, 1986, Paul Reubens introduced America’s youth—and millions of its young-at-heart adults—to a new brand of Saturday morning programming when Pee-wee’s Playhouse made its triumphant debut. Over the next five years, Reubens—as his slim suit-loving, bow-tied alter ego—and his merry band of playmates (human, puppet, and otherwise) would go on to revolutionize the face of children’s television and pick up dozens of award nominations in the process. Thanks to Shout! Factory, you can own all five seasons of Reubens’s groundbreaking series on Blu-ray with Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Complete Series. To celebrate the show's anniversary, we chatted with Reubens and uncovered some things you might not know about Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
1. PEE-WEE HERMAN WAS BORN A GROUNDLING.
Pee-wee Herman “came about from an extended improv at The Groundlings,” Reubens says of the character’s origin. “We were just given an assignment to come up with a character that one might encounter in a comedy club and I came up with Pee-wee Herman.” Pee-wee’s first stage appearance was in 1977.
2. “PEE-WEE” WAS A HARMONICA.
Reubens says the character’s many distinctive traits were "a bunch of stuff all mixed in together. The voice came from a stage production that I was involved in. And then the name came from a kid I knew who was kind of off-the-wall. The name Pee-wee came from a little harmonica I had that said ‘Pee-wee’ on it. I loved the idea of a nickname, because it sounded so real to me. ‘Pee-wee Herman’ sounds like a name that is so odd, how would you make that up? If you were going to make up a name, you’d make up a better name. It seemed real to me; it was a nickname with a last name that’s also a first name… And it went hand-in-hand with what I wanted to do, which was to make people think this was a real person, not an actor.”
3. PEE-WEE’S SUIT WAS A LOANER. (BUT NOT A REBEL.)
“The director and co-founder of The Groundlings, a man named Gary Austin, loaned me his suit, which I never gave back,” Reubens says of Pee-wee’s now-iconic gray suit. “Someone else gave me a kid’s black bowtie, which I later changed out for a kid’s red bowtie. And the white shoes were mine. That’s just sort of what I put on and I had success with it so I thought, why mess with it? If it ain’t broke.”
4. PEE-WEE GOT THE GIRL ON THE DATING GAME.
Pee-wee’s debut onscreen appearance occurred in 1979, when he made his first of three appearances on The Dating Game (totally in character). “That was a little test experiment I was doing early on,” Reubens recalled to Interview Magazine. “I went to a cattle call audition for The Dating Game, and before I even got home they called me back.” On one occasion, he even won the date!
5. PEE-WEE WAS AN ANGRY HOTEL CLERK IN CHEECH & CHONG’S NEXT MOVIE.
In 1980, Pee-wee made his first big-screen appearance as a not-so-sweet hotel employee in Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie.
6. THE PEE-WEE HERMAN SHOW WAS A FIRST FOR THE GROUNDLINGS.
On February 7, 1981, Reubens helped to take The Groundlings in a new direction when he premiered The Pee-wee Herman Show at midnight, a stage show that became the group’s first piece of alternative format programming. Shortly thereafter, it moved to The Roxy on Sunset Strip, where it ran for five months. But it wasn’t an adults-only kind of thing; matinee performances proved to be fun for the whole family. Miss Yvonne, Captain Carl, Jambi, Pterri, and Clocky are some of the characters that were there from the beginning.
7. IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG FOR HBO TO COME CALLING.
Pee-wee gained national attention courtesy of HBO, which aired a taping of one of the show’s performances at The Roxy in 1981.
8. PEE-WEE KICKSTARTED TIM BURTON’S CAREER.
Following the success of The Pee-wee Herman Show, Warner Bros. approached Reubens with the idea of making a Pee-wee movie. Though the studio originally had another director in mind, several people mentioned Burton to Reubens one night at a party. “I screened Frankenweenie and I spoke to Shelley Duvall who was a friend of mine who was in Frankenweenie,” Reubens recalled to Ain’t It Cool News. “I knew Tim was the director about 15 seconds into Frankenweenie, like the second or third shot of it. I was looking at the wallpaper in this bedroom and the lighting and just going, ‘This is the guy who has style and understands art direction.’ Those were two really important things for me and my baby, I guess, and you know it just happened to luckily all work out."
9. PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE CLEANED UP AT THE BOX OFFICE.
Shot on a budget of approximately $7 million, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure earned nearly $41 million at the box office. Which, not surprisingly, led to a sequel: On July 22, 1988, Big Top Pee-wee hit theaters.
10. THE ORIGINAL CONCEPT FOR PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE WAS AN ANIMATED SERIES.
Following the financial success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, CBS approached Reubens about creating a children’s series around the character—only they wanted it to be animated. “I'd had the stage show originally, so I was much more interested in doing something closer to that, something live-action,” Reubens recently told Rolling Stone. “So when they suggested doing a cartoon, I said ‘I'm not really interested in that; let's do a real kids' show.’ I was a big Howdy-Doody freak growing up—I was actually on one show when I was a kid, in the audience—and was more interested in doing something like that. Howdy-Doody, Captain Kangaroo, a lot of the local kids' shows that were on a long time ago—those were the influences.”
11. CAPTAIN KANGAROO WAS A PEE-WEE FAN.
Bob “Captain Kangaroo” Keeshan was such a fan of Pee-wee’s Playhouse that he reviewed one of the show’s earlier video releases for Entertainment Weekly in 1996. In it, he cited the series’ “awesome production values; with the possible exception of the Muppets, you can't find such creativity anywhere on TV,” and went on to say that “star Paul Reubens is an absolute genius.”
12. REUBENS WAS GIVEN FULL CREATIVE CONTROL OF THE SHOW.
Throughout its five seasons, Reubens maintained full creative control of Pee-wee’s Playhouse and says there were only a few occasions where the network asked that something be changed. “In the first episode, the network said ‘You can't stick that pencil in that potato, because pencils are sharp, and you might encourage kids to stab things,’” Reubens recalled to The A.V. Club. “So we didn't do that. Let's see. There was an episode they got a letter about, where there was a fire in the playhouse, and a firefighter showed up and he and Miss Yvonne were flirting, and he said ‘You have to have a smoke detector,’ and she said ‘I have one in my bedroom, above the bed.’ They asked us to change that for subsequent airings of the show, so we went in and looped dialogue over it, so instead, she said ‘I have one in my kitchen.’ I put it back to the original version for the DVD release. There was a shot of a bathroom door that we held for a really long time, and you could hear Pee-wee peeing. They asked us to tone the sound of the peeing down, and add a score so it was a little less graphic. All the changes they asked us to make seemed really reasonable to me, and we accommodated them. I think in 45 episodes, there were only maybe three other changes they ever asked for.”
13. WITH CREATIVE CONTROL CAME FINANCIAL RESPONSIBILITY.
“Originally, I lost quite a bit of money on Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” admits Reubens. “I was responsible, financially, for Pee-wee’s Playhouse. So when it went over budget—not if it went over budget, when it went over budget—that came out of my pocket. I don’t want to mention a figure, but we had one season that was over budget by a lot of money. I’m a little bit of a perfectionist. Not a little bit: I’m a perfectionist … I want to rebuild the whole Playhouse door if it’s too big or the wrong color. So I feel like I’m a great producer, but I also have distinct limitations in that department because I will always spend more money and not sacrifice quality. So it went over budget a lot. Like, every season.”
14. PEE-WEE CLIP SHOWS WERE NOT A SIGN THAT REUBENS WAS LOSING INTEREST.
Reubens says that some of the ways they worked to get the budget back on track in the last two seasons was to do a couple of clip shows. “Somebody just wrote somewhere that [the clip shows] were a good indicator that I had lost interest in the show by the last season," he says. "And it’s so far from the truth. I lost interest in having to pay all this money out of my pocket and so I paid way more attention to the line producer, who was a great man who came up to me all the time and said, ‘You can have this or this,’ or ‘If you want this, then this is how you have to do that.’ I trusted him and he was right and he was the guy who brought in the last two seasons on budget.”
15. CYNDI LAUPER SANG THE THEME SONG.
Though the series’ theme song is credited to Ellen Shaw, Cyndi Lauper admitted in her autobiography that she is the voice behind it.
16. THE PLAYHOUSE WELCOMED A NUMBER OF SOON-TO-BE STARS.
A number of burgeoning stars got their starts on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Among them: Phil Hartman, S. Epatha Merkerson, and Natasha Lyonne. Both Laurence Fishburne and Jimmy Smits also made early-career appearances.
17. ROB ZOMBIE AND JOHN SINGLETON WERE PRODUCTION ASSISTANTS.
The Playhouse had plenty of talent behind the camera, too. Five years before he wrote and directed Boyz n the Hood—for which he earned two Oscar nominations—John Singleton was a P.A. on the Playhouse set. Around the same time he formed White Zombie—and 17 years before he moved into the director’s chair with House of 1000 Corpses—Rob Zombie held the same title.
18. S. EPATHA MERKERSON COULDN’T LOOK AT REUBENS.
In the new Blu-ray collection’s special features, Law & Order star S. Epatha Merkerson recalled how hard she laughed the first time she saw Reubens dressed as Pee-wee. “And from that point on I know that Paul knew that he could make me laugh. And he tortured me,” she recalled. “At one point the director came over and said in this very low voice, ‘I need to get this shot. How do I get this shot?’ And I said, ‘Well then I can’t look at Paul…’ I really thought I was going to lose the job!”
19. PHIL HARTMAN LEFT AFTER ONE SEASON TO JOIN THE CAST OF SNL.
Phil Hartman, Reubens’ longtime friend and collaborator (they co-wrote Pee-wee’s Big Adventure together), left the Playhouse—where he played Captain Carl—after the first season to join Saturday Night Live.
20. MISS YVONNE’S HAIR WON AN EMMY.
Two Emmys, actually. One in 1987 and another in 1989. The show won a total of 15 Emmys throughout its five-season run.
21. JAMBI SPOKE GIBBERISH.
On the Blu-ray collection, writer John Paragon describes Jambi’s famous “Mekka lekka hi mekka hiney ho. Mekka lekka hi mekka chahny ho” chant as gibberish. “So I’m in The Groundlings and we’re doing a sketch and it’s customers in a Hawaiian restaurant and I’m wearing a Hawaiian shirt and doing Hawaiian gibberish. So that’s where that line came from. It was supposed to be bad Hawaiian.”
22. LAURENCE FISHBURNE HAD A DARK TAKE ON COWBOY CURTIS.
During his original audition for Cowboy Curtis, Laurence Fishburne didn’t get the note that the tone of the show was rather silly. “I was in the D.C. area making Gardens of Stone, and I got this call that Paul wanted to see me,” Fishburne recalled to Entertainment Weekly. “I had almost no hair on my head because I had been doing this military picture. I [auditioned as] a Yul Brynner-esque kind of cowboy—very dark and serious. [Reubens and Paragon] both looked at me like, 'Could you lighten it up?'"
23. SEASON THREE HAD JUST THREE EPISODES.
Because of a 1988 strike by the Writers Guild of America, the third season of Pee-wee’s Playhouse is comprised of just three episodes—two regular episodes and one primetime special, Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special.
24. PAUL REUBENS IS NEVER CREDITED AS SUCH.
To keep the idea alive that Pee-wee Herman is indeed a real person, Paul Reubens’ name does not run in the end credits. They simply list “Pee-wee Herman as Himself.”
25. BY 1990, REUBENS WAS READY FOR A BREAK.
“I just politely said ‘No,’ Reubens recalled to Entertainment Weekly about his decision to take some time off after five seasons. “It was time to take a year off. I had actually made a list of things I wanted to do—learn Spanish, learn to play the sax—and I never hit one of them. At the end of [1990, while season 5 was airing], I decided I was going to take a second year off.”
26. PEE-WEE CAME TO BROADWAY IN 2010.
On October 26, 2010, Pee-wee was back—this time on Broadway—for a limited-run stage show.
27. DON’T ASK REUBENS TO NAME HIS FAVORITE PLAYHOUSE CHARACTER.
“Oh, how can you ask me that! Now you know that I can’t answer that! If I said one person then all the rest would be angry,” Reubens laughs. “And I still love all those people and they’re all my friends. I still see every one of those people so I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it.”
All images courtesy of Shout! Factory.