‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse’ is a bizarrely perfect pandemic binge


Welcome to No Shame November! This week we’re diving into the pop culture we love that society tells us we shouldn’t.


In 2020, I’ve fantasized about burning my home down with alarming frequency.

It’s not that I actually want to set my two-bedroom apartment aflame. I like my furniture; I cherish my pets; I would prefer my boyfriend be alive at all times. But like so many Americans trapped inside for the past nine months, my anger over the reckless mismanagement of COVID-19 has morphed into an illogical, red-hot hatred of the walls around me and the helplessness they’ve come to represent. 

In 2020, I’ve fantasized about burning my home down with alarming frequency.

For months, I feared that the growing animosity I harbored toward my apartment would swallow me (and my imaginary security deposit) whole. Then, one frustrating night (in a lengthy string of frustrating nights), I decided to rewatch Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Oddly enough, my outlook began to improve.

Some background for those unacquainted: Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which aired new episodes from September 1986 to November 1990 on CBS, was a live-action kids’ program inspired by writer-performer Paul Reubens’ stage show The Pee-wee Herman Show and 1985 film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. (Big Top Pee-wee came later, in 1988, and Pee-wee’s Big Holiday came much later, in 2016.)

Pee-wee, played by a then 30-something Reubens, is your average kid who happens to own a fantastical playhouse. Pee-wee sports a gray suit with a white button-up, red bowtie, and cartoonish voice, sowed somewhere between a frog’s croak and a broken harmonica. 

He’s impatient but sweet; occasionally grumpy but always considerate; the kind of character that can scream, cry, and laugh in a single minute while still seeming relatable. Plus, he has a real bitchin’ scooter.

"Come on iiiiiinnnn! And pull yourself up a chair, like Chairry!"

“Come on iiiiiinnnn! And pull yourself up a chair, like Chairry!”

Image: John Kisch Archive/Getty Image

It’s a weird show, to say the least, blending absurdist humor with classic children’s programming for half-hour installments that manage to be both jarring and soothing. 

Generous with jokes, laughs, and play, Pee-wee and his gang of neighborhood weirdos are easy to like at any age. Whether it’s the cranky Mrs. Steve getting a makeover from Miss Yvonne or Conky the robot dispensing the day’s “secret word” (just for Pterri the pterodactyl to immediately say it by accident), every adventure at the Playhouse is a low-stakes, high-kindness affair with unexpectedly sophisticated writing and rapid shifts in tone.

Every adventure at the Playhouse is a low-stakes, high-kindness affair with unexpectedly sophisticated writing and rapid shifts in tone.

It’s a miraculously fitting show for 2020 streamers. The rotating cast of characters — , Billy Baloney, Jambi the Genie, Cowntess, Knucklehead, the Puppet Band, and more — provide plenty of opportunities for Pee-wee to be his charming self, while continually introducing new faces to an audience in sudden, desperate need of socialization. It’s especially fun to see old performances from current stars, like Russian Doll‘s Natasha Lyonne as Playhouse Gang member Opal, Law and Order‘s S. Epatha Merkerson as Reba the Mail Lady, and oh YEAH, icon and legend Laurence Fishburne as .

As a bonus, whenever someone walks through the Playhouse’s front door, they tend to bring something exciting with them. The resulting combination of grade-school lessons, classic cartoons, crafting tutorials, fan letters, musical performances, and more offers a delightfully off-balance viewing experience likely to satisfy folks craving something “different” that’s still squarely under the comfort TV umbrella. (I highly recommend the Christmas special featuring Charo and Little Richard.)

Damn, Laurence Fishburne looks good in chaps.

Damn, Laurence Fishburne looks good in chaps.

Image: John Kisch Archive/Getty Images

But the power of Pee-wee’s Playhouse goes far beyond its runtime. More than just added variety to my Netflix queue, the zany ‘80s kids’ show has helped me reframe my thinking about isolation and better positioned me to manage the daily stresses of social distancing. 

More than just added variety to my Netflix queue, the zany ‘80s kids’ show has helped me reframe my thinking about isolation.

As soon as the Pee-wee’s Playhouse theme begins wafting through my living room, my household vibe slides to the playground end of the scale. Cheery sound effects, an earworm of a song, and the infectious giggling of Pee-wee demand a light-hearted, child-like approach to the day. 

OK, as an adult I’m not really making ice cream soup or doing the “Hokey Pokey” as the show directly instructs me to do. Still, I like to sing the connect the dots song, I love doing Jambi’s call-and-responses, and I’ll never turn down an opportunity to scream “SALESMAN!!” 

The show doesn’t even have to be on for me to feel its impacts. The spirit of play has significantly improved my mood and my partner’s mood, helping us foster an environment of possibility and imagination in a seriously bleak time.

If the Picture Phone was good enough for Pee-wee, then FaceTime is good enough for me and my dad.

If the Picture Phone was good enough for Pee-wee, then FaceTime is good enough for me and my dad.

Image: josh kirsch archive/getty images/mashable

Sometimes that means actually playing: unleashing styrofoam hell upon each other in our ongoing nerf gun war, trying to make the other person laugh when they’re on the phone, enjoying a round of “stop copying me” (yeah, that’s something I consider a legitimate hobby right now), or just throwing a ball for our dog. Other times it means seeing mundane things in more playful terms. 

Nearly everything in Pee-wee’s universe has a name and a personality: Globey, Mr. Window, Mr. Kite, Floory, etc. These days in our house, instead of calling that shelf where we put all our junk “that shelf where we put all our junk,” we’ve named said shelf Paul. (“Have you seen my face mask?” “Check Paul.” ) Our automatic cat feeder is now similarly named Carl. (“Is Carl full?” “No, but there’s new kibble in the closet.”) I’ve even got an unnamed scarf I’m still getting to know but in the interim exclusively referring to as “she.” (“She has a stain!”) 

Yeah, it’s a little sad in that Brie Larson talking to Jacob Tremblay at the start of Room kind of way. But I do feel less lonely. 

Pee-wee's Chairry ain't got nothing on my "Couchy."

Pee-wee’s Chairry ain’t got nothing on my “Couchy.”

Even on days when I don’t have the emotional energy for full-blown Playhouse antics, I try to emulate Pee-wee’s playfulness as best I can for myself and the people who rely on me. 

Even on days when I don’t have the emotional energy for full-blown Playhouse antics, I try to emulate Pee-wee’s playfulness as best I can for myself and the people who rely on me. 

Pee-wee’s Playhouse was, by many accounts, a scrappy, offbeat show that exceeded expectations. Earning 15 Emmy Awards in its time, the Saturday morning success turned its regularly rough edges of hand puppets, claymation, and early green screen technology into part of its tremendous charm. Consistency and tidy narratives weren’t always the show’s strongest points (I still have serious concerns about Playhouse lifeguard Ricardo who just up and disappeared after Season 1? Did he … drown?), but this show did what it could with what it had to an amazing effect.

I’ve heard a lot of metaphors about social distancing — that it’s like a long-distance relationship, a voyage at sea, a prison sentence, being on a spaceship. For me, 2020 has been somewhat like Pee-wee and his Playhouse: a bizarre exercise in rekindling my inner child and appreciating the power my imagination has over my circumstance.

No, it hasn’t always been fun or cute. Whenever Magic Screen tells me about the “magic of screens,” I struggle not to curse out the adorable fictitious character for making me think about Zoom. And when officials for Los Angeles, where I live, recently reinstated our local curfew, I admit I dreamed of setting good ‘ol Clocky on fire.

We'll all be scootin' into the "real" world, soon enough.

We’ll all be scootin’ into the “real” world, soon enough.

Image: John Kisch Archive/Getty Images

Still, there is something spectacular about doing everything in your power to have fun no matter the circumstance. Pee-wee has, at least in part, inspired me to fight for the daily joy of being at home, and encouraged me to find silliness and warmth exactly where I am right now instead of dreaming about how much easier that might be in some other tomorrow.

Yes, I’m still dying to ride off into the end credits of the pandemic like Pee-wee does at the end of every Playhouse episode. But if this is where I am for now, if this is the part of the world I’ve been tasked with making funnier and brighter for my partner, pets, family, and friends in a time of dire need? I am going to enjoy it. I mean, it’s not everyday you’re invited to Pee-wee’s place.

Pee-wee’s Playhouse is now streaming on Netflix



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