What’s today’s secret word?
This year marks the quarter century anniversary of Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special, perhaps the most mind-bending holiday special ever aired by network television. “I really wanted to do something around the holidays,” Paul Reubens tells me, “so it seemed like doing a Christmas special would be a lot of fun.”
Reubens was inspired by the many holiday shows he grew up with, which he filtered through his singular aesthetic. “I loved Charlie Brown,” he says, “the Rudolf ones—the stop motion ones with Burle Ives—and the King family.”
Reubens’s Christmas Special may share its DNA with those programs, but it certainly is not your typical holiday special. A dinosaur family celebrates Hanukkah, Randy the puppet rants about how “Christmas is just a commercial exploitation for big business trying to capitalize on consumer guilt,” and let’s not forget the running joke involving Pee-wee Herman being given multiple fruitcakes. At the end of the special, two buff construction workers use those brick-like desserts to build an annex to the playhouse—what Reubens jokingly calls “the fruitcake room” in the DVD commentary track.
In addition to regular Pee-wee’s Playhouse cast members like Lawrence Fishburne, who played Cowboy Curtis, Reubens’s Christmas Special features an oddly eclectic group of guest stars: Cher, Magic Johnson, Zsa Zsa Gabor, k.d. lang, Oprah Winfrey, Charo, Joan Rivers, Grace Jones, Whoopie Goldberg, Little Richard, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello—among others.
The hour-long special is an eye-popping gumbo of stop motion animation, cartoons, puppets, guest star turns and live action antics. The opening sequence itself is a work of art: Clocking in at just over three minutes, it begins with a prelude theme written by composer Van Dyke Parks. (It replaced the show’s regular opening music, a cover of Martin Denny’s “Quiet Village,” which arguably helped kick off the “exotica” music revival of the 1990s).
The tranquil animated prelude—which features a snow-covered Playhouse and its surrounding landscape—is followed by a madcap dance number featuring the UCLA Men’s Choir dressed as U.S. Marines. It is Reubens’s favorite part of the special. “I just liked that it goes on for so long,” he says. “I like that when you list all the stars and all the inhabitants of the Playhouse, it just goes on and on and on and on. It’s so fast and energetic, and I just think it’s so funny that there are so many people in it.”
The guest star turns by Cher, Grace Jones, Charo, Little Richard and others are certainly colorful, but Reubens bristles at the suggestion that the guest stars were selected for their camp value. “Because we still know them now,” he says, referring to the fact that many of the guest stars continue to be recognizable icons, “it would indicate that they are more legendary and classic, than just campy.”
“It was an unbelievable roster of talent,” Reubens adds. “We had a big list of who to choose from and who was available, and we just went down the list and picked out the people we most wanted—and got every single one of them.”
The small screen can barely contain the guest stars’ exuberant charm. Grace Jones, who is delivered to the Playhouse in a crate by Reba the Mail Lady, sings a goth-disco version of “The Little Drummer Boy.” Her shiny chest plate and headpiece are out of this world, as is the song’s backing track, which was reportedly arranged and recorded by David Bowie. Oprah Winfrey beams in via videophone, Little Richard attempts ice skating and Cher drops by for the day’s secret word—“year”—provided by a robot named Conky 2000.
I previously invoked the term “eye-popping” to describe Pee-wee’s Playhouse, but starting next year, viewers will run the risk of having their eyeballs permanently dislodged from their sockets. “The Christmas Special is going to come out, along with the entire Playhouse series, on Blu-ray,” Reubens tells me. “It’s being remastered now.”
“The show was never seen on film,” he says. “The show was shot on film and transferred to tape and edited on tape, and all the effects were done on tape. Then the entire show was put on another tape to broadcast, so there are three or four generations of quality that are lost on every episode. So we went back to the original film elements, and the company I’m working with has recreated every edit in every single show, and recreated all the effects from all the original elements—which we were lucky to have kept.”
“It looks unbelievable. It’s so extreme, people are going to freak out when they see it,” Reubens adds. “The detail and clarity and color is amazing.” This means that Gary Panter’s set design, the stop motion animation and other details will come alive in psychedelic high definition. It’s the kids show equivalent of being upgraded from cough syrup to mescaline.
When Pee-wee’s Playhouse debuted in 1986, it looked like little else on Saturday morning television—which is why the show appealed to kids of all ages, from preschoolers to grad students. “There weren’t a lot of live action shows for kids when my show came on,” he says. “Most other shows were animated, so just having a live person host the show was a little bit unusual at the time. Although my show was a throwback to the shows I grew up on.”
The retrofuturistic look of Pee-wee’s Playhouse had a lot to do with its mixed-media format. The segments featuring Pee-wee and the cast are interspersed with cartoons, puppets, stop-motion animation and the occasional musical number. “It was a blend of different elements that I liked from different shows.” Reubens recalls, “It seems like Captain Kangaroo and The Mickey Mouse Club—they had different segments they would cut to. Lots of different mediums and elements were used in other shows, and they were all things I liked so I just tried to blend them all together.”
Another thing that made Pee-wee’s Playhouse so forward looking was the diversity of the cast—in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and even body type. “That was something I went out of my way to do,” he says. “I would argue that it’s as diverse as anything on television right now, if not more.” Take for example the recurring El Hombre! segment, which stars a Latino superhero. What made the cartoon so unique—especially for a network television show in the 1980s—was that it was aired entirely in Spanish, with no subtitles.
“I thought that if you spoke Spanish and you were watching my show,” he explains, “here was something only you understood. You had a disadvantage for most of the show if you didn’t speak English, but then it was sort of reversed. And if you were English-speaking and you saw a cartoon that was only in Spanish, it would open your eyes and ears to the concept of another language.”
From Jewish dinosaurs to black cowboys, a joyful inclusive spirit permeates Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special. Twenty-five years after CBS unleashed Paul Reubens’s technicolor winter wonder dreamscape on the world, viewers are still picking up pieces from their blown minds.
Kembrew McLeod would like to thank his son Alasdair, Pee-wee’s biggest fan, for choosing to obsessively watch Pee-wee’s Playhouse instead of Barney. And thanks to Paul Reubens for recording a personalized Pee-wee birthday message for Alasdair’s third birthday.