I want my daughter to be weird. Not like decapitated heads in a freezer weird or that kid who mixes table condiments and eats them on a dare weird, but off-kilter in all the great ways weird. I like weird; it's unique, creative, and fun. And no show — for children or otherwise — treated weirdness like it was a nonstop holiday like Pee-wee's Playhouse. That's why my daughter, now that she's reached a certain level of media absorption, will be mainlining Pee-wee's Playhouse until she's wearing mismatched socks and performing puppet shows with cucumbers. And you know what? I'll watch with her, because Pee-wee's Playhouse is still one of the best family shows, some 30 years later.
A little history: Pee-wee's Playhouse ran for five seasons on Saturday mornings from 1986 to 1990 on CBS. It was set up like it was for children, but it was never meant to be just a children's show, which was the genius behind it. Pee-wee Herman had been around for a while before he opened up the playhouse: Paul Reubens concocted the character with the help of Phil Hartman when he was part of L.A.'s Groundlings comedy troupe in the late 1970s. He made his film debut in Cheech & Chong's Next Movie, had a stage show that became an HBO special, and found mainstream success in Pee-wee's Big Adventure. But it wasn't until Pee-wee's Playhouse, when Reubens angled his alter-ego toward children, that Pee-wee was in his ultimate form.
Most kids at the time were zombified by the mid-'80s Saturday morning and afternoon cartoons (ex: Muppet Babies, The Smurfs, G.I. Joe) and the stench of commercialism that came off of them, though we were unaware that we were cogs in the circular capitalist machine. We'd watch the show, then beg our parents to go to Toys "R" Us and buy the action figure or doll, then watch the show again, repeat. Some lessons were taught during these cartoons — G.I. Joe taught us that knowing not to play with downed power lines was half the battle, then quickly got back to launching artillery at C.O.B.R.A. — but the messages were buried beneath a frickin' robot turning into a firetruck or something.
And then on September 13, 1986, along came this man-child in a gray suit and red bowtie, with a haircut so intentionally close-cropped and boring that it drew you into his elastic mug, and a voice like a tween who learned stand-up comedy from Gilbert Gottfried. Pee-wee's Playhouse was an instant hit with critics, kids, stoners, and gawkers, who flocked to something that seemed both so original and familiar. While other '80s kids' shows stole from Japanese culture or were spin-offs of established brands, Pee-wee's Playhouse seemed like it was from another time, influenced by children's series of the 1950s and 1960s like Captain Kangaroo, Howdy Doody, and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood in which a mentor virtually welcomed his audience into a clubhouse for wholesome life lessons and fun. For parents in the mid-'80s, it was comfort food, and a relief from talking Gummi bears and squeaking blue elves.
But the real genius of Pee-wee's Playhouse was how it stuck out from everything else it was surrounded by. It was counterculture sneaking into a money-making industry and throwing a party. Reubens, along with alternative artists like Wayne White, Gary Panter, and Craig Bartlett, created an environment that was antithetical to everything else at the time: It was (mostly) live-action, it featured completely original characters, and, most importantly, it was something parents could watch with their kids while also speaking directly to a younger audience. A normal kids' show would name its talking chair "Windsor," "Ottoman," or "Adirondack," but Pee-wee's went into the mind of a kid and came up with "Chairry," which is so on target it's perfect. Reubens selected only the most appropriately immature catchphrases to spout out; "I know you are, but what am I?" still kills when Pee-wee says it, no matter how old you are or how many times you've heard it.
While most adult actors in children's properties have difficulty getting cred from kids who can sniff out a fake from a mile away, Pee-wee and his stunted development always rang true, because he wasn't telling kids how to behave, he was learning along with them. And for parents who want their kids to grow up to be good people, Pee-wee's Playhouse is loaded with positive messages, from its celebration of diversity and lessons on acceptance to its simple, absurd tales of morality. The series had a simple creed: Be a better person, and each episode pushed children to do that without feeling like a lecture. It's an idea that's not only timeless, but feels more necessary with every year that passes by.
Pee-wee's Playhouse is streaming on Netflix. Check out more great '80s series to watch here.
Looking for more shows to stream? Check out TV Guide's TV Throwback, recommending the best shows to rewatch — or to discover for the first time — from 1970 through the present day.
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