Last Wednesday I saw Pee-wee Herman on Broadway at the Stephen Sondheim theater, and it was amazing. I personally think Pee-wee is one of the best comic characters ever created, but seeing the show last week brought me right back to the Saturday mornings of my childhood, when my sister and I would plop in front of the TV drinking our carnation instant breakfast trying not to wake our parents while we giggled at Pee-wee and his friend’s weekly hi-jinks.
There are some new characters in the show who take a bit of getting used to, but by the end you love them all and you don’t want it to end (unless you are the theater reviewer for the NY Times). The original Miss Yvonne and Jambi were there, and Chairry was adorable as usual. Pee-wee of course delivered all of his classic jokes from the movie and TV show, along with lots of innuendo loaded new ones. The most unbelievable part of the whole show was that Paul Reubens at 58 is as spry and magnetic as ever! There must be a talking fountain of youth somewhere in puppetland.
I hate to get into Paul Reubens’ past scandals but I feel I have to mention them especially since there are some people who still go “ick” if you mention Pee-wee Herman. Reubens was infamously arrested for indecent exposure (and alleged masturbation) at a Florida porno theater in 1991. The arrest was so over-hyped by the media at the time, that I didn’t realize until I was an adult what had actually happened. I’d assumed it had been molestation or rape or some other truly monstrous behavior that had caused our beloved Pee-wee to vanish. Obviously Reubens’ actions weren’t very prudent (especially as a kid’s TV host) but they hardly matched the disgust and outrage that was hurled at him afterward.
Reubens’ regret for his behavior, which caused his absence from the industry (he made some sporadic appearances) for nearly twenty years, cannot be denied. Loads of celebrities who’ve done truly horrible, reckless, and violent things have only shown as much remorse as deemed necessary by their publicists. Reubens always took his job as a role-model incredibly seriously, and his disappearance from acting was most likely caused by his own disappointment in himself and the image that was stamped on him. As a child who grew up loving Pee-Wee I found the treatment of the “scandal” by the media, the condemnation, the obsessive coverage, by far the most upsetting part of the whole incident—I guess they weren’t really concerned about what the children thought though.
Scandals aside, Pee-wee Herman is an American pop culture icon who has endured despite being out of the spotlight, and the butt of jokes, for twenty years which is pretty darn impressive. When you go to the Pee-wee Herman show and the curtains draw back, your childhood sits happily before you again. Whether you’re screaming for the word-of-the-day or shouting Jambi’s magic incantation, it’s hard not feel like you’re back on your couch on Saturday morning. Pee-wee is so much more than just nostalgia, he is inventive and new even after all these years. While less manic than he used to be, Reubens still captures the snotty, but kind-hearted charm of his beloved character.
It’s kind of funny that Pee-wee’s playhouse was inspired by the kids shows of the 1950s like Captain Kangaroo, and now Paul Reubens fits that character better than he did in his younger years. Pee-wee is somehow cuter, funnier, and maybe even more endearing with a bit of paunch and some wrinkles, don’t ask me why, but it’s true.
The loathing launched on Reubens in 1991 was due mostly to his role as a kid’s show character, which might explain why the past two decades haven’t had any interesting hosts in the tradition of Mr. Rogers or Captain Kangaroo—cartoons and puppets are far less likely to incur scandal. It’s a shame because Pee-Wee’s Playhouse was a smart, funny, creative show that focused on art, morals, and diversity without talking down to kids, and it could be enjoyed by parents too, unlike a lot of other children’s programming out there.
The tickets to the show on Broadway are definitely pricey, but if you’re a big fan looking for a night of nostalgia, it’s worth it. No worries though, this isn’t the last of Pee-wee, Judd Apatow and Paul Reubens are working on a new Pee-wee movie for release in 2011, maybe we should all repeat Jambi’s magic words in a collective attempt to make sure this movie actually happens, it can’t hurt right?
The Pee-wee Herman show is running now through January 2nd, get more information and tickets here. A big “Mecca lecca hi, mecca hiney ho” to all you Pee-wee fans out there, and may he continue to entertain and delight a whole new generation!