In 1980, Paul Reubens (after being turned down for a chance to be a Saturday Night Live cast member) created a stage show called The Pee-Wee Herman Show, parodying the children's live action TV shows of the 1950s and '60s, with a subversive, playfully risque twist. After a successful HBO comedy special and years of performance, Reubens teamed with Tim Burton to create the movie Pee-wee's Big Adventure, based on the title character. The surprise success of the movie got CBS interested in an animated version of the original stage show. Reubens eventually negotiated for a live-action version that was more kid-friendly than the HBO version, but still had flashes of adult humor.
Unusually, the show got a sitcom-level budget and creative control was left almost entirely to Reubens and his crew. Initially filmed in a converted New York loft for the first season (which, according to many past cast members, was a living nightmare to work in, as it was always hot), the show moved to a full-size set in Los Angeles for the second season onward, which is why the playhouse in the first season looks so much smaller than in later seasons. However, the production schedule for the show was still grueling (a single episode took 10 sixteen-hour days to shoot, at a cost of $350,000 per episode), and the show ended after filming Playhouse for Sale.
The show focuses on Pee-wee's life at his luxurious playhouse, where everything is alive and anything could happen. It featured a large cast of colorful characters including a talking chair, a robot, a magic computer screen, a talking globe, and all sorts of puppets. The show also featured plenty of stop-motion animation (think Gumby) as well as Golden Age cartoons. Reubens was also able to cast several members of the The Groundlings who had worked with him on the original stage show including Phil Hartman (Captain Carl) and Laurence Fishburnenote (Cowboy Curtis), as well as future stars S. Epatha Merkerson, (Reba the Mail Lady), Johann Carlo (Dixie the Cab Driver)note and Natasha Lyonne (Opal, one of the members of the first season Playhouse Gang).
In its first year, the show won six Emmy awards. The show gained a following of both children and adults thanks to its nostalgia and excellent writing, prompting CBS to show some episodes during prime time as well as Saturday mornings. While Reubens tried to have the episodes based around moral lessons, heavy use of Rule of Funny kept it from being preachy.
The show ran on CBS from September 13, 1986 until November 17, 1990 and spanned five seasons, one of which (the third season) was comprised of only two episodes - three if you count the Christmas Special - due to the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike and the production of Reubens' second Pee-wee movie Big Top Pee-wee.
In 2011, Reubens staged a new live show integrating elements from the original as well as the TV show. All five seasons (and the Christmas Episode) have been released on DVD and have been added to Netflix in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
This show provided examples of:
- Absent Animal Companion: In one episode, a puppy shows up in the playhouse. It ends up belonging to Reba, who says that she'll bring it over to the playhouse to visit. And yet she never does.
- Actor Allusion: In one episode, Jambi gets sick, so Pee-wee calls on the "wish doctor" Dr. Jinga-Janga, who is played by Bernard Fox, who famously played Dr. Bombay on Bewitched.
- Affectionate Parody: Of early TV kids shows, but especially The Soupy Sales Show and The Pinky Lee Show.
- Afraid of Dentists: Pee-wee gets a toothache in one episode, but resists with all his might to avoid going to a dentist until Miss Yvonne persuades him to do so.
- Alliterative Name: Many of the characters, including Captain Carl, Cowboy Curtis, Chairy the Chair, Globey the Globe, and Pterri the Pterodactyl.
- And Starring / Character as Himself: In the credits, the cast saves Paul Reuben's role as Pee-wee for last, in which he is credited as "And Pee-wee Herman as himself".
- Beatnik: The Puppet Band are a Funny Animal Affectionate Parody of beatniks.
- Beehive Hairdo: Miss Yvonne has sported this hairdo from time to time.
- Benevolent Genie: Jambi, who could grant Pee-wee (or whoever Pee-wee gave the wish to) one wish per day. The episode "Sick? Did Someone Say Sick?" reveals that the real reason why Jambi grants people only one wish per day is because his power is finite; too many wishes granted causes him to lose his power and suffer a form of burnout.
- Bishie Sparkle: Ricardo, the soccer player, makes his debut in "Open House." When he walks into the playhouse, we see him from Miss Yvonne's point of view—the background has a red filter-effect and there's lots of key lighting behind him.
- Camp: The guiding principle of the show.
- Canon Immigrant: Clockey, from the original Pee-Wee Herman Show, appears in Series 2.
- Christmas Special: And a very good one at that. Hanukkah is covered as well as the Nativity story.
- Clap Your Hands If You Believe: Literally in this case — whenever Jambi had to do something fairly difficult (such as restoring a magically-invisible Pee-wee), he implored viewers to join in with his incantation.
- Clip Show: This show had two of them, one in the fourth season finale centered on Cowboy Curtis and another one serving as the series finale.
- Cloud Cuckooland: The Playhouse.
- Cloudcuckoolander: Damn near everyone.
- Cool Scooter: Accompanied by an equally cool helmet after the first season ended.
- Crocodile Tears: Magic Screen does this to Pee-wee to get him to play connect-the-dots with her in the episode "Chairry-Tee Drive".
- Cute Machines: Conky 2000, Magic Screen and the Exercise Belt.
- Dreadful Musician / Vocal Dissonance: Miss Yvonne is revealed to be a bad singer, as shown in the episode "Tons of Fun". Conky is also revealed to be a very bad singer in "Just Another Day" (while he can play the guitar rather well, his "singing" is really just him talking),
- Drunk with Power: By extension of this being his playhouse, any time the gang does a role playing game, Pee-wee assumes the main role of the authority figure to prove his point — and exaggerates the role in question (a librarian in "Love That Story", a judge in "Heat Wave", and an office boss in "Let's Play Office", to name a few) to extremes, where he acts borderline tyrannical and gives everyone else the "lesser positions" (such as quiet readers in "Love That Story" and airline passengers in "Rebarella"). His treatment of his friends in some of these games becomes so abusive and out of control that he practically treats them like slaves. An example is that after screaming for silence from everyone in his "library", he commands Miss Yvonne to alphabetize a large stack of books as punishment for failure to pay for an overdue book; she is still doing this even long after the game is over.
- Early Installment Weirdness: The first season of the show is slightly different from the rest of the series (mainly because it was filmed in New York, whereas from the second season on, it was shot in Southern California):
- Along with a smaller design of the Playhouse, several characters, such as Captain Carl, Mrs. Steve, Dixie, and the Salesman were all Put on a Bus afterwards. Also, Conky had more noticeable buzzing and whirring sounds in the first season and stuttered more often.
- The King of Cartoons (played by a different actor at the time) was originally introduced by Dixie the taxi driver (who played a solo on her trumpet) and presented the cartoons through an old-fashioned projector, rather than a vintage television set, as used in later seasons.
- Globey and the Talking Fish had different designs. Randy and Dirty Dog were also slightly different.
- Jambi was blue instead of green.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: In the series finale (Playhouse for Sale), everybody is all understandably upset about Pee-wee supposedly selling the playhouse after discovering a "For Sale" sign. However, when Pee-Wee comes back, he replies that he is NOT selling the playhouse. It turns out that he had another sign that was loose which read "LEMONADE" (In other words, "LEMONADE FOR SALE!").Chairy: You mean you are not selling the playhouse, Pee-Wee?
Pee-wee Herman: No of course not, Chairy. I would never sell the playhouse for a million, trillion, zillion dollars. And besides, A playhouse is a place where anyone can play. [Everybody cheers]
Dirty Dog: We don't have to travel.
Cool Cat: We don't have to roam.
Chicky Baby: Be it ever some humble...
All three together: There's no place like home.
- At the end, as Pee-wee boards his scooter for the last time, he delivers this message to the people watching:"The playhouse will always be here for everyone to play in, forever and ever and ever. On that, you have my word!"
["Word" being the secret word, everyone screams one last time]
- At the end, as Pee-wee boards his scooter for the last time, he delivers this message to the people watching:
- Edutainment Show: Though not in the way one would normally expect. Paul Reubens used his character to teach social skills—Pee-wee is sometimes an example of what not to do, but therein lies the humor. In its last two seasons, the show also featured Spanish lessons via the El Hombre animated shorts, thus doubling as a Bilingual Bonus.
- Every Episode Ending: Each episode ended with Pee-wee taking off on his motor scooter to parts and places unknown, with seasons 2 and beyond having him wear a one-eyed-monster helmet, and flying past Mt. Rushmore.
- Everything's Better with Dinosaurs: Both Pterri and the dinosaur family.
- Excited Kids' Show Host: Pee-wee, obviously. So much so that Paul Reubens, as the story goes, began to suffer from burnout, forcing him to shelve the character for decades.
- Fantasy Helmet Enforcement: Pee-Wee Herman started out not wearing a helmet on his scooter, but by Season 2 he got one. Appropriately, it was decked out with a cyclops eye and other impractical doodads.
- This may have been in part due to America beginning to pass helmet laws. California became the first state to do in 1987, which was also where production on the show moved to in that year (the first season was shot in New York).
- Flanderization: Pee-wee himself fell victim to this as the show went on. In the earlier seasons, there was a (paradoxical) maturity, as shown in the scene where he reprimands the original Playhouse Gang for being a bit too rambunctious (only to engage in said rambunctious behavior himself moments later). It also showed that he was capable of being 'quiet' at times, too. By the later seasons, however, the character's voice and mannerisms became just plain annoying — he'd lost the quieter moments and was reduced to shouting all the time, even when the secret word was said and thus screamed at, as in one episode where Pee-wee catches a cold and is greatly irritated by loud noises:Pee-wee: STOP ALL THAT SCREAMING! CAN'T YOU PEOPLE HAVE A LITTLE CONSIDERATION?!!
- In another episode, where they play library, including having to be quiet, Miss Yvonne blurts out the secret word. Naturally, everyone starts screaming, except Pee-wee as librarian, who is more than a little annoyed (whenever anyone makes the slightest bit of noise, he looks quite stern while shushing the offender) and yells, "SILENCE!"
- Actually, if that's even possible, Pee-wee's Flanderization is somewhat zig-zagged in other episodes when another character, such as Randy, does something wrong, and Pee-wee reprimands him for it in a solemn tone and with as much restraint as someone with his mannerisms is capable of. An example of this is when Randy tries to speed up the baking of homemade bread in the oven by raising the temperature from 350 to 700 degrees, and almost starts a fire in the playhouse because of it!Randy: Is the bread ready yet?
Pee-wee: No, Randy, the bread is burned because somebody turned the temperature way up on the oven! Got any ideas on who might've done something stupid like that?
Randy: (sheepishly) Um... me?
Pee-wee: Randy, you know you're not supposed to touch the oven.
Randy: I do now.
- Gainaxing: In one episode, Miss Yvonne did a clog dance. The resulting jiggle was very restrained (her dress deserves an award), but quite visible.
- Grande Dame: The Cowntess is a mild example.
- Hair-Trigger Avalanche: In the episode where they redecorating the Playhouse, Pee-wee looks into the fridge for something to serve with tea, but finds nothing. He notices that the food are in an avalanche area and they must be quiet. Pee-wee whispers that he promises to keep things quiet around the Playhouse, but unfortunately it's part of the secret word ("house"), and of course, everyone screams. This triggers the avalanche and buries the food. All the sudden, Pee-wee goes into a panic attack about the Snack Emergency. And Magic Screen suggested she can go to the supermarket and get some snack. Pee-wee wouldn't mind that Magic Screen goes grocery shopping.[Alarm sounds]
Pee-wee Herman: OH, NO! SNACK EMERGENCY! SNACK EMERGENCY!
Magic Screen: I can go to the Super Market and get some snack.
Pee-wee Herman: You wouldn't mind?
Magic Screen: Not at all!
- Hair-Trigger Sound Effect: While it changed Once per Episode, and was clearly invoked, you better believe that at some point, the whole house would go berserk when someone said the secret word. *AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!!!!*
- Hostile Show Takeover: In "Sick? Did Somebody Say Sick?", Pee-wee leaves to buy groceries. While he's gone, Randy takes over the show — getting the secret word from Conky by force, demanding everyone bark instead of scream when it's said, and annoying and teasing everyone. He also tries to connect the dots on the Magic Screen, but gets locked in jail and is only let out once Pee-wee has returned to reprimand him.
- Jerkass: Randy, with his classic schoolyard bully persona (with a Joisey accent to match). His appearances are usually met with a scowl from Pee-wee.
- Keet: Pee-wee, the very embodiment of this trope.
- Large Ham: Just about the entire cast.
- Late to the Punchline: The show's entire appeal for those who laughed as small children and are rediscovering it as adults.
- Later Installment Weirdness: Later episodes feature a few more film clips and cartoons (including El Hombre) and have the supporting cast carry the episode while Pee-wee himself has to step out for a moment.
- Leitmotif: Usually, a variation of the ending theme played at the end when Pee-wee opens the door to his scooter.
- Leaving Food for Santa: In his Christmas Special, Pee-wee attempted to bribe Santa with a large platter of milk and cookies. Ultimately subverted when Santa revealed that the Christmas list was so all-encompassing that Pee-Wee had to give back all of the presents so that the children of the world could have some!
- Lighter and Softer: The TV show is a child-friendly adaptation of the more adult-oriented stage show.
- Literal Genie / Jackass Genie: Jambi, at times. In "Restaurant," for example, Pee-wee says, "I wish I knew what to wish for." Jambi grants him that wish, but not what he actually wished for. When Pee-wee learns his mistake and calls Jambi out on it, the genie simply holds him to the rule of only one wish per show. Cue a Big "NO!" from Pee-wee.
- In another episode, Pee-wee wishes that someone would come over to alleviate his boredom. Jambi grants his wish and someone knocks at the door, but it turns out to be the Salesman. Pee-wee scowls in Jambi's direction afterward.
- Literal-Minded: A typical example..."Boy, Chairry, I sure got a lot of pen pal letters!"
"Why don't you read one?"
"I don't know, Chairry! Why don't I?"
- Ms. Fanservice: Ms. Yvonne. One episode featured a "Super Pee-wee" dream sequence in which she was pinned under a too-heavy barbell and needed rescuing; the barbell had taken the shape of her breasts! And yes, Super Pee-wee boasted X-ray vision among his other powers.Super Pee-wee: Floral print.
- Mundane Made Awesome: Anything Pee-wee does for snack time, in which he really has fun showing off how to make a relatively simple snack.
- Mythology Gag:
- The second episode has Pee-wee putting tape on his face just like in Pee-wee's Big Adventure.
- One episode has the food in the refrigerator dancing to "Tequila".
- Nice Helmet: Pee-Wee's overly-decorated red helmet, which featured after Season 1.
- No Fourth Wall: Pee-wee regularly spoke directly to the audience, as did Miss Yvonne, Cowboy Curtis and Jambi the Genie, among others. Roger the Monster even says that in-universe, "everyone in Monsterland loves your show".
- Not Evil, Just Misunderstood: Roger the Monster and Zyzzybalubah the Alien. Roger was always friendly but looked scary and was literally misunderstood thanks to a language barrier, but Zyzzy actually is rather villainous (ironically, he is similar to Lord Zedd and Rita Repulsa on Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers) until Pee-wee finds out he's just lonely and wants friends to change that, but has no idea how to go about making them because everyone on his planet hates him.
- Not Now, We're Too Busy Crying over You: In the episode "Reba Eats and Pterri Runs", the latter mentioned goes missing after having been reprimanded and picked on for the duration of the episode. Randy encourages him to run away, and Pterri comes to the realization that no one likes him. Pee-Wee sees the note Pterri wrote about his decision and him and the other characters go into mourning and begin blaming themselves for his departure. Pee-Wee begins gently sobbing after taking a look at a photo with him and Pterri together, and at that moment, gets a tap on the leg by Pterri, to which he responds, "Please, Pterri, not now."
- The Nth Doctor: Applied to the set rather than a character; the first episode of season 2 (which was the first season shot in the Los Angeles) features Pee Wee doing some housecleaning.
- Oculothorax: Roger, who only appeared in a few episodes but earned himself a place in the Colorforms playsets.
- Odd Friendship: Pterri and Globey.
- Once per Episode: Pee-wee played Connect the Dots with Magic Screen in nearly every episode. This is the idea behind Jambi's wishes, the King of Cartoons' arrival and the Penny cartoons, too.
- Only Sane Woman: Reba the Mail Lady in the later seasons. Earlier on, she was just as enthusiastic as the others.
- Although one season 1 episode had Pee-wee describing his adventure within the Magic Screen to her, to which she incredulously replies, "Are you sure there's nothing wrong with you?"
- Overly Long Gag: In one episode, Pee-wee fed his dog Roosevelt some dog food, and for about a minute and 40 seconds, the camera simply stays on Roosevelt eating his food.
- Parental Bonus: Miss Yvonne's dialogue with the male human characters easily springs to mind, but Cowboy Curtis, Captain Carl and even Pee-wee had their moments.
- Parody Magic Spell: Jambi's incantation. "Repeat after me, in Jambese..."Meka-leka-hi-meka-hiney-ho
- Pet the Dog: In the season one finale, Pee-Wee invited the door-to-door salesman to the party.
- Pop-Star Composer: Rotated between Mark Mothersbaugh, Danny Elfman, and Todd Rundgren, among others.
- Prank Call: Randy made Pee-Wee make a prank phone call. And the female stranger is married to the police officer!
- "Psycho" Strings: Heard whenever the Salesman comes to Pee-wee's door.
- Pun: In the episode where Jambi gets sick, Pee-wee consults an expert in "genie-ology" (read: genealogy, or the study of family trees.) The Cowntess, too, got quite a few "cow" and "moo"-based puns. (Example: when attending a pool party, she wore a "moo-moo.")
- Railroading: Attempts at working the Secret Word into dialogue sometimes got a bit like this.
- Real Dreams are Weirder: One of Pee-Wee's dreams is depicted via the wildly abstract short film Allegretto.
- Real Life Writes the Plot / Painting the Medium: The show marked its move from New York to Los Angeles with its second season premiere, in which the Playhouse Gang cleaned and redecorated the Playhouse, which now looked comparatively larger and more open than the Playhouse in the first season.
- Reverse Psychology: In "Open House", Pee-wee pulls a Tom Sawyer by tricking his friends into helping him clean up the playhouse by telling them he wants to do all the work himself and act like it's all fun.
- Rhymes on a Dime: The Puppetland Band does this all the time.
- Robot Buddy: Conky. Especially hilarious in that he foreshadows RADAR in the first episode (Cpt Carl is lost at sea and Conky, Magic Screen and Globey all team up to track/locate him to save his life). In "Just Another Day", Herman asked Conky "How's my favorite robot today?", with this line revealing that they're very good friends. Later, in "The Cowboy and the Cowntess", they prepare French toast together. This is further proven in Conky's Breakdown, when Herman is unsure of what to do to save his friend until Globey asks him about the owner's manual he had received. He then attempts to fix Conky himself before calling the authorized repairman. In "Pajama Party", Herman asks Conky to turn out the lights when it's bedtime. He does so, with Herman thanking his friend and bidding him good night.
- Magic Screen, in kind of a cute and special way. In the first episode she foreshadows GPS when Cpt. Carl is lost at sea, and in some episodes can play games with Pee-Wee and the others, such as checkers and tic-tac-toe. She even plays video.
- Running Gag: The show took great advantage of running gags throughout its run, such as each day's Secret Word and Jambi's one wish for each episode.
- The door-to-door salesman in the first season.
- The foil ball in the pre-Clocky era and the rubber-band ball in the post-Clocky era. Justified, too, in that he gave the foil-ball away because it got too big.
- Secret Word: At the start of every show Pee-wee informed the audience what "the secret word for today is", whivch was provided by Conky. He would try to make his guests say it, but they were not always that easily fooled and so sometimes Pee-wee accidentally said it himself. When the secret word was said all children were allowed to "scream real loud" while in Pee-wee's house itself an alarm went off while everyone in the Playhouse screamed.
- Series Finale: Playhouse for Sale (originally 65 episodes were going to be filmed).
- Silence, You Fool!: Twice this has occurred, both times with anger. The first time is in "Playhouse in Outer Space" (when Zyzzy says this to Pee-wee to get him to listen to his demands), and the second time is when the gang is playing a hyper-realistic version of library.
- She Cleans Up Nicely: Reba in "Rebarella", after she receives a beauty makeover from Ms. Yvonne, in which she wears a bouffant wig like Yvonne, as well as wears one of the latter's dresses.
- Ship Tease: With Miss Yvonne and several of the human male characters.
- Shout-Out: Jambi's incantation—"Meka-leka-hi-meka-hiney-ho" and "Meka-leka-hi-meka-channey-ho"—appeared in "Weird Al" Yankovic's parody song "Pretty Fly for a Rabbi."
- Magic Screen is said to claim inspiration from a segment on the '50s kid's show Winky Dink And You, in which children could "connect the dots" by applying a sheet of static vinyl to the TV screen, in an early instance of interactive television.
- In the episode where Jambi gets sick, the doctor that comes to help him is a wish doctor, Dr. Jinga-Janga, who is played by Bernard Fox, in a role that alternately parodies and pays homage to Fox's character Dr. Bombay, the witch doctor from Bewitched.
- The secret word of the day, which everybody screams whenever it's said, can be considered an homage to You Bet Your Life, when Groucho would reveal the secret word to the audience in the hopes that the contestants would say the word, and a duck resembling Groucho would fly in.
- Shot-for-Shot Remake: The intro to seasons 2, 3, and 4, is very similar to the original one from the first, just simply redone for the purpose of the newer Playhouse. Post-1990 airings of the season 4 episodes replaced the season 2 opening with the one from season 5.
- Show Within a Show: The King of Cartoons' classic cartoons as well as the original Penny cartoons and the later El Hombre. Additionally, Roger the Monster states in Monster im the Playhouse that everyone in Monsterland (where he is from) is a huge fan of Pee-Wee's Playhouse.
- Sick Episode: Three episodes in all:
- Pee-wee in "Pee-wee Catches a Cold"
- Jambi in "Sick, Did Someone Say Sick?"
- In a way, Conky in "Conky's Breakdown".
- Signs of Disrepair: The trope sparked off the series finale. Pee-Wee had a sign in two parts outside the playhouse—"LEMONADE FOR SALE"—but the first part blew away in a sudden gust of wind, leaving behind "FOR SALE." The supporting cast believed the playhouse itself to be for sale, and reminisced in his absence while he went looking for the first part of the sign.
- Sleeps in the Nude: In "Pajama Party", Cowboy Curtis reveals this to Pee-wee when he goes to the pajama party without bringing his own pajamas and asks him for some.
- Pee-wee: What do you sleep in, Cowboy Curtis?
Cowboy Curtis: Nothing! I sleep in the nude!
- Stock Footage: This show fell in love with this trope quite a bit, often leading to continuity errors.
- Sugar Bowl: The entire show takes place in one of these.
- Talkative Loon: Penny rambled a lot, didn't she?
- That's All, Folks!: The end of every episode where Pee-wee is on his scooter about to leave the playhouse.
- This Is Gonna Suck: Ricardo's reactions to Pee-wee trying to hit a pinata during the "Feliz Navidad" segment of the Christmas special.
- Those Two Guys:
- The talking Fish often make snide remarks followed by a cackle, not unlike two certain Muppet curmudgeons.
- Pterri and Globey often hang out together.
- Tin-Can Telephone: The Picture Phone. Notable in that it works as an actual telephone, and, like Conky, seems to be a consumer good in the show's universe (the Christmas Special indicates that even Whoopi Goldberg and Dinah Shore have one, or else they're calling from a pay phone). Pee-wee's overlaps with Bland-Name Product — the can is clearly a can of Del Monte mixed fruit, but the words "Del Monte" have been painted out of the logo!
- The Tooth Hurts: The entire premise of "To Tell the Tooth", in which Pee-wee has a doozy of a toothache but tries to resist going to the dentist — even after he informs the gang about the importance of good dental habits.
- Two-Part Trilogy: The final two seasons, despite airing during the fall of 1989 and fall of 1990 respectively, were actually filmed in succession. Season 4 was filmed from April to August 1989, and Season 5 was filmed from September 1989 to January 1990. Normally, there would be a year-long break in between seasons. Paul Reubens was offered two more seasons by CBS, for a 65-episode Syndication deal, but he declined.
- Video Phone: Again, the Picture Phone is this kind of phone.
- World's Most Beautiful Woman: Miss Yvonne, "the Most Beautiful Woman in Puppetland".