A Zipper for Pee-Wee Herman
Ethel O’ Grady
History of Television
December 3, 1996
Leaders in childrens television are and always have been concerned about
what programs actually make it on the air. Most early programming for children
of school age in the 1950’s was the western program. Another type was the
science-fiction thriller which tended to be based on hero’s from the radio,
comics, and films. However, a favorite of the youngest audience was the
children’s equivalent of the variety show. This usually contained circus,
puppet, and/or animal segments. “Super Circus”, which aired in 1949, consisted
of music, circus acts, animals, and of course, clowns.
In 1952, yet another type of program came about which reached a very
similiar audience as the circus variety shows. It was called “The Ding Dong
School”. The Ding Dong School offered the conversation, low-key instruction,
commercials, and entertainment of Miss. Frances, a professional teacher.
With the help of these types of shows, a new genre was born. Children’s
television which was a mixture of songs, education, fun, and a whole lot more.
In 1969, the first airing of “Sesame Street” took place. Sesame Street had
programs which were sponsored by different letters of the alphabet or numbers
each day, and relied on very short, animated cartoons with live and puppet
segments which kept the interest of preschool children. The show was an
instant outstanding success, and still broadcasts today.
In 1970, “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” was born. Mr. Fred Roger’s used
puppets and music to teach patience and cooperation, while providing guidance
to help children cope with feelings and frustrations. Mr. Roger’s land of
makebelieve’s handpuppet characters interacted with humans in the mythical
kingdom of King Friday XIII. There, the puppets and humans would deal with
their feelings and emotions as they solve typical, everyday problems.
This new genre of programming was a sensation. The children loved it,
and the parents approved of it. During the following years, many new shows
came about which still fit this genre. In the year 1986, yet another show was
born into childrens television. “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse”. This series, starring
host Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) used animation, puppets, and vintage
cartoons to entertain and educate its audience. Between Pee-Wee Herman and his
extraordinary playhouse, children were given the opportunity to let their
imaginations go crazy.
The “playhouse” had no permanent residents, that is, besides the
furnishings.Not ordinary furnishings, you see, Pee-Wee’s furnishings could
move, talk, dance, and sing. These “characters” could be seen at the
playhouse on a regular basis. Some of the favorites were: Globey, a talking
globe who would show Pee-Wee the countries that his pen-pal’s letters came
from; Magic Screen, a toy of Pee-Wee’s that enabled him to actually get
“inside the screen” and play a life-size game of connect the dots; Konkie, a
talking robot which revealed the secret word of the day; and of course Genie,
who granted Pee-
Wee one wish a day.
The playhouse also welcomed a series of visitors during each episode,
which could also be seen on a regular basis. Some of these favorites included:
Rina the mail-lady, who came to deliver Pee-Wee’s pen-pal letters everyday;
Miss Yvonne, who Pee-Wee referred to the most beautiful woman in Puppetland;
and of course the King of Cartoons who brought the “vintage cartoon of the day”
Besides the spectacular furnishings and outrageous visitors, the
television show also had an unusual daily theme. This theme could have been
anything from “a fire in the playhouse”, “a trip to another planet”, or even
“Pee-Wee getting sick”. In all of these situations, Pee-Wee stressed the
importance of friendship, sharing, and just being nice.
One particular show, “Monster in the Playhouse”, was about being in the
dark. Pee-Wee explains that when your with your friends, the dark is less
spooky. Suddenly Mrs. Steve, a neighbor of Pee-Wee’s, begins panicking because
she thinks there’s a monster on the loose. Just then, a great monster with one
eye and one leg enters the playhouse. His name is Roger, and he stays and plays
with Pee-Wee. All of a sudden Roger’s mother is on the picture-phone saying
that Roger is late for dinner. This show ends with Pee-Wee’s elaborate
closing: Pee-Wee mounting his scooter with Roger and giving him a ride home.
Unfortunately, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse came to an startling end only five
years later. Why? Well, on July 26, 1991, Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman) was
arrested for indecent exposure in a porno-theater. This incident both shocked
and worried the leaders of children’s television programming due to the morals,
ethics, and values of the society during that time. Questions flooded the
minds of parents, teachers, and officials. People began to fear that Pee-Wee
was perhaps a poor role-model for their youngsters.
The real question is this: Should Pee-Wee’s behavior have been such a
shock to society? Lets look a little deeper into Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. This
children’s television show was actually a refined version of Paul Reuben’s
nightclub act: “The Pee-Wee Herman Show”. It is difficult to imagine that
anyone who had seen his nightclub act, actually agreed to run Pee-Wee’s
Playhouse during Saturday morning, children’s programming.
The Pee-Wee Herman Show can best be described as an adult version of
Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Paul Reubens played the part of Pee-Wee Herman, a boy who
acts out his infantile sexuality by “playing doctor” with the ladies and
looking up women’s skirts. Numerous accounts of sexual innuendo’s are made by
Pee-Wee during the entire show.
I don’t think Pee-Wee Herman ever gave the impression that he was a “Mr.
Rogers-Captain Kangeroo” kind of role model for children. Pee-Wee was who he
was: a creative comedian who had a clever way of looking at life through the
eyes of a child. Whether he was a disgusting pervert or just plain human, his
television show and movies were a huge success.
Though no longer in syndication, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse’s fire still
continues to burn. There is now a collection of video tapes available which
allow Pee-Wee to be where he belongs: in the center of family room’s across
Long live Pee-Wee Herman!
Christopher Sterling & John Kittros. Stay Tuned: A Concise History of
American Broadcasting (Revised Edition). (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1990)
The Museum of Television and Radio (NYC):
1. Pee-Wee’s Playhouse: A Fire in the Playhouse
2. Mr. Rogers Neighborhood: Superhero’s
3. Before They Were Stars III (TV)
4. Comic Relief, pt. 2 of 5 (1986)
5. Television, pt 8: The Promise of Television
6. Andrew Dice Clay: For Ladies Only
7. The Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Years