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In 1980, Paul Reubens created a stage show called "The Pee Wee Herman Show," parodying the children's live action TV shows of the 50s and 60s. After a successful HBO comedy special and years of performance, Reubens teamed with Tim Burton to create Pee Wees 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, with Reubens eventually negotiating for a Lighter and Softer live action version. 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, the show moved to a full-size set in Los Angeles for the second season onward (hence, why the playhouse in the first season looks so much smaller than in the second season and beyond).
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 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 and Laurence Fishburne, as well as future stars S. Epatha Merkerson, and Natasha Lyonne.
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 heavy handed. The show ran on CBS from September 13, 1986 until November 10, 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 being affected by the 1988 Writers Guild of America Strike.
In 2011, Reubens staged a new live show integrating elements from the original as well as the TV show.
This show provided examples of:
- Affectionate Parody: Of early TV kids shows, but especially The Soupy Sales Show and The Pinky Lee Show.
- Alliterative Name: Many of the characters, including Captain Carl, Cowboy Curtis, Chairy the Chair, Globey the Globe, and Pterri the Pterodactyl.
- All-Star Cast: The Christmas Special. Its special guests included Cher, Grace Jones, a very young k.d. lang, Charo, Joan Rivers, Earvin "Magic" Johnson (cousin of Magic Screen), and Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.
- Beatnik: The Puppet Band are a Funny Animal Affectionate Parody of beatniks.
- Benevolent Genie: Jambi, who could grant Pee-wee (or whoever Pee-wee gave the wish to) one wish per day.
- 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.
- Bow Ties Are Cool: Before there was Bill Nye; before there was the Eleventh Doctor, Pee-wee Herman did it first.
- Christmas Special: And a very good one at that. It's unique in that all the major winter holidays (e.g. Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, etc.) are 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.
- Cloudcuckoolander: Penny rambled a lot, didn't she?
- Cool Scooter: Which received...
- 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.
- Excited Kids' Show Host: Pee-wee, obviously.
- 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 first Playhouse gang for being a bit too rambunctious. It also showed that he was capable of being 'quiet' at times, too. By the later seasons, 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 ANY CONSIDERATION?!!
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: This scene, for one.
- In the Christmas Special, Magic Johnson states that he and Magic Screen are cousins. For example, "Magic Screen" is the device's actual name--"Magic" is the given name, and "Screen" is the surname. One wonders what that implies for Magic Johnson...
- Incredibly Lame 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.")
- Jerkass: Randy, with his classic schoolyard bully persona. His appearances are usually met with a scowl from Pee-wee.
- Late to The Punchline: The show's entire appeal for those who laughed as small children and are rediscovering it as adults.
- Lighter and Softer: The TV show is a child-friendly adaptation of the adult-oriented stage show.
- Literal Genie / Jerkass 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. Cue a Big No from Pee-wee.
- 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?"
- Loads and Loads of Characters
- 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.
- Oculothorax: Roger the Monster, who only appeared in a few episodes but earned himself a place in the Colorforms playsets.
- 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 not something wrong with you?"
- 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..."
- Railroading: Attempts at working the Secret Word into dialogue sometimes got a bit like this.
- Robot Buddy: Conky. Especially hilarious in that he foreshadows GPS 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).
- Rule of Funny: The show runs on this.
- 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.
- 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 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 both parodies and pays homage to Fox's character Dr. Bombay, the witch doctor from Bewitched.
- Show Within a Show: The King of Cartoon's classic cartoons as well as the original Penny cartoons.
- Spiritual Successor: The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson is almost--almost--a spiritual successor to Pee-wee...you can almost imagine Secretariat bounding through that jagged red door, or Craig jumping into Magic Screen and playing Aquaman.
- Sticky Situation: The Penny cartoon in "Puppy in the Playhouse" shows some sticky applesauce on Penny's shoe.
- That's All Folks: The end of every episode where Pee-wee is on his scooter about to leave the playhouse.
- Tin Can Telephone: The Picturephone. 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!
- Troll: Randy.
- World of Ham
- World's Most Beautiful Woman: Ms. Yvonne, the Most Beautiful Woman in all of Puppetland.