For a certain generation of now-adults, the name “Pee-wee Herman” carries with it a certain hint of magic. Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee was a clean-cut young man in a nice suit who started out as a Groundlings character, starred in the anarchic Tim Burton film classic Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in 1985, and hosted a hilarious TV show for children, the Emmy-winning Pee-wee’s Playhouse that ran from from 1986 through 1991 — a run cut short when Reubens was arrested in Florida for masturbating in an adult theater.
In the past five years, Pee-wee has had a comeback of sorts. Another Pee-wee film is constantly rumored in the trades (with Judd Apatow as the producer), and The Pee-wee Herman Show had a Broadway run in 2011. Now, as a perfect holiday gift, the whole series of Pee-wee’s Playhouse and its incomparable holiday special, Christmas at Pee-wee’s Playhouse are now available on Netflix for your streaming pleasure.
As Santa’s coming to town this very week, let’s celebrate what may be the ne plus ultra of Pee Wee’s silliness: the Christmas special. Structured like the ultimate episode of the TV show, it features Pee-wee in all his childlike glory, ready to celebrate the holiday. This is everything that makes the Pee-wee Herman character so funny — he was a child in grown-up clothing, with a child’s myopic view of the world, even though he was dealing with adults.
Nearly 25 years later, the special is preserved in amber as a perfect specimen of camp. Perhaps this has something to do with Pee-wee‘s passionate affair with the mid-century modern aesthetic, in both design and the characters’ big-haired, B-52s-esque style. Maybe it’s because the opening song starts with a serious men’s choir in army dress, before Pee-wee bursts in, the horns blare, and the men start dancing. Divas in gold sequins burst in with some “oooooo”s, and Pee-wee lists the insane lineup of usual suspects, from Jambi the Genie to Cowboy Curtis, and guest stars, from Cher to Oprah to Whoopi Goldberg to Magic Johnson.
There’s joke after joke about fruitcake. Pee-wee is super-duper excited for Christmas, to the point that he doesn’t even realize he’s being a total monster. He can’t hide his sadness when he gets another pound-cake gift, he wants all the presents, he locks Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon away because they have to make him hundreds of Christmas cards. Because of a shipping accident, Grace Jones sings “The Little Drummer Boy” for Pee-wee, in a performance that must have been seminal in shaping Lady Gaga’s whole existence:
Cher appears in full ’80s-Cher regalia (sparkles, and black lace), in order to introduce the “secret word,” which is “year.” Anytime someone says “Happy New Year!,” Pee-wee and Cher scream. It’s delightful.
As someone who grew up with Pee-wee Herman, I find that the show has infected my life in a variety of ways. My husband has described my interior decorating style as “Pee-wee Herman-meets-mid-century modern” (which, as we’ve already covered, is really just Pee-wee). When it snows, I often find myself shouting, “IT’S SNOWING! AAAAA!” in tribute to Pee-wee.
But it’s nice to grow older with the show, too, and realize that what was appealing about it as a kid doesn’t lose its appeal in adulthood. In fact, it gets funnier. As a kid, you might have thought that Pee-wee was just like you, with the added bonus of a shrunken suit and his very own place, Rube Goldberg-style tricks to get breakfast and a talking comfy chair. As an adult, what comes through is the conflict between Pee-wee’s refreshingly unlimited enthusiasm and his silly, sweet egoism, and how each and every time the two meet, Pee-wee ends up learning a very valuable lesson.