Between 1986 and 1991, nearly ten million people a week watched Pee-wee’s Playhouse, the critically acclaimed and widely successful children’s program broadcast on CBS. Now, on the 25th anniversary of the show, the complete behind-the-scenes story is being told for the first time by those who experienced it.
Complete with an episode guide, biographical information about the cast and key members of the show’s creative team, never-before-told anecdotes, and previously unpublished photos, Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse takes the first in-depth look behind the program TV Guide recently cited as one of the top ten cult classics of all time.
Paul Reubens (as Pee-wee Herman) has been making a comeback since August 2010, appearing on Saturday Night Live, The View, The Jimmy Kimmel Show, Conan, and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He starred in a successful stage revival of his live show in January and February of 2010, and it hit Broadway later that year. It’s been turned into a special on HBO. His public Twitter and Facebook accounts boast over one million fans and followers.
Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse is the first comprehensive look at this amazingly successful (and still revered) children’s program. Pee-wee Herman fans have been energized recently by the character’s re-emerging presence. From casual fans to devout followers, everyone will be interested in taking a look Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Inside Pee-Wee's Playhouse
The Untold, Unauthorized, and Unpredictable Story of a Pop Phenomenon
By Caseen Gaines, Jen Hale
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2011 Caseen Gaines
All rights reserved.
FROM THE GROUNDLINGS UP
* * *
Inside Pee-wee's playhouse in the late night of February 7, 1981, Miss Yvonne, the most beautiful woman in Puppetland, and her boyfriend Kap'n Karl, joined Jambi the Genie in a magic spell to make their pal's wish to fly come true. The trio, along with their friends Hermit Hattie, Mailman Mike, Mr. and Mrs. Jelly Donut, and nearly a hundred onlookers, loudly and methodically repeated the magic words: mekka lekka hi mekka hiney ho. With a clap of thunder the lights went out, and from the darkness a nasal voice cried, "I'm flying!" prompting an eruption of laughter and applause from the sold-out audience at the Groundling Theatre in Los Angeles.
"I'm Pee-wee Herman," he said. "I'm the luckiest boy in the world." He flew off into the night sky, waving goodbye to all the adult boys and girls who had just watched the first performance of The Pee-wee Herman Show, the live precursor to what would become the most groundbreaking Saturday morning children's program of the 1980s, Pee-wee's Playhouse.
Pee-wee Herman, with his wonderland of puppets, vintage educational videos, and classic cartoons, seemed to be plucked out of a 1950s television set. Twenty-five years before The Pee-wee Herman Show opened at the Groundling Theatre, Paul Rubenfeld, a young kid from Peekskill, New York, huddled before the living room television set with his brother Luke and sister Abby to watch children's programming like Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo. These shows followed a basic format that was reproduced on a countless number of local television networks across America: a charismatic host speaks directly to the viewing audience, there are simplistic puppets, and crazy friends drop by at random. Decades after those young viewers reached adulthood, many still held fond memories of these programs, including the young boy who had since changed his name and moved to Los Angeles, where he was hoping to catch his big break.
A STAR IS BORN
Pee-wee's imaginative world had its formal unveiling at the Groundling Theatre, the home of an improvisational comedy troupe and an acting school where the relatively unknown Paul Reubens honed his comedic skills. The show was a creative collaboration of Groundling talent, as was the evolution of Pee-wee himself.
Reubens began at the Groundlings as a student in a class taught by Phyllis Katz in 1978. As a culminating project, Katz announced that the class was going to prepare a "scene night," similar to the showcases produced by West Hollywood's The Comedy Store, to be performed in-house for other Groundlings and invited guests. Each student would develop a character and perform a short stand-up act.
For Reubens, this was a dream project. While a student at the California Institute of the Arts, he had been encouraged by friend Charlotte McGinnis to appear with her on The Gong Show. Before that time, he'd had aspirations of being a dramatic actor in the style of James Dean, but McGinnis's offer intrigued him. He decided to give comedy a try.
Reubens and McGinnis performed as the Hilarious Betty and Eddie and won $500 for their performance. He continued to work with McGinnis, and other friends on Gong Show acts, ultimately making over a dozen appearances on the show. Reubens realized he had a natural knack for creating larger-than-life characters, and his success on The Gong Show inspired him to pursue comedy full-time.
"Being a part of this duo act and coming up with material for The Gong Show then led me into the Groundlings, which was an improvisational group that had a real bent towards writing and character creation," Reubens recalled in a 2004 interview with NPR. "It was pretty early in my career where I realized, 'No one's going to do this for me.' I needed to write and create my own vehicle and material."
Although Reubens excelled at character creation, he had difficulty getting started on Katz's assignment. According to Gary Austin, the founder and artistic director of the Groundlings, Reubens was short on ideas for a character and an act. He told Reubens of an 18-year-old aspiring comedian who used to perform at The Comedy Store, where Austin used to emcee.
"The kid's name was Jeff," Austin says. "And because of his age and liquor laws, he was required to sit in the back of the room until two a.m. before he could perform."
According to Austin, Jeff, who refused to give a last name and insisted on being referred to as "Just Jeff," was an unintentionally memorable performer. He looked like Bobby Kennedy's assassin and his act revolved around a shopping bag filled with props that Just Jeff would crack jokes about. None of the jokes worked.
"He would bring out a transistor radio and announce, 'I will now do my impression of a disc jockey,'" Austin says. "He turned on the radio and moved his lips as if he was lip synching a disc jockey, but he never knew what would actually be playing on the radio at that moment and it was never a disc jockey. It was usually a song or a commercial or a ball game, anything but a speaking DJ. This was the nature of his act."
Austin recounted Just Jeff's characteristics and mannerisms to Reubens, and other classmates suggested ways to exaggerate his behavior. Reubens began improvising, reinventing Just Jeff's prop routine and speaking in a voice he had created during a 1970 production of Life with Father at Sarasota's Asolo Repertory Theatre. Reubens grabbed a bag and some props from around the room. He began playing with his "bag of tricks," laughing his now-classic laugh that seamlessly flowed from his new character. Within moments, Pee-wee Herman — named after a "crazy, high-powered kid" Reubens had known as a child — was born.
Austin remembered a tailored glen plaid suit that had once been in his wardrobe's heavy rotation until his friends derided him for its lack of style. The suit was now reserved exclusively for when Austin was auditioning for nerd roles, so he suggested Reubens borrow it. Reubens agreed sight unseen.
The night of the performance, Reubens arrived with a white dress shirt and matching patent-leather shoes. He borrowed a black bowtie from another classmate and put on Austin's suit. With his costume complete and his routine ready, Pee-wee Herman took the stage for the first time.
Reubens' performance was the standout moment of the showcase, and it led to regularbookings at the venue. For a year, he performed for ten minutes a night, making slight alterations to his routine. He began inviting audience members onto the stage and peppering his act with classic schoolyard taunts like "I know you are, but what am I?" and "Why don't you take a picture? It'll last longer!"
"At first he was sort of a bratty kid," Austin remembers. "He was kind of offensive, but he became nicer and more appealing."
Initially, Pee-wee was not the only character in Reubens' arsenal. Among them were Joe Longtoe, a Native American chief with a propensity for dancing on his toes, and Al and Arnie, a pair of corpulent friends whom Reubens created along with fellow Groundling John Paragon.
"There were so many characters," Austin recalls. "I never thought that Peewee was his best character. I thought he had better ones. It just turns out that, for whatever reason, that's the one he chose to really pursue, and it made his career."
Reubens' other characters took a backseat as Pee-wee took on a life of his own.
"I used to do this thing [as Pee-wee] where I'd say things like 'Who's got a hard-boiled egg?" Reubens remembered in a 2004 interview with Los Angeles Magazine. "I knew something weird was going on when people started coming to shows with that stuff."
As Melrose Avenue began to gain more shops that catered to the new wave and punk scenes, the Groundling Theatre attracted more attention from people in the entertainment industry looking for something new. And in 1980, Reubens caught the eye of three individuals who dramatically altered the course of his career.
WOWING THE AUDIENCE
Doug Draizin went into the Groundling Theatre one night after drinks with friends. He was an agent working for the Agency of Performing Arts (APA), but that night, work was the farthest thing from his mind. He took a seat in the front row and soon found himself engaged in a tête-à-tête with Pee-wee, the character throwing Tootsie Rolls into the audience right at Draizin.
When Draizin returned home, he couldn't shake the memory of his experience and the unique comedian who had engaged him from the stage. He decided to return the following week with two friends.
"We sat there," Draizin recalls, "and after the show they looked at me and said, 'This guy's terrific.' You've got to go back there and talk to him.'"
Despite the advice of his friends, the agent left without speaking to Reubens.
The following day Draizin was walking to his office on Sunset Boulevard and ran into Tracy Newman, a Groundlings member he recognized from his previous trips to the theater. Draizin expressed interest in Reubens and within a few days, Newman had brokered a meeting between the two. Reubens and Draizin hit it off right away, and, at the end of the meeting, the agent offered Reubens representation. All he had to do, he said, was run it by his bosses at APA before things became official.
Despite his excitement about discovering new talent, Draizin's enthusiasm was challenged when he returned to the office.
"I brought his headshot to the agency," Draizin says. "It was an eight by ten with 'Say hello to Pee-wee' written on it. I passed it around the office and told the bosses that I wanted to sign him. They all looked at the headshot and thought it was a joke."
Unbeknownst to his bosses, Draizin signed Reubens anyway.
Shortly after Reubens signed with Draizin, the stoner-comedy duo of Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong made their way to the Groundling Theatre, scouting talent for their latest film.
"I made a few trips down to the Groundling Theatre on Melrose and used talent from there to cast the remaining roles [in Cheech and Chong's Next Movie]," Chong explains. "Paul Reubens was our first choice because he was the funniest original talent I had ever seen. His character Pee-wee Herman came to life as a separate entity."
Pee-wee Herman made his film debut in Next Movie. At first, the character appears as a wimpy, foul-mouthed hotel clerk who attempts to get the duo arrested. He reemerges later in the film in full performance mode with his trademark look and routine. The film was a commercial success, and many reviewers singled out Pee-wee's sequences as high points.
Even comedian Steve Martin took note of Reubens' performance. Martin, who was signed to APA, went into a meeting at his agency to lobby for Reubens to be signed.
"He came in and said, 'There's a guy named Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman,'" Draizin recalls. "My bosses just looked at me. I said, 'Yeah, he's great. We represent him.'"
With the attention Pee-wee was attracting on stage and screen, Draizin began submitting the character's headshot to casting agents around the country. Within no time, the casting directors at Saturday Night Live wanted to "say hello to Pee-wee." Reubens auditioned and made it to the final round of callbacks, but lost the job to Gilbert Gottfried. For Reubens, snl was the holy grail of opportunities. Rejected, he flew back to Los Angeles to regain his spot tossing Tootsie Rolls in the Groundling Theatre.
ANSWERING THE DOOR
Opportunity came in the form of Dawna Kaufmann, a television producer with an idea and a problem. She was the associate producer on a short-lived CBS late-night comedy show called No Holds Barred, a program designed to compete directly with snl by featuring a similar style of humor. However, censors frequently accused the show of presenting content that was inappropriate for network television, so frequently in fact that every episode was a struggle to get on the air. The torturous process inspired Kaufmann to come up with ideas for television show concepts that would be immune from the censors' knives.
"If you want to be edgy, you've got be a little clever," she explains. "So I thought it would be wise to come up with a late-night show that couldn't be touched by the censors because we would never say a naughty word and we would never have any explicit sexuality. We wouldn't have anything we could be attacked for, but it would be subversive. Everyone would know what we were talking about, but we wouldn't be directly saying anything that would put us at risk."
She thought about other kinds of shows that had a similar format. As her brain raced through all of the flickering images she had seen on television, she thought of a novel question — what if television's future lay in its past?
"Variety shows always resonated with me," Kaufmann recalls. "I remembered watching Soupy Sales when I was a kid. He'd literally open a door and something exciting would happen. As a little kid I watched lots of those shows and I was deeply influenced by them and that style of entertainment. That was the motivation to come up with a show that had a playhouse idea. It would have a narrative structure, but every couple of minutes something would happen. A new door would open and you'd be taken on a new ride, sometimes with puppets or cartoons, but it would always be different."
Kaufmann told her best friend, actress Cassandra Peterson (who later went on to pop-notoriety as the cult icon Elvira, Mistress of the Dark), about her late-night television show idea. A light bulb switched on over Peterson's head.
"She was in the Groundlings and told me there may be someone in the group that would have ideas I could work with to create a show," Kaufmann recalls. "I had contacts in the industry and could pitch the show to plenty of people in show business. So I went down and saw Paul's act and thought, 'Well, here's a guy who would make a good host.'"
Peterson took the producer backstage after the show and introduced her to Reubens.
"I wanted to do a show for television; didn't have much money, but had a lot of contacts," Kaufmann recalls. "He mentioned he had an agent and contacts too. We decided to put our heads together and start working on a show."
Kaufmann and Reubens went out to dinner the following day to discuss the particulars of The Pee-wee Herman Show, their new venture titled after The Pinky Lee Show and The Soupy Sales Show. With their sights set on television, Kaufmann decided to market the stage show as a "livepilot" for network television consideration and provide as many industry insiders as possible with comp tickets in the hopes that one of them would offer a deal. Because of his access to actors, Reubens would spearhead casting. In turn, Kaufmann would be responsible for recruiting the crew. However, even if they didn't pay cast and crew, there would be costs associated with producing a live television pilot. They'd need to construct sets, print posters, and mail hundreds of promotional materials publicizing the event. Although both partners wanted to give this their all, neither had the money to make it happen. Reubens excused himself from the table and made a telephone call to his parents Judy and Milton Rubenfeld, asking them for a loan of $8,000. They agreed.
"The first time we made money on the show a check got cut to them," Kaufmann recalls. "It was really helpful for Paul to ask Milton and Judy for the money. It gave us the ability to make the show a reality."
Excerpted from Inside Pee-Wee's Playhouse by Caseen Gaines, Jen Hale. Copyright © 2011 Caseen Gaines. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsIntroduction
1. From the Groundlings Up
2. The Pitch and the Hit
3. Puppetland, California
4. A Christmas Story
7. Appraising the Playhouse
8. Episode Guide
The Puppetland Directory
What People are Saying About This
"This book is a must have for pop-culture enthusiasts as well as anyone who has enjoyed the prodigious Pee-wee Herman phenomena." www.PeeWeesPlayhouse.tumblr.com
"Stills from the Playhouse and a fantastic Episode Guide enable the reader to relive memorable moments and learn obscure trivia. . . . Gaines demonstrates the enchantment and broad appeal of the Playhouse, as well as the spontaneity of a show where 'anything could happen.'" Publishers Weekly (August 8, 2011)
"For all its attraction for the superfan, from the exhaustive episode guide to the previously unpublished photographs and behind-the-scenes tech-talk, the human portrait of Paul Reubens stands as Gaines' signal achievement." —www.KirkusReviews.com (December 2011)
"Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse's release couldn't have come at a better time. It's the perfect fix for die hard fans, and a great introduction for those just budding." www.TheNonReview.com
"Utilizing interviews with key cast and crew members, Gaines follows the development and run of Pee-wee's Playhouse and liberally adds anecdotal material and behind-the-scenes gossip from numerous insiders. . . . all Pee-wee fans will enjoy this informative and fun text." Library Journal (July 1, 2011)
"This book is a great nostalgic trip and will be wonderful for any fan, old or new." —San Francisco Book Review (December 1, 2011)
"If you are a fan of Pee-wee's Playhouse, Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse: The Untold, Unauthorized, and Unpredictable Story of a Pop Phenomenon (also available for the kindle) is a must read or would make the perfect gift for the Pee-wee fan in your life, so pick up a copy today." —www.Retroist.com (November 2011)
"You can tell when an author is doing something for the paycheck, and when it's out of love, and here, it's definitely out of love. If you loved Pee-Wee, this is definitely a book to check out. If you're unfamiliar, it's still a great read. I really enjoyed it." —www.KSiteTV.com (November 2011)
Reading Group Guide
In the spring of 1986, Saturday morning children’s television was popular, profitable, and predictable. The three major television networks, abc, cbs, and nbc, aired cartoons that lacked in originality and, for the most part, had no educational value. There were superheroes (Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians), animated adaptations of live-action movies and tv shows (It’s Punky Brewster, Star Wars), new shows with established characters (Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Smurfs), and even a show starring a larger-than-life wrestling personality (Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling). As children urged their parents to empty their wallets for toys based on their favorite Saturday morning cartoons, some parents began paying closer attention to children’s programming, and many didn’t like what they saw. Critics described the networks’ lineups as being filled with “program-length commercials” for merchandising like Pound Puppies, G.I. Joe, and Care Bears. Peggy Charren, the founder and president of Action for Children’s Television, claimed that Saturday morning tv was “filled with do-goody nonsense” and she urged networks to introduce shows with more educational value. With the scrutiny of children’s television increasing, President Ronald Reagan established National Children’s Television Awareness Week that October, a month after the new season of Saturday morning programming debuted. Television as we knew it would be forever changed. Into the Saturday morning television war zone stepped Pee-wee Herman, the man-child in a too-small gray suit of armor, a soldier of a new era of creative children’s programming. While Pee-wee’s Playhouse was hardly the first show to blend animation, puppetry, and liveaction pbs’s Sesame Street had crossed that bridge almost 20 years earlier it added a subversive, hipster sensibility to the format, providing a gust of fresh air to a tired timeslot reserved for the stale ideas of network execs. Playhouse’s impact was immediate. The Washington Post described the program as “utterly magical, beautifully realized, and veritably giddy with plaintive charm.” The show gained the respect of parent advocacy groups and critics alike for being the lone Saturday morning children’s show that was not completely animated. In the weeks following its debut, Playhouse was frequently cited as being not only the best new show of the season, but the best program on Saturday morning, period. As William S. Burroughs once said, “In the magical universe there are no coincidences and there are no accidents.” This was certainly true for Playhouse. The show not only provided a generation of children with something wildly entertaining to watch as they ate their sugared cereal, but it also became symbolic of a national changing of the guard. Just as cassette players had replaced turntables, the new and inventive consumed the old and traditional. Video killed the radio star. Pee-wee’s Playhouse killed The Smurfs. In fact, it was the popularization of a new and inventive technology that introduced me to Pee-wee Herman. In 1985, my grandpa purchased his first vcr and began taping everything he was remotely interested in that aired on pay-cable networks. By 1986, the surprise success of the film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure ensured that it would be placed in heavy rotation on hbo, often coupled with 1981’s The Pee-wee Herman Show special, which had regained attention as Pee-wee became a household name. My grandpa would sit down with me, before I could even form complete sentences, to watch Pee-wee double features. My parents were aware of my interest and they turned the television to Pee-wee’s Playhouse on Saturday mornings. I watched religiously, often screaming the secret word at the top of my lungs whenever it flashed on the screen and jumping up and down in my footed pajamas. I owned the pull-string doll, which now sounds more like one of the Chipmunks, and it traveled with me to family gatherings, on long car rides, to birthday parties, and everywhere else my parents would let me carry it. One of my cousins had a few episodes on tape that I begged her to watch with me whenever I went over to visit. There are home movies of me imitating Pee-wee’s laugh and obnoxiously asking my family the quintessential rhetorical question, “I know you are, but what am I?” When I started working on this book, I believed myself to be the biggest Pee-wee fan around. However, during the two years I spent working on this project, I found thousands of fans all over the world who have kept their love for Pee-wee alive. Birgit Schuetze, a fan from Germany, spent close to $3,000 to fly to the States to see Pee-wee Herman on Broadway last year. Perry Shall of Philadelphia has a full-sleeve tattoo of the Playhouse characters on his arm, with a large illustration of Jambi the Genie on his chest. Ben Zurawski of Chicago, an artist who makes replicas of Playhouse characters, coordinated with the producers of the recent stage show at Club Nokia in Los Angeles to propose to his girlfriend Summer Violett, also a fan, on the Playhouse set. Fans like Birgit, Perry, Ben, and Summer are not alone. There has been overwhelming support for Peewee on social networking sites, with over half a million people linked with him on Twitter alone. Thousands of fans have shown up to see Paul Reubens, the man behind Pee-wee’s make up, at public appearances throughout the years with requests for him to sign 15-year-old merchandise and say some of Pee-wee’s signature lines. These are the fans who caused Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim reruns of Playhouse to average nearly 1.5 million viewers a night in 2004, and who have defended Reubens throughout his various personal and professional struggles.