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Pee-wee Herman Fun Facts

“I know you are, but what am I?” A Pee-wee Herman fan. “I know you are, but what am I?” A Pee-wee Herman fan. “I know you are, but what am I?” A Pee-wee Herman fan, INFINITY! It’s that kind of timeless childish behavior that has made an icon of Pee-wee Herman for more than 30 years, with appearances in beloved productions like Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, the disappointing Big Top Pee-wee and the Saturday Morning classic Pee-wee’s Playhouse

But there is so much more to the story than 2 movies and an award winning TV show, as I found out recently reading Inside Pee-Wee's Playhouse: The Untold, Unauthorized, and Unpredictable Story of a Pop Phenomenon by Caseen Gaines (available now in the Retro-Daze points store). So, “Get out of bed, pull yourself up a chair…” and get ready to explore a list factoids and memories about Puppetland’s favorite resident.

1.     It’s Pee-wee, not "Pee-Wee"

This was a small, but reality shattering revelation to me upon reading the first few paragraphs of the book. I had always in my mind seen his name as “Pee-Wee” with that capital “W”, but this is simply not the case. Funky fonts and logos were often used for his shows presented in all caps, so it was hard to distinguish the proper spelling, but even on his official Facebook page you can see that this is the case. While we’re on the topic of the name, Paul Reubens (the actor who plays Pee-wee) said that he based the name off of a kid he grew up with. Can you imagine having an iconic character named after your childhood nickname? Especially if you hated it, that would be a rough 60 to 70 years of existence. 

2.    The Pee-wee Herman Show is not Pee-wee’s Playhouse

My first introduction to Pee-wee did not feature Chairry, Cowboy Curtis or a hunt for a bicycle, it was through renting a VHS of the original stage play called The Pee-wee Herman Show which was performed live at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles in 1981. While characters such as the lovely Miss Yvonne and magical floating head Jambi made the jump to television, other wack-o’s like Hammy, Mailman Mike and Hermit Hattie were left in the dust. 

This production was also much more adult themed, with Pee-wee using shoe mirrors to look up a girl’s skirt, smoking a pipe with Cap’n Carl and hypnotizing a female audience member into stripping down to her slip. As much as I enjoyed Pee-wee’s Playhouse, this original production has always defined the character for me. To this day it is the only movie I have downloaded to my iPad because I know I can turn it on any time for a laugh. 

 

3.     Pee-wee Means Business   


      


     One shocking reveal was that The Pee-wee Herman Show was actually the brainchild of Dawna Kaufman, a TV producer who had been trying to develop a show where she could get away with subversive humor under a more child-like facade that the censors might ignore. She was introduced to Reubens, worked with him to develop the show to feature his Pee-wee character and got the whole deal off the ground as a live pilot for a TV show.


 


      As it turns out, the HBO special was a back door deal handled by Paul Reuben’s which resulted in everyone from the cast being forced to sign away any claim to the show for a small payment, with all rights going to Reuben’s for future use of the characters. Dawna Kaufman was totally cut out of the deal and was erased from history during the years of success that followed for Pee-wee Herman. In her interview for the book, Kaufman basically takes the stance of “That’s Hollywood” with everyone looking to get the best deal for themselves, leaving friends and collaborators behind on their way to the limelight. It is show BUSINESS after all, but who knew Pee-wee was such a shark?!

 

4.    Texas saved Pee-wee’s Big Adventure

     After the HBO special, Pee-wee began making regular appearances on Late Night with David Letterman and gunning for a movie deal which became Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. But even as they were filming, it looked like Warner Brothers was losing interest in the film, so Pee-wee went on tour to college campuses doing a live show called “The Pee-wee Herman Party” across the country to drum up excitement. When the studio said they were not going to release the movie, Pee-wee’s people put together a test screening in Austin, TX where they had gotten the greatest attendance and enthusiasm from the college kids, to stack the odds in their favor. It worked, people were lined up around the block to get in and their promise of recommending the movie to friends led to its release in theaters nationwide. So thanks to Texas for not only giving Pee-wee his destination of visiting the basement at The Alamo, but saving the whole-dang production! 

5.    Who the heck is Mrs. Steve?

Though I definitely tuned in regularly on Saturday Mornings during the original broadcast of Pee-wee’s Playhouse in 1986, I somehow missed a character who was a very “LARGE” part of the show, the muumuu wearing, Mrs. Steve. Looking like the brunette version of Mimi from The Drew Carey Show, the character was a snobby neighbor of Pee-wee’s who joined in a few of the 1st season adventures with Conky, Randy, and Pterry but left little impact despite the amount of screen space she took up. As a recovering fat kid, I should be a little more kind, but that’s really her only character trait. 

The actress who played Mrs. Steve was not anyone’s first choice and had a bad reputation on set, so in season 2 Mrs. Steve went bye-bye and in came Mrs. Renee, the Jewish housewife. Suzanne Kent was slated to play Mrs. Renee in the early episodes of the show, but was already committed to a part on It’s Gary Shandling Show for HBO and lost out on the role until season 2. The funny thing is, I never knew about Mrs. Renee either! The only women in Puppetland as far as I knew were Miss Yvonne, Reba the Mail-Lady and Dixie, the King of Cartoons' chauffer. Somehow I missed every appearance of this energetic and fun presence on the show. Luckily I’ve managed to catch up a little bit on Netflix during viewings of what my son refers to as “Wee-Wee”.

6.    Goldberg partied with Pee-wee?

    

      That’s right, Shaun Weiss, who played the goalie with attitude in The Mighty Ducks franchise of films was one of the original trio of kids that made up the “Playhouse Gang”. Before he laced up his skates and strapped on his helmet, “Goldberg” was sporting a fringed leather vest and head gear inspired by Jughead from Archie Comics as the lovable, Elvis.  Despite his later reputation as a loudmouth on the ice, as Elvis he didn’t really get many lines. Mostly he and the other kids (which included a young, freckle-faced Natasha Lyonne) just looked cute and excited when Pee-wee would teach them a new game or get a weather report from Mr. Kite. When season 2 rolled around, Elvis and the other kids were nowhere to be found, but why? Allow me to explain…

 

7.    Season 2: California Boogaloo

    

You see Pee-wee’s Playhouse was originally filmed in New York City, which was the complete opposite side of the country from where Pee-wee’s journey began. When the first season finished to much acclaim, Paul Reuben’s had a little more power and moved the whole production to California. Rather than transport all the sets and actors out west, they decided to go all Six Million Dollar Man and make the show, “Better, faster, stronger…”. The new playhouse was larger, adding a slide and bunk bed for Pee-wee to sleep in, but it also came with new characters.  Tito, the always shirtless lifeguard was replaced by Ricardo the jersey-wearing soccer player, 3 standard child actors became the new Playhouse Gang, and they also traded up the actor playing the King of Cartoons, while ditching Dixie.


      

     Season 2 also introduced new playhouse residents like Floory, a talking section of floor that popped up to share his thoughts on the world and Billy Baloney, a ventriloquist doll brought to life by Pee-wee. Some of the characters also got a makeover. Most noticeable was Globey who got a reverse nose job to make his features more prominent and cartoony, but occasional guest Cowntess went all Nicki Minaj by being outfitted with a larger backside. Hey plastic surgery was all the rage in California, so I guess it just went with the territory.

 

8.    Pee-wee Was a Slacker

     After several years on TV Pee-wee was feeling burnt out on the daily grind of making a network program and wanted to make another film. To free-up more time for the writing and filming of what became Big Top Pee-wee, Paul Reubens had the writers come up with reasons for the character to make only brief appearances in several episodes. 


      

      Often Cowboy Curtis and Miss Yvonne were left to cover for the absent host and try to fill the running time with various explorations of the playhouse puppet furniture. It became a real “Poochie” from The Simpsons situation, with characters basically saying, “Where’s Pee-wee?”, “I hope Pee-wee will be here soon” until he showed up to ride his scooter out into the closing credits.  Pretty sad and kind of crazy that he got away with it.

 

9.   Unproduced Pee-wee Merchandise

       

      

Pee-wee’s Playhouse resulted in a lot of merchandise lining store shelves that I personally remember seeing on many trips to K-Mart during my youth. The biggest impact for me came from the action figures that were actually produced by Matchbox with great results.  All the main characters were represented in very detailed toys that I never owned because I thought playthings that show accurate must be expensive. Oh how I longed for a Conky toy to go on adventures with my Transformers.


      

Some of the product ideas that never got off the ground like Pee-wee cologne (what would that even smell like?) or a breakfast cereal resembling dog food that kids were meant to eat out of a bowl on their hands and knees were pretty out there. But the craziest is a line of Miss Yvonne beehive wigs that little girls could wear to school or ballet lessons. Giant wigs for kids is a total missed opportunity, but I guess they figured the poofy hair of the 80’s was already close enough.

 

10. “The Incident” did not cause the cancellation of Pee-wee’s Playhouse

       

      As you well know, in 1991 scandal shocked the nation when Paul Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure at an adult movie theater in Florida. The infamous mug shot with long hair and goatee killed the innocent image of Pee-wee for many and led to his dormant years out of the spotlight. What this incident did NOT lead to was the cancellation of Pee-wee’s Playhouse as many would believe.


 


     While Pee-wee’s Playhouse did go off the air in 1991, it was already planned to do so. Reuben’s wanted to move on to new projects and had wrapped up the filming of the final season well before he was arrested. The network executives thought the bad press would just go away and were ready to run the show in syndication, but eventually decided to let it go after public opinion turned to the point that the show was no longer marketable.


 


There's so much more to the Pee-wee Herman story than I ever knew and that’s just scratching the surface. If you want the rest of the story you can write a few articles and get the book for yourself in the Points Store for just 275 points. 


Anyway, tell me about your favorite Pee-wee memories. How did this hyperactive man-child impact your childhood?


Author's Note: I apologize for the strange formatting of this article, it was composed on several different computers and the digital game of telephone left it's mark.

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Ches Posted on Mar 05, 2016 at 05:31 PM

I don't think Paul was acting out, to be honest... I believe he just did what he wanted to do without giving it a second thought. Anyway, we'll never know what was on his mind back then. Gotta admit, this story captivates me, and so does this whole Pee-wee's Herman universe... Thank you for the article, it was a good read.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Feb 27, 2015 at 06:59 PM

@echidna64 You're welcome. The Christmas Special was actually the result of a writer's strike. The 3rd season got cut short, so they threw together all those guest stars who had been asking for a chance to be on the show into that holiday madness.

@Vaporman87 Yeah, his endless death scene was about the only memorable part of that movie.

echidna64 Posted on Feb 25, 2015 at 05:39 AM

Thanks Hoju! P.W. still crack's me up and his great adventure is one of my favorite movies!

Pee-wee's Christmas Special is a must see for fans! I also heard that Rob Zombie was a production assistant on Pee-wee's playhouse lol

Vaporman87 Posted on Feb 25, 2015 at 04:43 AM

You know, one has to wonder... was Paul acting out because he knew the show was ending, and he figured he needed to break away from his alter ego in order to get a different range of parts?

I thought he did really well in Buffy The Vampire Slayer (the movie, not the atrocious television series).

Cool fun facts Hoju. Thanks for sharing a few from the book.

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