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Pee-wee Herman's comeback show is fun and nostalgic - TCA Report

by Joel Keller, posted Jan 18th 2010 8:02AM
Paul Ruebens as Pee-wee Herman introducing his 2010 stage showSaturday night, I decided to get away from the hotel and join a small group of critics on a field trip to Club Nokia in downtown LA to see Paul Ruebens' new stage production of The Pee-wee Herman Show.

It was a heck of a lot of fun, which is saying a lot because I've never been a huge fan of Pee-wee or his classic CBS Saturday-morning show Pee-wee's Playhouse. But most of the people who were there were die-hard fans, many of whom either caught Pee-wee's original stage show in the mid '80s, grew up watching his movies or Playhouse, or likely spent their Saturday mornings in college working on their first weekend high while watching his show.

For fans, it was pure comfort food. The stage was set up exactly like the set of Playhouse, complete with his complement of talking household items: Chairry, Magic Screen, Clocky, Pterri, Fish, etc. Jambi was also there to grant Pee-wee his wishes.

Most of the human characters from Playhouse were also there, though mostly played by new actors; for instance, MADtv's Phil LaMarr played Cowboy Curtis, a role played by Laurence Fishburne in Playhouse. Two actors in the current production who did have ties to past versions were Lynne Marie Stewart, who played Miss Yvonne on TV and on the stage, and John Moody, who played Mailman Mike in the original stage production.

The only role that didn't come back was Captain Carl, mainly because Ruebens didn't want to see anyone play the role in place of the late Phil Hartman, who played him on the TV series and on stage.

If you're looking for a plot for the 90-minute show, don't bother; it's basically an extended version of Playhouse, complete with old cartoons and educational films and the Word of the Day. The two main plots are that a) Pee-wee tries to get Cowboy Curtis and Miss Yvonne together, and b) he restates his ages-old wish to be able to fly.

There are some nods to modern times, like a character called ShamWow which looks like a... well, what you think it would look like. And Pee-wee also makes not-so-subtle references to the gay marriage issue, the idea of celibacy pacts, and other decidedly non-kiddie issues. But, for the most part, the show is the same as the one every one of his fans loved.

A big Pee-wee fan outside Club Nokia before Pee-wee Herman's stage showThose fans, by the way, included both Al Jean, one of the executive producers of The Simpsons, and Neil Patrick Harris, both of whom we spotted in the crowd that night. In fact, I was standing behind NPH for a time while he was waiting to get to his seat. And they also included the gentleman to the left, who we found outside the club right before the show.

So, the show was fun, and the 57-year-old Ruebens still looked like he had the energy and moves to play Pee-wee more than thirty years after originating the role. But does Pee-wee have a place on television, which is probably one of the reasons why Ruebens put this show on to begin with?

Maybe. A show that seemed weird and surreal on the TV landscape of the mid-to-late '80s just seems cute now (the night before the show, I went to a party sponsored by IFC and its show Food Party, which is so twee and strange, it makes Pee-wee's Playhouse look like Taxi Driver in comparison). In other words, there's a lot more for stoned college kids to gawk at than there used to be. And, even close to 20 years later, people still have sour memories of Ruebens' public masturbation arrest in 1991, and may not want a kid-oriented show from him on the air.

Also, as popular as Pee-wee might be -- he had to move the show from the smaller Music Box @ Fonda club due to the high demand for tickets -- his popularity goes only so far: Orchestra seats were still available at the door only five nights into his engagement (it runs through Feb. 7), and the general admission area by the bar was maybe only 20% full.

But, at least Ruebens still proved he had the goods to revive Pee-wee. I can see the show coming back in some form on cable, maybe even an edgy network like FX. But the days when millions of kids watched Pee-wee over their Saturday morning Cheerios are not coming back.

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Hey, Joel, just to let you know - Pee Wee's plan is not to be on TV again. He already conquered that medium. He is looking for world domination and distribution of his masterpiece in cinema, the big screen, baby. Imagine what you saw displayed in 3-Dimensional splendor, IMAX style. That's what he's talking bout - that's what he's going for once more. To be a MOVIE star.

February 12 2010 at 3:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I watched PeeWee's Playhouse with my children when they were small, and it taught them a great deal about tolerance; to be undestanding and accepting of others who are a bit different than you. That's a great lesson.

January 19 2010 at 9:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
WHO ???

Pee Wee is a "Classic" I thought he was a riot in the Cheech and Chong movies also. HAMBURGER DUDE.

January 18 2010 at 10:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"But the days when millions of kids watched Pee-wee over their Saturday morning Cheerios are not coming back."

Define 'kids'. :)

January 18 2010 at 9:10 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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