The film was an enormous hit, launching Burton’s singular career, and prompting CBS to approach Reubens to adapt the character into a Saturday morning children’s program. The result was “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” a five-season fever dream that, like his original stage show, riffed on classic ’50s kids programs like “Howdy Doody” and the manic energy of hosts Pinky Lee, but with a subversive self-awareness that delighted kids and adults alike.
Its mixture of puppets and stop motion animation, oversized proportions, anthropomorphic furnishings and flamboyant decor felt like nothing else I’d ever seen. Not to mention its campy cast members like Laurence Fishburne’s Cowboy Curtis and Lynne Marie Stewart’s ultra fabulous and flirty Miss Yvonne. Children’s programming is often a little bit bizarre, but “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” took it to its most absurd extreme.
Beyond its incredible aesthetics, it pushed past the homogeneity of the shows that inspired it. Pee-wee’s friends on the show, human or otherwise, often came from diverse cultural or racial backgrounds. It was educational, with each episode featuring a secret word of the day, but that kids were implored to scream out loud every time it was uttered.
The show’s plots also critiqued cultural norms with defiant, in your face bits, like the time Pee-wee married fruit salad. In 1987, Reubens told Rolling Stone that his goal with the show was to, “illustrate that it’s okay to be different—not that it’s good, not that it’s bad, but that it’s all right. I’m trying to tell kids to have a good time and to encourage them to be creative and to question things.”
Perhaps the greatest testament to this goal was his 1988 Christmas Special, whose lineup featured perhaps more queer icons than anything that has aired on network television before or since, including Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, Charo, Grace Jones, k.d. lang, Dinah Shore, Little Richard, Cher, the Del Rubio Triplets, Magic Johnson, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Joan Rivers. That this sparkling, campy, carol-filled extravaganza aired just three weeks after the first World AIDS day seems like more than just a coincidence. Like “Big Adventure,” the Christmas special has taken on a cult life of its own.