Pee-wee’s Playhouse will go down in history as one of the strangest and most endearing children’s television shows of all-time. Developed from Paul Reuben’s live stage show The Pee-wee Herman Show and Tim Burton’s feature film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Playhouse was a staple of Saturday morning kids’ television from 1986 until 1990. In his magical playhouse, the childish Pee-wee frolicked with a variety of toys, sentient furniture, and human guests, and charmed his way into the hearts of viewers everywhere. Despite’s is trippy nature — or perhaps because of it — Pee-wee’s Playhouse ranks as one of the greatest cult TV shows of all-time.
With a show as odd as Playhouse, there are bound to be some zany goings-on behind the scenes, so check out this trivia about a strange and wonderful bit of television history.
Cyndi Lauper Sang The Theme Song
“[Pee-wee] wanted me to sing the theme song. I told him I would, but I couldn’t have it under my name, because I was going to put out True Colors, which had a serious tone. In our superficial world, people couldn’t accept both at the same time. So I sang the theme song using the pseudonym ‘Ellen Shaw.’ And then Paul sent me back a tape that was so hilariously funny, of me singing the theme with him in between saying, ‘Oh no! My career is ruined, oh no!’ He’s a nut. I love him.”
There Were A Ton Of “Before They Were Famous” Actors
Laurence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis and Phil Hartman as Captain Carl are definitely the biggest names to come out of Playhouse, but there were plenty of others on screen and behind the scenes, as well. Orange Is the New Black star Natasha Lyonne played a neighborhood kid named Opal, and Rob Zombie and John Singleton were production assistants on the show. There was also a pretty eclectic mix of talent crafting the musical compositions: Dweezil Zappa, Todd Rundgren, George Clinton and Danny Elfman all contributed to the score.
Pee-wee’s Playhouse Was Originally Planned As A Cartoon Series
After the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, CBS was interested in pursuing a television project with Reubens, but the original plan was to make it animated. Reubens’ explained to Rolling Stone why he was against that plan:
“I’d had the stage show originally, so I was much more interested in doing something closer to that, something live-action… So when they suggested doing a cartoon, I said ‘I’m not really interested in that; let’s do a real kids’ show.’ I was a big Howdy-Doody freak growing up—I was actually on one show when I was a kid, in the audience—and was more interested in doing something like that. Howdy-Doody, Captain Kangaroo, a lot of the local kids’ shows that were on a long time ago—those were the influences.”
All That Weirdness Wasn’t Cheap
On average, a half hour of Saturday morning television cost about $250,000 an episode in 1986. However, Playhouse had a whopping price tag of $515,000 per half hour while it was on the air. According to Mental Floss, Reubens, who had complete creative control, footed a lot of the bill. He talked about how his own perfectionism attributed to the financial difficulties of Playhouse:
“Originally, I lost quite a bit of money on Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” admits Reubens. “I was responsible, financially, for Pee-wee’s Playhouse. So when it went over budget—not if it went over budget, when it went over budget—that came out of my pocket. I don’t want to mention a figure, but we had one season that was over budget by a lot of money. I’m a little bit of a perfectionist. Not a little bit: I’m a perfectionist … I want to rebuild the whole Playhouse door if it’s too big or the wrong color. So I feel like I’m a great producer, but I also have distinct limitations in that department because I will always spend more money and not sacrifice quality. So it went over budget a lot. Like, every season.”
Paul Reubens Isn’t Credited As Pee-wee On The Show
In order to keep the magic alive for young viewers, the show’s credits always read “Pee-wee Herman as Himself” to maintain the illusion that Herman was, in fact, a real person.
Pee-wee Married A Fruit Salad
Defenders of “traditional marriage” must have been aghast at the season two episode “Pajama Party,” where Pee-wee takes an “If you love it so much, why don’t you marry it?” joke to the extreme. Reubens didn’t write situations to make statements, however. He just wrote what he thought kids would enjoy and respond to. According to Rolling Stone:
“Well, what it comes down to is: I really love kids. I’m always knocked out by kids, how funny they are and what they appreciate. The greatest moments in the writing room were always when myself or someone else would come up with something that would make us say: This is going to make a six-year-old fall off the couch [laughs]. It was so much fun and so rewarding to do something where the goal was to just make kids laugh, entertain them and show them a world that embraces creativity and nonconformity.”
Reubens Was Ready For A Break By The End
After five seasons of the show, Reubens was ready for a break from playing the rambunctious Herman. While his legal woes certainly didn’t help, Reubens was burnt out and needed some time off. He told Entertainment Weekly about his hiatus from the grey suit:
“I just politely said ‘No.’ It was time to take a year off. I had actually made a list of things I wanted to do—learn Spanish, learn to play the sax—and I never hit one of them. At the end of [1990, while season 5 was airing], I decided I was going to take a second year off.”
Reubens would eventually revive the role in a 2011 HBO special, and is currently working on a third Pee-wee Herman film, Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday, for Netflix, so fans will be reunited with the childish prankster soon enough.