Remember the quirky and colorful world of Pee-wee’s Playhouse? This beloved TV show has left an indelible mark on pop culture. While you might be familiar with the main character Pee-wee Herman, there’s a treasure trove of fascinating facts about the show that often go unnoticed. Let’s dive into 20 surprising tidbits that will give you a fresh perspective on the Playhouse and its charmingly wacky universe.
1. Pee-Wee Herman Was Born A Groundling.
Paul Reubens, a The Groundlings comedy troupe member, created a stage show called The Pee-wee Herman Show in 1980, following a failed audition for Saturday Night Live. Pee-wee Herman “came about from an extended improv at The Groundlings,” Reubens says of the character’s origin. “We were just given an assignment to come up with a character that one might encounter in a comedy club and I came up with Pee-wee Herman.” Pee-wee’s first stage appearance was in 1977.
2. Pee-wee’s Playhouse might have been an animated show.
At first, CBS wanted a cartoon series from Reubens. However, the actor, who loved old live-action shows like The Howdy Doody Show and Captain Kangaroo, suggested a live-action series that would be a more family-friendly version of The Pee-wee Herman Show.
3. Pee-Wee’s Suit Was A Loaner. (But Not A Rebel.)
“The director and co-founder of The Groundlings, a man named Gary Austin, loaned me his suit, which I never gave back,” Reubens says. “Someone else gave me a kid’s black bowtie, which I later changed out for a kid’s red bowtie. And the white shoes were mine. That’s just sort of what I put on and I had success with it so I thought, why mess with it? If it ain’t broke.”
4. Cyndi Lauper Sang The Theme Song.
Though the series’ theme song is credited to Ellen Shaw, Cyndi Lauper admitted in her autobiography that she is the voice behind it.
Lauper explained the situation in Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir: “[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.”
5. Captain Kangaroo Was A Pee-Wee Fan.
Bob “Captain Kangaroo” Keeshan really liked Pee-wee’s Playhouse. He even wrote about one of the show’s old videos for Entertainment Weekly in 1996. In it, he cited the series’ “awesome production values; with the possible exception of the Muppets, you can’t find such creativity anywhere on TV,” and went on to say that “star Paul Reubens is an absolute genius.”
6. Phil Hartman Left After One Season To Join The Cast Of SNL.
Phil Hartman, who was a close friend and worked together with Reubens (they wrote Pee-wee’s Big Adventure as a team), left the Playhouse after the first season. He played Captain Carl but moved on to join Saturday Night Live.
7. The Production Cost Of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Was Significantly High.
Most Saturday morning cartoons were produced for about $250,000 an episode. Pee-wee’s Playhouse, with its cast and the incredible production quality, cost $350,000 an episode.
“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.”
8. Pee-wee’s Playhouse won 22 Daytime Emmy Awards.
During its initial season, the show snagged an Emmy for Best Hairstyling. This achievement owed some credit to Sally Hershberger, who would later become a hairstylist for celebrities. She’s notably known for crafting Meg Ryan’s iconic shaggy hairstyle. Interestingly, Hershberger used to be one of the priciest stylists in New York City, charging a whopping $600 for a haircut.
9. Season Three Had Just Three Episodes.
Because of the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike, the third season of Pee-wee’s Playhouse is comprised of just three episodes – two regular episodes and one primetime special, Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special that included guest appearances by Oprah Winfrey, Magic Johnson, Cher, Little Richard, Joan Rivers, Dinah Shore, Whoopi Goldberg, Zsa Zsa Gabor, k.d. lang, and Annette Funicello.
10. Pee-wee’s Playhouse Welcomed Several Soon-To-Be Stars.
Throughout its five-season journey, Pee-wee’s Playhouse featured a cast of future stars who would go on to make their mark in the entertainment world. From Laurence Fishburne, who later earned an Oscar nomination and Emmy award, portraying Cowboy Curtis, to S. Epatha Merkerson, recognized for her Emmy and Golden Globe wins in Law & Order, taking on the role of Reba the Mail Lady.
Pee-wee’s Playhouse was also graced by the talents of Natasha Lyonne, now known for her role in Orange Is the New Black, as the Playhouse Gang member Opal. Among the ensemble was Phil Hartman, a Groundlings companion of Reubens and co-writer of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, who portrayed Captain Carl.
Emmy winner and current Sons of Anarchy star Jimmy Smits played the Conky repairman Johnny Wilson. John Paragon, recognized beyond the Playhouse for his portrayal of Cedric on Seinfeld, brought life to the genie Jambi. At the same time, Calvert DeForest, famously known as David Letterman’s pal Larry “Bud” Melman, played the role of Rusty.
11. Rob Zombie And John Singleton Were Production Assistants.
Behind the scenes, Pee-wee’s Playhouse had its share of skilled people as well. John Singleton, who would go on to write and direct Boyz n the Hood, earning two Oscar nominations, worked as a P.A. on the Playhouse set five years prior. Similarly, Rob Zombie, who formed White Zombie around the same period, and later directed House of 1000 Corpses after 17 years, also held the same P.A. role.
12. Pee-Wee Kickstarted Tim Burton’s Career.
After the triumph of The Pee-wee Herman Show, Warner Bros. approached Reubens with the notion of crafting a Pee-wee movie. Although the studio had an initial director in mind, the idea of Tim Burton was casually dropped during a party conversation, which caught Reubens’ attention. “I screened Frankenweenie and I spoke to Shelley Duvall who was a friend of mine who was in Frankenweenie,” Reubens recalled to Ain’t It Cool News. “I knew Tim was the director about 15 seconds into Frankenweenie, like the second or third shot of it. I was looking at the wallpaper in this bedroom and the lighting and just going, ‘This is the guy who has style and understands art direction.’ Those were two really important things for me and my baby, I guess, and you know it just happened to luckily all workout.”
13. Laurence Fishburne Had A Dark Take On Cowboy Curtis.
In his initial audition for Cowboy Curtis, Laurence Fishburne missed the memo about the show’s silly tone. “I was in the D.C. area making Gardens of Stone, and I got this call that Paul wanted to see me,” Fishburne recalled to Entertainment Weekly. “I had almost no hair on my head because I had been doing this military picture. I [auditioned as] a Yul Brynner-esque kind of cowboy—very dark and serious. [Reubens and Paragon] both looked at me like, ‘Could you lighten it up?'”
14. Working On The Makeup For Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Was A Milestone In Ve Neill’s Career.
Oscar-winning makeup artist Ve Neill, who now serves as a judge on Syfy’s Face Off, secured her debut significant recognition with a Daytime Emmy for her contributions to Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Her career then soared with Academy Awards for Best Makeup in films like Beetlejuice, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Ed Wood. Notably, she took charge of the makeup departments for all the Pirates of the Caribbean and Hunger Games movies.
15. Paul Reubens Is Never Credited As Such.
To keep the idea alive that Pee-wee Herman is indeed a real person, Pee-wee’s Playhouse’s end credits don’t display Paul Reubens’ name. They simply list “Pee-wee Herman as Himself.”
16. Pee-Wee Got The Girl On The Dating Game.
Pee-wee showed up on TV for the first time in 1979 when he appeared on The Dating Game in his character. He ended up making three appearances on the show. “That was a little test experiment I was doing early on,” Reubens recalled to Interview Magazine. “I went to a cattle call audition for The Dating Game, and before I even got home they called me back.” On one occasion, he even won the date!
17. By 1990, Reubens was in need of a break.
“I just politely said ‘No,’ Reubens recalled to Entertainment Weekly about his decision to take some time off after five seasons. “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.”
18. Both Paul Reubens and Pee-wee’s Playhouse have experienced ‘canceled’.
Reubens’ well-known arrest for indecent exposure in a Florida adult theater in July 1991 is sometimes associated with the cancellation of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. However, the decision to conclude the show had been made by the actor the year before, with the last original episode airing in November 1990. Following the arrest, CBS ceased airing Playhouse reruns, and Toys R Us removed Playhouse toys from their shelves. Nonetheless, a range of celebrities, from Bill Cosby to Annette Funicello, expressed public support for Reubens. Taking matters into his own hands, Reubens tackled the scandal himself two months later by appearing at the MTV Video Music Awards in his Pee-wee costume and asked the audience, “Heard any good jokes lately?”
19. Pee-Wee Came To Broadway In 2010.
On October 26, 2010, Pee-wee made his return, this time to Broadway, for a limited-run stage show.
20. The Creation of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.
Following the triumphant return of The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway in 2010, along with an HBO special, Paul Reubens and Judd Apatow embarked on the creation of a new Pee-wee movie. The script is a collaboration between Reubens and comedian Paul Rust, and the production is under Apatow’s wing. And it’s Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.