Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Book Review: Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse: The Untold, Unauthorized, and Unpredictable of a Pop Phenomenon

In the 80's, Saturday morning TV shows for children were nothing but cartoons that mostly focused on selling their products than entertaining their audience. Shows like Transformers, G.I. Joe, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, My Little Pony, and Jem were marketing their toys and action figures with so much gusto, it wasn't funny. This made parents demand for new shows that focused on educating the minds of children and TV executives needing to create something new that would breathe life into an already predictable and tired form of entertainment. On September 13, 1986, one TV show did just that. A show that combined cartoons, puppets, stop motion animation, life lessons, and actual people that would become household names. That show was Pee-wee's Playhouse.

For 5 years, Pee-wee's Playhouse was one of the most popular shows that ever graced television. It combined everything that a kid would love; a colorful and visual playhouse, talking furniture, mutant toys, a robot that would give you a secret word for you to scream real loud whenever someone said it, a dinosaur family, and lovable characters, especially Pee-wee Herman. The crazy, snarky, yet appealing man-child played by Paul Reubens, was loved by many people. Kids loved him because he was as energetic, childish, and silly as they were. They loved playing with their toys, hanging out with their friends, using their imagination, and expressing their goofy themselves without anyone caring about others think, just like Pee-wee. Parents loved him because he taught them wonderful life lessons, he taught them to make and eat creative, fun, simple, yet (mostly) healthy foods during snack time, he was reminiscent of children's shows from the 50's such as Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo, and the show had some subtle adult jokes that they can laugh and enjoy that would mostly get passed children's heads. It was one of the few shows in the 80's that kids, teenagers, and adults both male and female can enjoy together.

However, on July 26, 1991, a day that will live in pop culture infamy, Paul Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure at a XXX theater and the Pee-wee phenomenon disappeared in an instant. The show was off the air, the toys were taken off the stores, and Pee-wee Herman, who was once the jokester, became the butt of everyone else's joke. Paul Reubens, embarrassed by his indiscretion, quit portraying himself as Pee-wee and kept a low profile for years appearing in minor roles in a few movies and TV shows such as Batman Returns, Everybody Loves Raymond, Mystery Men, Blow, 30 Rock, Murphy Brown, Pushing Daisies, Dirt, The Tripper, and Life During Wartime.

People thought that the Pee-wee character was officially dead and had moved on with their lives. However, to those who grew up with the show and the movies, had missed Paul Reubens and Pee-wee terribly and wished that, somehow, he could come back and enrich their lives again with laughter and fun, especially in this time of hardships due to a long war, a low economy and unemployment. In 2007, over 15 years after the incident, Paul Reubens came back as Pee-wee Herman in the Spike TV Guys' Choice Awards and in August 2009, he announced that he was opening a stage show in L.A. based on his original 1981 show and Pee-wee's Playhouse around January 2010 and in Broadway in October 2010.

The shows in L.A. and Broadway became a huge success; many critics called it "fun", "a joyous event", and that the show was "yummier than chocolate". It was official that Pee-wee Herman was back in our lives. This incredible comeback inspired a young man named Caseen Gaines to look up some information about Pee-wee Herman and some behind-the-scenes stories about Pee-wee's Playhouse. He was surprised to find out that there were no books containing that information, there was even very little information about that in the Internet. So he dedicated a good two years of his life, interviewing over 200 people who had any association with Paul Reubens, the stage show, the movies, and the TV show, and the book Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse: The Untold, Unauthorized, and Unpredictable Story of a Pop Phenomenon was released on November 1, 2011 to closely coincide Pee-wee's Playhouse's 25th anniversary. This book, not only covers the behind-the-scenes of Pee-wee's Playhouse, but it pretty much covers everything from Paul Reubens' early years at the Groundlings to the last day of the Broadway show. Here's my review for this book. Warning: some minor spoilers ahead.

You may think that you know the story of Pee-wee Herman, well think again. Even after reading and listening to interviews that Paul Reubens has done over the years, watching the Biography special and the True Hollywood Special of Pee-wee Herman, it only scratched the surface of what I already knew. The first chapter discusses his early years at the Groundlings, how he came up with the Pee-wee character, and the original Pee-wee Herman Show. It showed the hard work and dedication that Paul Reubens had put into his character and the show, but it also showed equal dedication to the cast and crew of the show. People such as Lynn Marie Stewart, who played Ms. Yvonne, John Paragon, who played Jambi the Genie and Pterri the Pterodactyl, Phil Hartman, who played Captain Carl, Gary Panter, who designed the set and puppets for the stage show and Pee-wee's Playhouse,and most of all, Dawna Kaufmann, the original producer of the stage show.

The second chapter covers the Pee-wee Herman tour, his late night talk show appearances, and Pee-wee's Big Adventure. There were a few instances in which the movie was very close to not being made, especially since Paul Reubens was very picky on who was going to be the director. It wasn't until he saw a short film called Frankenweenie by Tim Burton. Right away, he knew that Tim was the one to direct Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Throughout the chapter, there were a few struggles with money and agreements about certain scenes between Paul and Tim, but mostly, it ran quite smoothly and the movie was a big success. It's a movie that's still regarded to this day as a classic. When it comes to Tim Burton movies, Pee-wee's Big Adventure is one of my top 5 favorites.

The third chapter covers the beginnings of Pee-wee's Playhouse, the behind-the-scenes action on how they did the animation, the introduction, the song lyrics, the origins of the characters, and many more. In this chapter, it talks about a lot of tensions that happened during the early beginnings of the show, how Paul Reubens almost refused to do the TV show, and some shocking disagreements between Paul and Phil Hartman, as well as John Paragon. It also covers the beginnings of Big Top Pee-wee and some of the ideas that Paul incorporated in the movie that didn't work well in the end, such as Pee-wee falling in love and planning to marry a girl named Winnie and the 3 minute kiss between Pee-wee and the circus performer Gina.

The fourth chapter is dedicated to the Christmas Special that was released in 1988. After the failure of Big Top Pee-wee, Paul Reubens and John Paragon wrote this special in 3 days to get things back on track. It also talks about how they were able to get the effects done and the plethora of celebrities that had appeared on the special. The Christmas Special was the also the first to incorporate a Hanukkah segment in a holiday special, a good 10 years before Rugrats would do it. It also mixes in the Nativity Scene and Santa Claus at the same time, something that I rarely see in a holiday special.

I enjoy this Christmas Special very much, however I would have liked it if they would have balanced some of the celebrities that they wanted and that kids would have wanted. If the Muppets, Michael Jackson, or maybe some characters from Sesame Street would have made an appearance, that would have been awesome. But trust me, when comparing it to other holiday specials from popular shows and movies from the 80's, such as the Star Wars Holiday Special, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Christmas Special, and the He-Man and She-Ra Christmas Special, Pee-wee's Playhouse Christmas Special holds up quite well and is still fun to watch.

Chapter 5 covers the last two seasons of Pee-wee's Playhouse and how Paul Reubens became exhausted of rigorous hours of starring, writing, producing, and co-directing the show. He finished his last two seasons in less than a year and was able to take some time off, however, it didn't turn out the way he planned. This chapter covers "the incident" and for the first time, it talks on the perspective of the CBS producers and his co-workers on how they feel about it.

Chapter 6 covers Paul Reubens' other movie and TV roles after Pee-wee's Playhouse, his comeback as Pee-wee Herman, the behind-the-scenes of how the stage show in L.A. happened, the upcoming movies he has planned for Pee-wee Herman, including one being produced by Judd Apatow, and the reactions of the fans seeing Pee-wee again after almost 20 years of being secluded from the world. I admit it that this is one of my favorite chapters in the whole book and I actually got a bit emotional at the end. I am beyond happy that Paul Reubens is finally getting the love and support that he deserves, since he has made many children happy with his movies and shows, especially Kevin and myself.

The book finishes with an episode guide, how some of the people who worked with Paul Reubens feel about Pee-wee's Playhouse, and the Broadway show releasing on DVD for those who weren't able to see it.

To conclude my review, I have to say that this book is highly recommended to Pee-wee fans or any fans of pop culture. Caseen Gaines did an excellent job in getting the fascinating, yet shocking story of one of the greatest pop culture phenomenons of all time. Whether you like Pee-wee or not, you have to admit that he has left a huge impact on the entertainment world. Without the existence of Pee-wee's Playhouse, shows wouldn't be as artistic or creative as it is today. Shows such as Blue's Clues, Yo Gabba Gabba, Adventure Time, or SpongeBob SquarePants wouldn't exist. If it wasn't for his idea of implicating subtle adult humor on kids' shows, probably shows like Ren and Stimpy, Rocko's Modern Life, or pretty much anything in Adult Swim wouldn't have been fathomed either.  Reading this book has made me appreciate Paul Reubens, Pee-wee Herman, his stage shows, his movies, and Pee-wee's Playhouse more than ever. If this review has gotten you inspired to purchase the book and read it for yourself or to know more information about it, head over to this awesome website www.insidetheplayhouse.comThat's it for today, thanks for reading and I hope to catch you around the Old School Lane pretty soon. 


P.S. Sometime this week, Kevin and I are going to be interviewing Caseen Gaines. If there are any questions that you have regarding the book or anything Pee-wee related, post it in the comments and I'll pick out a few for him to answer. 

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