During the 1980s and early '90s, Pee-wee Herman, actor Paul Reubens's alter ego, was ubiquitous. The original, 1981 version of The Pee-wee Herman Show, created while Reubens was a member of the Los Angeles improv troupe The Groundlings and performed at the Roxy Theatre, catapulted the man-child character to celebrity. That performance, which HBO filmed and put into heavy rotation, was quintessential postmodern parody: both loving homage and crude skewering of circa-1950s American children's television. Bolstered by his rapidly increasing fame, a more family friendly rendering of the character starred in two feature films (Pee-wee's Big Adventure  and Big Top Pee-wee ) and appeared on Saturday-morning television in the critically lauded and wildly popular Pee-wee's Playhouse (CBS [1986-91]). Although the mediated versions lacked the playful coarseness and cheap though endearing production values of the early live show, Reubens nonetheless continued to revel in the deconstruction of mid-century children's television and, by extension, American culture by way of ambiguity, innuendo, self-reflexivity, and, of course, parody.
Clocky, Chairry, Mr. Window, Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens), Conky, Globey, Flowers, and Magic Screen in The Pee-wee Herman Show. (Photo: Ed Krieger.)
Regrettably, Reubens's arrest for indecent exposure in 1991 halted everything, with CBS canceling Playhouse and the actor temporarily withdrawing from the public eye. Although he went on to appear in a variety of television and film roles throughout the 1990s and 2000s, his most identified character was rarely seen. While there have been, particularly during the last five years, occasional Pee-wee Herman appearances and rumors of Reubens's plan to revive the character onstage and/or -screen, The Pee-wee Herman Show reboot was, in effect, the first time in nearly two decades that Reubens performed Pee-wee.
The new stage version was a hybrid of sorts, sharing the 1981 show's plot (i.e., conversations with friends and the puppets that populate the playhouse, all loosely structured around Pee-wee's quest to fly), but also borrowing from Playhouse (i.e., scenic designer David Korins recreated for the stage a stunning replica playhouse). The well-known puppets were all present—Pterri (the pterodactyl), Chairry, and Magic Screen (to name a few)—as were many of the live characters—Cowboy Curtis, Jambi the Genie, and, of course, Miss Yvonne. Outside of Reubens, only Lynne Marie Stewart (Miss Yvonne), John Paragon (Jambi and the voice of Pterri), and John Moody (Mailman Mike in the original stage production) reprised their roles. In the case of Miss Yvonne—a flirty, beauty queen/ingénue caricature—and Pee-wee—a grotesque version of "the happiest boy in the world"—Stewart's and Reubens's already peculiar performances took on more bizarre dimensions in that both performers were beyond age 50. As in the past, one intriguing aspect of Reubens's performance was his refusal to resolve Pee-wee's age: is he an adult-child, a child-adult, or something else? Similarly, the character's sexuality was undefined; although Pee-wee professed to have a crush on Miss Yvonne and found joy in heteronormative, juvenile masculine behavior, including a fondness for scatological humor and practical jokes, he nonetheless also consistently pushed to the point of absurdity stereotypical effeminate behavior, including prancing, dancing, and skipping about the stage, giggling, and preening in his immaculately clean and pressed gray suit. There was, in short, something tacitly albeit palpably queer in his performance.
Ambiguity was present also in the form of innuendo (e.g., Pee-wee exclaims to the Fireman who brought to the playhouse a racy Fireman's Calendar, "That's a huge hose!" and the Fireman responds, "You know you want it"). While the performance perhaps lacked some of the crudeness of the 1981 original, innuendo nonetheless was intriguingly enacted. Some of the more satisfying moments in this regard came when Reubens introduced gags with links to his own life. One such bit involved Pee-wee's disclosure to Miss Yvonne that he was wearing an abstinence ring, followed by a fair number of slightly off-color sex jokes told by the puppets. In...