‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse’ – surreal Saturday morning fun free on Hoopla

Pee-wee’s Playhouse (1986-1991), the Saturday morning kids show created by Paul Reubens, was the most imaginative and energetic children’s show to hit Saturday morning TV when it premiered in 1986.

Reuben’s Pee-wee was first created as a member of the Los Angeles improv group The Groundlings. It was turned into an adult cabaret show and then into the goofy innocent in a too-small suit and bow tie of the hit movie Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. In this series, he’s a squeaky, gawking, endlessly whimsical child man in a land of make-believe, the sugar-boosted host of his own psychedelic Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in a toy box of a clubhouse. Each episode is packed with colorful characters, inventive activity, animated interludes, and peals of party screams whenever the word of the day is uttered.

The regular playhouse buddies include Laurence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis, S. Epatha Merkerson as Reba the Mail Lady, and William Marshall as the King Of Cartoons, who appears to show clips from surreal cartoons of the 1930s, mostly by the Fleischer Brothers. Other recurring cast members include Phil Hartman (who was also one of the writers), cult actress Shirley Stoler, and a six-year-old Natasha Lyonne, and Jimmy Smits and Sandra Bernhard made appearances. The cast was diverse in an era when such representation was rare, as was the crew, and members of the LGBTQ+ community embraced some of the more outré and flamboyant characters, all happily living their best lives without judgment.

The show is both sophisticated and innocent, finding a simple joy in goofy jokes and make-believe while slipping in innuendo that the adults can recognize but never degrades into salaciousness. And the art direction and design of this show is amazing, a giddily creative pop-art project created by team that included underground artist Gary Panter. It earned fans both young and old and every episode had a lesson as well, though never at the expense of the fun.

It won 22 Emmy Awards during its five-season run and is a landmark of children’s programming. To this day, its playfulness and creativity is only matched by such imaginative shows as Adventure Time.

All five seasons streams free for a limited time on Hoopla, which is available through most public and college library systems: Season 1, Season 2, Season 3, Season 4, and Season 5.

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Complete Series [Blu-ray]
Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Complete Series [DVD]
Pee-wee’s Playhouse: Seasons 1 & 2 [DVD]
Pee-wee’s Playhouse: Seasons 3, 4 & 5 [DVD]

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The DVD and Blu-ray release from Shout! Factory is remastered from the original 35mm and shows a detail unseen in previous incarnations. 45 episodes on eight discs, plus four hours of new bonus material, including ten featurettes on the development, design, and characters of the show, all with new cast and crew interviews, and the 1988 Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special, a prime time show with special gusts Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Whoopi Goldberg, Joan Rivers, Charo, Del Rubio Triplets, Magic Johnson, Dinah Shore, Grace Jones, Oprah Winfrey, k.d. lang, Little Richard, and Zsa Zsa Gabor celebrating the holiday season with activities, games, fruitcakes, songs, and a Christmas wish list is so long that Pee-wee creates a present shortage around the world!


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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