The day the World Health Organization labeled Omicron a “variant of concern” felt as heavy as any since the pandemic had begun, and I was listening to Pee-wee Herman crack bad jokes with a talking chair. For one night, his puppet friends from Pee-wee’s Playhouse, the hit children’s TV show from the ’80s, had reunited on the radio for an hour of banter and old soul records. Their jokes were stilted but comfortable—the type that make you roll your eyes and chuckle simultaneously. But the episode felt almost like a transmission from another planet, or at least a simpler time. For me, sitting on my living-room couch, trying to push away the dread of this mysterious new coronavirus strain, it was a light shining into darkness.
I was in middle school when Pee-wee’s Playhouse came out. The show was a jubilant, chaotic mix of live action, puppetry, and animation that looked nothing like the typical, cheaply drawn Saturday-morning cartoons of the time. The pop-art set had talking furniture and a fridge full of living food, and was frequented by characters played by Phil Hartman and a pre-Matrix Laurence Fishburne. The tone mashed up the corny innocence of ’50s kids’ TV with the mirror-and-laser-beam aesthetic of ’80s New Wave. At the helm was the rail-thin Pee-wee Herman, dressed in a close-fitting gray suit, red bow tie, and white-leather loafers. He was a grown man who acted like a 5-year-old who had just downed a box of Frosted Flakes. The Smurfs didn’t stand a chance.
I was a few years too old to watch children’s TV, but the Playhouse felt like a secret, surprisingly mature room that had been unlocked just for me. The garish colors and clashing patterns (the design was led by the punk artist Gary Panter) fit with the other weird culture I loved back then: the cartoonist Lynda Barry, the avant-garde band the Residents, the folk artist Howard Finster. All of it turned the monotony of suburbia on its ear. It did so not by throwing up a middle finger, like punk music did, but by refracting clichés—the perfect lawns, church potlucks, and everything’s-fine sameness—through a fun-house mirror.
Because I was scared and different, the Playhouse was where I wanted to live, for a time. There was Jambi, a floating head in a box that granted wishes; Conky, a stuttering robot that supplied each episode’s “secret word”; and the King of Cartoons, who played dusty black-and-white clips. None of it made sense and all of it made sense. Those of us who thought we didn’t make sense had somewhere we belonged. So there I was, adjusting the tinfoil attached to the antenna on our small TV every weekend. I didn’t really have friends as a seventh grader in 1986, so it wasn’t like I had much else to do. I haven’t had much to do over the past 21 months of the pandemic either. My house is cramped, with me, my wife, our two kids, and our dog all riding out this hopeless time together. Who hasn’t been looking for somewhere they can escape to?
Perhaps Pee-wee resonated with my adolescent self because his Peter Pan appeal belied more grown-up origins. The character was born from improvisations by Paul Reubens while he was a member of the influential Los Angeles comedy troupe the Groundlings. Those led to a live act, The Pee-wee Herman Show, in 1981 at the Roxy Theatre. A slightly horny spoof of ’50s kids’ shows held in an infamous L.A. rock club, it played for five months before ending with an HBO special. Its success eventually led to the 1985 film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, which took the character on a surreal quest to find his stolen bicycle. The movie introduced Reubens’s bizarre humor to the world, as well as the hallucinatory vision of a not-quite-fully-goth director named Tim Burton. Pee-wee’s Playhouse debuted on CBS in 1986 and quickly became one of the most popular Saturday-morning TV shows of its time, garnering a regular viewership of about 10 million people. There were Pee-wee action figures in Toys “R” Us, a clothing partnership with JCPenney, and trading cards by Topps.
Five years later, Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure in a Florida porn theater; he pleaded no contest to the charge, though he and his lawyers maintained his innocence. Reubens’s arrest is widely believed to have led to the demise of Playhouse, but the show was actually canceled months earlier (the event seemingly influenced the network's decision to stop reruns, however). Regardless, Pee-wee was off the air. Reubens built a new acting career before another arrest in 2002, when he was charged with a misdemeanor for possession of child pornography, to which he pleaded not guilty. That was later reduced to a misdemeanor obscenity charge, which Reubens pleaded guilty to, while insisting that police had seized vintage art that he’d bought from a collector. Reubens served three years’ probation, registered as a sex offender for that period, and retreated from the public eye again. These incidents are now as indelibly a part of Pee-wee to me as the Playhouse’s puppet band is. They’re hard to reconcile, except to know that Pee-wee is a character and Reubens is a mortal and fallible human.
But Pee-wee has reemerged sporadically and across mediums since then. Playhouse reaired on Adult Swim in 2006, followed by a 2010 reworking of the live Pee-wee Herman Show. In 2016, Netflix released Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. Five years later, Pee-wee spun records on public radio for one night. At this point, his periodic appearances feel like part of the character’s mystique.
After all, Pee-wee has always existed outside of linear time. In his world, tin toys sit alongside retro-futuristic videophones that we might recognize as perfect for Zoom today. The Playhouse regular Miss Yvonne, “the most beautiful woman in puppetland,” dressed like a cake topper from the 1950s, while Reba the Mail Lady dressed like a regular USPS worker. The outfit Pee-wee wore onstage in 1981 is the same one he wore on Netflix in 2016; his signature chuckle and his schoolyard taunts of “I know you are but what am I?” and “Made you look” are identical, too. Pee-wee exists like a memory: an amalgam of past and present, familiar but not too familiar.
By standing outside of time, Pee-wee invites you to see the world differently, to witness the miraculous in the mundane. The most magical characters in the Playhouse weren’t the dinosaurs that lived in a mouse hole or the genie that granted wishes, but the talking chair and window and floor. When you followed Pee-wee, you never knew where you would end up. A missing bike could lead to an epic road trip. You could win over a bloodthirsty motorcycle gang with a dance. Everything was alive with possibility.
As we approach the third year of the pandemic, I’ve moved beyond burnout into a space that feels absolutely bereft of joy. Everything is gray. Every hope of an end to this situation is met by another letter in the Greek alphabet. Sometimes I feel I’ve lost something core to my being. What are my desperate late-night scans through Zillow but a search for wonder? What is flicking through TikTok’s endless scroll but a hunt for the tiniest nugget of surprise? I’m desperate to find awe in today’s monotony. I’m desperate to revisit the Playhouse.
Which is why, the Friday after Thanksgiving, I listened to Pee-wee play tunes, deliver quips, and host a couple of odd guests (the frequent Love Boat guest star Charo played flamenco guitar) on KCRW, a Santa Monica–based public-radio station. Conky the robot gave Pee-wee the secret word (microphone), and a quick hour later it was over. There were no references to the dark reality we currently live in. But the show’s innocence felt surprisingly subversive.
Pee-wee may be timeless, but Reubens isn’t. He’ll turn 70 next year. His voice on the radio was noticeably deeper and thicker than a few decades back. In an interview for the release of Big Holiday, Reubens admitted that Pee-wee was digitally de-aged. The Playhouse is emptying too. John Paragon, the actor who played Jambi the genie and wrote and directed many episodes of Playhouse alongside Reubens, died in April. Reubens mourned the death of Lou Cutell, who played Amazing Larry in Big Adventure, several days before his radio show aired.
We all know grief now. We grieve the people we loved, but also the people we were before this pandemic began. If you’re old enough, you add it to the grief you’ve accrued over the years: for the children we were, the hopes we had, the people we longed to be. But if you’re lucky, the art that you need still finds you. It reminds you of who you are when you’ve forgotten, and gives you the power to imagine a life beyond this one. It lets you believe that what you’ve been robbed of will be found, that your home will come alive.
This year, we decided to light our front yard for Christmas. My wife and I swept through the holiday aisle at Home Depot like we were possessed—anything to keep the darkness at bay. Standing outside recently at 4:30 p.m., I realized that our house—sparkling with Christmas lights and inflatable animals—looked familiar. It looked like the Playhouse.