I know you are, but what is Judge Erich Asperschlager?
"And now, on behalf of myself and our strict 'no refund' policy, we are pleased to present for your viewing pleasure, the 'Pee-wee Herman Show'!"
There are few performers more deserving of a second chance than Paul Reubens. The improv comedian turned kids' show host became a household name in the 1980s, first on the big screen with the Tim Burton-directed Pee-wee's Big Adventure, then on television with Pee-wee's Playhouse. The bizarre Saturday morning TV show became a hit with kids and adults alike, lasting five seasons and earning 15 Emmys. Sadly, Reubens' career as kids' entertainer came to an abrupt end in 1991, due to an unfortunate incident I won't give virtual ink to here. Through the rest of the '90s and much of the 2000s, Reubens limited his acting work to small roles in movies like Batman Returns and Mystery Men.
In the mid-2000s, Reubens let slip that he was working on several new Pee-wee Herman screenplays. Then, in 2009, he announced a revival of his original '80s stage show. The Pee-wee Herman Show returned for limited, sell-out engagements in LA and New York, followed by an HBO special recorded after his Broadway run. As 2011 comes to an end, we may not be any closer to a new movie, but thanks to HBO and Image Entertainment fans can get their Pee-wee fix with the release of The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway (Blu-ray).
Facts of the Case
Essentially an updated version of his live act from the early '80s, this new Pee-wee Herman Show is a mix of sight gags, sketches, and a loose plot involving Cowboy Curtis and Miss Yvonne falling in love, the Playhouse getting wired for a new computer, and Pee-wee wishing he could fly.
The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway is a brisk 89-minute love letter to fans, reuniting Pee-wee with the characters and puppets from his stage and TV show. After an opening song and Herman-led Pledge of Allegiance, the curtain parts to reveal an exact replica of the Playhouse. I haven't seen Pee-wee's Playhouse since I was a kid, but when the lights went up on that set, I couldn't help but grin. If I was the kind of person who cheers at my TV, I would have joined the audience in raucous applause.
That infectious joy is the reason Ruebens' TV show became a hit. Like pure id with a red bowtie, Pee-wee Herman's childlike enthusiasm for the world makes everything, from a scrap of foil to a postcard from a pen pal, fun. AAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!!! Yes, The Pee-wee Herman Show even has a "secret word" of the day: "Fun."
Also back are Pee-wee's puppet pals—including Chairy the chair, Conky the robot, Globey the globe, Clocky the clock, Pteri the Perodactyl, and Magic Screen the magic, um, screen—and fan favorites Cowboy Curtis, Miss Yvonne, Jambi the genie, and the King of Cartoons. Curtis and Miss Yvonne's budding relationship provides one of the major subplots (the original stage show paired Miss Yvonne with Phil Hartman's Captain Carl). Even though Laurence Fishburne has been replaced as Curtis by the younger and no doubt more available, Phil LaMarr, it's great to see Lynne Marie Stewart reprise her role as the "prettiest woman in Puppetland." Makeup and a beehive wig can only go so far to hide the passage of time, but I'm glad Reubens didn't try to replace such a key character. This revival also introduces a couple of new characters: Drew Powell as "The Bear," and Jesse Garcia as Sergio the sexy Latin electrician. Both are welcome additions, and provide some of the funnier non-Pee-wee moments of the show.
The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway is a madcap, stream-of-consciousness fever dream of awesomeness. The jokes come fast and furious, ranging from puns and cheap gags to extended bits. One of the best involves Pee-wee, a deep fat fryer, and a fake skeleton hand. Reubens gets a lot of mileage from trotting out his old catchphrases, with declarations of "I know you are, but what am I?" and "That's so funny I forgot to laugh" sending the audience into a frenzy. It's a testament to the character's endless charm that even the cheesiest moments are met with affection instead of eye rolling.
The show is more than just a nostalgia trip, though. Ruebens and his co-writers have updated the Pee-wee formula for a modern audience. One of the show's main storylines involves handyman Sergio helping Pee-wee install his new computer, worrying the playhouse puppets that the upgrade might make them obsolete. To Reubens' credit, he makes sure that the current references aren't too current. Another running gag involves characters shilling for crappy infomercial products, culminating in an anthropomorphized puppet ShamWow! that meets an untimely end. Pee-wee toying with change is played for laughs, but the lesson is clear: some things are perfect just the way they are.
The original Pee-wee Herman stage show included some adult humor that didn't make the transition to Saturday morning TV. The new special doesn't go quite as far as the old show, but it does include some suggestive material, carefully worded to go over young viewers' heads. Kids wouldn't know why Pee-wee asks a shorts-wearing Mailman Mike if he has "a license to sell hot dogs," what his abstinence ring signifies, or the way Conky and Magic Screen bump into each other during a blackout might be anything but innocent. The Blu-ray slipcase advertises the show as "for kids of all ages," and I have to agree. Just be prepared to answer, or dodge, some awkward questions.
Although the show breezes through from beginning to end, it's an amazing juggling act of puppets, performers, props, and sound cues. The filmed performance has the benefit of second takes and reshoots, but the edits only polish an already sparkling gem. Under the direction of Marty Callner, the HBO special adds dynamic camerawork and close-ups to focus attention and punch up the jokes. The combination of stagecraft and TV wizardry makes The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway the definitive version of Paul Reubens' triumphant return, and Blu-ray is the definitive way to watch it.
The 1.78:1/1080i AVC-encoded image is packed with detail, from the glittery jewels of Jambi's turban to the fine weave of Pee-wee's signature grey suit. The hi-def presentation is saturated with color, and bright. At times, the image is too bright, with whites that threaten to blow out under the harsh stage lights. The quick camera movements and interlaced picture also result in some motion blur. Still, unless you were at one of these performances or somehow toured the TV set as a kid, you've never seen the Playhouse look better. Instead of surround sound, The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway (Blu-ray) audio is in uncompressed PCM stereo—but don't worry. It's a powerhouse mix, creating an open soundscape that feels like it was recorded live, while making sure everything from dialogue to musical numbers to the thousand live sound cues come through with clarity and kick.
The disc's lone bonus feature is a cast commentary with Reubens, Lynne Marie Stewart, Drew Powell, John Moody (who plays Mailman Mike), John Paragon (Jambi, and the voice of Pteri), Josh Meyers (Fireman Phineas, and several puppet voices), Phil LaMarr, Lexy Fridell (the voice of Chairy and Magic Screen), and Lance Roberts (The King of Cartoons, as well as the voice of Globey and one of the flowers). After a quick, standard def intro video for each of the players, the group rockets through the feature with a commentary that's every bit as energetic as the show itself. Reubens is funny, sweet, and genuine in his appreciation for this opportunity. He leads the roundtable discussion, which is full of behind-the-scenes information, comparisons between the old and new stage shows, and general camaraderie—extending beyond the end of the special for three bonus minutes of chat.
Even if none of his new Pee-wee film projects come together, Paul Reubens has officially won. He has outlasted the scandal that forced him to retreat from the spotlight, and the critics who left his career for dead. The Pee-wee Herman Show doesn't reinvent Reubens' alter ego for a new millenium; it reminds all of us who loved him in the '80s that Pee-wee Herman is timeless. By tapping into the limitless possibilities of imagination, and the joy of looking at the world through the eyes of a child, Reubens' shows that his real genius is the ability to make comedy fun. AAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!!!
Not Guilty, infinity!
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2011 Erich Asperschlager; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.