Kicking Back With Jersey Joe: Pee Wee Herman on Broadway Nov05

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Kicking Back With Jersey Joe: Pee Wee Herman on Broadway

He was a major part of growing up in the 8’s generation.  Pee-Wee Herman and his Saturday morning show were hilarious must-watch television for both children and adults.  That is, until the show and the popular character were yanked off the air by the actor’s big mistake. Now, Pee-Wee’s back and so are all his beloved characters in his new Broadway show.

The character of Pee-Wee was created by actor Paul Reubens as a small stage act back in 1977.  On one particular night, the Groundling’s comedy troupe which Reubens had been a member of for years, performed a sketch in which the actors would portray different characters you would see in a comedy club.  Reuben’s decided to play a guy who everyone knew would never make it as a comic.  In real life, Reubens often has trouble remembering punch lines and would often deliver jokes out of order.  It was on that night, where he developed Pee-Wee’s legendary laugh and catch phrase “I know you are, but what am I?”

Eventually he would add the character’s signature grey suit (which he borrowed from his stage director) and red bow tie which he got from a friend.  The inspiration for the name came from the Pee-weiny herman brand of harmonica and Reuben’s thought the name Pee-Wee Herman sounded too real to be made up and would be a name parents would give to a child that they didn’t care much about.

Reubens continued to develop the character when he auditioned to join the cast of the revamped 1980 season of Saturday Night Live, but lost out to actor Gilbert Gottfried.  After making a small cameo in Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie, he was about to pack up and move home when he borrowed $3,000 from his parents and decided to return the character to the stage.

Along with then little-name actors such as Phil Hartman (who would help him develop Pee-Wee) and Edie McClurg, the new show originally took the stage as midnight performances at the Los Angeles’ Groundlings theater in 1981.  The show was much more adult (hence the late night performance) than his later children’s show.  Eventually, the troupe would move to The Roxy Theatre and it was there that HBO taped and aired one of their performances.  (That special was released on DVD in 2006.)

The boyish character of Pee-Wee makes his home in the Puppetland Playhouse.  Here he entertains his audience of boys and girls, while spending time with his friends, and other residents of Puppetland.  Several of the Playhouse characters are puppets while other friends are actual human beings.

After running on the LA stage for five months, Pee-Wee Herman would start to make numerous guest appearances on Late Night with David Letterman.  His character continued to grow more and more popular and his stage show hit the road and began touring the United States.  Reubens once thanked Letterman saying it was the appearances on his show that helped launch the character into superstardom.

In 1985, he appeared in the Warner-Bros motion picture Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and would also host Saturday Night Live in November, before officially joining the cast the following season.

The character’s popularity continued to skyrocket and CBS decided to offer Reuben’s a big budget Saturday morning children’s show.  On September 13, 1986, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse debuted and ran for 5 seasons and 45 episodes.

This show still featured many of the same aspects and characters of the stage show, but was toned down for the child audience.  The Playhouse became even more of a magical place being filled with all kinds of toys, gadgets, and talking furniture.  The characters of Chairy (his talking chair), Clocky (a talking map/clock on the wall), Magic Screen (a talking and moving television type set), Conkey (a robot), Jambi (a genie in a box – still played by actor John Paragon), and Pterri (a talking baby pterodactyl) all crossed over from the stage version.

The house was often visited by human friends Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart), Reba the Mail Lady (Law and Order’s S. Epatha Merkerson), and Cowboy Curtis (CSI’s Laurence Fishbourne) among others.

The show’s theme song was performed by Cyndy Lauper, who was credited as Ellen Shaw.  The first season was taped in a loft in New York while the latter seasons were taped in Los Angeles.  The cost for each episode was around $350,000.  (as much as a prime time sitcom episode at the time.)

Each episode featured a certain theme and often used chroma key, clay animations, and cartoons.  The show also featured the “secret word” running gag, which when the word was said, everyone would scream real loud.

I remember the Saturday that the show was suddenly yanked off the air.  In July 1991, Reubens was arrested for allegedly exposing himself and masturbating in a Sarasota, Florida adult movie theater.  Reubens, who was by then getting tired for portraying Pee-Wee agreed to end production.  Fans and fellow actors came out in strong support saying he was being treated unfairly by the media.  He remained in shock for weeks and was haunted by the arrest, even refusing to give interviews or appear on other shows.

Reubens would only make two more immediate performances of the character.  One at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards and one more at an Opryland tribute to Minnie Pearl.

He continued to distance himself from Pee-Wee, even taking on other roles such as hosting the short lived summer game show You Don’t Know Jack for ABC.

However, time appears to heal all wounds.  He eventually began appearing again as the character and informing Hollywood that they hadn’t seen the last of Pee-Wee.  In 2006, he announced plans for a new stage play as well as another motion picture.

In 2009, Pee-Wee appeared on the premiere episode of the Conan O’Brien hosted Tonight Show to promote the opening of his stage play.  Ticket demand was so high that the show had to move to a new LA theatre and opened on January 12, 2010 to positive reviews.

On October 26, 2010 the show moved east to the Stephen Sondheim Theater for previews and will officially open on November 11.  The show was originally only supposed to run for a few weeks, but eventually got extended to January 2.

Tuesday night, I was in the audience to enjoy one of these preview shows and I must say it was an absolute delight.  The jokes are targeted toward adults from the 80’s.  The set is absolutely authentic to the show and features most of the puppets and characters.

Conky, Chairry, the Magic Screen, Globy, the flowers, Pterri, Clocky, Mr. Window and more are all back.  The show features the same format of the television series including the secret word, the King of cartoons, and even a gut busting Public Service Announcement from the 1950’s!

Also returning to their roles from the original stage show and Saturday morning series are Miss Yvonne, Jambi the Genie, and Mailman Mike (John Moody).  I would have loved to see Laurence Fishburne back as Cowboy Curtis, but I’m sure he’s busy filming the latest season of CSI.  He’s really missing out on this one!

Many of the jokes in the show have been rewritten by Reuben’s and updated for 2010.  Such as jokes including the Internet, Reuben’s previous arrest, the IPad, abstinence rings, and even Sham-Wow.  The show is back to more adult comedy and there are many pieces of dialogue that are not suitable for children.  However, it’s more likely that they just wouldn’t understand.

There was a young five year old boy sitting directly in front of me.  While his parent’s were laughing away at the jokes, the child seemed to lose interest about a half an hour in.

There were times when my sides were absolutely hurting from laughter.  Pay close attention to what’s being said.  The comedy reminded me of The Simpsons Movie, where there are so many little jokes and one liners being delivered one after another, that you’ll miss something great if you’re not listening.

The show also features three new characters including handyman Sergio, firefighter Phineas, and a dancing bear; all of which feature into the plot of the show.

Pee-Wee and Miss Yvonne both look great considering their age.  They are not the childlike actors they once used to be, but it seems their characters have stood still in time.

The set is absolutely gorgeous and all the little details from the original show are present.  It’s really great to see the set come alive in front of you on the Broadway stage.

A few of the regular puppet characters from the television series are missing.  I was wondering what happened to Countess the Cow, the Aunt Family, and the Alley Cats.  But, with a set like this, who cares?  They still have the talking fish!

The only negative of the entire evening, the puppetry of the Pterri the pterodactyl.  His mouth basically stopped moving several minutes into the performance and seemed to be a technical issue with the puppet.  I’m sure this will be fixed once the show officially opens and that’s what can happen in the live theatre experience.  It in no way ruined any of the magic and probably wasn’t noticeable if you sat back far enough.

After the show, Rebuens appears in character at the exit door next to the theatre.  There was a crowd there waiting.

I had read the positive reviews the show had on the West Coast and have been anxiously waiting for the New York run since the summer.  We purchased our tickets back in July and they were worth every single penny.  The house was packed and this ticket will be a hard one to get!

THE 411

Name: The Pee-Wee Herman Show

Where: Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St, (between Broadway and 6th Ave., New York City)

Length: The show runs about 90 minutes with no intermission.

Cost: Tickets start at $67 and up.  Expect to pay more for a weekend performance.


JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS: If you’re a child of the 80s, you can’t miss this show.  All of the magic of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and its characters are there.  We purchased our tickets back in July and the show has added a few more weeks of performances since, but with all the positive buzz, it will be hard ticket to get.  If you have the chance – definitely go!

Also, it’s probably not for the little kids.  The child I saw was amused, but quickly lost interest.  But, I don’t think I saw one adult without a major smile leaving the theater.  I truly hope you get a chance to catch the limited run of this show.