|PEE WEE'S PLAYHOUSE CHRISTMAS SPECIAL (cbs, 1988)|
Why was it such a misfit?
Pee Wee's Playhouse was the first children's TV show in ages to attract a significant adult fanbase. It premiered in the doldrums of the 80s where layered smart humor just didn't happen on kids TV, whether because of censor boards, toy hocking requirements or otherwise. The show came off as an exaggerated satire of homespun kids' TV shows during the 50s, and this is no coincidence because its pilot was a TV special on HBO intended to be exactly that. The adult audience of the day would have been fully familiar with such shows and their otherworldly, loose grasp on logic. Paul Reubens took this element to its extreme, creating not just one of the biggest hits of the decade but one of the most highly creative TV shows ever broadcast.
Since I was exactly within the intended target audience for Pee Wee's Playhouse when it was new, I can tell you what the average child's take on it was. In a word, "unsettling." I watched Pee Wee's Playhouse every week, like everyone else, but I won't lie -- I was weirded out by this guy. He felt like one of those "strangers" my mother had warned me about. I can remember the day I was traumatrized by Pee Wee so badly I could never watch the show again, and it was the morning he made us all take a tour of the inside of his nose. It came from out of nowhere. Going off my memory, Pee Wee just suddenly turned to the camera, pulled up his nostrils and started screeching something unintelligible while the camera pulled further and further into the holes. I think I'd seen the Willy Wonka tunnel scene by this point and THIS was worse.
One day Pee Wee had to disappear, and our parents wouldn't tell us why. The most information I got was that he'd "done something bad." This boosted my imagination way beyond what the actual incident was. To me, it was fully possible that Pee Wee could have murdered someone. He just had that glint in his eye.
Later on I found out the incident involved "an indecent act in a movie theater," which THEN made me think a bunch of people were sitting down to watch Dances With Wolves when suddenly Pee Wee came from out of nowhere and started dancing in front of them, buck naked, going "LAAAAAAAH LAH LAH! HUHHUHHUH." I fully believed this for years.
But for Boomer grown-ups, Pee Wee was Mr. Trendy. And when it came time for the inevitable Christmas episode, EVERYONE wanted an invitation to that party. Pee Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special boasts a lineup of celebrities way beyond what the average special could usually afford. It's the only Christmas special to actually land Oprah in a role.
The moment it starts you know you're in for an epic event, with a choir of fifty Marines bellowing out a festive tune before Pee Wee emerges, flanked by four flashy dancers who constantly repeat "Pee Wee's Christmas! Merry Merry Christmas!" while Pee Wee shoves his face into the camera and yells "WELCOME TO MY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL STARRING ME, PEE WEE HERMAN!! THAT'S MY NAME....WHAT'S YOUUUUUUURS??" Pee Wee has a tendency to SCREECH every line he says, whether the Word of the Day happens to be in the sentence or not. This is why Pee Wee is a dish best served thirty minutes at a time. Watching several episodes in a row can be draining.
As the show opens, Pee Wee is dictating his Christmas list to Conky. "....and I want a deluxe wood-burning kit, a new space helmet, walkie talkies.....and oh yeah, a yo-yo! PUT A YO-YO ON MY LIST, CONKY!" Conky informs Pee Wee that he already owns a yo-yo. Pee Wee doesn't believe him until he opens a secret panel and sorts through a vast collection of toys until he finds his forgotten yo-yo. Then he makes the yo-yo do claymation tricks like "walking the dog" (where it turns into a dog) and "around the world" (where it whirls around Globey).
Just then there's a knock
at the door....it's Pee Wee's most frequent visitor, The
Most Beautiful Girl In All The World, Miss Yvonne. Pee
Wee asks what her new beehive hairdo is about. "Did
you know you've got plants growing out of it?"
Miss Yvonne brought a Christmas present for Pee Wee. "Ooo, it's heavy! What is it, a gold brick?" "No, but it's just as priceless....it's my own special Christmas FRUITCAKE!" Pee Wee makes a face, then he sets the wrapped fruitcake down on the dresser with a loud CLANG sound. After Miss Yvonne leaves he declares that he'd better put the thing in his fridge. But the talking, living food in his refrigerator also have a present for him....a second fruitcake.
Since I wasn't paying attention at the time....how old were fruitcake jokes in 1988? I know that by 1995 you could get booed by any crowd for going "How about those fruitcakes, huh?" Now it's been ages since I've heard a fruitcake slam. An entire generation may grow up without learning through cultural osmosis how bad a fruitcake is. I find it interesting how you can outright nuke a joke from popular consciousness through repetition. Take this quote from 1954's White Christmas:
"How do you keep
an angry dog from biting you on Monday?"
I've never heard this joke told, ever. Some jokes actually get so old that they pass out of cliche-dom and into obscurity again, at which point you could re-tell the joke and it'd feel fresh once more. I say this like I wouldn't get kicked out of a comedy club for proposing to shoot a dog.
Pee Wee's wacky picturephone booth is ringing! Pee Wee rushes over to it, pulls down the decorated window shade and puts the tin can to his ear. It's Whoopi Goldberg, who just heard that Pee Wee's getting his own Christmas special. She wants in, but Pee Wee informs her his lineup is all booked. "Maybe I could squeeze you in next year.....no, that's pretty taken up too....tell you what, you can be in my Christmas special two years from now!!" This would be his only special.
Magic Screen wheels up.
"Pee Wee, it's time for some Christmas fun with
ME!" Pee Wee jumps into the screen and finds himself
superimposed in a cartoon Arctic world, with a crudely
rendered sleigh. "Just like Santa's!" he
declares, and hops in. Then NBA superstar Magic Johnson
turns up. "HEY MAGIC, WHAT ARE YA DOING IN THE MAGIC
Once Pee Wee is finished
with that, Chairry asks him when the Christmas
decorations are going up. "OH NO, I COMPLETELY
FORGOT!" Pee Wee panics. There's no time to bring
out the boxes before the next guest arrives, so he asks
Jambi the genie head for help. "Is this your wish
today?" Jambi asks beforehand. "Well, I was
hoping to save my wish for later.....can I have an extra
Pee Wee's next guest is
Reba the mail lady. She has a present for him, and by now
you've already guessed what the running gag is here, so
you know it's a wrapped fruitcake. Pee Wee hands Reba his
gargantuan Christmas wish list envelope. It's actually
the second half of the list he sent earlier.
Pee Wee also has a Christmas gift for Reba: press-on nails! "Why are they so big?" asks Reba. "They're toenails!" Pee Wee happily barks.
There's one more package
to open, and it's a big one. There's....a woman in a
spacey outfit inside. It's singer Grace Jones! But she's
confused..."You don't look like the President."
I know Trump is a strange man, but why would he want Grace Jones shipped to him in a box? ....Oh, right, this was thirty years ago. I guess it's in-character for Reagan.
When most of these celebrities appear, it's to sing a song. While she's out of her box, Jones sings an abbreviated version of "Little Drummer Boy." Everyone claps and then it's commercial time.
When the show comes back,
Pee Wee is making Christmas cards with his beach-blanket
friends Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Annette
shows Pee Wee how to create a spackled effect on her
card. "I take this stencil of a Christmas tree....I
put this screen over it, and now I take my toothbrush,
dip it in green paint, and brush it all over the screen.
It creates these little dots all over the card in the
shape of the tree. Isn't that pretty?"
"Okay you two, get back to work! I need 500 of those cards by sundown! Ha-ha! Ha-ha-ha! HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!" Pee Wee walks away while Frankie and Annette share an uneasy look. What would Pee Wee do to them if they didn't finish all those cards? Seemingly anything....he's practically a god in this world.
Pee Wee simply walks
across the room and there, standing next to Conky, is
Cher. "HEY CHER, WHAT'RE YOU DOING?"
"Now you know what
to do, right?" Pee Wee gestures to Cher.
"AAAAAAAAAHHH!" she replies.
The King of Cartoons stops
by, with a special gift for Pee Wee. "It's not a
fruitcake, is it?" Pee Wee asks hesitantly.
Every cartoon the King of Cartoons showed on Pee Wee's Playhouse was public domain, so there were a lot of things from the Max Fleischer library. Today he presents clips from a seasonally-themed Grampy cartoon. "Grampy" was introduced in the Betty Boop series and the Fleischer studio tried briefly to spin him off; he was one of those wacky-inventor types.
But before Pee Wee's TV shows Grampy, it displays Joan Rivers -- working her current job as center square on Hollywood Squares. Some of the stars were too busy to stop by and just videotaped their appearances from wherever they happened to be. "Ah, hi Pee Wee! Merry Christmas!" That's about all we get out of her.
Pee Wee notices it's now snowing outside the Playhouse. He can't resist racing outside and messing around. "HEY LOOK, I MADE AN ANGEL IN THE SNOW! And if you don't have snow around your house, JUST USE TWENTY POUNDS OF COCONUT SHAVINGS!"
Pee Wee heads out to the frozen pond, where Little Richard is attempting to skate. He's terrible at it, and he's fallen onto his butt so many times that he tied a pillow to it. "Are you any better, Pee Wee?" Richard the Little asks. "BETTER? CHECK THIS OUT!" Pee Wee removes his boot to reveal he was wearing ice skates the whole time. Richard gives the camera a look.
Pee Wee then skates to the center of the pond and performs some spectacular tricks.....unfortunately, the new HD remaster makes it rather easy to tell it's not actually Pee Wee, but a stunt double. Good thing, then, that there's a gag at the end where the stuntman walks into frame and says "I'm gonna take off now." Richard shakes his head disapprovingly.
I don't have much to say about the k.d. lang appearance. She sings Jingle Bell Rock and chats a bit with the puppet band and that's about it. It's followed by a Penny cartoon. These were stop-motion animated by Craig Bartlett, who went on to create Hey Arnold. That show actually started as a clay short similar to "Penny," and Nickelodeon wanted the show to look like that, but Bartlett insisted on traditional animation.
The Cowntess stops by, and even Pee Wee can guess by now what kind of present she's brought for him. He adds the fruitcake to his growing pile. Cowntess insists that Pee Wee meet her new friend, "Princess Zsa Zsa." Yes, it's that Zsa Zsa, but she doesn't stick around for long -- she just says "Merry Christmas" and leaves. I don't want to accuse her of phoning it in, since it's possible more material with her was filmed and got cut -- this special is pretty packed.
Pee Wee's picture phone rings, and at the other end is someone possibly even older than Zsa Zsa: Dinah Shore. She insists that she get to sing a song, but Pee Wee isn't sure he has time for that. He's CERTAIN he has no time for that when Dinah breaks into the first stanzas of "Twelve Days Of Christmas." He ducks out of the booth, drags a mannequin wearing a Pee Wee mask in, sits it on the seat and Dinah blares on, none the wiser. Then Pee Wee sneaks away.
It's time for the
multicultural segment! Ricky Ricardo drops in and
explains that in Mexico, children celebrate Christmas
with a pinata. Pee Wee's never seen one before.
"How're we gonna get it down?"
And right on cue, Charo
appears with a guitar to sing "Feliz Navidad"
while Pee Wee stumbles around behind her, flailing the
Pee Wee's friend Mrs. Rene pops over to deliver Fruitcake #597 and explain what her holiday tradition is. She's Jewish, so she celebrates Hannukah instead. Rene turns to the camera and says "This is the designated Hannukah part of the special," which might be the first time such a trope was ever lampshaded. And as expected, she sings the Dreidel Song, because the Jewish community hasn't come up with a single other seasonal tune in ten billion years (though Adam Sandler tried. But....he Sandler'd it up).
Mrs. Rene also explains to Pee Wee that she gets eight presents over eight days....and in keeping with tradition, she brought Pee Wee EIGHT fruitcakes!
After the final act break, the regular cast, plus Frankie and Annette, are having a party on Christmas Eve. Someone asks Pee Wee just what he plans to do with all the fruitcakes he got today. "FOLLOW ME, I FOUND THE PERFECT SOLUTION!" he declares. Everybody watches as he pulls a lever and two walls come apart to reveal...."I'M HAVING A NEW ROOM BUILT IN THE PLAYHOUSE, MADE ENTIRELY OUT OF FRUITCAKE! HAHA!"
Okay then! Everybody joins Pee Wee in a round of Christmas Caroling until they hear sleighbells on the roof. Santa Claus materializes in a cloud of sparkle dust!
"IT'S SANTA! DID YOU BRING ME EVERYTHING I ASKED FOR???" Pee Wee asks with anticipation.
"Well, yes, but....I have some bad news," Santa informs him. Seems that Pee Wee asked for so many things that it took the entirety of Santa's resources to fulfill his list, meaning none of the other good boys and girls of the world will get presents this year...unless Pee Wee is willing to sacrifice all his gifts. "WHAAAAT, NO PRESENTS??" Pee Wee freaks out. He's gotta think about this.
Then he remembers what he's been telling his friends: "Christmas is a time you should be thinking of others." The words echo in his head over and over. "ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT! The other kids of the world...can have my presents....I guess."
"Pee Wee, I'm sorry
you can't get a present, but I know what I can give you
instead that you'll love just as much. How about you join
me tonight in delivering all those presents to the good
girls and boys everywhere?"
The final shot is Dinah Shore still singing to the Pee Wee mannequin, now on her 5000th Day of Christmas.
Why didn't it fit in?
This is another one of those selections that barely qualifies as a Misfit because plenty of people still love it. If you noticed the logo on the bottom corner of all my screenshots, you know IFC ran it this year. It's a very enjoyable special even if it's the first time you've seen Pee Wee's Playhouse; a lot of what made the series such a hit is captured here.
Does the Sugar Puffs thing like it?
For today's second opinion, we asked this hairy yellow monster from a 1970s box of British cereal what he thought. His reply: "Not weird enough."