I Know You Are But What Am I? Pee-Wee and Me

(Collage: Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight)

When I was five, I accidentally watched every terrifying, adult, weird moment of The Pee-wee Herman Show. PHS was a 1980 nightclub show — captured on HBO — that predated Pee-Wee’s Playhouse by five years. As my parents were busy hosting a party, no one noticed that I was absorbing some of the more adult themes. After witnessing the scene with a hypnotized woman who shed her clothes under Pee-Wee’s command, I was terrified for years that I could be hypnotized into public nudity.

From the opening song to the final cut of Pee-Wee magically flying over the stage, scenes from the show have been in my subconscious ever since. There was the hypnotized lady, for sure, but also the evocative set design and costumes. The characters were slightly scary as well. Phil Hartman as a gruff Captain Carl was on the menacing side of surly, Miss Yvonne’s outfits and hair were so over the top it became near spectacle. Pee-Wee showed me an exciting, creative world I hadn’t even imagined for myself. It was still a satire of a kids show, but with this cocktail party twist that was meant just for adults.

Years later, my sister and I would repeatedly watch a VHS tape of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure until we had memorized the entire movie.

“I know you are but what am I!!?”

We watched until my sister could act out the Francis and Pee-Wee scene at an elementary school talent show. We watched until we truly absorbed every scene. We saw that even without money, without hope, Pee-Wee was still committed to finding his bike. We’d never seen commitment to a cause so deep.

Then, it was time to grow up. Puberty was not something I was eager to embrace. Although grown up parties seemed fun when I was a kid, the closer I got to womanhood, the less I wanted any part of it. As I was slow to develop, I realized that I didn’t want to grow up at all. The headgear I had to wear and the pre-adolescent chubbiness only added to my reluctance. Stalling puberty became my private pastime. I isolated myself, preferring childish activities at home. I avoided typical boy/girl activities like dances. I secretly resurrected my Barbie dolls, quickly stashing them when I heard someone come down the stairs.

I was surprised to see that in my daughter’s minds, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse is the perfect realization of what it’s like to be a grownup.

When Pee-Wee’s Playhouse debuted in 1986, it changed my Saturday mornings — it became my number one creative escape. If you haven’t seen it, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse features Pee-Wee Herman, a child-like man with a wildly decorated play house and a rotating cast of colorful guests. These pals included the sassy puppet Randy, the beautifully vivacious Miss Yvonne, a sweet, giant blue chair named Chair-y and some beat poets in the Puppetland. The “Picture Phone” predated FaceTime by at least 20 years. The cast also included some characters from the stage show — like the wise Jambie, the gold-turbaned Genie and the child-like Ptery — but expanded to include new friends like Globie, a spinning globe and a magic screen one could escape into.

In each episode, Pee-Wee would solve a problem with help from his friends. He tackled managing feelings and misunderstandings with an undercurrent of silliness. Lest you think it’s too heady an experience, the segments were interspersed with vintage cartoons. It was artistic and modern but still had a comforting undercurrent of throwback; a kids’ show with adult sensibilities.

Pee-Wee showed me I didn’t have to grow up.

“Heard any good jokes lately?” When Pee-Wee Herman delivered the opening line to the MTV awards after his arrest, puberty had caught up with me. My obsession with boys had won. Nature won. I read the coverage of the night, thought, “Huh, that’s funny,” and then ran off to watch my boyfriend play baseball.

When I eventually had children of my own, I was so excited to share Pee-Wee’s Playhouse with them. I worry that they’re still pressured to grow up fast, lurching to womanhood in a way I’m happy to delay. Pee-Wee’s Playhouse fit the bill for the perfect kind of adult-delaying entertainment.

So we loaded up every precious season and made our way through. The way we watch television is very different in 2015. No commercials, no urgency. Just a few episodes whenever we feel like it — the luxurious commodity of on-demand. This changed the tone of sharing — no eagerly anticipating the next week’s show.

I was surprised to see that in my daughter’s minds, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse is the perfect realization of what it’s like to be a grownup. They want to dress like Miss Yvonne, they want their own Globie. They nurse crushes on Cowboy Curtis. They see the show as exactly what it means to become an adult — and they can’t wait to get there.

I watched Pee-Wee to delay my development, my children watch him to grow up. In that show, they see a brilliantly hilarious possible future. They see a grown up life that they very much want to be a part of.

We still watch Pee-Wee together now, on-demand, in our various points on the way to adulthood. Now, I watch Pee Wee’s Playhouse not to grow up, nor to delay growing up, but for nostalgia. I watch to remember the silliness I’ve mostly grown out of. Pee-Wee shows me the silly we all have inside — and how important it is to remember it.

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  1. Editor’s Note: Go Back, Jack Do it Again | Tue Night

    […] Helen Jane remembers her own Pee-Wee era. […]


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