The early '80s were a weird time for comedy, coming in the wake of a decade where Richard Pryor and Saturday Night Live proved there was a sizeable audience for frankness and strangeness. For years afterward, nightclubs and talk shows were filled with post-Steve Martin conceptualists like Andy Kaufman, Joel Hodgson, Brother Theodore, and The Residents. And it was in this environment that Paul Reubens mounted The Pee-wee Herman Show at the Los Angeles rock club The Roxy for five sell-out months in 1981. Reubens, a member of the improv comedy troupe The Groundlings and a frequent weirdo guest on The Gong Show, created the Pee-wee character as an outlet for his own passion for cheap toys, kiddie shows, and sugar highs, and with the help of his Groundlings mates and punk-primitive set designer Gary Panter, he crafted a simultaneous spoof of and homage to the typical wasted preteen Saturday.
The Pee-wee Herman Show DVD—drawn from an HBO special—doesn't provide any context for what the production was all about. But at minimum, it's a record of several performers at the beginning of their careers: not just Reubens, but Phil Hartman as a crusty old sea captain, and Edie McClurg as a boisterous frontierswoman. (Also, behind the scenes, Bill Steinkellner, who went on to be one of the major creative forces behind Cheers.) The show itself remains entertaining, as it follows Reubens' heartfelt man-child Pee-wee while he shows off his cool stuff, watches weird old cartoons and hygiene films, tries to look up girls' skirts, and hangs out with a motley crew of genies, beauty queens, and mailmen. By the time Reubens leads a stirring rendition of Sly & The Family Stone's "I Want To Take You Higher," it's clear that The Pee-wee Herman Show isn't about what's "funny," but about tapping into a kind of unfettered joy, untouched by post-Watergate cynicism.
Key features: Zippo.