The Pee-wee Herman Show On Broadway debuts tonight on HBO at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Hello, boys and girls.
It’s been a while since we’ve all seen our good friend Paul Reubens don his grey suit and red bow tie, so naturally, the revival of The Pee-wee Herman Show at Los Angeles’ Club Nokia and later on, on Broadway was a highly anticipated work. This was a good thing and a bad thing: When I first saw the play on the first night of previews in New York, I was disappointed by it. The play made me laugh a lot, but it still felt largely unfulfilling as a comeback show, mostly because it was just an exceptional comeback show. A lot of well-timed fan service is sprinkled throughout, including a lot of soundbites and familiar characters (Pterri the Pteradactyl! Clocky! Globey! Jambi!). Heck, the show’s central conceit is that Pee-wee can never grow up and hence can’t move past his signature tics and mannerisms, making The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway a necessarily stodgy and at times depressing experience. The jokes are so funny, so why does it feel so wrong to laugh at them?
First, some good news: It’s a little easier to laugh at this new Pee-wee Herman show at home than it is at the theater. By now, the aura that’s surrounded Pee-wee’s character since his premature departure from the spotlight has crystallized to an impossible degree. Pee-wee’s schtick is a lot funnier when viewed on a TV at home than it is when you see it in person and are surrounded by fellow Pee-wee fanatics. The live format of the theatrical show was that much more unnerving: You could hear an entire crowd of vocal would-be misfits responding with you during the show’s call-and-response segments. The HBO special, on the other hand, allows you to sit comfortably at home and have the kind of private, totally insulated experience that the show always thrived on. Shouting whenever one of the characters says the secret word certainly doesn’t feel as alienating when you watch the HBO special as this time; you can still imagine you're Pee-wee’s bestest friend.
Still, one of the main reasons why The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway is a fun but somewhat disenchanting experience is because of its nature as a show-length refresher course on who the character is. Reubens knows that his audience has grown up and wants to reassure them that while they’ve changed, their old pal hasn’t. Pee-wee now exists in the 21st century, and as such, he says things like “Chillax” and “No worries! Same difference! It’s all good!” He also wants to use a computer now instead of just relying on the encyclopedic knowledge of his more animated house appliances, like Conky 3000 or Magic Screen.
The biggest change, and the one that momentarily pushes the show beyonds its comfortably staid limits, comes from Pee-wee’s new chastity ring. The ring provides a redundant symbol of the character’s genially asexual nature. The burgeoning presence of sex threatens to overwhelm the playhouse during one of the show's more forced, and least funny, moments, when the power goes out in the Playhouse and all of the characters wind up feeling each other up (and then some). The repetition of a gag as corny as the “That’s no flashlight” routine and an even more icky retort like “And that’s not my belly button” only serves to overstate the obvious: Sex was never the province of Reubens’s character and it never will be.
Where The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway scores big points is its cast’s instantly attractive performances. Human characters like Sergio (Jesse Garcia) and Bear (Drew Powell) and puppets like Josh Meyers’s talking Shamwow rag are both perfect examples of how the show can and frequently does very well by incrementally complicating Pee-wee’s world with new faces and situations. Garcia is especially funny—and probably the break-out star of the show, in spite of the gleefully shallow nature of his goofy oversexed Latino routine. After performing “The Forbidden Dance” for Pee-wee, Garcia hits his mark perfectly when he responds to Pee-wee’s inevitable question of “How come you’re doing it if it’s so forbidden?” with “Because... I’m a rebel!”
That line is an important deviation from the show’s status as a fun throwback. It has a history backing it, since it mirrors Pee-wee’s own iconic line from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure where he warns his love interest Dottie not to get too attached to him: “I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.” Garcia’s paraphrase is one of the few times that the new Pee-wee Herman Show uses the audience’s knowledge of their beloved man-child hero for something more than just fan service. Garcia’s high-energy performance confirms that Sergio’s a character that can share the spotlight with Pee-wee. He proves that times can change within the Playhouse walls, if only on a scene-by-scene basis. (I especially like the bit where Sergio gets a splinter and bellows at Pee-wee to stick it back in his finger after Pee-wee suggests that it could be a magic splinter.)
Still, realistically, The Pee-wee Herman Show will always revolve around Reubens and his boundless energy. His performance starts out a bit rocky at the show’s beginning—his nervousness and hyper-awareness of HBO’s equally hyperactive cameras is palpable (more on this below). He thankfully hits his stride shortly thereafter, once other human characters show up and provide him with foils that he can work with. Though his jowly cheeks are an unwelcome reminder of his relatively advanced age, Reubens’ Pee-wee has still got it. It’s nice to see him parade around in his signature suit again, even if by now it’s a few sizes too small.
- I love the ghost of the Sham-Wow Puppet: “No such thing as a tracer? What a sham... wow!”
- “I think we need more discussion before we lock Pee-wee in the cellar.” My sentiments exactly.
- “Here’s a perfect example of how everything is not ‘all good.’” My sentiments exactly, also.
- While I like the fact that the show is clearly pared down from its original run on Broadway—there’s no mention of the new shoes Pee-wee’s invented beyond a single introductory scene—I hate the way it’s filmed. The way the camera uses every corny gimmick to get close up and show all the various moving parts on-stage doesn’t make up for the fact that we’re not watching the show in-person; it just vigorously rubs our distance from the actors in our faces that much more. The fish-eye lens reaction shots are especially irritating, and the way the last scene is filmed is an equally dissatisfying reminder of the limitations of watching a live show that’s not meant to be experienced via TV.