Television Review: Pee-Wee is back, yes he is

“And now, on behalf of myself and our strict no-refund policy, we are pleased to present for your viewing pleasure … The Pee-wee Herman show.”

And with Herman’s infamous words, we are magically transported to Puppetland via a scrim with dancing, silhouetted marionettes and a cutout of the Glen plaid-clad man-child himself.

A jumbled, albeit jaunty, children’s choir colors hopeful lyrics around the room, boasting, “Where do I go when I wanna go, when I wanna do what I want? Pee-wee’s playhouse, that’s the place for me.”

The red curtains draw to reveal the iconic playhouse set, recognizable to anyone who spent their Saturday mornings between 1986 and 1990 with their nose to the television, laughing between spoonfuls of Mr. T cereal.

“The Pee-wee Herman Show” debuted at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre last year to a Broadway audience of pie-eyed adults looking to invoke their inner child.

In a November 2010 New York Times publication, theatrical columnist Charles Isherwood commended the show on its authenticity, with the layout and whimsy of title-actor Paul Reubens’ original concept left “essentially unaltered.

“The playhouse itself has been supersized to fill a Broadway stage, but the familiar elements are all in place, from the chattering chair and window to the word of the day to the signature jig.”

March 19, nearly three months after the show’s planned two-month stint, an HBO production in Los Angeles once again brought Puppetland to our living rooms as it had done in 1981, for a special-aired stand-up routine in which Reubens’ first exposed himself to the world – as Pee-wee Herman, that is.

However, after Pee-wee reacquainted viewers with his endearing cavalcade of puppets, a few overstimulated live actors, and repetitious catchphrases – “Why don’t you marry it?” eventually becoming a jibe tossed between Chairry and Pee-wee ad nauseum – the desire grew for a magic wish from Jambi the Genie for the show’s original television time frame of half-an-hour instead of HBO’s slated 90 minutes.

An impressive clone though it was, the staged show fell just short of recapturing the “fun” (the enigmatic word of the day which set the filmed audience into hyperactive fits), and helped to further suppress any notions of childhood reversion, thus drudging forth the idea that anyone within the Adult Swim-ness of the mid 20-something generation’s sense of humor, might be less amused with Herman’s regurgitated not-quite-for-kids-uh-oh-that-was-a-double-entendre stall of jokes.

Although the show itself attempted a re-imagining of Reubens’ idea of “fun,” it was ultimately an exercise in attempting nostalgia (scream real loud!).

Nearly all the original players resurfaced, including a flying Pterri the Pterodactyl, Penny, Mr. Window, Globey, Randy, and a befuddled Magic Screen, who initiated a plot – which somehow later became forgotten – to ostracize Pee-wee from Puppetland when she received news that a new computer was set to replace the archaic anthropomorphic electronics.

Because of the series’ cult following and fear of that same cult’s disappointment, it would make sense that directors Alex Timbers’ (New York stage production) and Marty Callner’s (Los Angeles/HBO production) visions sought to mirror “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”

However, several pieces of equipment were sorely missed, most notably Lawrence Fishburne as the indelible Cowboy Curtis and the late Phil Hartman as Captain Karl.

Eventually, the audience was welcomed with such familiar faces as John Paragon and Lynne Marie Stewart reprising the roles of Jambi and Miss Yvonne, who is still known as “the most beautiful,” if not aged, “woman in all of Puppetland.”

In fact, in a recent Los Angeles Times review, television critic Mary McNamara notes that Reubens’ himself “has undeniably aged which adds to the occasional creepiness factor of the show.”

It would appear that aging and modernization are two of the most prominent underlying themes throughout “The Pee-wee Herman Show’s” confused and sporadic storyline.

Upon the arrival of the slightly-more-updated-than-Conky computer, Pee-wee finds himself inundated with friend requests, Viagra offers, and more information than his pea-brain can comprehend.

And so the Age of Technology once again takes a cliched blow, as Pee-wee realizes that he has everything he needs right there, in the Playhouse. But the show just would not be true to its roots had it ended without someone flying off the screen against a flourish of Mark Mothersbaugh-ian fanfare, right?

The barely mentioned plot of Pee-wee’s wish to fly finally resurfaced in order to close the show, as he becomes airborne and sings a charming version of “The Luckiest Boy in the World.” Shallow lessons are learned, and all is mended in Puppetland.

Pee-wee Herman fan or not, a certain amount of respect should be paid to any 59-year-old actor who can make thousands of people forget that, well, he is a 59- year-old actor instead of a man-child who forever lives on the cusp of snarky adolescence and coming-of-age as Pee-wee Herman.

After twenty years of enduring backlash over a public indecency scandal and cashing in on cameos and bit parts on films like “Mystery Men” and “Blow,” it appears that Reubens has once again embraced Pee-wee’s helium-like voice for what appears to be a long-lived comeback.

In an interview with New York Times columnist Dave Itzkoff, Reubens explained of his two decade-long struggle that “there’s nothing more horrible left to say to me. You know? There really isn’t. And there’s enormous power in that.”

So if the live production wasn’t quite your cup of tea (or bowl of melted ice cream “soup”) consider the following formula: Judd Apatow + new Pee-wee Herman feature film = an infinitely more appealing endeavor.

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Television Review: Pee-Wee is back, yes he is