It was one of those shows you wondered how it ever managed to get on the air—like Twin Peaks or Cop Rock!. What makes Pee-Wee’s Playhouse even more astonishing is that it’s a children’s show—maybe the first children’s show truly designed for adults. In its five-season run, kids were introduced to the likes of Jambi the Genie, Pterri the Pterodactyl and the King of Cartoons. Paul Reubens, largely inspired by the shows he would watch as a child (e.g. Howdy Doody, The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show and The Mickey Mouse Club), reinvented the wheel of children’s programming. Instead of treating kids as though they were inferior, Reubens spoke to them as an equal, which is something no one had done before or maybe even since. And, in honor of Paul Reubens, that dearest of Virgos, on his 60th birthday, here are the top ten best episodes of a show that has left an indelible legacy.
10) “Ice Cream Soup” (The Pilot): After getting CBS to agree to a $325,000 budget per episode (an incredible feat usually reserved for primetime), Reubens was able to use his total creative control to introduce us to the world of Puppetland, where his quirky and unusual playhouse stood. Among other characters, Cowboy Curtis (Laurence Fishburne) and Miss Yvonne (Lynn Marie Stewart) were introduced and common precedents (like the Secret Word of the Day and Pee-Wee’s ball of foil) were established.
9) “Monster in the Playhouse”: If for nothing other than the fact that this was the first episode in which the music was composed by Danny Elfman. It also marks the first appearance of Roger the Monster, who is the only playhouse character to ever get a chance to ride with Pee-Wee on his scooter as he leaves the playhouse at the end of the show.
8) “Why Wasn’t I Invited?”: You may know Cliff Martinez as the man responsible for the Drive Soundtrack, but before that, he set the musical tone for Pee-Wee to be the only person in Puppetland not invited to the Cowntess’s birthday party.
7) “Playhouse for Sale”: The forty-fifth and final episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, this story was a bittersweet one as Pee-Wee’s friends mistake a sign intended to read “Lemonade for Sale” as “Playhouse for Sale.” In the interim—before Pee-Wee can assuage their concerns—they all remember the best moments of their time in the playhouse.
6) “Miss Yvonne’s Visit”: Pee-Wee teaches us the politics of etiquette when Miss Yvonne—who wears far too much perfume for Pee-Wee’s taste—comes to stay at the playhouse while her house is painted. Instead of coming out and saying this, Pee-Wee makes a wish to Jambi for her house to get painted more rapidly. Thus, Pee-Wee proves that you basically need a genie to avoid being a dick to someone.
5) “Dr. Pee-Wee and the Del Rubios”: What could be more quintessentially surreal than the Del Rubio triplets singing “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’”?
4) “Pajama Party”: In which Pee-Wee blazes the trail for marriage by betrothing his fruit salad. Double meaning much?
3) “Fire in the Playhouse”: Kids learn quickly about jealousy in this episode after Miss Yvonne gets a crush on the fireman who comes to put out the fire started by Randy. Who knew you needed an oven to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?
2) “The Cowboy and the Cowntess”: Gender role playing and androgyny abound when Pee-Wee dresses as Miss Yvonne to help Cowboy Curtis prepare for his date with her.
1) “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special”: Hands down, quite possibly the best thing ever to air on TV. With guests like Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Grace Jones and Charo making cameos, it’s easy to see why this was one of the best shows of the 80s.