It’s been 20 years since Paul Reubens and his most famous character, Pee-Wee Herman, became pop-cultural pariahs. Reubens’s arrest in 1991 severely damaged his reputation, seemingly damning both the actor and his character to being the butt of lame late-night jokes for the rest of eternity. But after two decades of non-starts and wishful thinking, Reubens finally made his big return to the spotlight with two wildly successful stage runs of The Pee-Wee Herman Show, culminating with his second HBO special, 30 years after his first one made him a star.
As soon as Pee-Wee hits the stage, you feel like the character never left. He’s maybe a bit full in the face, but by and large he’s still the same lovable, smart-ass man-child who charmed kids and adults alike back in his heyday. Set in Pee-Wee’s famous playhouse, The Pee-Wee Herman Show on Broadway is like a televised sugar rush. A wild, manic romp of sight gags, bad puns, and big, bright colors, the show manages to take cornball humor and make it feel vibrantly funny. The playhouse itself is a wonder to take in, all jagged lines and bright colors, a plush step up from the first show’s homemade roots.
Much of the show is a remake of its first incarnation, with many of the same plot points and characters: Clockey, the U.S.A.-shaped clock; Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart), “the most beautiful woman in the world”; and Jambi (John Paragon), the genie in a box. And there are just enough passing winks and throwbacks to old bits from the acclaimed Saturday-morning television series and Pee-Wee movies, including a section mimicking the brilliant glowing-eye sequence from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and a magic word of the day (in this case “fun”) where every time someone says it, the audience is prompted to “scream real loud.” There are some new characters, including the incredibly strange Sham-Wow, a flying shammy cloth that somehow manages to be central to the show’s funniest bit.
The heart of the show is the all-new material, mostly consisting of Pee-Wee bouncing from one side of the stage to the other, screaming, laughing, and mugging up a storm. It’s uncannily like watching the misadventures of an over-caffeinated six-year-old, and it also shows off Pee-Wee’s easily forgotten mean streak: He teases his friends, takes their stuff, rolls his eyes; he’s a real asshole to everyone and it’s great.
While the show’s whip-like pacing and gag-a-second delivery stays strong for its first hour, as characters zoom on and off the stage, it starts to get a bit exhausting, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that the folks in the audience are having more fun than viewers at home. As a stage show, The Pee-Wee Herman Show no doubt works magnificently, but as 90 minutes of television, it starts to feel like a marathon. There are more than a few moments that the televised version could have done without, like an unfortunate and somewhat creepy duet with Chairry. And much of the plot involving Pee-Wee’s one wish to fly, the centerpiece for the original show, feels tacked on here.
Still, the characters all show a surprising amount of wit (especially Magic Screen, who seems to have become bitter in the age of iPads and smartphones), and the whole ordeal has a kind of inspired, joyous stupidity about it. The Pee-Wee Herman Show is manic, crazy, and most of all, a whole lot of, ahem, “fun.”