Kids extravaganza on Saturday TV
If you've glanced casually at the first couple of ``Pee-wee's Playhouse'' shows (which air Saturday mornings on CBS from 11 to 11:30), they may have seemed a little like ``Mr. Rogers'' or ``Captain Kangaroo'' in basic format. But wait a minute -- what about that pterodactyl hovering outside Pee-wee's window? And those toys shaped like sci-fi mutants from ``Star Wars''? And that robot Pee-wee buddies around with? And the ants who form ``Good Morning'' when Pee-wee looks in on them? And . . .
You could go on listing the curiosities, but they add up to a new and often brilliantly conceived form of children's TV. Smack in the middle of a time period (weekend mornings) largely given over to cartoons, ``Playhouse'' is a playful but technically dazzling integration of computer graphics, ``clay animation,'' stop-motion, and other electronic wizardry so specialized that the show has to be subdivided and handled by different directors.
The star is a gifted improvisational comic named Paul Reubens, who presides over this carefully calculated anarchy in his usual Pee-wee Herman persona, a smirking imp with a Woody-Woodpeckerish laugh, slicked-down hair, and a jacket that's too tight. Known in the adult world through TV and film, Pee-wee is also one of the writers and producers of the CBS program.
On an HBO special a few years ago, Mr. Reubens spoofed '50s children's TV rather mercilessly, according to the reviews. In this new show his approach is still satiric, but not mocking (I think). Yet it could easily be construed as one big put-on, with constant hit-and-run spoofs of pop culture and media formats, espcially kid's shows: a cranky fat lady who acts like a real person rather than a saccharine TV guest; Hawaiian motifs; a cowboy with a magic lariat; a captain lost at sea and a quiz-show host, whom Pee-wee communicates with through a food can.
It's a media-wise sendup of pop culture, the video society, and just about anything else that comes along. Reubens's subversive imagination opens the floodgates to lurking childhood thoughts, then materializes them in the show. Very little action goes by before you're likely to discover a surreal fly in the ointment -- like a doll figure introducing her family, which includes ``a very big rat.'' Or Pee-wee will watch a cartoon car spontaneously forming in front of him, jump in and start driving, recall he doesn't know how, and then flip through the air back to the playhouse and into his chair -- which is semi-biological and has arms that sometimes reach around and hug him.
Not all this is aimed strictly at children. One CBS official has referred to a ``hidden agenda'' for adults. It's an old trick. Some 15 years ago, Children's Television Workshop was doing the same thing with ``The Electric Company'' -- running on several tracks at once for different ages. I know more than one sophisticated adult who used to watch ``Sesame Street'' when it was a novelty. Some of them are probably doing it now for ``Playhouse,'' and what they'll see in the way of adult allusions are things like a girl in bouffant hair, dressed like a fugitive from a '50s prom. Other adult laughs are lodged in Pee-wee's sardonic responses to what his friends from this electronic wonderland say.
What makes Reubens special, besides his obvious gifts, is that -- as Pee-wee at least -- he seems to be a genuine eccentric, not just an exaggeration of standard comic techniques. He starts with the known world of recognizable objects, but can end up almost anywhere. It's an approach that requires enormous creative self-confidence and ability, if one is to avoid the ``zaniness is inherently funny'' delusion that can so easily undermine both children's and adult entertainment.
Although kids won't always understand the take-offs on old TV formats, they'll certainly appreciate the energy level, the fast pace, and the free association of ideas and imagery. This style has some of its roots in music video and the more inventive commercials, where design and attitude dominate. Standard expectations are abandoned, letting inventive visual and aural elements govern. Don't think because Pee-wee opens a freezer door you'll find frozen beans lying there. Instead, you'll see Popsicles and other freezer folk in a mini-skating show, the kind of creative excursions you've come to expect when Pee-wee looks at ``ordinary'' objects. The pace is fast, and you have to latch on to whatever you can of this eclectic action. But it can be rewarding.