Big Top Pee-wee
By Brett Ballard-Beach
July 19, 2012
“Let’s all admit that we’d give up one of our immediate family members to have Phil Hartman back.”
(Random quote floating out through various social media webs in the last week.)
Three Pee-wee related memories (and one non-memory) to begin with:
1) I have a recollection of being five and catching a few minutes of The Pee-wee Herman Show on HBO, filmed at the Roxy in Los Angeles and aired as part of the channel’s “On Location” series. (And thanks to a Facebook group I just joined, Vintage HBO Guides, I can confirm that it was probably September 1981, its debut month and perhaps the evening of the 14th when it aired early enough - 5:30 pm - that this might have been possible.)
I have never seen the entire special, though I did watch a few online clips for this column, but I apparently caught and or remembered the more risqué moments, especially the one involving Pee-wee hypnotizing a female audience member and having her undress. I don’t remember watching it uninterrupted which makes me think I must have nervously switched back and forth (or away from it) lest one of my parents come down into the den while I was watching.
2) I remember vividly seeing Pee-wee’s Big Adventure shortly after it debuted on VHS (most likely in 1986) and watching it with my best friend during a sleepover. I do not recall laughing harder at any other film during my pre-adolescent years. We watched it on repeat throughout the night (in between, gasp, actually sleeping) and probably rented it several more times over the next year. I watched it again a few weeks ago, for the first time in probably 20 years, and was pleased to find that a good portion of my delight was retained (and none was sullied). To boot, I was reminded why my ten-year-old self continued to eat Mr. T cereal long after I had decided that it tasted like a bad Cap’n Crunch knockoff.
Additionally, I became aware for the first time that Phil Hartman was a co-writer of the screenplay, and of his professional involvement with Paul Reubens from the Groundlings improvisational comedy group in the 1970s on through various Pee-wee projects up until the mid-‘80s when their partnership was apparently severed due to a falling-out over money.
3) After Pee-wee’s Playhouse’s debuted on CBS in the fall of 1986, I would catch moments here and there when I flicked back and forth from NBC programming during the commercial breaks on its Saturday morning lineup. I became very familiar with the opening credits and with the concept of the series, but I could never sustain any extended interest in the show.
The reasons behind this may be twofold: It felt like a manic show aimed at younger kids (younger than my worldly ten anyways) and I was something of a Saturday morning snob. I would watch NBC religiously, ABC on a case-by-case basis, and CBS as a last-ditch alternative to commercials, interstitials and “One(s) to Grow On”. Whence this snobbery came, I know not. I watched half of the first season and second season episodes over the last week, as well as the Christmas special from December 1988. This marked the first time I had seen a complete episode. More thoughts on the show to follow.
I had no desire to see Big Top Pee-wee when it came out in the summer of 1988, or when it came out on VHS, or when it finally tumbled onto DVD in the ‘00s. Unlike the 25th anniversary edition of Big Adventure from Warner Bros. in 2010, which included a Reubens/Tim Burton commentary track, I doubt Paramount will be marking the occasion with a DVD re-release featuring a Reubens/Randall Kleiser audio in 2013. (Although considering how bewildering I find Big Top Pee-wee to be, perhaps that is my loss.)