Don’t get me wrong: I adore Charlie Brown, Rudolph and the Grinch as much as anyone. But ask me to name my all-time favorite holiday special, and I gotta go with Pee-wee Herman.
Broadcast in 1988--in prime time!--Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special had everything we can possibly want in seasonal entertainment: music, merriment, snow … even Oprah.
“There’s never been a Christmas special like this, I guarantee you,” Pee-wee told ET’s Jeanne Wolf in 1988. (As was his custom, Paul Reubens did the interview entirely in character as his giggling, bow-tied alter ego.) And he was absolutely right: Until Pee-wee’s Playhouse came along in 1986, no one had ever blended camp, comedy and an art-school sensibility on Saturday morning television before. The result attracted kids and many curious adults.
The Christmas special stands out for a few reasons. In the interview, Pee-wee noted it had a “bigger budget, more time (and) bigger stars” than his morning show. Its cavalcade of guest stars includes several beloved talents who probably factored into Reubens’ own childhood: Little Richard, Dinah Shore, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon.
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Even an Oscar-winning A-lister like Cher stops by to learn the Playhouse’s secret word. (Spoiler alert: It’s “year.” Scream real loud!) Joan Rivers pops up on Pee-wee’s TV screen to say hello. Magic Johnson plays “Connect the Christmas Dots.” Oprah calls Pee-wee’s tin-can phone from Chicago. And then there’s cutting-edge diva Grace Jones, who arrives in a shipping crate--and an avant-garde fur-and-rubber ensemble--to sing The Little Drummer Boy.
“You know, some furs and diamonds would be nice,” Jones told ET when asked what she wanted for Christmas that year. “Some rubies, some emeralds.”
Whoopi Goldberg, Charo and k.d. lang round out the special’s roster of celebrity appearances, which also includes now-famous Playhouse regulars Laurence Fishburne (as Cowboy Curtis) and S. Epatha Merkerson (as Reba the Mail Lady).
Like Grace Jones, Pee-wee wasn’t shy about revealing his own holiday wishes to ET.
“I have a list a mile long--about 6,000 items,” he said, adding that cash and gold were among them. “I’ve basically been really good, so I expect to rake in the gifts this year.”
I love so many things about Pee-wee’s Playhouse, from its art direction to its attitude and reverence for the past. Something that often gets overlooked, however, is its sincerity; Pee-wee had a good heart, and it shows in this interview.
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“For me, Christmas is that time of year when everybody just acts different, you know?” he said in an earnest moment. “People are a little bit more sensitive and friendlier. People will act a little bit more like a Boy Scout or a Girl Scout around Christmas--just more tuned in to fellow man. That’s what I like about the Christmas season.”
He continued, “My Christmas wish is the same wish every year, which I think is a lot of people’s Christmas wish: peace on earth.”
The Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special isn’t rebroadcast each holiday season like the Rankin-Bass shows and isn’t quoted like Grinch, but I dare say it should be. Those who never saw the special or want to relive the joy can rent it via YouTube.
It’s also part of the Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Complete Series Blu-ray collection, recently released by Shout! Factory.
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And though I’m writing about Pee-wee as if he’s a relic of the past, today he’s still quite active on Twitter, peewee.com and in the real world. Reubens, now 62, has played Pee-wee on Top Chef, Saturday Night Live, Comedy Bang! Bang! and even on Broadway, which led to a 2011 HBO special. Remarkably, the character doesn’t appear to have aged.
In an October interview with Nerdist, Reubens revealed another Pee-wee film is in the works. Whenever makes its way to theaters, I guarantee you it’ll make my year. (Scream real loud!)
Whitney Matheson is a journalist and pop-culture critic who founded USA Today’s award-winning blog Pop Candy. Follow her on Twitter at @whitneymatheson.