You’ve got 18 Bob Hope Christmas specials, 19 of Bing Crosby’s and 20-plus from Perry Como. But the best ever? We’ll hang our mistletoe on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special,” the 1988 NBC production now streaming on Netflix.
A quick primer for those who don’t remember the brilliance of the gray-suited, “luckiest boy in the world” played by former Groundlings member Paul Reubens: By 1988, this manic man-child had crashed into the mainstream. He’d hosted “Saturday Night Live,” starred in two feature films and had his own Saturday morning children’s series. He was a throwback with a naughty wink, toasting Howdy Doody and the Mickey Mouse Club as he juggled the innuendo-filled Easter eggs (does Cowboy Curtis really sleep in the nude?) inside his wildly entertaining, self-contained universe of colors, sounds, and animated chairs, doors and windows.
“That show was so much fun to do,” says Prudence Fenton, who won a pair of Emmys as the animation and special effects producer on the Playhouse. “It was like getting paid to eat ice cream.”
The Christmas special is its own beast, capturing the spirit of Pee-wee and his crew while tweaking and twisting the concept of this time-tested, holiday TV staple.
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Just consider the way the cast is introduced, with the massive list of guest stars – Charro, Joan Rivers, Dinah Shore, the Del Rubio Triplets, Whoopi Goldberg, Magic Johnson, K.D. Lang, Oprah, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Little Richard – billed alongside the slew of animated oddities (Chairy, Mr. Window) that occupied the Playhouse.
“I love that, that (the cast list) goes on and on and you think it’s over and then it goes on more,” Reubens told The Washington Post in a recent phone interview. “I actually used to know how long that was. I haven’t timed it recently. I did name every single person in the Playhouse. Even the food in the refrigerator.”
There is so much to love. The show opens with a performance by a choir of Marines – except they aren’t Marines; they are the UCLA men’s choir dressed in Marine uniforms.
We watch beach party stars Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello put to work making Christmas cards. When they complain of hunger, Pee-wee provides them with a loaf of bread and water. In a Skype precursor, Dinah Shore calls Pee-wee in his photo-slash-video booth and begins to sing an endless version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” before Oprah cuts in with her own call. She delivers a perfect Pee-wee laugh, staccato and nasal, and is put on hold as Pee-wee, desperate to get back to the action, installs a dummy in front of the screen. Shore continues singing.
Whoopi calls to ask to be on the special. “I might be able to squeeze you into the Christmas special two years from now,” he offers.
Cher arrives – her management demanded she be unbilled, Reubens says – and cheerfully helps Pee-wee select the day’s “special word.”
Grace Jones emerges from a mailing crate addressed to the White House.
“You’re not the president, you’re Pee-wee Herman,” she declares.
If the idea of a towering, Jamaican supermodel with a penchant for going topless presenting herself to Ronald Reagan isn’t strange enough, the music kicks in. Jones performs a synth-soaked version of “Little Drummer Boy.” Reubens says the arrangement came from none other than David Bowie.
“Grace told me she was on a plane with David Bowie and she told him she was doing my Christmas special,” Reubens says. “I’m not sure if she said she wanted to do ‘Little Drummer Boy’ or if he suggested it, but that’s his arrangement.”
There were stars and there were stars. Reubens says he was stunned to learn that William Marshall, the actor cast as the “King of Cartoons,” was admired for playing the title role in the 1972 blaxploitation classic, “Blacula.”
“All the African-American celebrities and Laurence Fishburne (a regular cast member) freaked out about that one,” Reubens said. “It was like people were meeting the pope. ‘Oh my God, William Marshall.’ And I would watch these huge celebrities talking to William Marshall in a completely reverential way. I had a new understanding of him.”
Pee-wee’s Christmas show also featured a special Hanukkah sequence. We learn about the holiday from Mrs. Rene before a group of stop-motion dinosaurs (are they Jewish?) play with dreidels.
Bear in mind, Reubens’s father, Milton Rubenfeld, was a pilot who helped found the Israeli Air Force during Israel’s War of Independence.
“I was in school when Christmas was a big thing and Hanukkah would never be acknowledged,” Reubens said. “For something like Hanukkah, I just went, ‘of course.’ Write it and produce it and it was done. The network was just incredible. They never doubted me on anything. We could do no wrong. They were so supportive. I’ve been incredibly spoiled from that experience because most aren’t like that.”
Alas, Whoopi wouldn’t get a shot on a future Christmas special. The 1988 edition would be the last, as Reubens decided to wrap the Playhouse in 1990. (He would also spend years recovering from the fallout of his 1991 arrest for, effectively, going to a dirty movie.)
Now 63, Reubens has thankfully brought his signature character back, first on stage and soon on the big screen. “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” which Judd Apatow helped produce, will premiere on Netflix in March.