On stage, “The Pee-wee Herman Show” didn’t really send me. After the warming surge of seeing Paul Reubens step back into his beloved character, watching what amounted to 90 minutes of the Saturday-morning show — equal to four episodes strung together — proved a bit too much of a good thing. Taped for HBO, however, the special delivers a taste of the communal experience the theatrical revival provided, with the cameras enabling director Marty Callner to explore the funhouse set and audience reaction. In short, Pee-wee had to go legit to put him back where he belongs — on TV.
Created by Reubens and co-written with Bill Steinkellner, the show dutifully goes through the process of reintroducing characters featured on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” including Pee-wee (who begins by leading the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance), Cowboy Curtis (Phil LaMarr), Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart) and the King of Cartoons (Lance Roberts), plus the assorted puppets occupying the playhouse.
Although there’s the loosest possible through line to the festivities — Pee-wee desperately wants to fly, Miss Yvonne has a crush on Curtis — the evening was mostly about nostalgia, with a new secret word (“Fun!”), a duet with Chairy, even head-in-a-box Jambi (John Paragon) making a sly masturbation joke (gasp) after being presented with a pair of hands.
Interestingly enough, having a camera to guide the eye toward specific areas on the busy, bustling stage helps, as do close-ups — zooming in on Pee-wee when he irritatingly rubs a balloon, a gag that (in the theater, anyway) seemed to go on forever.
While the tone could hardly be more different, the “On Broadway” label also continues HBO’s gambit of bringing theatrical productions to a couch-bound audience, from Will Ferrell as George W. Bush in “You’re Welcome America” to the more recent “The Sunset Limited” and “Thurgood.” Think of it as a premium spin on “Great Performances,” which might gain additional value if Republicans make good on defunding PBS.
Even lensed for TV, the special isn’t wholly satisfying, but for anyone who visited “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” in the late ’80s, the experience is good enough. As for those who might say dismissing the show at that is snobbish, I know you are, but what am I?