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A holiday classic: Pee-wee Herman’s Christmas special

Christmas is almost upon us, and, let’s face it, this is a pretty idiosyncratic holiday. Everybody has their own family traditions, which can vary wildly from house to house.

Grace Jones and Paul Reubens in "Pee-wee's Christmas Special"
Courtesy of Pee-wee Pictures
Grace Jones and Paul Reubens in “Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special”

Christmas is almost upon us, and, let’s face it, this is a pretty idiosyncratic holiday. Everybody has their own family traditions, which can vary wildly from house to house. I went to one house around Christmastime to discover they have been collecting those little Christmas village buildings that places like Hallmark sell every year, and had decorated their whole house with them, which made me feel gargantuan; finally, a Christmas for people who have always wanted to be giants. A friend once invited me to his parents’ house for Christmas, and I discovered that their idea of Christmas food consisted almost entirely of lunch meat rolled up in various types of white bread and held in place with cream cheese, sometimes with a pickle in the middle. Of course, the Christmas tradition I am now most comfortable with is the one practiced by my girlfriend Coco’s family, which involves getting very quickly intoxicated and then laughing while the dog opens presents.

One of the ways families distinguish themselves is in what movies they watch for Christmas. Sure, there are some we all watch, such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” — although, as I mentioned last week, that’s a movie I watch alone, sobbing. But Hollywood studios release a few new Christmas movies per year, hoping to produce a classic, and most of them end up being a holiday tradition for at least a few people. As awful as the Minnesota-filmed “Jingle All the Way” may be — and it is awful, consisting almost entirely of Arnold Schwarzenegger and comedian Sinbad punching each other — I feel sure there are a few households who won’t go a holiday season without watching it together.

My annual holiday movie is the “Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special.” I was 20 when it was released in 1988, and, like many of the audience for “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” I was too old for the show. Although the character of the giggling manchild Pee-wee Herman had been created by actor Paul Ruebens at the Groundlings, an improvisational theater, and had got his start doing decidedly racier material than he does now, by the time the character moved to Saturday morning television, it was as the star of a proper kids’ television show. Sort of. There were cartoons and craft activities, and each show ended with a lesson. But there was an anarchic sensibility to the show, from its eye-popping set design (created, in part, by contemporary artist and punk cartoonist Gary Panter) to its cast, which originally included Tito Larriva of the Hollywood punk band The Plugz, as well as Phil Hartman and Lawrence Fishburne, who played a cowboy. The show may have been aimed at kids, but there were great pleasures for adults as well. It’s tempting to say that the show could be seen as camp or be enjoyed ironically, but that’s not quite right. Outrageous though it was, and despite its subtle nods to gay sensibilities, the show was not camp. And I don’t believe anybody enjoyed the show ironically.

At least, not until the Christmas special, which basked in camp and irony, starting with its opening number, which featured actors in Marine garb performing a showtune and dance number we might now associate with “Glee.” The Christmas special borrowed from the tried and true formula of the seasonal variety show, which mostly involved celebrity guests wandering by, many of whom were a bit past their prime. But Paul Reubens and his writing staff went a bit balmy with it. Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello from the AIP beach movies are on hand, but Pee-wee Herman has them in a condition of near-indentured servicedom, churning out thousands of Christmas cars. Other celebrities show up, each bringing a gift of fruitcake, which Pee Wee receives in such quantities that he uses them to build a new wing to his playhouse. Charo sings “Feliz Navidad,” which is about what you’d expect from a Christmas variety show, but then Grace Jones appears to sing an electronic, dance-floor version of “Little Drummer Boy,” dressed in a pressed plastic halter top and a hat she apparently made herself out of packing material. 

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Later, Pee-wee Herman runs into Little Richard, whose bad experiences ice skating have him pouting and shrieking like a little girl. And Pee-wee’s musical acts include Canadian country chanteuse k.d. lang in one of her first (and most manic) public appearances, as well as an obscure novelty act called the Del Rubio Triplets, consisting of three elderly sisters who dress in short shorts and tops with plunging necklines and sing standards in three-part unison. 

I suspect Christmas specials had long been enjoyed by a certain segment of the population for their camp appeal. They seemed decidedly odd to me when I was a boy, a sort of waxworks show of aging pop stars from decades in the past dressed in Christmas garb that seemed self-consciously retro. The performers half-heartedly delivered stilted dialogue before launching into a hoary Christmas song. Occasionally this was interrupted by a contemporary artist in a bid for wider mainstream acceptability, such as when David Bowie sang a (genuinely lovely) duet with Bing Crosby. If it was odd for me as a boy, it was, I am sure, delightful for an older audience who enjoyed the shows for their awkwardness and artificiality. This is, after all, a classic example of a camp sensibility.

“Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special” made this overt and knowing, and there is something joyous about that. Finally, everybody is in on the joke, performers and audience alike, and all seem to be having enormous fun with it. And, after hours of sobbing my way through “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I need something fun, and something I can watch with other people without humiliating myself. I’ve watched “Pee-wee’s Christmas Special” every year for at least 20 years, and can’t see an end to it anytime in the future. It’s easy enough for readers to join me in this pastime as well, as the special is available on YouTube, starting here. But for now, in preparation for Christmas, I’m trying to track down a service that will allow me to send fruitcake as a gift. I have been meaning to send one to Paul Reubens for years, and I think this is the year.