Paul Reubens wasn’t the first comedian of his era to mine television nostalgia to strangely earnest effect. Andy Kaufman famously interviewed Howdy-Doody with nary a hint of condescension or snark. It was a magical moment, one that Reubens gleefully recreated every Saturday on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”
“I’d had the stage show originally, so I was much more interested in doing something closer to that, something live-action. So when they suggested doing a cartoon, I said ‘I’m not really interested in that; let’s do a real kids’ show.’ I was a big Howdy-Doody freak growing up — I was actually on one show when I was a kid, in the audience — and was more interested in doing something like that. Howdy-Doody, Captain Kangaroo, a lot of the local kids’ shows that were on a long time ago — those were the influences.”
A Pee-wee Herman cartoon would’ve cut the audience down to grade schoolers and your garden variety swirly recipient. Worse, there’d be no Laurence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis, no Phil Hartman as Captain Carl, no Natasha Lyonne as Opal and, for heaven’s sake, no William “Blacula” Marshall as the King of Cartoons. Thank god Reubens hewed to his vision of “Captain Kangaroo” on mushrooms. He made the late 1980s splendidly weird.