Queering Christmas at Pee-wee’s Playhouse


“Welcome to my special Christmas special,
starring me, Pee-wee Herman!” How can I describe Christmas at Pee-wee’s
Playhouse? Well, imagine if weird Twitter and gay Twitter
teamed up with a wild assortment of queer icons to make a holiday extravaganza that
takes place simultaneously in the 1950s, 1980s, and also completely outside of time and space. Sharing elements with Judy Garland specials
of the past, Glee episodes of the future, and 18th century French theater, I consider
this one of the most perfect Christmas specials ever made. All aboard and welcome to Matt Baume’s culture
cruise, where we take a deep dive on LGBT themes on TV, in movies, in books, games,
and more. On this episode, we’re heading to Pee-wee’s
Playhouse for an very queerish Christmas. Culture Cruise is made possible by the folks
who pledge a dollar or more a month on Patreon — folks like Myron Bartlett — thanks Myron! There’s rewards for backers, so head over
to Patreon.com/mattbaume or click the link in the description to join the folks who make
Culture Cruise possible. Pee-wee’s Playhouse was a bonkers kids’
show in the 1980s, starring an impish troublemaker who lives in a magic fantasy playhouse surrounded
by toys and talking objects and cartoons. The show was inspired by madcap kids’ variety
programs of the 1950s, like Howdy Doody and Pinky Lee — which were themselves an evolution
of vaudeville, a kind of live variety-show theater that became popular in the US after
the Civil War. And vaudeville, in turn, is thought to have
roots in French performances of the late 1700s, then known as “voice of the city” or “voix
de ville.” I know that’s more history than you need
to watch a goofy manchild play with a yo-yo. But I just want you to know that Pee-wee evolved
out of a rich tradition, hundreds of years old, of jumping around and acting real silly. On his 1988 Christmas special, the holidays
are upon us, and Pee-wee is beside himself with excitement. About presents! “What would you put on my Christmas list
if you were me?” About snow! “If you don’t have any snow at your house,
just use 20 pounds of coconut shavings.” About special guests! “Cher, what are you doing here?” About presents! “Do you think your stocking’s big enough?” “I’m not finished yet! Here’s the left one.” And about presents. “How is Santa supposed to get all of this
down that little chimney?” “I already thought of that. I’m having the chimney expanded.” The show blasts the audience with one surprise
after another — there isn’t a single aspect that doesn’t make you say WHAT??? From Pee-wee’s strange demeanor… “Connect the Christmas dots! Fa la la la la!” … to the sheer “what are YOU doing here”
of the guest lineup… “Look! It’s Magic Johnson.” “Hi, Pee-wee.” …to the fact that he has Jewish dinosaurs
living in his walls. Compare that to the far more placid holiday
specials of the time — a retelling of A Christmas Carol, for example, or hourlong toy commercials
like The Cabbage Patch Kids’ First Christmas. Most programming around the holidays was either
a retread of the same old stories, or something so modern it just felt tacky. But Pee-wee creates something magic by remixing
traditions into something new. That’s thanks in large part to his lineup
of guests, which is very queer — amazingly so, given the time. For example, there’s Grace Jones, avant-garde
artist and entertainer. Jones rose to fame in gay nightclubs, and
was known informally as Queen of the Gay Discos. And yet, in a bizarre and wonderful moment,
she arrives in a shipping container to serenade American television audiences with a Christmas
carol like it’s the most natural thing in the world. “Come, they told me, pa-rum-pa-rum-pum…” Oprah calls. “Hello!” “Pee-wee, is that you?” “Who wants to know?” And as beloved as she is by the gays, her
call isn’t important enough to interrupt another gay icon: “Merry Christmas, Oprah! I’m gonna have to call you back. I have Dinah Shore on the other line.” Dinah Shore was a singer and talk show host. She wasn’t a lesbian, but she did start
a golf tournament that over the years evolved into the world’s largest annual lesbian
pool party in Palm Springs. And there’s more: “You all know what to do when someone says
the magic word, right Cher?” This special aired 30 years ago and Cher would
still look amazing in that dress. There’s also a pop-in by lesbian singer
k.d. lang, who was just rising to fame at the time and was still years away from appearing
in the anxiety dreams of Ellen DeGeneres. “Ellen! Over here.” We also get glimpses of Whoopi Goldberg, who
had just played a lesbian character in The Color Purple. There’s John Rivers, who’d been hanging
out with the gays since the 1960s… “Where have you been, my child? “Mainly Fire Island, and I certainly wouldn’t
run into you there.” And there’s Little Richard, the flamboyant
singer known for songs like Tutti Frutti, and also for his love of all-gender orgies. “Hi Pee-wee! Whoa!” And how about Charo, a Spanish singer and
one of the most gifted guitarists of the 20th century. Not only does she hold a record for the most
number of appearances on The Love Boat, but she’s also appeared in more gay pride parades
than most gay men will ever attend in their lives. And of course, the Del Rubio Triplets, three
sisters who performed traditional songs with big hair and colorful makeup — sort of like
having three Trixie Mattels at once. “A beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight,
walkin’ in a winter wonderland.” A lot of these guests are throwbacks to the
1950s and 60s, and none more so than Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. They were teen stars who appeared in a slew
of beach movies, and Pee-wee’s plucked them from the past and put them to work: “Did we finish making all those Christmas
cards, Frank? Annette? I’m sorry, then you’ll have to stay inside
until you finish. It’s snowing! It’s snowing!” “Yeah, but!” “No!” Talking cows notwithstanding, this star-studded
extravaganza shares a style with other more traditional Christmas specials. For example, The Judy Garland Christmas Show,
which like Pee-wee’s special was built around the conceit that we, the audience, have simply
dropped by for a visit. “Oh, I’m terribly sorry, would — ah — would
you like to — I shouldn’t keep you standing here this way, come on in.” If Judy’s “home” looks familiar, it’s
because it was the basis for a Christmas episode of Glee, shot 50 years later, on an almost
identical set. I can’t resist a moment when television
adapts and recycles its own past, taking something old and making it new again. And that’s exactly what Pee-wee’s doing
with HIS special, seizing on classic icons like Frankie and Annette and turning them
into something distinctly modern. “Let the cartoon begin!” So what’s with all the 50s references? Well, the year this show aired coincided with
the tail end of a surge of 1950s nostalgia that included shows like Happy Days, and movies
like Back to the Future, American Graffiti, and Grease. Grease, by the way, featured an appearance
by Frankie Avalon. And it was produced by Alan Carr, who went
on to produce the 1989 Oscars, one of the greatest nostalgia fiascos in history — “I have so many wonderful, wonderful … memories.” I’m sorry, I’m getting distracted. There’s just so much kitsch to talk about! But my point is, a lot of mainstream culture
of the 80s referenced the 1950s, and not just in entertainment — in politics, too. After the sexual revolution, and gay liberation,
and second-wave feminism of the 60s and 70s, the 80s saw a cultural and political backslide,
with traditionalists rising to power and calling themselves the “moral majority.” The country even went so far as to elect a
1950s film star as president. “Tell me, future boy, who’s president
of the United States in 1985?” “Ronald Reagan.” “Ronald Reagan? The actor? Then who’s vice president, Jerry Lewis?” That nostalgia for a less tolerant time might’ve
been comforting for traditionalists. But it wasn’t great for anyone who was marginalized
— queer folks, women, minorities, artists, outcasts. When the world is made for insiders, it’s
rough to be an outsider. “I’m a loner, dottie. A rebel.” So what do you do when you want to participate
in culture but culture seems designed to exclude you? Well, one approach is to take that culture
and transform it. Reclaim it. Create a caricature of the nostalgia by making
it your own. What academics would call “queering” the
culture. And to be clear, I don’t mean that in terms
of sexuality. There’s nothing sexually queer about the
show. Well, not much, at least. “Look everyone! A new wing to the playhouse! Made entirely of fruitcake. Here’s two more fruitcakes, Ronan.” By “queering,” I mean that Pee-wee is
taking something familiar and making something new out of it. He’s adapting that kitschy 50s throwback,
but instead of just imitating what came before, he’s picking out the bits that he likes
— traditional caroling, reruns of old cartoons, beatniks — and then putting a whole new sensibility
on top of it, with the help of a small army of queer icons. Pee-wee’s guest list might seem weirdly
random at first. But think of it this way — just about all
of these guests spent their careers challenging mainstream culture. Joan Rivers was a groundbreaking female comedian. The Del Rubios reveled in sexuality despite
their age. And just listen to Grace Jones talk about
gender in this 1985 interview: “Are you feminine? Do you like being masculine?” “I like being both, actually.” I don’t think this selection of guests is
random at all. These are folks who had to fight for their
careers. Oprah was sexually harassed and fired from
her first TV job in 1977. People have been writing off Cher only to
see her make one comeback after another for decades. In the 1950s, a lot of radio stations wouldn’t
play Little Richard’s songs unless they were covered by white artists like Pat Boone. But all of these folks are welcome at Pee-wee’s
playhouse. That’s because Pee-wee’s queering of tradition
goes beyond just an art style — it also extends to the way he celebrates the holiday. Like Judy Garland, Pee-wee follows traditions
like having a tree, exchanging gifts, and inviting over family and friends. But here, they’re all chosen family, members
of his clan of campy characters and oddballs. Folks who might not fit in or have an easy
time in the real world of the 1980s. And certainly not in the real world of the
1950s. But like so many outsiders, they found each
other and created a family that makes sense. And this incredibly weird episode of TV showed
the world that chosen families celebrate too — in the way that they want, with the people
they want. And I hope that’s how the holidays find
you. Land ho! We’re pulling into port. Thanks for cruising along with us! And thanks to everyone who makes Culture Cruise
possible with a pledge of a dollar or more a month on Patreon, folks like Myron Bartlett. Head over to patreon.com/mattbaume or click
the link in the description to check out the perks available to backers. And now if you’ll excuse me, someone’s
at the door. “I miss you baby!” “It’s Cher!”

100 thoughts on “Queering Christmas at Pee-wee’s Playhouse”

  1. Sounds like today's world is mirroring the 1980's. We have a bunch of people trying to roll back social progress and a reality star as a president.

  2. I have always said this special is a one hour gay pride parade. And I demand a full version of Little Drummer Boy by Grace Jones!

  3. Frankie and Annette were likely returning the favour to Pee Wee by appearing in this, as he has a show-stopping cameo in their film "Back to the Beach," from the same year.

  4. Matt, not to be unkind (I hope) but your costume makes me think of a gay version of a spokesman for Capt D's or even better: LONG -ONG SILVER'S.

  5. I could send to friends the Christmas special that’s posted on YouTube (in VHS quality) but they would not understand it. They wouldn’t bother, it’s too weird, too old, too niche and who cares… You explained the whole thing from a gay retro perspective, give context and put it into perspective.

    Maybe they will watch it now.

    Thanks.

  6. I grew up watching pee-wee. This christmas special played every year in my house. Of course I didn't know any of these people or the references this show made at the time. I still love it to this day. P.S. I came out as a queer trans woman two years ago so now I can appreciate it even more<3.

  7. I love Pee-wee's Christmas Special! This is what made me fall in love with Grace Jones as a toddler, and even pretend to be her. XD It's honestly just not Christmas without this particular special.

  8. I remember watching this when it first aired, taping it on to a VHS tape. Even though I was in my mid-30s then, I was a big Pee Wee Herman fan from his Saturday morning 'kids' show. What brilliance!

  9. Despite that I was high school and college age in the 80's, I never got into Pee-Wee Hermann; but I was aware he was a big deal, of course. It was probably because I was struggling with my own feelings (and not dealing with it too well) that I didn't watch. I don't think I saw the Christmas special. Hmm, now I feel like I missed something. Also? Er, I did not realize some of those stars were that gay-friendly. (I didn't know about one of them until around the time I came out). Life is so weird, the way it meanders around. Yet sometimes cool.

  10. I saw this in 1998, I was six years old and have siblings who were brought up in the 1980's. This Pee Wee special will always have a place in my heart.

  11. Nicely done! Funny how Pee Wee's suit was odd and kitschy back then and now I have one that's very similar.

    Paul Rubins started off doing PW Playhouse as a stage production for an adult audience

    https://youtu.be/XsErozi0nf4

  12. "Cher what are you doing here?"
    "I'M CHER, BITCH. I don't know why they're setting me up with these chicken shit gigs. I'm a fucking Oscar winner!"

  13. Also, Annette & Frankie's cameo came just a year after their 1987 film "Back to the Beach", where Pee-Wee Herman made a cameo appearance and performed a cover of "Surfin' Bird": https://youtu.be/UAJEbuTBodI

  14. I used to watch PeeWee all the time as a kid, and just a few weeks ago, I realized I was genderqueer/demigirl. This makes so much sense.

  15. Matt, you really hit a lot of nails on the head here. Great work.
    It’s interesting with Paul Reubens/Pee Wee. If you look at a lot of his work (especially in the 1st and 3rd movies) there are blatant homosexual innuendos and references. While Mr. Reubens sex life realistically is no ones business, you can’t help but wonder…

  16. Give a look to Malcolm in the Middle episode "Pearl Harbor" 2 teens in early 2000s thinking the other is gay when he isnt

  17. Thanks for explaining some background trivia to a favorite Christmas video we subject our families to every holiday near Christmas besides A Christmas Story! I never put together the fact that many of the guests had such obstacles during their careers from the McCarthy era 50's to the 70's. The Eighties was such an odd mix of flirting with the unconventional and the prevailing conservatism of the era. Thumbs up.

  18. I've never seen an episode of Pee Wee's Playhouse, but holy cow, this video definitely sells me on the Christmas special. I had no idea that it was such a throwback, much less that it was so intentionally queer. And that list of guest stars is truly astounding.

  19. After rediscovering this special thanks to you, I was able to pinpoint the childhood moment I discovered my ideal type of man. Whenever Ricardo's biceps made an appearance on Pee-wee's Playhouse, I was transfixed, and I grew up to marry a Latino man.

  20. The original PeeWee show was more R rated. There was a 2012 revival that I wish I’d known about. His big set back was in 1991 when he headlined the news for beating it in a porno theatre during a screening of Nancy Nurse. Just think had the modern internet existed in ‘91 Reuben’s life would have taken a totally different trajectory.

  21. Wow, I had no idea Pee-wee was so queer friendly. He was a bit before my time, so I really only knew him from a couple silly movies I didn't think much of any any parodies that showed up in kids shows, but none of what I saw ever touched on anything you covered. Thanks for putting this together.

  22. I have been watching Pee Wees Christmas Special almost every year since I was a kid. I am also a pretty raging lesbian. Pee Wees playhouse made me gay. 😂

  23. Oh man, the memories! Christmas at Pee-wee's Playhouse was one of my absolute favorite holiday specials when I was a little kid.

    Even though most of the humor sailed right over my head, much less the queer allegories and imagery! (Only makes me love it even more)

  24. i forgot about this, but i did watch it. i would have been 7. at the time, Peewee made perfect sense to me, but now when i watch these clips, i don't understand a single syllable of his gibbrish. and thank you for answering the question about magic johnson i've wondered since 4th grade.

  25. I was wondering if you haven’t talked about it, but I’d love to hear you talk about Yaoi and Yuri anime shows and books. They translate to “boys love” and “girls love” respectively. They’re super open and really normalize gay relationships in anime and have some of the most wholesome love stories about school age relationships. They’re some of the most well written shows about identity and what it means to fall in love. I’d suggest the show from 2018 “Bloom into You” as it’s one of my favorite love stories ever.

  26. Wow, in the 80's they elected a president based on a nostalgic feeling for bigotry and a more repressive "Golden Age". Good thing America never did THAT again!

    Wait…

  27. I played Pee-Wee Herman in my senior year of high school…it was the only time where I was pretty popular, and everybody knew I was going to get the role…why? Because they knew I was the biggest sissy in school. And I was accepted for the most part. I’d had the same bullies since elementary school…we all grew up together…and none of them were shocked when I finally came out in the 90s.

  28. I'm pretty sure that the reason Peewee's show was cancelled was not that he was in an adult movie theatre but a gay adult movie theatre.

  29. I remember seeing this episode as a kid and it was REALLY trippy at the time, the queer references would have went way over my head.

  30. I love the Super Show clip at the very end. By the way, Luigi, no, that's not Cher. That's an impersonator. The Super Mario Bros Super Show had real guest stars, but it also used impersonators while simply paying for the likeness of the guest star.

  31. I wasn't allowed to watch Pee-Wee growing up, but this is terrifying, so I wasn't missing much (I think I wasn't allowed because my dad thought pee-wee was gay or something, but I'm still queer, so he fucked up)

  32. I loved how he talked directly TOO us! It felt like you were apart of the show, too bad Rue Paul was never on the show.

  33. Certainly beats the CR*P outta any of the Kathy Lee Gifford Christmas specials.

    One reviewer quipped:

    "What's the difference between a 24-hour flu and a Kathy Lee Gifford Christmas Special? 23 hours. :)"

  34. I was 11 when this came on in the 80's. I of course was completely oblivious to the LGBTQ+ references back then. It was just a weird show to me. I was devastated when Paul Rubens was very wrongfully arrested in the early 90's for masturbating in a porno movie theater (which I thought was the point of a porn theater). The scandal absolutely destroyed his career and Pee Wee's Playhouse. It was such bullshit. I'm pretty sure the "moral majority" set him up and framed him.

  35. PeeWee Herman had appeared in a movie in 1987 with Annette Funicelo and Frankie Avalon, named Back to the Beach.

  36. Grace Jones was my neighbor in Washington Park.There are few times that I felt short.One was when I was in the elevator with Grace and Dolph Lundgren. I felt like a mouse in the corner.

  37. I am so glad you referenced about the resurgence of the 1950’s in the 1980’s. Not a lot of people took notice of this. It was everywhere!
    Television, toys, music, film, restaurants etc.

  38. This is the single thing I've seen the most times in my life. It's simply not Christmas with my family without it. Thanks for making this!

  39. Pee Wee is just so lovable, so insistently affable. I find him comforting. And anytime Paul Reuben’s appears in a cameo I consider it a triumph of spirit.

  40. I'm just now able to put a finger on why I don't like PeeWee — he's overstimulating. There's just too much color, motion, sound, and no predictability, just too much for my brain.

  41. I remember watching every episode of this show it was the "Luxury Comedy" (Noel Fieldings british kids show) of the 1980s. 🤗

  42. Omg I remember this! I only remember one part, the part where PeeWee meets Magic Johnson in the sleigh. My great grandmother Cash was watching, the whole time saying, "what the hell!?!?" But she continued to watch it.

  43. Matt, could you do an episode about Cheers? They had a few episodes about Homosexuality, and if I recall, they were fairly progressive for the times.

  44. In the words of Lemmy Kilmister, the most metal thing you could do is be black and gay in Macon Georgia in the 50s. Little Richard is an icon.

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