Twenty-seven years ago, on Saturday, November 21, 1987, Pee-Wee Herman married his fruit salad at the end of the tenth episode of the second season of his eponymous show, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. After all, as the theme song proudly proclaims, “you’ve landed in a place where anything can happen,” and I firmly believe that this promise of endless possibility is what kept children my age (and, unsurprisingly, a number of adults) coming back to the playhouse every Saturday morning for almost five seasons.
Revisiting this particular episode, I am pleased to report that “Slumber Party” reveals itself to be unrepentantly queer, even more so than anything my nine-year old brain could have picked up on at the time. We all know the show loved innuendo, and much of it was heteronormative in nature. For example, the word-of-the-day, “WATCH,” is used by Pee-Wee to express a desire to observe Miss Yvonne undress as she changes into her “hostess pajamas.” But then the show throws in a queer detail, especially for a children’s television program: Cowboy Curtis sleeps in the nude! Jambi comes to his rescue, of course, granting the cowboy’s wish for pajamas by magically producing fetchingly fey, powder blue “sensuous” silk pajamas.
The show gets queerer. Pee-Wee reads the story “Part-Time Dog.” Is this a story about furries or pup play? He then promises that at the next slumber party he will read the story “Part-Time Boy.” Could this be the story of a drag queen or a drag king? The protagonist’s gender is left tantalizingly undefined, making a seemingly light-hearted moment on a children’s television program uncannily queer and open to possibilities far beyond the binary gender divide.
As for Pee-Wee’s marriage to a fruit salad, this wedding’s subversive power lies in its inherent silliness. Marriage? To a food item? Judging by the shelf life of fruit, I think it’s safe to say that Pee-Wee knew this marriage would be short and, yes, I’ll say it, sweet. But he did it anyway. This moment always stuck with me growing up. Its glorious mockery of the institution of marriage was, I would argue, my first exposure to a queer marriage, and that, my friends, is television history at its finest and most queer.