Worldmaking in the Playhouse

Curator's Note

As a critical tool, worldmaking is used both discursively and aesthetically, and both contexts provide insight into the made world of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Tolkein’s Middle-earth, the Star Trek universe, and the world of Harry Potter are among the most familiar examples of worldmaking, yet Pee-wee enables and invites a similar kind of immersion for audiences.

Through worldmaking, we see the playhouse as sustainable and exclusive. As a speech community and as a world of silliness and simplicity, each episode of the series gives audiences access to a unique yet consistent place. Yet the playhouse is also a rule-bound world, and viewers need familiarity with the rules in order to effectively appreciate the endeavor. Worldmaking enables a queering of norms and expectations, creating a safe space to explore the quirky persona Pee-wee projects.

In Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special (1998), celebrities drop in and participate within the unique discursive boundaries of Pee-wee’s world. Whoopi Goldberg, Dinah Shore, and Oprah Winfrey all call in on Pee Wee’s picture phone, holding cans to their ears without questioning the seeming absurdity of this quaint gesture. The made world of the playhouse is made rich by a nostalgia for childlike make-believe. Queer icons Little Richard, Grace Jones, and kd lang stop by to sing, and Pee-wee is unfazed by their presence. This diverse collection of stars is presented simply as Pee-wee’s pals who share in the Christmas celebration, validating the queer world of the playhouse.

Each of Pee-wee’s visitors is fluent in the discourse and behavior of the playhouse world. The sudden and unsurprising appearance of Cher reminds Pee-wee to ask Conky for the secret word, and Cher participates in shouting after Pee-wee prompts her to say “year.” He is momentarily struck by her visit, but only after she leaves. He exclaims, “That was Cher! Cher was right there! In the same room as my Chair...oh well, I don’t care,” and ends with his ubiquitous laugh.

The naïveté and childish pleasure of the playhouse wards off critiques of those who oppose Pee-wee’s queerness: the playhouse is itself a queer world, and its gentle nature makes it seemingly safe for children and fearful adults alike.



Hi Linda, Thanks for starting off this week's theme with a topic I am also interested in: play. I'm curious if you think play as a act of queering is partly why Pee-Wee's world is so polarizing? I've always felt Pee-Wee was a figure that folks either understood or didn't impulsively, and I'm curious how much the act or impulse of play might be tied to that disposition.

Adam, this is such a rich idea. I'm thinking about how some public expressions of queerness have been perceived as "in-your-face" as declarations and demands for acknowledgement. Those performances are easy to find faulty. Yet Pee-wee's assertions of "We're here, we're queer" are playful in ways that render them difficult to argue against.

I'm not sure how to make sense of this, but the fact that the show is framed by an "entering" and "exiting" of the Playhouse seems relevant to the idea of worldmaking. The show opens with a sign and jungle noises as the camera wanders through a idyllic landscape before the manic theme song. And of course the closing credits has Pee-Wee blast out of the house on his scooter, riding off into chroma key sunset. Viewers can see how much the Playhouse is markedly different--"exclusive" as you say--from the "natural" world outside with forest and woodland animals running around. It's also a little hard to find and secluded (especially after the beaver chews down the direction sign!), making it an excellent place for experimentation.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.