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Worldmaking in the Playhouse

by Ethan Tussey

by Linda Levitt for IN MEDIA RES

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.


Pee-Wee and Worldmaking

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A clip from Pee-Wee's Playhouse

from Pee-Wee's Playhouse (1988)
Creator: Paul Reubens
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey