By Peter Hummers on October 15, 2020
Something special was going on in the 1980’s. Perhaps it was the advances in digital technology that brought us first, personal computers, and soon, the internet, as we wore the colorful outsized fashions of the ’70’s that leveraged the expanded social freedoms of the ’60’s, that washed everything in the 16 surreal colors of the Commodore 64 home computer and early videogames. Two landmark shows especially reflected this gaudy and fun esthetic of the times.
Elton John is to Jerry Lee Lewis what Pee-wee’s Playhouse is to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Is this what attention deficit disorder looks like?
Pee-wee’s Playhouse starred Paul Reubens as the childlike Pee-wee Herman. It ran from 1986 to 1990 on Saturday mornings on CBS, and aired in reruns until July 1991. Now it streams on Netflix and other platforms. The show was developed from Reubens’ popular stage show and TV special The Pee-wee Herman Show [IMDb.com], produced for HBO, which was similar in style but featured much more adult humor.
In 1985 Reubens and Tim Burton made the film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (which can be seen on [Hulu and elsewhere]). It became one of the year’s surprise hits, costing a only $6 million to make but taking in $45 million at the box office. In 1986, CBS signed Reubens to act, produce, and direct his own live-action Saturday morning children’s program, and Pee-wee’s Playhouse is the result. “Daylight madness” pretty much sums it up. Peewee is a man-child dressed in a tight silver suit with white shoes and a red bow tie who careens around his playhouse like a pinball. S. Epatha Merkerson (Law and Order, Chicago Med) made her television debut as Reba the Mail Lady. Lawrence Fishburne (The Matrix Trilogy, Boyz n the Hood) appeared as cowboy Curtis. Phil Hartman [NewsRadio] played Captain Carl, and the cast included talking chairs, a talking window, a magic genie’s talking head in a jeweled box, and a pugilistic marionette named Randy, along with a few actual children.
Here’s a Shout! Factory TV trailer of this bizarre and wonderful show on [YouTube].
Mystery Science Theater 3000 [official site], also known as MST3K, pronounced “misty 3K” is even stranger yet.
In it, Joel Robinson (creator Joel Hodgson), a janitor trapped by two mad scientists (“The Mads”) on the Earth-orbiting Satellite of Love, is forced to watch terrible B movies and worse in order to monitor his reaction to them. To keep his sanity, Joel crafts sentient robot companions, including Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, and Gypsy, to keep him company and make sarcastic comments on each movie as it plays.
Appearing on local Minneapolis TV in 1988, MST3K didn’t have high ratings, but organically grew a fanatical viewership among self-identified “Mysties” on the then-new public internet. In 1989 The Comedy Channel paid creator Joel Hodgson’s production company, Best Brains, $35,000 an episode while allowing Best Brains to retain the rights, and to keep filming in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, at a quarter of the cost of Hollywood or New York.
In 1989, Comedy Central was created with the merger of The Comedy Channel and the Ha! Network, and MST3K was its flagship program. In 1997, MST3K was picked up by the Sci-Fi channel for three seasons and reruns were shown until 2004; in 2017, two seasons were produced for Netflix.
Each hilarious two-hour episode shows Joel and his robot friends, seen in silhouette at the bottom of the screen, commenting on one movie, such as Plan Nine from Outer Space, and includes some monkey business outside the screening room with Joel and the robots during intermissions. The comedy is superb, in a low-rent mise en scène that perfectly complements the movies watched onscreen.
Here’s a Shout! Factory TV trailer on [YouTube].
Next, WWII bookend series Band of Brothers and The Pacific.
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