Pee-Wee's New Playhouse

Pee-Wee's New Playhouse

Pee-Wee's New Playhouse

Arts, entertainment, and more.
July 18 2001 9:00 PM

Pee-Wee's New Playhouse

Should you Know Jack? 

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When he cast Phil Hartman and Laurence Fishburne in a Saturday-morning kiddie show, made them share screen time with a flamingly gay genie, and won multiple Emmys along the way, Paul Reubens (aka Pee-Wee Herman) proved himself a comic genius.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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Now Reubens is back in a new ABC quiz show called You Don't Know Jack. Starring as fictional host Troy Stevens, Reubens once again peddles his tic-laden, joyously infantile sense of humor. Troy Stevens is Pee-Wee all grown up and a bit jaded, yet still prancing about and giggling at others' misfortunes. At the very least, Reubens shows he deserves his own venue—he's too funny not to be on television.

But this game show parody just doesn't do the trick. True, quiz shows are ripe for mocking. With Millionaire and Weakest Link dominating summer prime time, the format was due for deconstruction. YDKJ effectively ridicules several quiz show tropes, including:

1) The too-easy question.Millionaire is rife with these. YDKJ rushes to the logical end point, with questions like "What is the name of the first person to buzz in?"

2) The tension-building music. During a written answer requiring concentration (traditionally the spot for a Jeopardy-type ticktock tune), a full mariachi band storms in behind the contestants, playing at distractingly high volume.

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3) The speed round. For the culminating "Jack Attack," Reubens' disembodied head floats on a screen high above the players. His bizarre facial expressions alone make YDKJ worth watching—once.

4) The consolation prize. Instead of a home version on CD-ROM, YDKJ losers get deodorant or "The Clapper." (In fact, it would be odd to give away the home version, since in this case the home version actually came first: A mid-'90s cult fave, the YDKJ computer game quite successfully captured the ambience of ... a TV quiz show. Life imitates software, I guess.)

YDKJ strives for the absurdist tone of Pee-Wee's Playhouse, with wacky skits regularly interrupting the action. But YDKJ doesn't know if it's a game show with elements of humor or a comedy wedged into a quiz format. As comedy, it has delightful moments, watered down by dreadful misses. But as quiz show, it's an utter failure, in part because it's too damned easy. I'm no Marilyn vos Savant, yet I knew literally every answer in the first two shows. At least Weakest Link throws in a few stumpers and even manages comic relief when its dominatrix/host insults her contestants.

In all, YDKJ is a not-disagreeable way to pass a summer doldrums half-hour. I'd be shocked if it makes it to the fall schedule, though. There's something very last-decade about irreverent CD-ROM games. I'd much rather see what Paul Reubens has to offer when given his own blank slate. Networks, I beseech you: Give Pee-Wee a real show!