Last week it seemed like all of America (certainly everyone on my Facebook feed) had taken time out to enjoy the latest installment of insanity from Pee-wee Herman, as Netflix started streaming Pee-wee’s Big Holiday on March 18. I thought it would be a good moment to look back at one of the most exceptional aspects of Pee-wee’s original TV show Pee-wee’s Playhouse that doesn’t get talked about so much anymore, that being the utterly amazing set of trading cards that Topps unveiled to promote the show in 1988.
Seriously, I don’t think trading cards ever got any better than this.
Every package of the Pee-wee’s Playhouse trading cards was conceived as a “Fun Pak” that included a mishmash of items, including cards, stickers, temporary tattoos, and curious little lenticular images. It was truly a bounty—every single package came with enough brightly colored whimsy and silly puns to satisfy even the most immature middle schooler.
This is what a package (in rear) and its typical contents looked like:
A blog dedicated to the “Topps Archives” provides some crucial detail to the way this set worked, calling it “one of the most innovative sets [Topps] ever produced.” The good writer, going by “toppcat,” points out that “an artist, puppet master and set designer named Wayne White had something to do with the quirky look of the show and presumably the design of the cards. ... Pee-wee’s Playhouse must have been a risk as the show was mid-run in 1988 but that did not stop the creative team from going bonkers.”
The set featured bewildering variety for those accustomed to a simple 34-card series of Planet of the Apes images or whatever. No, the Pee-wee’s Playhouse cards defied the entire concept of sequence lists and categories, with confusingly repeating and mismatched fronts and backs and subsets, which leads to explanations like this: “The lovely Miss Yvonne, the Most Beautiful Woman in Puppetland is not actually #3, that is merely her sub-series number; a total of six represent various characters. Another sub-series is the multi-sticker, of which there are eight….”
The set included puzzle cards, temporary tattoos, activity cards, stickers, “nutty initials” (this one being a reworking of a 1967 Topps series), wigglers, “flying things” cards, playhouse foldies, puppet cards, door cards, disguise cards, and who knows what else!
As an adult looking back on these images, it’s impossible not to see it as the entire run of Art Spiegelman’s RAW repurposed and made accessible (and just as importantly, made more FUN!) for the brighter-than-average teen. The importance of Gary Panter in defining the Pee-wee aesthetic has been well documented, but these cards also featured the artistic input of such comix stalwarts as KAZ and Charles Burns.
Seldom has the trading card public been as dazzled by so much generous variety within a single line! Every single card is brimming with an infectious vitality.
Much, much more after the jump…....