On the surface, the whimsy of Pee-wee’s Playhouse appears to be worlds apart from the solemnity of Boyz N the Hood, other than the curious resemblance between Cowboy Curtis and Furious Styles. But it’s no coincidence that Laurence Fishburne and other key creatives were part of both projects.
As a USC film student in the late 1980s, John Singleton spent one summer working as a security guard-slash-production assistant on the set of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. “John was the lowest of lowly PAs,” recalled Fishburne on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 1995. “He was working on the door and his job was to stop people at the door and go, ‘Are you supposed to be here? Do you have the proper ID?’”
Singleton would press Fishburne for stories of working with Spike Lee, as the actor had appeared in School Daze a few months prior. The budding filmmaker told anyone on set who would listen (including Pee-wee himself, Paul Reubens) that he was working on a coming-of-age script inspired by his own experiences growing up in south Los Angeles, and he confidently told Fishburne that he would direct him in it someday.
Stanley Clarke, already a respected jazz artist, received a similar treatment. Singleton met the musician after he came in to compose the score for the season two episode “Spring” (for which he would go on to receive an Emmy nomination). “John came up to me and stated that he and I were going to work together in the future,” Clarke tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m not sure what I thought at the time, but who was to know that he would later ask me to score his first feature, Oscar-nominated Boyz n the Hood, as well as other films, Poetic Justice and Higher Learning?”
Clarke recalls Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which ran for five seasons from 1986 to 1991, as “the hippest, most unique show on television” and credits it as his gateway into being a film and television composer, with more than 65 titles to his name. The children’s series, the brainchild of Reubens, who died on Sunday at age 70, served as an early career stop for many talents, including Natasha Lyonne, S. Epatha Merkerson and Phil Hartman, and was notable for its embrace of diversity on and off the screen.
“I think it was groundbreaking in a lot of ways, and that was in front of the camera and behind the camera. It was a multiracial and multiethnic group of people,” Merkerson said in a featurette on the show recorded several years ago. Added the late actor John Paragon, who played Jambi the Genie and voiced Pterri the Pterodactyl, “That was something Paul was really insistent upon.”
Fishburne agreed: “The years that I worked on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, the crews were the most diverse of all the crews I’ve ever worked with, which means there were more people of color behind the scenes, there were more women behind the scenes in nontraditional roles for women. I think it was probably the first time I ever encountered a woman working as a camera assistant or a focus puller, and I was really impressed by that, and obviously that was down to Paul.”
For Singleton, who passed away in 2019, “being 19 years old and having that be my first introduction into production was a godsend because I didn’t feel alienated at all working on that set,” he said in the featurette. “I didn’t feel like I was out of place at all. I felt like I was really a member of a family, even at my small job being a security guard-slash-PA. I felt like I was part of a family working on Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”
The Surprising Connection Between ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse’ and ‘Boyz n the Hood’