Me and You and a Dog Named Blue
One spring afternoon in 1999, Steve Burns was on his way to a date.
One spring afternoon in 1999, Steve Burns was on his way to a date.He was driving through New Jersey, fighting jitters, primping inthe rearview, when something on the side of the road caught hiseye: a mailbox with blue cartoon paw prints on it and a messagethat read “You Just Figured Out Jonathan’s Birthday!” While mostrock singers would have shrugged off such fleeting details, Burnsrecognized them as symbols revered by millions of Americans –Americans under four feet tall and on a first-name basis with SteveBurns.
“It was obviously a Blue’s Clues party,” says Burns, who was, in fact, the host of Blue’s Clues,one of the most popular children’s programs in television history. Heglanced at the toys and props left in his car after a recent charityappearance. The khaki pants. The iconic green-and-olive-striped rugbyshirt.
“I gotta do it,” he said.
He met his date, changedclothes, and drove back to the party. “We just showed up with the toysand knocked on the door,” says Burns, a slight 30-year-old sipping alatte in an airy Brooklyn cafe. “I was like, ‘Hey!'” His narrow faceand big, dark eyes bloom into the fully dilated character belovedworldwide. “‘Who’s Jonathan?’ The kids were, like, ‘Cool! Steve’shere!'” So Burns loped around, clowned with the youngsters, dispensedtoys, and refused cash from the bewildered dad. It was a magic littlemoment — a kindhearted breach in the space-time continuum — and wesit silent for a second, contemplating it.
Finally, I ask how the date went.
“Pffft,” he says, shrugging, with mock mackadociousness. “Are you kidding?”
Some lives really are fairy tales. Boy moves to New York toseek his fortune, couch-surfs, tries to break into acting. Landsvoice-over gigs ?(“1-800-COLLECT,” Burns perkily recites), gets Law & Order role (“I was autistic and died”). Checks out bands, peeps new CDs. Then shows up for an audition at Nickelodeon.
You know how these hand-of-fate moments go. You walk into ajob interview, fill out an application, and the next thing you know,you’re costarring on a hit show with a blue dog made of felt. Burnssure never saw it coming. He’d grown up in rural Pennsylvania, playingguitar, writing songs, and jamming on David Bowie in a friend’s cowpasture. After receiving an acting scholarship to a nearby college, hejoined a band called Nine Pound Truck, but soon quit that, along withschool. Within months, he was standing in the Nickelodeon office,sporting ill-advised stubble, long hair, and earrings.
“I thought it was a voice-over audition,” remembers Burns.”And it was not. So I figured I’d better start jumping around.” Thiswas, in many ways, the birth of Blue’s Clues.
Blue’s Clues, in case you live in a cave or are overthe age of five, is a uniquely interactive show, featuring an animatedblue puppy named Blue and a very energetic human host. In each episode,Blue leaves a puzzle for the host and the viewers to solve together.Ambling around a crudely rendered house on a blue-screen backdrop, thehost finds clues marked by a paw print. He often misses obvious ones,then looks pleadingly to the camera for help.
Herein, somehow, lies kids-TV gold. Soon after its 1996 debut, Blue’s Clues was spanking Sesame Street and Barney & Friendsin the ratings (watched by more than eight million viewers a week), andeventually, children were shouting out answers in six languages and 60countries. In The Tipping Point, a 2000 study of how ideas and trends spread, author Malcolm Gladwell posited Blue’s Cluesas perhaps the “stickiest” — meaning the most irresistible andinvolving — television show ever. While this had much to do with theformat’s shrewd child psychology, it also had quite a bit to do withSteve Burns.
Initially, the network suits weren’t psyched about thegrungy 22-year-old — “The story was that they were, like, ‘No way.We’re not putting skate-rock boy on Nickelodeon,'” reports Burns. Butpreschool test audiences were vocal in their support. “Apparently, itwas really obvious that I was the one the kids spoke to,” Burns says.”They didn’t just laugh. They were talking [to the screen]. It was The Rocky Horror Children’s Show.” Traci Paige Johnson, executive producer and cocreator of Blue’s Clues,says that what made Burns a great children’s host was that “he didn’twant to be a children’s host. Of the 100 people we auditioned, he was,by far, the realest. He loved kids, but he didn’t want to make a careerout of it.”
Yet a career is what he got. As the show blew up, Burnsbecame a weird, Clark Kent-ish public figure — superstar to toddlersand parents, unknown to everyone else. He was so immersed in thevirtual reality of clues and kids that five years went by before henoticed that the rugby shirt (handmade out of scratchy wool and modeledafter a stick of Fruit Stripe gum) was beginning to chafe.
“Acting on a blue screen is awful,” Burns says. “Ask [Star Wars: Episode I and IIstar] Ewan McGregor — and he had dwarves and whatnot to act with…Iwas at a place where I do this forever and make this who I am, or I doa whole bunch of other exciting stuff.”
Here, if possible, the story becomes even more of a fairy tale. In January 2001, Burns left Blue’s Clues,left those secure, highly lucrative two dimensions, and returned toanonymous real life. His departure was so surprising that it promptedrumors that he’d died in a car wreck or of a heroin overdose. Theturning point was significant. Burns had walked into a New York partyand heard a record for the first time — the Flaming Lips’ 1999 album The Soft Bulletin.”It rearranged my head completely,” Burns intones like a ’60s acidcasualty. “I mean, I haven’t had a response like that to a recordsince, oh, I don’t know. Just psssssshoo.” Indeed, countless studies — mostly informal, many involving bongs — have isolated a potent quality in The Soft Bulletin,something that bypasses all critical faculties, sweeping listeners intoa Spielbergian swoon of aching wonder. Maybe it’s the tremblingvulnerability of Wayne Coyne’s voice or the way the band’s tales ofheroic scientists and atomic-age love bypass ’90s cynicism to hit ussquarely in our inner kindergartner.
In any case, Burns was uniquely vulnerable. “Right before that, I was into Radiohead,” he says. “But it’s so dark.And right then, I needed something hopeful.” That night at the party,he got it. He stayed long enough to find the host and ask for the titleof the CD. Soon, he got a Pro Tools audio program and started writingsongs — a lot of songs. “It was, ‘Woooooaaaaaa,'” says Burns,mimicking a massive creative vomitus. “I had literally been doingnothing but talking to objects made of felt. For six years! There wasthis weird creative constipation going on.”
When you write 35 songs in one burst, something isgoing on. Call it “the Force,” channeling your spiritual power –everyone from Scientologists to God-thanking rappers talks about it.But an especially sweet harmonic convergence flows through the 12tracks on Burns’ debut, Songs for Dustmites. The album openswith the Moog-and-bass-driven “Mighty Little Man,” a vignette about alone man in a room struggling to draw magic from a small machine — aninvention that comes to life. The song was inspired by Thomas Edison,an inventor whose own DIY projects changed human history. “I wanted towrite a positive, empowering exclamation point of a song,” says Burns.Less triumphant emotions also surface. “What I Do on Saturday” beginswith Burns sighing as he sings, “I’m just a boring example of everybodyelse.” On the gorgeous “Troposphere,” he gazes out the window of aplane, pondering the aerial limbo he just entered — the space betweenEarth and vanishing thin air, where weather happens and no humansurvives for long. “Have you ever been so tired of yourself?” hewonders.
“It’s a dark song,” Burns says of “Troposphere.” “I had doneone huge and great and positive thing and didn’t know where I was goingnext. I was very confused.”
“Music is my life — acting’s just a hobby.”
So spake Shaun Cassidy, on his way to “Da Doo Ron Ron” andother infamies. The list goes on: Bruce Willis, Don Johnson, WilliamShatner, Leonard Nimoy — these and other deluded actors-turned-singersare depicted as cartoons on a board game that’s included with thepublicity material for Burns’ album. Right now, he has a version spreadout on the kitchen table of his loft, a decidedly sleek crib in thehaute-boho Brooklyn neighborhood called DUMBO. Under the soft glow ofrecessed lighting, he shows me the starting point of the game’s swampymaze: “very outrageously successful entertainment property forchildren.” From here, the Steve character is guided past pitfalls suchas “prog rock bog” and “ye olde vanity project faire.” He points outthe finish line: “viable entertainment property for adults.”
Months after his unexpected creative explosion, Burnscold-called his favorite producer, Dave Fridmann, who’d worked withMercury Rev, Mogwai, Sparklehorse, and the Flaming Lips. The producer’schilly response thawed when he recognized Burns’ name (Fridmann hadjust held a Blue’s Clues birthday party for his children) andturned into enthusiasm when he heard Burns’ demo. Next, Flaming Lipsdrummer and arranger Steven Drozd joined in, then came Lips bassistMichael Ivins, who engineered several of the sessions. Finally, evenWayne Coyne wafted into Burns’ orbit. But instead of music, Coynewanted Burns for the movie he was directing, called Christmas on Mars.”He originally asked me to be a crazy man with a bottle rocket in hisbutt,” says Burns, who ended up accepting a less R-rated version of therole. While shooting in the Lips’ home base of Oklahoma City, Burnscharmed the band’s manager, Scott Booker, who eventually helped himsign with PIAS records (home to Sigur Ros and Mogwai) in late 2002.Thus, he entered the world of legitimate rock music.
So here stands Burns, halfway down the perilous route to asecond act. And there, in a corner of his bedroom, sits the red, plush”Thinking Chair” — the meditative perch where he sat and puzzled overBlue’s clues. It’s currently draped with jeans, underwear, a feather,devil horns, and a bat wing. Burns admits the request to “do it in thechair” has been made, but not obliged. “I’d feel like I was having sexin front of a million parents,” he says, although he has received mashnotes, even nude photos, from the “forward-thinking soccer moms” hesays are his most ardent adult fans.
If Burns does become a Viable Entertainment Property forAdults, it undoubtedly will be as much because of the kids’ show as inspite of it. “I learned really valuable lessons from Blue’s Clues,”he says. “I’d repeat them every day. ‘You can do things. You aresmart.'” And the guy who said them has found a perfectly bizarre avenueto rejoin his own generation, enabled by a band whose concerts featureballoons, confetti, and furry animal costumes. It’s hard not to seesome benign enchantment at work. After all, the goodwill of kids –especially a few million of them — can be a powerful force.
Burns points to the little workstation where he made most ofhis album. It’s right there next to his bed. Just a Mac, a keyboard, aguitar, and the Thinking Chair.
“Yep,” he says, less ironically than he might think. “This is where the magic happens.”