One spring afternoon in 1999, Steve Burns was on his way to a date.
He was driving through New Jersey, fighting jitters, primping in the rearview, when something on the side of the road caught his eye: a mailbox with blue cartoon paw prints on it and a message that read “You Just Figured Out Jonathan’s Birthday!” While most rock singers would have shrugged off such fleeting details, Burns recognized 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. He glanced at the toys and props left in his car after a recent charity appearance. The khaki pants. The iconic green-and-olive-striped rugby shirt.
“I gotta do it,” he said.
He met his date, changed clothes, and drove back to the party. “We just showed up with the toys and knocked on the door,” says Burns, a slight 30-year-old sipping a latte in an airy Brooklyn cafe. “I was like, ‘Hey!'” His narrow face and big, dark eyes bloom into the fully dilated character beloved worldwide. “‘Who’s Jonathan?’ The kids were, like, ‘Cool! Steve’s here!'” So Burns loped around, clowned with the youngsters, dispensed toys, and refused cash from the bewildered dad. It was a magic little moment — a kindhearted breach in the space-time continuum — and we sit 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 to seek his fortune, couch-surfs, tries to break into acting. Lands voice-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 a job 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. Burns sure never saw it coming. He’d grown up in rural Pennsylvania, playing guitar, writing songs, and jamming on David Bowie in a friend’s cow pasture. After receiving an acting scholarship to a nearby college, he joined a band called Nine Pound Truck, but soon quit that, along with school. 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.” This was, in many ways, the birth of Blue’s Clues.
Blue’s Clues, in case you live in a cave or are over the age of five, is a uniquely interactive show, featuring an animated blue 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, the host 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), and eventually, 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 Clues as perhaps the “stickiest” — meaning the most irresistible and involving — television show ever. While this had much to do with the format’s shrewd child psychology, it also had quite a bit to do withSteve Burns.
Initially, the network suits weren’t psyched about the grungy 22-year-old — “The story was that they were, like, ‘No way.We’re not putting skate-rock boy on Nickelodeon,'” reports Burns. But preschool test audiences were vocal in their support. “Apparently, it was 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 co-creator of Blue’s Clues,says that what made Burns a great children’s host was that “he didn’t want 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 career out of it.”
Yet a career is what he got. As the show blew up, Burns became a weird, Clark Kent-ish public figure — superstar to toddler sand parents, unknown to everyone else. He was so immersed in the virtual reality of clues and kids that five years went by before he noticed that the rugby shirt (handmade out of scratchy wool and modeled after 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 II star] 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 do a 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 to anonymous real life. His departure was so surprising that it prompted rumors that he’d died in a car wreck or of a heroin overdose. The turning point was significant. Burns had walked into a New York party and 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 acid casualty. “I mean, I haven’t had a response like that to a record since, 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 into a Spielbergian swoon of aching wonder. Maybe it’s the trembling vulnerability of Wayne Coyne’s voice or the way the band’s tales o fheroic scientists and atomic-age love bypass ’90s cynicism to hit us squarely 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 writing songs — a lot of songs. “It was, ‘Woooooaaaaaa,'” says Burns,mimicking a massive creative vomitus. “I had literally been doing nothing but talking to objects made of felt. For six years! There was this weird creative constipation going on.”
When you write 35 songs in one burst, something is going 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 opens with the Moog-and-bass-driven “Mighty Little Man,” a vignette about alone man in a room struggling to draw magic from a small machine — an invention that comes to life. The song was inspired by Thomas Edison,an inventor whose own DIY projects changed human history. “I wanted to write a positive, empowering exclamation point of a song,” says Burns.Less triumphant emotions also surface. “What I Do on Saturday” begins with Burns sighing as he sings, “I’m just a boring example of everybody else.” On the gorgeous “Troposphere,” he gazes out the window of a plane, pondering the aerial limbo he just entered — the space betweenEarth and vanishing thin air, where weather happens and no human survives for long. “Have you ever been so tired of yourself?” he wonders.
“It’s a dark song,” Burns says of “Troposphere.” “I had done one huge and great and positive thing and didn’t know where I was going next. 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” and other infamies. The list goes on: Bruce Willis, Don Johnson, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy — these and other deluded actors-turned-singers are depicted as cartoons on a board game that’s included with the publicity material for Burns’ album. Right now, he has a version spread out on the kitchen table of his loft, a decidedly sleek crib in the haute-boho Brooklyn neighborhood called DUMBO. Under the soft glow of recessed lighting, he shows me the starting point of the game’s swampy maze: “very outrageously successful entertainment property for children.” From here, the Steve character is guided past pitfalls such as “prog rock bog” and “ye olde vanity project faire.” He points out the finish line: “viable entertainment property for adults.”
Months after his unexpected creative explosion, Burns cold-called his favorite producer, Dave Fridmann, who’d worked withMercury Rev, Mogwai, Sparklehorse, and the Flaming Lips. The producer’s chilly response thawed when he recognized Burns’ name (Fridmann had just held a Blue’s Clues birthday party for his children) and turned into enthusiasm when he heard Burns’ demo. Next, Flaming Lips drummer and arranger Steven Drozd joined in, then came Lips bassist Michael Ivins, who engineered several of the sessions. Finally, evenWayne Coyne wafted into Burns’ orbit. But instead of music, Coyne wanted 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 his butt,” says Burns, who ended up accepting a less R-rated version of the role. While shooting in the Lips’ home base of Oklahoma City, Burns charmed the band’s manager, Scott Booker, who eventually helped him sign 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 a second 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 the chair” has been made, but not obliged. “I’d feel like I was having sex in front of a million parents,” he says, although he has received mashnotes, even nude photos, from the “forward-thinking soccer moms” he says 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 in spite of it. “I learned really valuable lessons from Blue’s Clues,”he says. “I’d repeat them every day. ‘You can do things. You are smart.'” And the guy who said them has found a perfectly bizarre avenue to rejoin his own generation, enabled by a band whose concerts feature balloons, confetti, and furry animal costumes. It’s hard not to see some 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 of his album. It’s right there next to his bed. Just a Mac, a keyboard, a guitar, and the Thinking Chair.
“Yep,” he says, less ironically than he might think. “This is where the magic happens.”