Monday, July 30, 2007

Blue's Clueless, and So's Steve Burns

So, anyone who's had anything to do with children and children's television over the past decade has undoubtedly heard of the Nickelodeon network's Nick Jr. program, Blue's Clues. The original host, Steve Burns, pretty much defined the show, at least for those of us in on it from the beginning, and we lost touch with the show right around the time Steve was replaced by Joe (last name forgotten), and now the website says something about someone else named Kevin, whoever he might be.

What I can say about Blue's Clues is that it was pretty innovative, and pretty much put Nick Jr. on the map as an alternative to PBS as a source of television programs (aka electronic babysitter) for preschoolers. If you're familiar with Blue's Clues then you know what I'm talking about, and if you're not, you could just skip ahead to the video, which is amusing in and of itself and require no prior knowledge of the Nick Jr. show, and in fact is entirely unrelated to Blue's Clues apart from the fact that Steve Burns stars in it.

I must say, though, that in my opinion the Blue's Clues program is essentially a watered-down, less manic, more educational, more stable version of Pee Wee's Playhouse. Pee Wee's Playhouse was a very creative children's program, with strong appeal to adult viewers who could enjoy the sheer weirdness of the program, starring the comic Paul Rubens as Pee Wee Herman. The show ran from 1986-1991, ending about half a decade before Blue's Clues premiered. This show was pure postmodernism in action, and exemplified all of the characteristics of television that Neil Postman argued were leading us to amuse ourselves to death. But it was very amusing indeed, great fun, but also really, really strange. And strangest of all was the character Pee Wee Herman, who seemed entirely ambiguous, not just sexually but in terms of age--was he a childlike adult, or an adultlike child or what? In this, Pee Wee also illustrates what Postman identified as the disappearance of childhood.

There were other points of ambiguity in the series, which I won't go into now, because that's not the point of this post. And of course, how can I resist mentioning that Rubens career was severely damaged not long after the show came to an end, when he was arrested for obscenity, after he was caught abusing himself (as the saying goes) in an adult XXX movie theater. Interestingly, while Ruben's troubles with the law have kept his show out of syndication for children's television, it's now shown on cable as part of Cartoon Network's late night Adult Swim programming (when kids graduate from Nick Jr., they migrate to Cartoon Network's regular programming, I should add).

Now, Steve Burns is nowhere near as strange as Paul Rubens was (or still is), and beyond that, the Pee Wee Herman persona and Pee Wee's Playhouse was the brainchild of Rubens, while Steve Burns, as I understand it, merely answered a casting call and was chosen for the starring role in Blue's Clues by the program's producers. But the Nick Jr. show has traces of the hallucinogenic quality of Pee Wee's Playhouse in that both made everyday objects such as furniture, food, flowers, etc., into characters with personalities, both featured segments where the main characters would dive into the world inside a picture hanging on the wall, and both revolved around some kind of game--more so Blue's Clues with it's mystery/puzzle/guessing game, but Pee Wee's Playhouse had it's Word of the Day, which only Pee Wee and the other anthropomorphic residents of his playhouse, and the viewers at home, were aware of, and when anyone said it, everyone would yell and scream! Like I said, it was manic. But along with that, while Steve Burns is nowhere near as ambiguous a persona as Pee Wee Herman/Paul Rubens, he still has that childlike adult/adultlike child quality, but again, in much milder form--but still noticeable!

Steve Burns has not been arrested, to my knowledge, but I recall him launching into a tirade against the producers of Blue's Clues after he left the program, having appeared on it from its debut in 1996 to 2002. But there also were a number of rumors started about him, that he had become a hippie-type, that he had joined the Hells Angels (improbably!), that he had become addicted to heroin and died of an overdose! According to the Wikipedia article on Steve Burns:

The legend may have started from Burns' appearance as an autistic teenager in an April 1995 episode of Law & Order, in which his character died before the opening credits. Burns' "overdose" may also have been simply another iteration of a sub-genre of urban legend in which celebrity figures whose public personas are associated with innocence are supposedly revealed to have a hidden, seedier side. There was a rumor that Steve left Blues Clues because of his mental issues. According to a 15 minute documentary on Nickelodeon, titled "The 10 years of Blue", Burns left Blue's Clues to start a self titled band. Burns was quoted on said program saying "[He] didn't want to lose [his] hair in children's television.

The article goes on to indicate that this wasn't a bad move for him:

After Burns left Blue's Clues in 2002, he recorded a rock album, Songs for Dustmites, which was released in 2003. The album was produced with the assistance of producer Dave Fridmann of Tarbox Road Studios, and with the assistance of and contributions by Steven Drozd, drummer for The Flaming Lips. (During the recording, Burns portrayed an engineer aboard a spacecraft in The Flaming Lips' film, Christmas on Mars.) The album was well-received by critics, many of whom expressed surprise at the album's quality (given their previous associations of Burns as "merely" a children's show host). Burns followed up the album's release with an international tour in 2003 and 2004. Burns also made an appearance on Figure It Out: Wild Style as one of the panelists.

In 2003, Steve Burns supported The Flaming Lips on their UK tour.

Burns recently contributed a cover of They Might Be Giants' "Dead" to the TMBG tribute album, Hello Radio.

For more on his career as a musician, you can take a look at his website, Steve Burns Rocks!!!

But before he left Blue's Clues to play the rhythm and blues, he starred in a short film directed by Jonathan Judge, entitled Hot Pants: Enchilada Surprise. This was 2001, so if you've seen this one already, my apologies, I'll try to do better next time. If not, but you are familiar with the Nick Jr. series, his character here is not that far off from the one he portrayed in Blue's Clues, same nice young man, now out on a date with a nice young girl, both from New Jersey!

And if you haven't a clue, blue or otherwise, about what I've been writing about so far, no matter, as I said, this stands on its own merit as a very funny film. Be warned, however, that it involves just a little bit of crude humor.

Anyway, this is courtesy of YouTube, where the description of this film reads:

"A perfect date goes from bad to worse in this re-telling of the urban myth of the Enchilada Surprise. Ben and Suzy are having the perfect first date until Ben orders Enchiladas Surprise at a Mexican restaurant. Now Ben's in a battle to avoid the ultimate humiliation."

Absolutely hilarious! So funny you will crap your pants!

Starring: Steve Burns
Director: Jonathan Judge
And now, this:


Youssef Sleiman said...

That’s an interesting post – read about two years later.
I’ve got a request, then. Can you dig more into the postmodernism angle of Pee Wee’s playhouse? (Is anthropomorphism necessarily an element of that?) Can you also pull out an explanation of what is innovative about Blue’s Clues? The structure element is pretty obvious; but what, in Blue’s Clues, is a real departure from the norm?

Lance Strate said...

I found Pee Wee's Playhouse to exemplify the postmodern in that it has no depth, just a succession of surfaces, bit and pieces of different styles, showing a fragment of a cartoon, for example, a pastiche of material, all traditional children's fare, but in fragmentary form and thrown together without any clear logic. Also, it is self-reflexive about being a children's programming, and ironic. I thought Blue's Clues went beyond any previous program in the way that the audience is directly addressed and involved in the action, in the use of surrogate audience members who are heard on the soundtrack but not seen, and also in the segments where they enter into a picture and interact in that other world, something that was also done in Pee Wee's Playhouse.