Steve Burns wants to sing songs about superstrings and nanotechnology. Five million kids would rather he kept singing about the mail.
Mr. Burns, 28, is recently departed as Steve, the saucer-eyed, floppy-haired host of Blue’s Clues , the phenomenally successful Nickelodeon children’s television show. For six years, Mr. Burns donned a green-and-olive-striped rugby shirt, wiggled his skinny tush in pleated khakis, conversed with a cartoon dog and sang wonderfully inane anthems like “The Mail Song”: “Here’s the mail, it never fails / It makes me want to wag my tail!!”
Now Mr. Burns, who lives in Brooklyn, is shedding the rugby shirt and khakis-he refers to the pants, derisively, as “The Pleats”-to try and become … an alternative-rock star. He’s teamed with freaky alt-rockers the Flaming Lips to produce a lush, orchestral series of tracks he calls Songs for Dust Mites , and is shopping the material to independent labels. So far, he said, the reaction has been skepticism-then surprise.
“People are really surprised it doesn’t suck,” Mr. Burns said on a recent afternoon at a restaurant around the corner from his loft in DUMBO. He was dressed in a blue polo shirt, olive pants and green Diesel sneakers, and wore a scruffy beard. Songs for Dust Mites , he said, “is not Corey Feldman.”
Nor is Blue’s Clues Mr. Burns’ Smoochy . Even before he left his Nickelodeon gig, Mr. Burns was dogged by rumors that he’s a real-life Krusty the Klown-cranky, balding, unable to be taken seriously as an adult actor and bitter about children’s television. Worse, there have been continued salacious reports that he died-killed in a car wreck or O.D.’d on heroin.
” Access Hollywood just called me and wanted to do a piece on whether I was dead,” Mr. Burns said.
Mr. Burns, of course, is alive and well. As for heroin, he said, “If heroin was in this room, I wouldn’t know what it looked like.”
And Blue’s Clues ? Mr. Burns remains rigorously upbeat about the show that made him famous. But like anyone who leaves fame at an early age, he finds himself at an odd career crossroads. Some people around him have told him that he must extinguish the public’s memory of the spasmodic guy he used to play on TV.
“You’d be amazed at how many ostensibly wise and learned people in the business have suggested to me that I do something absolutely terrible in public-to, in a sense, murder Steve from Blue’s Clues ,” Mr. Burns said. He imitates his advisers: “You need to get in a drunken bar fight! You need to get in a drunken bar fight and come out with stitches over your brow!”
But he doesn’t want to bury Blue’s Clues Steve. His one concession was to shave his head after leaving the show; it has sprouted back now, though Mr. Burns admits to a case of “male pattern baldness.”
Mr. Burns figures that Songs for Dust Mites , with its quirky songs about love and science, is a brave enough departure. A rabid fan of the Flaming Lips, he called Lips producer Dave Fridmann out of the blue a year ago, told him he’d recorded some cuts and wondered if he’d have a listen to them.
Mr. Fridmann, it turned out, had just hosted a Blue’s Clues birthday party for his son.
“He said, ‘This is insane. Send me something,'” Mr. Burns recalled.
Mr. Burns hooked up with Mr. Fridmann and Lips drummer Steven Drozd, who helped him polish his songwriting and arrangements. They recorded a handful of tracks this winter in Fredonia, N.Y., and became fast friends; Mr. Burns has a bit part in an upcoming Flaming Lips movie, Christmas on Mars .
Mr. Drozd said Mr. Burns’ music is legit. “I think he could put that record out and a lot of people would like it on a level that has nothing to do with that television show,” he said.
‘Look at My Hair !’
But Mr. Burns knows his music career is unlikely to surpass his notoriety from Blue’s Clues , a job he got “right off the bus” from his home town of Boyertown, Penn., in 1995 after dropping out of college.
“There were definitely people in my corner saying, ‘Don’t do this-it’s brilliant, it’s going to be huge, and you’re going to be a kids’ show host forever,'” Mr. Burns said. “But I ignored them.”
Blue’s Clues did become huge. The show, which stresses interactivity with its young audience-kids often spend a typical episode barking out words and numbers at the television-became the biggest franchise in Nickelodeon history. More than 8 million viewers watch it each week.
Mr. Burns was Blue’s Clues ‘ sole live star. Almost all of the remaining cast-including Blue (the title canine), a clock named Tickety Tock and a bar of soap named Slippery Soap-were cartoons. Mr. Burns spent his days at the studio jumping around like Jackie Chan in front of blue screens; animation would be added months later.
The chronically ebullient Blue’s Clues Steve was emotionally a departure for Mr. Burns, a soft-spoken man who said he was “dark” and “serious” in his early 20’s.
“My first two seasons on that show were the hardest,” Mr. Burns said. “I was really struggling with The Pleats. I was like, ‘Oh man-am I dancing and capering like that in front of millions of people? Look at my hair ! What have I done?'”
Eventually Mr. Burns grew more comfortable his on-camera persona. People stopped him on the street every day-almost always adults, who knew him from watching Blue’s Clues with their kids. If kids approached Mr. Burns, it was almost always because they were put up to it by Mom or Dad.
“Once I was at a Rangers game at the Garden, and I was in the bathroom, and some kid tugs on my sleeve and says, ‘Mr. Burns? Can I have your autograph?’ I said, ‘Not unless you have a snow bank.’ His dad was standing right there.”
Did Mr. Burns ever get fan mail from lonely women?
“Absolutely,” he said, noting that Blue’s Clues Steve also had a gay following.
What kind of mail?
” Gee, Steve ,” Mr. Burns said, in a Southern woman’s drawl, ” if you are ever in Kentucky, I’ll show you a new game we can play. I’ll make you wag your tail reee-aaaaaal good .”
Mr. Burns-who said he is now “single … way single”-said his unique job didn’t hurt when it came to meeting women he actually wanted to date. “It’s great bar conversation,” he said. “‘What do you do?’ ‘Well, I’m a massage therapist-how about you?’ ‘Well, I host an internationally famous television show.'”
Sometimes, people didn’t believe he was Blue’s Clues Steve. “You’re not really him,” Mr. Burns said, imitating a skeptic in a bar. “That dude’s taller. Sing ‘The Mail Song’!”
Mr. Burns said that throughout Blue’s Clues , he felt a particular pressure to keep his personal life clean. He’d go to clubs now and again, but said he skipped a lot of friends’ bachelor parties. “There was definitely a point in my life where I was like, ‘I can’t be here with this beer,'” he said.
“I will tell one story that I haven’t told anyone,” Mr. Burns said. “I once received a ticket for urinating in public.”
Mr. Burns said that during the height of Blue’s Clues , he was training for the New York City marathon when he ducked behind a tree in Central Park to take a whiz. A cop caught him and ticketed him. Then, for some reason, Mr. Burns forgot about the ticket-only to be summoned to court months later.
He freaked. “I was terrified that some horrible reporter with bad intentions was going to be outside going, ‘ Steve Burns- naked in the park !'”
It didn’t happen. Mr. Burns thought the court stenographer recognized him, but no reporters. The judge dismissed the ticket. Still, Mr. Burns calls the episode “the scariest moment of my Blue’s Clues life.”
Mr. Burns decided to leave Blue’s Clues in January 2001. On his Web site, steveswebpage.com, Mr. Burns wrote that his decision to leave was “very, very, very, very, very, very, very tough.”
“The show was very important to me,” Mr. Burns said. “It was nerve-wracking. I worked my ass on it for so long.”
He emphasized that he left on good terms, and remains thrilled to be associated with the show. He just figured it was time to move on.
His friends were pleased. “We were pretty glad to see him make the decision,” said Paul Ford, who helped him build his Web site.
By the time he left, Mr. Burns had filmed enough Blue’s Clues to last through this spring. On April 29, the show finally aired its three back-to-back torch-passing episodes, where Steve, on his way to college, gave way to younger brother Joe, played by actor Donovan Patton. TV critics likened the transition to Jay Leno replacing Johnny Carson.
Mr. Burns and Mr. Patton are friends. On May 3, the two went to see Spider-Man together. Mr. Burns has served as something of a Blue’s Clues Yoda to Mr. Patton and thinks he’ll be great, even as he’s envious of the new guy’s threads.
“He gets cargo pants!” Mr. Burns cried. “And cool shirts! He’s all hip and cool! It’s not fair.”
But Mr. Burns is content to be a private citizen. And while it frustrates him from time to time, he said he understands why people get a kick out of imagining him as washed up and angry at the world-even high on drugs.
“It’s the reason why Death to Smoochy became a major motion-picture release,” he said. “It’s an incredibly satisfying idea for people-to fantasize that the guy in the Barney suit is doing lines at a strip club at night.”
But, he said, “I think it’s highly cynical. I have met tons of people in kids TV, and with no exceptions they were incredibly well-intentioned people. I know that’s disappointing to people.”
Mr. Burns said that some people didn’t understand how hard his old job was. “I remember, about two years ago, an incredibly famous Academy Award–winning actress who shall remain nameless came up to me and said, ‘I love your show-if I wasn’t an actor, I would do what you do.”
Mr. Burns smirked. “I think I slept under my sink for two weeks.”
Music may be easier for adults without children to appreciate. ” Blue’s Clues felt to me to be a bigger personal departure than this,” he said of Songs for Dust Mites . “This, I feel like I can wake up in the morning and this is me, in my relaxed state. Whereas Blue’s Clues was a constant, ‘Here we go-got to get geared up! Got to do it! It’s for the kids!'”
Now what he needs is to get a label. Asked if he might try to disguise his previous job in order to persuade record executives to give him a shot, Mr. Burns said no.
“I am the guy who was formerly the freaky little man-child on that Nickelodeon show, and I’m proud of it,” he said. “If they are not comfortable with that, then I’m not comfortable with them.”
America, of course, loves reinvention. Ozzy Osbourne has become family entertainment. Mr. Burns could be a family star who becomes a rocker badass.
He knows he’ll never escape Blue’s Clues , which will be in reruns for years. And he knows that people will always assume that the guy who used to wear the rugby shirt on TV in front of millions of little kids is a little different. And truthfully, he probably is.
“I went to see Blue’s Clues Live,” Mr. Burns said, referring to the traveling stage show that recently appeared at Radio City Music Hall. “The guy who plays Mr. Salt on the show, Nick Balaban-he also wrote all the music-was sitting in front of me. The curtain goes up and 15,000 kids go ‘STEVE! STEVE! STEVE!’ Screaming like the wind .
“Then this dude comes out, performing like me in this extremely theatrical version of me. He’s doing these incredibly strange dances, singing this big Broadway score and dancing with a six-foot-tall bar of soap.
“And Nick turns around to me and says, ‘You’re in therapy, right ?