October 4th, 2010

You can do a-ny-thing that you wanna do!

Yet again I am listening to Steve Burns' brilliant story that he told at The Moth on September 15. It's available now via free podcast at The Moth's Facebook page here.

Who is Steve Burns and what is The Moth? Well, do two things you love ever come together for you, like the old commercials for Reese's Cups? My son had this experience when we went to Legoland last year and there was LEGO and it also happened to be STAR WARS WEEKEND!!! This is what listening to Steve's story is like for me.

Steve Burns was the host of the TV show Blue's Clues from 1996 to 2002. I was introduced to Blue's Clues when my toddler niece would stand in front of it, mesmerized with wide eyes, teething on her sleeve. I sat down and watched it with her and understood what the big deal was, and when I had a toddler of my own, we watched it together every day. It's an educational show for very young children about a cartoon dog who leaves clues for Steve about what she wants to do that day. Steve figures out the puzzle, and along the way he teaches a lesson about colors or shapes or numbers while interacting with cartoon bars of soap, salt shakers, buckets, etc. The whole show is a cartoon except for Steve, who is real.

What I particularly appreciated about the show was (1) it was uniformly positive, a happy little game, rarely building up fake anxiety about lost children trying desperately to find their way back to their mothers (I am looking very hard at you, Dora the Explorer), and (2) Steve. Apparently Steve had a lot of adult female fans and I am not going to be creepy and put myself in this group. But if you watch the show, you will realize what a terrific actor he is to be that convincing and engaging in front of a blue screen, talking to cartoon characters who aren't really there. Occasionally something REALLY strange will happen in cartoonland and one of his eyebrows will go up. And very occasionally he will turn to the camera and, without ruining the experience for children, break the frame and say something postmodern to the parent, letting you know that he knows that this is all very weird. It's hard to explain but I found it very entertaining and laughed uproariously in parts that did not have a punchline. I think my toddler and I looked forward to it equally.

What I didn't know until I looked it up on Wikipedia to write this blog entry was how highly acclaimed the show was by educators, and how decorated with TV awards. Neither did I know this:

"Burns' departure caused a resurface of the rumors that had circulated about him since 1998. As Burns said, 'The rumor mill surrounding me has always been really strange.' These 'specious claims' included dying from a heroin overdose, being run over by a car, and being replaced, like Paul McCartney of The Beatles, by a look-alike. Some viewers claimed that 'clues' regarding Burns' demise were placed within the show. Burns made an appearance on The Rosie O'Donnell Show to dispute these rumors, and he and co-creator Angela Santomero appeared on Today to help parents assuage the fears of children who might have heard the rumors."

But I did remember that there was some kind of stink (which I cannot find record of after a cursory search on the Internets) because Steve appeared as a murderer Law & Order and parents were upset that their children saw their beloved Steve acting like a monster. I remember discussing this with my husband back then, and we were wondering what these parents were thinking, keeping their children up until 10 Eastern to watch an adult crime show. And I thought this might be the topic of Steve's story at The Moth. It isn't, but he does discuss trying to have a real life as a single young man in New York City while holding a job as a children's icon and cult figure.

Which brings me to The Moth. I have sung its praises before, but basically it's a show in which five people tell true stories of about 20 minutes each about their lives, in front of an audience, without notes. The shows have themes, but otherwise the storytellers aren't connected to each other, and they vary wildly: actors, writers, directors, editors, the White House Press Secretary when President Clinton was impeached (remember Joe Lockhart?), kids, cops, a retired pickpocket. The creative director is Catherine Burns, my BFF from high school in Alexander City, Alabama. I learned to write a novel by staying up all night with Catherine and discussing how we would rewrite Lois Duncan's YA novel Five Were Missing (now republished as Ransom) starring ourselves. She has told me before that for her, directing stories at The Moth is a lot like writing novels is for me. This suits her extroverted personality better because she's meeting someone new, talking with them, and helping them craft their experience into a story the audience will love.

Since she started working for The Moth in NYC, it has opened branches in Chicago and Los Angeles, it has gone on tour (the only show I've seen live was on their tour stop in Atlanta), they've put their stories on DVD (you can buy them here), and now they're broadcasting specials on public radio. I listened to their wonderful show on the radio here in Birmingham a few months ago, and I look forward to their return. But if you want a taste, you won't find better than Steve's podcast. Give it a listen and tell me what you think!
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