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Take A Clue From Blue

I've been watching a lot of Blue's Clues, Nickelodeon's hit children's television show, lately. And I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it is I like about it. Because I do like the show, even though it's ostensibly aimed at preschoolers.

The first thing I think, almost every time I see the show, is Poor Steve. As just about the only live creature appearing on the show -- the rest of the cast is animated and added in post-production -- poor Steve must display a level of earnestness few people will ever attain in their whole lives while interacting with non-existent props, sets, and characters, all within the same nine square feet -- even when he walks, he walks in place -- and all the while staring into the level gazes of no-doubt grizzled and jaded representatives of the camera and lighting operators' union. This is a job for someone who won't crack -- no matter what.

But my pity for Steve isn't why I like the show. My respect for him has something to do with it, but not all. After many weeks of soul-searching, I finally figured out why I like Blue's Clues so much.

I think Blue's Clues is a great show because of its complete and utter lack of irony.

Irony has been with us for a long time. Ever since the first hideously overweight caveman got hit on the head with a rock and grunted "That going to leave mark," before expiring, we have had sarcasm and irony. But it didn't become the national pastime until the mid-'70s when Saturday Night Live hit the airwaves. That show was so ironic, so sarcastic, and so popular, that its attitude rapidly seeped like intellectual toxic waste into the tap water of American consciousness. And no wonder: as David Lipsky has written, irony is the comic presentation of doubt; and by the mid-70s, Americans were doubting in a serious way.

By now everything is in doubt, and so everything is ironic. Nothing can be taken as it stands. You can't read a single sentence, watch a single show, see a single movie without having to look for the wink, the nudge, the aside, the smirk that says, "We don't mean this. We're kidding. We're not really this upset, or worried, or happy, or sad, or anything. Don't take us seriously."

Children's television has not been excepted from this. Pee-wee's Playhouse, as enjoyable a show as it was, was really just one extended wink from start to finish. Sesame Street is simply riddled with irony and adults-only jokes: When Elmo tunes to the Jacket Channel to learn about jackets and it says, "Up next: Jacket Nicholson in 'Five Easy Jackets'!" even some grown-ups aren't going to get it. Teletubbies is earnest in content, but the world of the show is so surreal it qualifies as irony all on its own.

But in Blue's Clues there isn't even a whiff of irony. Sarcasm cannot be seen from its soundstage. In Blue's little world, there are no winks, no asides, no obnoxiousness or distancing, no doubt. Even when you think they might slip over -- even when Steve interprets a shadow, a feather, and the sound "Hoo hoo" as maybe meaning the feather wants to shadowdance with a disco "Hoo hoo!" (the true answer was an owl) -- Steve keeps the joke way over on the serious side of the line.

Considering my angst-filled, doubt-riddled existence, Blue's Clues is refreshing. It takes me back to when I was a kid, when I said what I meant and meant what I said, before I learned that you don't tell people how you really feel without making it clear that you're only kidding.

Just kidding.


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