5 Bonkers Behind-The-Scenes Stories Of Beloved Kids' Shows
Children's TV is supposed to be wholesome. It's designed for people too young to understand the horrific nightmares of being alive and thus protects said young people from said horrors with bright colors, counting games, and an interminable repetition of the alphabet song. Unfortunately, kids are too young to make their own shows, which means the shows are made by adults. Adults are flawed, which means children's entertainment is loaded with stories that make any self-respecting, white-tennis-shoes-and-bootcut-jeans-wearing dad get off their American-made lawnmower, press pause on their sports talk radio, and say, "Now wait just a goddamn minute." Perhaps a baseball cap will be thrown to the ground and stomped on.
The Original Blue's Clues Ended With Heroin Overdose Rumors and The Flaming Lips
The early 2000s in America were a wild time in a way that's kinda hard to explain to anyone under 30. Marijuana was (for a bunch of stupid reasons) illegal, and D.A.R.E. was wreaking havoc on children's mental health. Addiction was (and still is) poorly understood, but there was a general vibe in the air that dying of a drug overdose made you the worst person. Not a victim of a disease, but your death due to a disease was a moral failing. A lot of it had to do with the Moral Majority, a group of toxic evangelical Christians who totally solved addiction, especially within their own families. I should maybe take a minute to preemptively apologize to the Cracked legal team for the amount of "allegedlys" they're going to have to put on this, but I promise I'm ramping up to a point about Blue's Clues.
When Steve Burns, the first host of Blue's Clues, abruptly left the show, rumors flew that he had died of a heroin overdose, or even more scandalous, marijuana possession (I told you the early 2000s were wild). And people absolutely lost their minds over it. How the rumors got started or spread so fast is anyone's guess, but it was so upsetting to kids that Steve and co-creator of the show Angela Santomero had to go on Today to set the record straight and offer tips to parents on how to talk to upset preschoolers.
The real reason Steve quit? He wanted to try new things and especially didn't want to go bald on a kids' show. Makes sense! Male pattern baldness is tough (I've been told) without running into some 21-year-old on the street and them saying, "Dude! I remember watching your show when you had hair. Damn, I'm getting old, huh?"
Instead, after six years of talking to cartoon dogs and salt shakers, Steve was "in a position where could do what wanted." Much like George Clooney using his Oceans money to make a black-and-white movie about a newscaster, Jordan Peele cashing in Key and Peele clout to make socially relevant horror movies, and Helen Mirren using her impeccable, Royal Shakespeare Company-trained skills to land a Fast and Furious gig, Steve felt it was time to pursue a passion: writing and recording an indie noise-pop album.
Before the bedroom GarageBand producers (hi!) piss themselves, Steve did benefit from an unusual connection: meeting The Flaming Lips' legendary producer, Dave Fridmann, at a kids' birthday party. He cold-emailed the guy, who actually listened to the demos, and then enlisted members of The Flaming Lips to play on the album … And it's not bad either. Even the stodgy gatekeepers at Pitchfork even gave it a 7.8!
So musicians, keep plugging away. One day, you too can randomly score a gig hosting a popular kids' show, meet a famous producer at a party, actually have them listen to your demo, record with a famous band, and 10 years later, some comedy website dipshit will hear about your record and decide to write about it. That's when you know you've made it.
The Insane (But Weirdly Wholesome) Reason Mr. Rogers Had to Weigh 143 Pounds
To learn a Mr. Rogers fact is to learn one more thing about how impossibly perfect he was. Dude testified before Congress to advocate for PBS funding …
… learned what breakdancing is despite being terminally white and was an underrated genius at using inclusive language in an effort to make as much of his audience feel as welcome as possible. You know, the kind of thing that is really good to do but would also get Tucker Carlson's jowls quivering while shouting about "cancel culture" to a septuagenarian audience who coincidentally raised their kids on Mr. Rogers. We're kidding, of course; to see Fox berate a national treasure, you have to watch in the morning.
So here's a fact about Mr. Rogers (or "Fred," which is his first name, but calling him by his first name makes me feel panic attack-inducing levels of disrespect): he was extreme in his habits. This included understandable things like waking up at the same time every morning and going to bed at the same time every night or being totally Straight Edge as far as drinking, smoking, and eating meat were concerned. Like Ned Flanders, except one you'd actually want to hang out with.
These extreme habits led to a quirky, numerology-based idea: he always weighed 143 pounds. Sure, maintaining a consistent weight is healthy, but in Mr. Rogers' mind, "143" was the number of letters it takes to say "I love you." Journalist and longtime friend Tom Junod described this commitment to 143 as "a gift, as a destiny to be fulfilled." Mr. Rogers himself said, "Isn't that wonderful?" when talking about how the idea came to him. Normally, this would sound like cult leader language, but c'mon -- this is Mr. Rogers we're talking about. Dude was the embodiment of purity. You can hear some shitty CEO saying, "This number is a gift, a destiny to be fulfilled," while talking about, like, the exact number of worker deaths they caused in a day. For Mr. Rogers, it's a reminder that love and kindness are something you should always and endlessly pursue.
Calliou, The Most Hated Cartoon Character, Gets Rebooted (While The Actor Dies Suddenly)
Of all the irritating, grating, and infuriating things kids' shows do, Caillou's voice might be the worst. I remember -- years before I had a kid -- one of my friends warning me about Caillou. It's hard to recall exactly because this conversation was years ago whilst consuming more than a few whiskey cokes, but I'll never forget the look of horror my friend got on his face when talking about Caillou. This memory also includes a record scratch and everyone else at the party turning to stare at us in horror and then break the silence by yelling, "CAILLOU SUCKS!" Again, it's a hazy memory, but that's how it lives in my brain.
It's like if the sounds of nails on a chalkboard got a club remix.
It's not hard to feel that way about Caillou because I don't know if you remember a couple sentences ago, but his voice is irritating, grating, and infuriating. That said, the cartoon is clearly popular enough to be doing something right. What resonates with kids doesn't always resonate with adults, and that's fine. Plus, the voice actor was simply a human being trying to do a good job and earn a check. Hard to blame someone for that, especially in an underappreciated profession like voice acting.
Except people totally did. Caillou's voice and demeanor were so reviled by anyone over age three that the show canceled itself to figure out what went wrong. When they came back, the show was completely retooled to make the main character less of an insufferable jerk.
Now, trying something, failing, and taking a break isn't a bad thing, but in the interim, between going off-air and rebooting, Caillou's voice actor died unexpectedly in a car crash. Jaclyn Linetsky was just 17 years old when a minivan she was in collided with a tractor-trailer, killing her and fellow teenage actor Vadim Schnieder.
How did the producers honor Linetsky's death? Hiring a new actor and rebooting the show. The show rebooted itself, both figuratively and literally. A real actual tragedy happened, and the show just moved on ... still being hated. Imagine your life's work being totally reviled, then dying, then your bosses deciding that you are so totally replaceable that, in fact, it's better if you're replaced. Sure does inspire a lot of confidence in the inherent value of existing, doesn't it?
Boy, this got dark, and it's about to stay there because …
The Longest-Running Elmo Puppeteer Was Credibly Accused of Sexually Assaulting Teenagers
In a fictional universe where every character is designed to be good with kids, the soprano-voiced child monster Elmo is an especially big hit. Despite not being an original character in the show, Elmo has become so popular on Sesame Street that he's spun off into other shows and an inexplicably beloved toy line. He's insanely popular with toddlers in a way that, like Calliou, makes little sense to adults. My own two-year-old will only watch Elmo segments of Sesame Street. On the flip side, his aunt and uncle (both with acting and screenwriting backgrounds, plus two-year-olds of their own) have told me they hate Elmo so much they hold him personally responsible for ruining the writing on Sesame Street. To be honest, I think Elmo's the puppet embodiment of the shrug emoji, but I totally see where they're coming from.
All that said, Elmo clearly strikes some nerve with toddlers, which is why it was so shocking and upsetting when puppeteer Kevin Clash was accused of sexually abusing three men when they were teenagers. The cases did get dismissed ... on statute of limitations technicalities. Clash, for his part, denies the allegations to this day but still stepped away from the show. So while we legally cannot assert that the voice of a puppet who kisses babies every single episode is a creep, it does ... let's be careful here, how to put this delicately, let's check with legal ... inspire some queasiness. Yes, queasiness. That's the word.
Boy, I really feel awful about those two entries. Let's bring Blue back in here to lighten things up …
The Reboot Of Blue's Clues Auditioned John Cena, Hired Someone Who Could Probably Beat Up John Cena
Finally, back on the wholesome train, thank the gods. Okay. So Steve from Blue's Clues quit for reasonable reasons, but the show kept going. That means a new host. After Steve left, the producers set up an exhaustive search for a new host, eventually casting Donovan Patton. Much like with Steve, Patton was put through an intense auditioning process involving 1,500 other candidates. The Blue's Clues producers don't play around. Then Patton left, the show went off the air for 13 years until it was rebooted in 2019.
So what about casting for the recent revival? All these rigorous casting standards mean you kinda have to try every idea at least once. And apparently, one of those ideas was auditioning John Cena. No, there aren't two John Cenas. They really entertained the idea of hiring a 250-pound chiseled brick of muscle, most famous wearing jorts and elbow-dropping people, to host a show where a cartoon dog creates riddles for preschoolers.
Don't worry, though. They still picked someone you could trust in a fight.
The 2019 revival of Blue's Clues, now called Blue's Clues and You, is hosted by Josh Dela Cruz. On camera, Josh is cheery, charming, and forever wrapped in a sensible blue sweater. Off-camera, well ... I'll let Twitter user @shania_twink say it.
See, Josh does both Crossfit and Brazilian jiu-jitsu as, like, a way to wake himself up in the morning. Seriously, he couldn't be more casual about doing workouts that would make most people's hearts burst. Which means the infectious smile and beautiful singing voice you see on the show is the tip of the iceberg, except "iceberg" here means "absolutely jacked physique." No, I'm not jealous; please stop asking.
Anyway, free pitch for the next WrestleMania: John Cena v Josh Dela Cruz. If David Arquette can win a WCW title while promoting an awful movie that I, uh, ahem, definitely didn't see in theaters on its opening weekend when I was 13, surely Vince McMahon can engineer some sort of WWE/Nickelodeon crossover. Maybe maybe I'm the only audience for this, but let's make it happen. Josh's finishing move could be something like "let's find a clue," and then a blue puppy paw print appears on Cena's face, and Josh smacks him. Or maybe instead of folding chairs, Josh smacks Cena over the brain with his handy dandy notebook. Or we could play off the "three clues" format of Blue's Clues with the three-count in wrestling somehow, I don't know, just spitballing here. Hang on, this isn't a free pitch anyone, I have to go find the number to the WWE writers' room …
Chris was never successful in calling the WWE because his kid woke up from a nap. In addition to mainlining children's television, he has a Twitter, an album, and a podcast about poetry.
Top image: American Public Television, MTV Networks, Kathy Hutchins/Shutterstock