Among the preschool set, the most watched show in the history of cable TV involves an oversize blue puppy who creates puzzles by planting clues. On Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues (weekdays at 10 am and 12:30 pm), Blue -- a girl doggie who barks but can't speak -- has a human sidekick who speaks directly to several million little viewers each week, helping them to solve those little mysteries.
But in April 2002, a change came over Blue's Clues (now in its sixth season). Incredibly, the human emcee, Steve, was not staring wide-eyed into the camera anymore; he'd gone, we were told, to college. His brother Joe was now handling the duties of guiding toddlers through their clue-finding paces.
Now, when the suits at Nick Jr. see weekly ratings in the range of 11 million viewers, they start thinking national tour -- but for the 30-cities-in-four-months odyssey, the TV Joe, Donovan Patton, wasn't available. Instead, an actor named Meyer deLeeuw was selected to play Joe, because "he has the same look, mannerisms and onstage personality as the character on TV, and the children in the audience easily accept him as Joe," according to the show's Web site. Basically, then, deLeeuw got the job because he resembles the guy who substituted for the guy who got tired of sharing scenes with the guy in the floppy-eared dog suit.
I caught up with deLeeuw, the touring Joe, as he was strolling with his cell phone through the gift shop at Cleveland's Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.
Juvenile Inlander Reporter and Knucklehead: [On the national tour so far,] you've been in Rochester, N.Y.; Omaha, Neb.; Davenport, Iowa; and Cleveland. As far figuring out the clues goes, in which cities do the kids catch on quicker than the adults?
Meyer deLeeuw: "I haven't really noticed any difference."
Says a lot for the parents of Greater Omaha.
ML: "What I will say is that, the bigger the city, the louder the kids are. I mean, we're in Cleveland now, and these kids are loud. But in Davenport, the kids were kinda quiet. I won't say that they weren't outgoing. They were just quiet."
JIRK: How often do bratty kids bug you in public?
ML: "It's not like that. I mean, that happens, especially after the show when we're out at a restaurant or something. The parents will say "Joe! Joe! It's you!" and the kid will just stand there saying nothing."
JIRK: Which of the song lyrics drive you nuts?
ML: "Oh, that's gotta be [the "Blue's Clues Theme Song": "To play Blue's Clues we gotta find... uuuhhh ... paw print!"]. That thing just runs through my head. But still, that's the one we tend to break out into whenever we're out in public after a show, just walking around."
JIRK: You mean the cast actually walks around in public singing the theme song?
ML: Yeah. And we tend to call each other by our stage names. It's interesting the looks you get when, for example, I call my friend Justin "Slippery Soap" -- because that's who he is in the show -- and people will look at us and say, "What's going on here?" Or they'll just tell us to shut up.
JIRK: I've heard that Blue just has no luck at all with the guys ever since this spaying deal. What's the story on that?
ML: "What now?"
[JIRK repeats the question.]
ML: "This spraying deal?"
ML: "Oh, spaying. Ha, that's a good one. I don't know what to say to that one. Let's just say that Blue has a lot of good friends. She just wants to be friends with all the boys."
JIRK: Okay, Blue is always leaving her paw prints around. So imagine you put Blue and Bob the Builder into a room on one side, and across from them you put Barney and the Wiggles. Who kicks ass there? Who walks out of that room alive?
ML: "Let's just say there would be paw prints over everything and everyone. Blue would get her paws all over everybody. She'd be the one to walk outta there, yeah."
JIRK: The rumor around here is that Blue is tired of all this kid stuff; she wants to move up to a starring role in "Law & amp; Order" or "CSI: Miami."
ML: "She'd be good on that. But you know, Blue is the one who leaves the clues. So I don't think she'd be all that good as a detective. I think she'd want to be one of the bad guys."
JIRK: So Blue has a dark side to her character?
ML: Oh, we all have a dark side.
And preschoolers are as likely as ever to display their dark sides if they don't get their way at an event such as a birthday party. And wouldn't you know it? The 90-minute live show depicts Blue's birthday party, with Joe searching around and Blue dropping hints about what present she'd like most.
But even before all those hundreds of kids get their hands on their handy-dandy notebooks and crayons, I can tell you right now who did it: It was Blue's best friend, Periwinkle the cat... with the scissors... in the rumpus room.