it's the pre-dinner hour, or 1:30 in the afternoon, or 11 a.m. -- one of
those no-man's-land times in the daily battle of entertaining one's
children. Accompanied by shouting and strange, exaggerated but infectious
music, a revolving, disembodied head appears before you. But this time it's
a friendly one.
"Hey kids," you call down the hallway. "Bill Nye is on."
No response from the children of appropriate television age. The
baby continues to hum happily to herself and pluck microscopic chip crumbs
from the carpet. So you sit on the floor and watch Bill Nye the
Science Guy unload his boundless enthusiasm for the prosaic and exotic
workings of the everyday world. The embodiment of the word "lanky," dressed
always in a natty bow tie and baby blue lab coat, Bill Nye reveals the
mysteries of science to a school-age audience raised on MTV and a societal
disregard for knowing how the water gets into a toilet. The show (jointly
sponsored by PBS and the Walt Disney Company's syndication arm, Buena Vista
Television) is smart, ironic and lively, and so is Bill.
There are lots -- well, a few, anyway -- of men loitering near the dance
floor in the meat market of children's television. There's Mister Rogers,
of course, untouched by the gnarly black finger of scandal throughout his
long career of speaking gently to preschoolers. There's a likable, earnest
young man in khaki pants, Steve, the host of Nickelodeon's "Blue's Clues,"
who seems like somebody's younger brother in his first real job after
college. There's Marc Weiner of Nickelodeon's "Weinerville," a truly
talented and twisted puppeteer with a bizarre, funny and fascinating show.
There's LeVar Burton, who before becoming the host of PBS's "Reading
Rainbow" played an alien in permanently affixed sunglasses on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (and launched his career as the young Kunta Kinte in
the landmark miniseries "Roots"). There's also Wishbone, the Jack Russell
terrier star of his own PBS show, if you want to count dogs.
And then there's Bill Nye, a skinny ex-engineer (for Boeing) with a
genuine passion for science and a quick wit -- a guy who says that he
decided to study mechanical engineering so that he could learn to fix his
bicycle and who swears that his favorite book is Strunk and White's
"Elements of Style." Bill Nye is a dyed-in-the-wool geek -- maybe not the
guy you hoped would ask you out to a movie after striking up a conversation
in the laundromat, certainly the guy you hoped would be your lab partner in
biology class, or would happen by when you got a flat tire on a quiet road
at 1 o'clock in the morning.
But in one of those amazing, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction
"Revenge of the Nerds" turnabouts, the guy you may have overlooked when you
were nubile and available is now suddenly very appealing. Moms all over the
country are watching Bill Nye, sometimes when their kids are still at
school, and even sending for Bill's free "Official Way Cool Lab Book o'
Science" under assumed names -- for themselves.
Just how lovable is Bill Nye, the most eligible bachelor on children's
television? Let me count the ways.
Bill wears his nerdiness like a badge of honor. He seems to
make no effort to salvage his dignity, unlike most men, who stare in
catlike disbelief in the direction of their minor humiliations. (I have
noticed, though, that Bill may exercise a judicious use of the W.C. Fields
rule, as he tends not to share many scenes with children and animals.)
Unlike your husband, whose ego stays afloat buoyed by the
assumption that he's still hip, suave and in control and thus sexy, Bill is
sexy because he is so guileless. He has no pretense of hipness or suaveness
When Bill is around, he tends to be the only man in whom you
could reasonably have an interest. In fact, when Bill is around, he tends
be the only man around, period. If Bill comes on at 5, it almost feels
like cocktail hour.
Bill is boyish in a mannish way. No one would mistake his
enthusiasm for immaturity -- it's purely, simply enthusiasm, cut with a
healthy dose of scientific awe.
Bill is nice to kids in a way that doesn't arouse your
suspicions. He addresses children with respect.
You get the idea that Bill really likes his job.
Bill says that his brother is the most influential person in his
life, as well as the funniest. This is the kind of sincerity that can make
someone fall in love with him on the spot.
According to the New York Times, Bill barbecues
salmon, wrapped in a wet lettuce leaf and accompanied by a homey little
salad, for lunch.
Some time in the waning minutes of an episode called "Probability,"
which prompts you to indulge in a consideration of the probability of
certain types of unlikely occurrences in your own life, two pirates appear
in the doorway. One is wearing a woven Guatemalan belt to hold his sword
on. The other has a plastic hook hand and clip-on earrings.
"It's Bill Nye," one of them mumbles as they gather around you on the
carpet. "Why didn't you call us?"
For a moment you think about telling them that you did call, and you
think, too, a tiny bit defensively, about explaining why you were watching
the show by yourself. But you think better of it, because kids just aren't
going to understand what their mother sees in Bill Nye. And it's a good