Bill Nye was trending on Twitter after his masterful appearance on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. In the bit, Nye uses a blowtorch to light a globe on fire, then encourages viewers to try to figure out how to put it out. He points to the props on the desk: a fire extinguisher, bucket of sand and a blanket, and reminds us there are a lot of things we could do to put it out. “Are any of them free? No, of course not! Nothing’s free, you idiots! Grow the f— up.”
Bill, the icon of America’s youth and education system, dropping several f-bombs over the climate crisis caused Twitter to lose its mind, mostly in a good way. The kids he pied-pipered with “SCIENCE!” (insert Thomas Dolby voice here) are now following BILL! BILL! BILL! online into adulthood and even middle age (after all, his show first appeared in 1993). His energy and enthusiasm have matured somewhat, but he still has a way of cutting through the clutter with TV and internet-friendly tropes that get to the kernel of what matters. Sure, there’s a time to have a debate about climate science, but not while “THE PLANET’S ON F—-NG FIRE!”
I’ve been watching Bill’s unique blend of enthusiasm, naiveté, joie de vivre, and comedy shtick since I first met him after moving to Seattle 30 years ago. Bill had just birthed his Science Guy character, which was regularly featured on “Almost Live!,” Seattle’s long-running late-night comedy show. It was clear even then that Bill had a hit on his hands, because the little studio audience would double in intensity whenever The Science Guy appeared.
I had come to Seattle under contract to write two books with my college writing partner, Ed Wyatt, who had become a regular on the show. I began to contribute as well, and got to know Bill and the others as part of the long running Beatles-influenced spoof bit “The High Fivin’ White Guys,” which poked fun at the inanity of white men being idiots whenever they got together unchecked. Bill made every shoot seem like we were the luckiest people on the planet. “It’s Paris in the ’20s!” he would constantly say about the Seattle era of Northern Exposure, Twin Peaks and grunge.
He envisioned the popularity of his character long before anyone else did. He wisely trademarked the name, and enforced it whenever any other “guys” claiming expertise came along. He took guest roles on small shows, treating each as if it were an audition for an Oscar-winning part. Usually in those roles, he blew stuff up or set stuff on fire.
His exacting nature could be exasperating. On most shoots, our group bounded from scene to scene, person to person, cameraman running alongside in places like Bellevue Square and the Pike Place Market. We couldn’t be sure who would actually end up in a scene. But the ever-assiduous Bill would pull a notepad from his pocket and go up to each person who had tangentially appeared, faithfully recording each name, promising to include them in the ending credits.
And we did. It was exhausting, and I never saw any other on-air personality even remotely pay that kind of attention to people in the background, but Bill knew what a big deal it was to have your name appear in the credits.
Yet, for all of his assiduousness and attention to detail, his rise took years. When I went to New York to promote a book idea that we developed with him, no one seemed to get it. “Mr. Wizard meets MTV,” I would say. I remember famed publisher Peter Workman, of Workman Publishing, say that the idea of science mixed with comedy “Went over my head like the Concorde.” It seems absurd in retrospect, but Bill’s persistence and good nature won the day.
Bill has always understood visual media better than any scientific mind alive today. Who else would set the world on fire with a blowtorch to illustrate climate change? The same guy who made an early appearance on David Letterman by showcasing the “Tower of Fire.” He knew that people loved it when he set stuff on fire and blew things up. So he set stuff on fire and blew things up.
Bill is so many unlikely things. Did you know he won a Steve Martin look-alike contest to launch his career? As he proved on Dancing with the Stars, he’s an excellent dancer. He went to Sidwell Friends, the same Washington, D.C. school that the Obama children attended. He studied at Cornell under Carl Sagan.
Bill has been on the scene for 30 years — 10 years longer than Walter Cronkite, and nearly as long as Alex Trebek. To millennials, he is science. Most of all, though, Bill Nye is a lover of facts and comedy, and not necessarily in that order. In this era of fake everything, he’s the perfect foil for fables.