Bill is Truly Still the Nye of All Science Guys
With plans for Bill Nye to appear at Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin, I found myself wondering if my childhood hero was as cool as I remembered him. Turns out, he’s cooler.
By Kara Roberts, University of Texas at Austin
Many years have passed and many bowties have gone out of style since Bill Nye the Science Guy retired from his show on PBS Kids in 1998.
If you’re a product of the 90’s, chances are Bill made an appearance in your elementary school science classes, seeing as the man pretty much singlehandedly invented video day. Remember the feeling of walking into class and seeing the lights off, a TV set up in the front and feeling your juvenile worries just melt away? Yeah, Bill was a real bro. And even though it’s a decade later and we’re all grown up, he’s still our science guy.
Cue the 90’s hip hop hype crew.
“Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill!”
Since “retiring,” Bill has co-developed the MarsDial used in Mars Exploration Rover missions, drawn five million viewers to watch him debate Ken Ham about evolution, discussed science education and climate change with Obama and even patented ballet point shoes. Yes, underneath that baby blue lab coat is one of the great progressive thinkers of our generation.
And there’s no real modern equivalent to Bill. A long time ago a cosmic niche was made for Bill Nye, which has since been filled by Bill Nye and will always be occupied by Bill Nye until the world ends. He’s the Richard Simmons of science education, so it’s no surprise that his show is now available on Netflix for teachers to stream. In fact, if I could give only one compliment to Bill and his team, I would point out how well they’ve adapted to changing technology over the years.
Apart from being on Netflix, Bill has also created an educational app with Disney (perfect for parents who buy children iPads) and is an active member of Twitter and Instagram with millions of followers. The man is almost 60 years old, but he’s still got selfies with Obama, Steven Tyler and Weird Al.
But when I saw Bill was going to be at Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin, I wondered: is Billy Nye really still cool? Would I still find him informative and entertaining at the same time? Would I maybe be somehow attracted to him? I decided to do a little experiment. I re-watched several few episodes of Bill on Netflix to see for myself if he still had it, and I’ll admit: it was hard to sit through more than a few episodes. But while it was no Game of Thrones, the caliber of entertainment is higher than any other kid’s educational show I know.
First of all, the commentator sounds like Robert from Everybody Loves Raymond which makes my ears feel like they’re taking a bubble bath, but there’s also more puns and trippy sound effects than the FCC even allows in 21st century television.
There are also guest artists who go by names like “Queen Lighteefa” in the light optics episode, “Billy Ray Cycruits” in the electricity episode and “LL Bloo J” in the episode on birds, the last of which seems openly lascivious. There’s also a tribute to “I Like Big Butts” called “Bill’s Got Boat” that explains water displacement and buoyancy (that’s what they’re calling it these days!), and if that’s not fun for the whole family, I don’t know what is.
And as much as I trust your bong-caked childhood memory, half of the Nye experience is aural, so to help your ears recreate the show’s pandemonium I want you to channel (heh) your inner cartoon network. Think Tom & Jerry or Wile E. Coyote levels of exaggerated sound effects. Every time anything or anyone moves there is AT LEAST one noise to accompany it. Especially when Bill is explaining some scientific theory, literally everything he says is accompanied by a sound effect.
And we’re talking the Chicago Symphony Orchestra here: they’ve got your basic oohs, ahs, pops and swooshes, your more exotic wind chimes and nighttime jungle chatter, and even a few flashy cha-chings and drumrolls, but it’s not always just the sound effect—sometimes there’s a video clip to accompany. For example, one time when Bill’s talking about how light travels through windows, the show suddenly cuts to a clip of a baseball crashing through a glass window and an angry old man screams, “Hey, you crazy kids!” The detail might sound excessive, but it feels right.
Also, the graphics in the show are insane. Let’s start with the intro because re-watching it made me flashback to some powerful childhood feels. And what I mean by feels is the inexplicable desire to sink into a sofa-sized mountain of Beanie Babies and enjoy a pizza Lunchable with my good friend Bill while we discuss the death of Pluto and the accuracy of the fifth dimension in Interstellar… but I don’t have to tell you that!
The intro theme song is probably the most memorable part of the show and is in consideration for use as the anti-creationism anthem, but it’s deceptively basic. Simple, yet brilliant as Bill might say. You also might be tickled to know that the song was translated into Chinese and sounds like “Beer! Beer! Beer! Beer!” instead of Bill. All “ale” Beer Nye, am I right guys??
As the intro takes flight, the 90s come rushing back to you faster than you can say “R.I.P. Blockbuster.” One second Bill is a floating head and the next there are dinosaur action figures and rockets flying across the screen. Then he’s the final level of human evolution in the March of Progress and then he’s back to being a floating head, but now inside a light bulb.
Volcanoes start to erupt in the background and all the colors invert to the beat of the “Bill” chant.
At one point Bill does jumping jacks and references Jason Mraz with a “fogs up the glass just to see a little clearer” bit. It’s 90’s madness!
If I had to sum it up, I’d call it the least related thirty seconds of science-themed graphics, black and white photographs and animated hooliganism you could ever imagine in sequence. Pretty epic.
The show then usually cuts to a scene of Bill in his lab. Watching it back, the lab seems pretty poorly lit and strangely stocked, but back in the day I remember thinking Bill’s set-up must have been on the cutting edge of scientific technology. I blame Tony Stark’s lab for my modern disillusionment.
Still, the show is only filmed in the lab a fraction of the time, usually jumping from location to location quite a bit, so you don’t feel like you’re trapped in a basement the whole time. The “Nifty Home Experiments” portion of the show, in fact, is always filmed in someone’s—you guessed it—home, but Bill can also get pretty adventurous when he visits live locations.
His whereabouts range from a grocery store (where he wore a wetsuit and flippers), a solar energy farm, a surgical room, a wax-figure warehouse and an active volcano. The list goes on, but the important thing is that these locations usually featured actual professionals with actual careers related to whatever topic the episode is covering. The episode about friction even hosts a sweet old lady who had dedicated her life to studying slugs and all the extraordinary capabilities of their mucus. Bill being Bill would never discriminate against anyone, even slow, spineless creatures—or slugs! (Just a little slug humor for ya ha ha.)
Speaking of old things, there are also a lot of retro videos that pop up throughout the show. Bill seemed to be especially fond of one 1950s couple whose freak son never ate his TV dinner because he was always aggressively eating the insides of slices of Wonder Bread. Maybe you remember the “Wonder Bread kid”— I know I did. He looks like Ralphie from A Christmas Story, and is passionate about his processed carbs.
Possibly the show’s biggest success was that Bill could level with kids without talking down to them. He doesn’t condescend to the kids at all, and in fact they lead most of the experiments and do a lot of the heavy lifting explanation-wise. A lot of other kids educational shows are snooze fests because of their mindless Betty Draper level chitchat, but Bill’s show is entertainment first, with content and presentation right behind. In other words, to amend Bill’s catchphrase slightly, the “science guy rules.”