When the Science Guy Is Still in Short Pants
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Eight-year-old Enzo Monfre bounces like a pinball between exhibits in the Texas Memorial Museum, happily running full speed through what he knows about each one. Seeing the skeleton of a soft-shelled turtle, he chirps, "I caught one once – it tried to bite me!" When his mother tells him that we should all sit down so that we can talk, he smiles nervously: "We are talking." Although shy when caught off guard, Enzo is confident when talking natural science, and that confidence –along with a boatload of charm –might just land him his own television show.
In September 2007, one month after his seventh birthday, Enzo caught an insect and asked his dad, Pete, to film him talking about it. "It took some convincing for him to get me to stop what I was doing that first day. ... I was busy," Pete says. "He just needed me to work the camera; he was ready to go." Pete and his wife, Heidi, have both worked in music, advertising, design, and a number of other media-related jobs, so when they saw how well Enzo performed on camera, editing the video into something professional-looking, writing and performing a theme song for it, and posting it on YouTube for the family to see was a breeze.
After quickly conquering his moment of hesitation at the museum, Enzo explains that he has always loved science, dinosaurs and bugs and astronauts. "When I was younger," he says –as I pause to wonder what "younger" means to an 8-year-old – "I wanted to be a paleontologist or a geologist, and now ... I want to work on a space station and see how insects react in zero gravity. That's what I want to do when I grow up, you know?" It would be easy to write off a different kid, saying, "Yeah, you and every other 8-year-old boy," but considering that Enzo's forged relationships with NASA and the National Wildlife Federation and has already appeared on The Ellen Degeneres Show, it's clear that even if this kid doesn't make it to space, he's certainly going places.
The Monfres never sought out a relationship with the National Wildlife Federation or a guest spot on Ellen; the interest came to them. When Pete edited Enzo's first video, he thought it would be fun to add "Enzoology.com" to the end of it, as though Enzo's show were "real." Within a day of posting that video, Pete was receiving messages from strangers asking why the Enzoology site wasn't working. The Monfres decided that if other children were going to be watching Enzo's show, it should be off YouTube and on its own kid-friendly site, and in a whirlwind, Degeneres' staff, as well as multiple talent agencies and cable networks, were courting Enzo, trying to make his spark their own.
Last November, within two months of making his first video, Enzo flew out to L.A. to film an episode of Ellen. "We honestly thought that we would make some little videos that Enzo would enjoy, and we'd get a few hits on YouTube, and Grandma would like it, but we didn't expect all of this," Pete says. In the midst of the YouTube generation, maybe the Monfres shouldn't have been so surprised when Enzo's videos began generating fans outside the family. Then again, Enzo isn't exactly cut from the same cloth as Tay Zonday or the boy who cries about Britney Spears well past the smeary point at which any self-respecting fanboy would let his mascara run. But rather than hurt his popularity, that difference may end up offering Enzo greater lasting power than most Internet sensations enjoy.
While many Web stars tend to be caricatures, Enzo has sincerity on his side. Rather than make an effort to be "the science kid," insistently interested in only provable facts and figures, he talks comfortably about the normal things he enjoys, such as tae kwon do and "horror movies, because it takes a lot to scare me." He laughs about the raccoons that steal figs from the yard; says that he likes to "go exploring" in the woods around his house, looking for animal bones; and insists that the time he "flipped out" because a snake was slithering over his foot, the problem wasn't that he is "afraid of snakes – it just really startled me." The things Enzo talks about and enjoys reveal him to be a fairly normal 8-year-old boy who happens to be a little more infatuated with science than others, and his casual, just-a-kid-having-fun attitude is what really makes his show shine. Essentially a journal of his scientific inquiry and exploration, the show features Enzo sometimes in his back yard just outside of Austin, explaining the markings on a lizard or the characteristics of a red velvet ant, and sometimes at NASA, wearing his own orange space jumpsuit and miming the proper use of a space toilet. Always, he gives his excited, ad lib best about whichever scientific oddity or factoid has his interest that day. And most importantly, the excitement and energy in his explanations have sparked the interest of other children. Enzo has an innate ability to entertain and educate his peers, something talent agencies have picked up on.
"I captured an insect that I already knew a lot about. I knew a lot about nature and science, and I just kinda felt like wanting to do this," Enzo says of coming up with the idea for a show, as though it were the only logical outcome. His mom, Heidi, explains that he has always been this way. As soon as he learned to talk, he started relaying what he knew – children's stories, beetle facts, anything, really – to other children. The kid just loves to know, and he loves to bring other people into the know, as well. Having his own show "is just another format for him," says Heidi. "He's created something that people love," Pete continues. "And he loves it." It's clear that the Monfres are devoted to Enzo's show; they're less devoted, however, to a pursuit of fame.
In khakis reminiscent of an African safari, Enzo insists that he enjoyed appearing on Ellen. He blurts out that he got to handle "lots of animals" and says, "We went to the beach and Universal Studios," with such excitement that they may as well have been the moon. His parents, however, see the trip as an eye-opening experience. Enzo was promised a rehearsal before the show, that he would know his interview questions, but that never happened. He had to wait in the greenroom for hours, and at first, the show staff didn't want to let his parents backstage with him. Small discomforts to an adult, but his parents want to make sure that as a child, Enzo is handled as such. They want to make sure that he is nurtured, cared for, and that he is always having fun, which is why they ignored the talent agencies and TV networks that called after Enzo's Ellen appearance and took their time in choosing to work with the William Morris Agency's Laurie Pozmantier, who has her own children and understands the Monfres' concerns. And for the same reason, they've chosen representation with Barry Hirsch's law firm, which also represents Wes Anderson, Francis Ford Coppola, and Owen Wilson, among others. They're now assembling a production team and are preparing to go pitch a show – on their own terms –in Los Angeles.
"You know, all of us are fulfilling some of our dreams," Heidi says of Enzo's show. The Monfres feel like they had let themselves get away from their creativity and had been, as Pete puts it, "searching for something to do while we're doing our real work, and this sort of came along. I would much rather grab a video camera and go exploring somewhere than go sit at a desk."
They're also interested in changing the way that kids see science. Pete worries that in our culture, "it's not cool to be smart or be educated and be interested in things. ... There's a reason we import most of our scientific talent." And hopefully, by presenting science through the eyes and passion of a peer, the Monfre family can "offset that a little bit," perhaps "make a tiny dent" in so many people's apathy regarding science and environmentalism. Even Enzo is worried about all "the endangered species out there ... endangered tiger species" and says that the drive of his show "is mostly about saving the environment." But Pete and Heidi have always believed that they don't need a TV show to fulfill the family's dreams.
"We may get a network buyer, may not," Pete says. "We'll take our ball and go home anytime. ... We just want to have fun with this, and if it isn't fun, it won't work." Either way, they'll continue making home videos as long as Enzo is interested and continue trying to get other kids interested in science, but all of their dreams and ambitions take a back seat to what is most important to the Monfres: Enzo's happiness and potential. Heidi says that she hopes every day can be like a field trip for Enzo, that he can get his hands dirty experiencing what he's interested in. They're excited that he'll get to meet his idols and hang with tigers, gain exclusive access at NASA and maybe even be the second-ever ambassador for the National Wildlife Federation, not to mention make videos and play with bugs. But, Pete insists: "At the end of the day, all we're really trying to do is encourage Enzo to reach his potential. We tell him: 'You don't have to be a scientist. You do whatever you want; it doesn't matter, but just do what you want, and that's it.' ... Who cares if it makes money? He gets these amazing experiences. So if that's all we ever get out of it, cool."
Pete and Heidi may be indifferent to fame and fortune, but of course, when Enzo is asked how he feels about being famous, about strangers watching his show and knowing his name, his child's hope is clear. He becomes shy again, smiling and lowering his face so that his halo of curls obscures his eyes: "It kinda feels good."
Spiders, Snakes, and Space: Stuff we learned from Enzoology.com
Using the toilet in space involves foot restraints.
Snakes use their tongues to pick up "scent molecules."
Astronauts don't take showers – they use big wipes instead.
Some tarantulas get big enough to eat mice and birds.
The record lifespan for an African ball python is 47 years.
Boa constrictors don't lay eggs; they give birth to live young.
Tarantulas can throw hairs from their bodies that stick in and irritate the skin of their predators.