Parents, listen up – it turns out there are some interesting things to know about Blue’s Clues! Not the least of which is: the show is now 20 years old. Yeah. I know.
It was way back in 1994 when three novice producers created the hit television show for Nickelodeon. It took them 30 days (and I’m guessing a bunch of pizza) to come up with the puzzle-based show starring a little blue dog, and, from its premier in 1996 through the next 11 years, Blue’s Clues exceeded everyone’s expectations.
So, 20 years later, we’re going to take a look back at Blue, Steve, Joe, and the show that set a new bar for children’s television.
#16. Steve Burns didn’t look the part.
Burns was a young actor with his sights’ set on “serious” projects, and his grungy 90s look–long hair, earrings, stubble, the whole bit–didn’t exactly line up with the host of a children’s show. His agent advised him to clean up his act before arriving for his Blue’s Clues audition, which was clearly great advice.
#15. The producers were very careful about licensing.
Since the team was very aware that much of the show’s popularity was due to its commitment to empower and educate kids, they were very careful when selecting toys, clothes, games, and other products to star in their show–in fact, most companies were turned away. They even went so far as to interview parents about their kids’ clothing needs, as Alice Wilder, director of research and development for Blue’s Clues, pointed out: “We thought, what can we do to help children dress themselves?”
The result was a line of clothing that featured easy to manipulate features like elastic waistbands and extra-big buttons with a color coordinated buttonholes. Pretty cool!
#14. Each episode was field tested three times.
Each script was tested out on a classroom of preschoolers while the show’s research team noted how the children responded. They repeated the test on 3 groups, and then used the kids’ reactions to further develop each episode as it continued through the animation process. Every episode took 9-10 months to produce.
#13. Blue’s Clues convinced Sesame Street to change its format.
Within just a few years of its 1996 debut, Blue’s Clues had eclipsed the old standard in ratings, prompting PBS to change to a more interactive format, as well as employ other elements that appealed to preschoolers.
#12. Mr. Salt originally sounded like Tony Soprano.
In an anniversary special, composer Nick Balaban gave viewers a peek at Mr. Salt’s initial voice, which sounded exactly like The Soprano’s godfather figure. He quickly switched to a softer, French accent after it was decided that the initial choice was too gruff.
#11. The Flaming Lips inspired Burns to leave the show.
The show was at the height of its popularity in 2001, which is why everyone was shocked when Burns announced he was leaving. The decision horrified producers and shocked his fans to the point that he had to go on The Rosie O’Donnell Show just to prove he was still alive.
Burns had his reasons, though. In an interview with SPIN, he said it began when he heard The Flaming Lips‘ album The Soft Bulletin for the first time: “It completely rearranged my head.”
He was inspired to start writing music again, and after getting 3 dozen songs down on paper, Burns knew what he really wanted was a career in music. In 2003, he released Songs for Dustmites, a critically acclaimed album that featured none other than Steven Drozd (of The Flaming Lips) on drums.
#10. Steve’s green polo shirts were uncomfortable.
Burns once joked with a reporter from Entertainment Weekly that his signature polos were “carefully handmade to be as uncomfortable as possible.” He caught a break after parents started complaining that their kids were refusing to change out of their green shirts “because Steve never did,” leading producers to give him a more varied wardrobe.
#9. The show was steeped in research.
The idea for the show was that it would be educational as well as entertaining. One of the co-creators, Angela Santomero, had a master’s degree in child developmental psychology, but even that wasn’t enough.
The team enlisted the help of a group of educators and consultants in an effort to craft a format that took into consideration the latest research in early childhood development. The research-based approach, which was different from the nonlinear format favored by shows like Sesame Street, became known as the “special sauce” in its recipe for success.
#8. Burns had more than one reason to leave the show.
Mainly, he was worried about his hair loss. Truly: “I refused to lose my hair on a kids’ TV show, and it was happening so fast.”
Not only that, but the show’s success had him worried that he’d made the wrong decisions as far as his career: “I began thinking, do they have the right guy here? Maybe they need a teacher or a child development specialist. I was very, very conflicted about it.”
#7. Blue was originally a cat. And orange.
The show’s main character was originally an orange cat named Mr. Orange. They decided they preferred blue, but stuck with the cat, rechristening him Mr. Blue. Then, since Nickelodeon already had another series in the pipeline that featured a cat, the team was asked to choose a different animal. And Blue the puppy was born!
#6. Donovan Patton didn’t know what the show was about when he auditioned.
He was 24, not a parent, and had never seen Blue’s Clues, but none of that affected his audition for the role of the show’s replacement host. Patton was a hit with preschool test audiences, a success he figured he owed to his relationship with his 5-year-old sister.
Steve also worked with Patton to ease the transition, and in 2002, Steve “went off to college,” and his younger brother Joe took over the show.
#5. Repetition was key.
The team at Blue’s Clues wanted children to feel as if they’d mastered a given topic, and that meant repeating it several times to ensure they would internalize the information. The show’s script repeated key words and phrases in different contexts–in the episode “Blue’s Predictions,” second host Joe says the word “predict” 15 times.
What’s more, after the team found that engagement increased with repeated viewings of the same episodes, they decided to air identical shows every day for a week before moving on to a new episode.
#4. Blue’s Clues was very effective.
There have been multiple studies that have proven the show’s effectiveness as an educational tool. Not only do viewers display increased learning comprehension, but it’s also been suggested that the participatory format encouraged social interaction in children, as well as increased vocabulary. The show inspired many others, like Dora the Explorer, to follow the same interactive format.
#3. Steve once crashed a kid’s birthday party.
Surprisingly (I think), Steve Burns was named a most eligible bachelor by People Magazine in 2000. Unsurprisingly, he started to get a whole lot of date requests after that–even a swimsuit model mailed him a picture with her phone number. After realizing that, at 5’6, Burns had a lot to, um, live up to, he was eager to find another way to impress his date.
When he spotted a Blue’s Clues-themed birthday party in her neighborhood, he decided he knew exactly what to do: “I had the green polo and some toys in the back of my car, and I thought, ‘this is the only game you’ve got right now.'”
He crashed the party to bewildered parents and delighted children, but even though the party was a success, his couldn’t say the same for the date.
#2. The original production team provided some of the voices.
The budget for the show was initially limited, so the production team provided voice talent instead hiring actors. Composers Nick Balaban and Michael Rubin voiced Mr. Salt and The Sun, respectively, while the role of Blue went to the team member who had the “best bark.” The winner was co-creator Traci Paige Johnson, who ended up playing the part for the entirety of the show’s run.
#1. The host was supposed to be female.
The production team initially envisioned a female host taking the lead with Blue and the rest of the gang. They opened auditions to both male and female actors, though, and it was 22-year-old Steve Burns who resonated with test audiences. His previous credits included only a single episode of Law & Order and a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial, but producer Johnson knew they’d found their guy: “There was something about this kid fresh out of Pennsylvania. He knew just how to look into the camera and talk to the kids.”