16 Treasure-Filled Facts About Blue’s Clues


In the summer of 1994, Nickelodeon handed three novice producers a monumental task: Create a hit television show for preschoolers, and do it on a shoestring budget. After 30 days holed up in a tiny conference room high above Times Square, the three came up a puzzle-based show starring a little blue dog. Over the course of 11 years, Blue’s Clues not only became the hit Nickelodeon sought—it exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations. On the 20th anniversary of the show's premiere episode, we look back at Blue, Steve, Joe, and the show that redefined children’s television.


Todd Kessler, Angela Santomero, and Traci Paige Johnson—the trio that developed Blue’s Clues—wanted the show to be entertaining as well as educational. Along with co-creator Santomero, who had a master’s degree in child developmental psychology from Columbia University, the team enlisted the help of educators and consultants to craft a format that reflected the latest research in early childhood development.

Instead of the varied, nonlinear format popularized by Sesame Street and geared toward short attention spans, the team developed a narrative format. To keep kids engaged, they enlisted their help by having host Steve Burns pose questions to the camera, then pause to hear their answers. Simple, recognizable objects and sounds became the clues that eased young viewers into each episode, while the puzzles grew more challenging without becoming frustrating. The show had its own research department, which was rare for a kids’ program. Its research-based approach became what the production team called the "special sauce" in its recipe for success.


The Blue’s Clues team wanted to promote mastery in children—that feeling that they were experts on a given topic. More than memorization or rote learning, mastery boosts kids’ self-esteem and ensures they’ll internalize information, which in turn better prepares them for school. Enforcing mastery requires repetition. So the show’s script repeated key words and phrases over and over in varying contexts. In the episode "Blue’s Predictions," for example, second host Joe says the word "predict" 15 times to help viewers become acquainted with the word. After finding that kids' engagement with the show increased with repeat viewings, Nickelodeon decided to air the same episode every day for a week before moving on to a new one.


After each script was finished, the show’s research team would test it on a classroom full of preschoolers, noting how the children responded to the material. The team would move on to another group, and then another, using the kids' reactions to further develop the episode as it went into the animation phase. All told, each episode took around nine to 10 months to produce.


Because they were working with such a limited budget, the production team provided voices for the show themselves rather than hire talent. Nick Balaban, who composed the music, played the role of Mr. Salt, while his co-composer, Michael Rubin, provided the voice of The Sun. In determining who would play the part of Blue, the team went around the table to see who had the best bark. The winner was co-creator Traci Paige Johnson, who filled the role throughout the show’s run.


Johnson, Santomero, and Kessler’s first choice for their show’s main character was an orange cat named Mr. Orange. They didn’t like that color, so they turned the cat blue and named him Mr. Blue. However, Nickelodeon already had an animated series in the pipeline that featured a cat, so the network asked the team to pick a different animal. "We thought, it couldn’t be a little puppy, could it?" said Johnson in a behind-the-scenes special celebrating the show’s 10th anniversary. The team made the switch.


In the anniversary special, Balaban gave viewers a taste of the voice he initially gave Mr. Salt. "'Ey Mrs. Pepper! Blue’s in the kitchen and looks like he could use a little help," the composer bellowed, in an accent reminiscent of The Sopranos’s leading mobster. Balaban quickly shifted to a softer-sounding French accent after the production team deemed the accent too gruff.


TV Guide cover in 1998. Jim Ellwanger via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

In conceiving the show, the production team envisioned a female host interacting with Blue and the gang. When it came time to cast the show, though, they opened up auditions to both male and female actors. After looking at more than 1000 eager young aspirants, they found that Steve Burns, a 22-year-old whose only previous credits included an episode of Law & Order and a Dunkin' Donuts commercial, got the best response from test audiences. "There was something about this kid fresh out of Pennsylvania," said Johnson in the anniversary special. "He knew just how to look into the camera and talk to the kids."


As a young actor, Burns didn’t have his sights set on a kids’ show—quite the opposite, in fact. "I had moved to New York to become Serpico," he said in a 2010 monologue at The Moth, a storytelling venue located in New York. As such, Burns sported a grungy '90s look, complete with long hair, earrings, and facial stubble. Before he auditioned for Blue’s Clues, Johnson called up Burns' agent and told him to clean up his appearance before he came in. He did, and immediately went from tough guy to kiddie favorite.


In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Burns joked that his signature green polos were "carefully handmade to be as uncomfortable as possible." The shirts were a hit with kids, of course—perhaps too much so. After parents complained to the network that their children wouldn’t take off their green polo shirts—because Steve never did—producers decided to give replacement host Donovan Patton (a.k.a. Joe) a more varied wardrobe.


After being named one of People Magazine’s most eligible bachelors in 2000, Burns started getting a lot of date requests. One that particularly interested him came from a swimsuit model, who mailed him a picture with her phone number. Burns called and arranged dinner, and agreed to pick her up at her home in New Jersey. When he finally met her, he discovered a significant size difference between the two of them (Burns is 5’6”). Eager to impress, he saw a sign in front of her neighbor’s house for a Blue’s Clues themed birthday party. "I had the green polo and some toys in the back of my car," he said during his appearance at The Moth. "And I thought, 'This is the only game you’ve got right now.'" Bewildered parents watched as the television host burst onto the scene and entertained the delighted crowd. The party was a complete success. The rest of the date? Not so much.


With more than 14 million young viewers tuning in every week, Blue’s Clues had massive earning potential in licensed toys, clothes, games, and other products. But Nickelodeon and the show’s creators didn't just lend Blue's image to any candy company or board game maker that came calling. Knowing that the show’s popularity came from its ability to educate and empower children, the team carefully reviewed every licensing opportunity. Many companies were turned away.

In reviewing a proposal from a clothing company, the Blue’s Clues team interviewed parents about their kids' clothing needs. "We thought, what can we do to help children dress themselves?" Alice Wilder, director of research and development for the show, said in an interview. The result: a line of clothing with elastic waistbands and big buttons that color-matched with each buttonhole.


When Blue’s Clues premiered in 1996, its main competition was Sesame Street, which had been on the air for nearly three decades. Within just a few years, Nickelodeon’s little blue dog had eclipsed Big Bird and company, prompting the PBS mainstay to change its long-standing format to include more interactive segments and other elements that appealed to preschoolers.


In 2001, at the height of Blue's Clues's popularity, Burns suddenly announced he was quitting the show. The decision rocked the production team, who tried desperately to persuade him to stay. And it would go on to shock TV watchers, fueling death rumors that grew so pervasive, Burns had to go on The Rosie O’Donnell Show to prove he was still alive. But Burns had his reasons.

In an interview with SPIN, Burns talked about a party he had gone to the year before where he heard The Flaming Lips' album The Soft Bulletin for the first time. "It completely rearranged my head," Burns told the magazine. The whimsical, yearning alt-rock inspired Burns to begin writing music again, something he had done as a teenager growing up in rural Pennsylvania. After quickly penning three dozen songs, Burns knew he wanted to pursue a music career. In 2003 he made good on his decision, releasing Songs for Dustmites, a critically acclaimed album that featured The Flaming Lips' Steven Drozd on drums.


In the years since his departure, Burns has revealed that his hair loss also influenced his decision to leave. "I refused to lose my hair on a kids' TV show, and it was happening fast," he said in the anniversary special. Burns has also discussed how the show's runaway success made him uncomfortable, particularly since he didn't intend to make a career in children's television. "I began thinking, do they have the right guy here?" he said during his Moth monologue. "Maybe they need a teacher or a child development specialist. I was very, very conflicted about it."


Having never watched Blue’s Clues, the 24-year-old actor who would replace Burns thought the show was about a dog that played blues music. Luckily, that didn’t affect his audition for the role of replacement host. Like Burns, Patton was a hit with preschool test audiences—a reception he credited to a warm relationship with his 5-year-old sister. Burns worked extensively with Patton, and in 2002 viewers watched as Steve went off to college and his younger brother, Joe, took over.


In the years since Blue’s Clues debuted, study after study has venerated the show’s effectiveness as an educational tool. Researchers at the University of Alabama found that regular viewers displayed increased learning comprehension over non-viewers. Another study from Vanderbilt University suggested that the show’s participatory format increased social interaction in children, while others have shown that watching Blue’s Clues enhanced kids’ vocabulary. Imitation may be the greatest testament to the show’s value, with programs like Dora the Explorer following the interactive path Blue’s Clues set down.

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10 Perfect Gifts for The Pop Culture Connoisseur in Your Life

Funko/Pinsantiy/Lil Cinephile/Amazon
Funko/Pinsantiy/Lil Cinephile/Amazon

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Over the past year, most everyone has been marinating in all kinds of pop culture. More than any other era, this moment in time has revealed how much we as a society should value our creators and artists. From cinematic comfort food to walks down nostalgia lane, the holiday season is a perfect time to celebrate the pop culture moments and icons that have kept us happy, engaged, and awed.

Here are 10 perfect gifts the pop culture connoisseur in your life is sure to love.

1. A is for Auteur; $30

Lil Cinephile/Amazon

The same team that put out the delightful, surprisingly adaptable Cinephile card game ($18) last year is out with a new book perfect for the cineastes in your life who love Agnès Varda. This alphabet book goes from A (Paul Thomas Anderson) to Z (Fred Zinnemann) and celebrates the unique elements of more than two dozen filmmakers’ careers. It’s a tongue-in-cheek delight, and if you don’t actually want your child to know about Quentin Tarantino just yet, it makes a gorgeous addition to any adult’s coffee table.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Schitt’s Creek Funkos; 4 for $77


Eww, David! This set is ideal for fans of the Rose family who’d love Moira, Johnny, David, and Alexis peering down on them as they work or sleep or fold in the cheese. If you’re going the extra mile, grab the Amish David edition with hoodie, sunglasses, and rake. Individual figures run from $9-$30, and they all pair perfectly with a banana rosé.

Buy Them: Amazon

3. The Bruce Lee Criterion Collection; $68

Criterion Collection/Amazon

This is a stunning collection showcasing the best of the best of a true master alongside Criterion’s usual insightful commentary. Enter the Dragon has never been released as part of a collection before, and it stands as the crown jewel among The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon, and the infamous Game of Death—all digitally restored in either 2K or 4K. The collection also features documentaries about Lee; an interview with his widow, Linda Lee Caldwell; and a conversation about the “Bruceploitation” subgenre that blossomed following Lee's untimely death.

Buy It: Amazon

4. NES Cartridge Coasters; $11

Paladone Products Ltd./Amazon

For the entertainer happy to have guests place their IPAs on SM3. These stylish coasters will protect your tables from coffee rings, wine stains, and barrels thrown by kidnapping apes. Plus, you won’t have to blow into these if they’re not loading correctly.

Buy Them: Amazon

5. Van Buren Boys Tee; $16

Underground Printing/Amazon

Deep into its eighth season, Seinfeld was still making iconic, quote-worthy moments. With this pre-shrunk, 100 percent cotton T, your favorite fan of the show about nothing can celebrate the comical street gang named for the 8th president (and the first president hailing from New York). It’s a handsome, comfortable shirt that comes in four colors and goes great with a Lorenzo’s pizza.

Buy It: Amazon

6. This Television History Puzzle; $49

White Mountain Puzzle/Amazon

This pop collage of more than 250 stars and scenes from TV’s past is a 1000-piece puzzle from acclaimed artist James Mellett. It’s probably the only image in existence where Kunta Kinte is between Superman, Gumby, and Norm and Cliff from Cheers. A gorgeous walk down memory lane, it’s also a healthy challenge that, at 24x30, would make a fine wall hanging if you don’t want to toss it back into the box.

Buy It: Amazon

7. Pictures at a Revolution; $17

Penguin Books/Amazon

Entertainment Weekly veteran Mark Harris is one of the most respected film historians of this generation, and this book, which goes deep on five pivotal films, is a must-have for serious cinephiles. Exploring Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Look Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and the surprise box office bomb Doctor Doolittle, Harris explores how 1967 marked a tectonic shift in American cultural preferences. Pair it with Five Came Back for bonus gifting points (and a book you can watch together on Netflix).

Buy It: Amazon

8. The Art of Mondo; $44

Insight Editions/Amazon

This is high on the list of gifts you’ll end up keeping for yourself. This sublime book boasts 356 pages of gorgeous prints from everyone’s favorite films. Cult, classics, blockbusters, and buried gems, the Austin-based Mondo is world-renowned for limited release posters from the best artists on the planet. One sheets typically sell for hundreds of dollars, so this book is the cheapest way to get them all. For your friend, of course. Right?

Buy It: Amazon

9. A Princess Bride Enamel Pin; $10


I do not think this pin means what you think it means. This playful piece features Vizzini’s shouting face above a stately “Inconceivable!” banner. It’s made of quality metal with vibrant enamel colors, and buying it should also send you down a rabbit hole looking for dozens of other pop culture pins.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Marvel’s Greatest Comics; $23


Someone in your life is bound to want three pounds of Marvel comics. This definitive tome showcases 100 issues that changed the world and built a powerhouse pop culture company, from Marvel #1 in 1939 to Avengers #6 in 2018. The eye-popping artwork is accompanied by smart commentary from industry trailblazers and experts, which makes it as informative as it is entertaining. Just remember to say “Pow!” when you gift it.

Buy Them: Amazon

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