On September 20th, 2016 CMA members gathered to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Blue’s Clues, regarded as “one of the most successful, critically acclaimed, and ground-breaking preschool television series of all time.” Like most children of the 90’s, I can vividly recall many mornings spent singing along with Steve, Joe, Blue, Mailbox, and the whole Blue’s Clues gang. I’ll admit that I was a little star struck listening to Angela Santomero and Traci Paige Johnson, the co-creators of the show, and Donovan Patton (Joe) speak about their success on the series that most inspired me to pursue a career in children’s television.
These children’s media superstars were kind enough to “clue us in” to how they created their hit series by leaving us with a special set of clues found through their experience.
“A clue, a clue!”
As a young researcher working at Nickelodeon, Angela knew the importance of building a winning brand. Having sat in on deal breaking development meetings, she knew what questions to expect when pitching a potential show’s brand, accessibility, and proof of concept. From the striking blue paw print logo, to the show’s signature storybook design, to the decision that the host speak directly and conversationally to his audience, Blue’s Clues had all the makings of a clear, compelling, and captivating brand. Angela reminds us that creators must not lose sight of the key elements that make their show unique, as it is those touch points which keep it from falling prey to the whims of current trends.
Blue’s Clues stood apart from its noisy cartoon counterparts with its groundbreaking and deliberate use of silence. Donovan pointed out that with the choice to include an attention grabbing gap in the show’s theme song and the discerning use of music accompanying the host throughout each episode, the creators kept preschoolers focused and engaged by introducing quieter and calmer storytelling into children’s television. Traci credited the show’s slower pace and thoughtful pauses as inspired by the work of Fred Rogers of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood which made this style famous.
In a show striving for an original yet simple soundscape, the music played an essential role. The creators selected some of the best musicians in the business to score Blue’s world with tail wagging jazz music that delighted viewers of all ages. Michael Rubin, one of the two composers that brought us Blue’s tunes, was also in attendance and greeted the audience from his seat as the Mailbox which he voiced for the majority of the show’s run. (To learn more about Rubin’s work as a composer/ songwriter for children’s TV, check out this writeup of our “Putting the Tunes in Cartoons” event where he was a panelist!)
When it comes to creating kid’s content good enough to eat, Yummico creator Traci knows a thing or two about serving up a feast for the eyes. According to Traci, the creative team behind Blue’s Clues used “yummy” as a buzzword to describe their desired aesthetic. As the artistic head of the show, Traci wanted to design a world viewers felt that they could “reach out, touch, and jump into”, a place where kids felt right at home. For inspiration, Traci and the team turned to the “yumminess” of Cookie Monster’s appearances gobbling goodies on Sesame Street and the immersive sweetness of the the factory floor in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The result was the bright, multi layered, and textured look of the show heralded for its innovative cutout style of animation.
Angela noted that, from the beginning, their goal was to empower, challenge, and build the self esteem of their young viewers. Keeping this mission in mind helped guide the major decision making of the show. For instance, Blue’s Clues was one of only a few shows at the time to have its own child development research team. With a background in research herself, Angela said that the role of research should be about more than just selling a curriculum. Often times, she said, development teams make the mistake of hiring a research “consultant” to appease network heads rather than to sincerely enhance their show. The Blue’s Clues team did their homework, and it showed. Their findings regarding children’s need for repetition to help build competence and confidence led to the show’s format as well as to their groundbreaking decision to air the same episode every day for a week. It was a combination of proper research and a grounding in the show’s core mission that led to the show’s success.
Our next clue served as an important reminder to all the potential creators in the audience that it truly takes a village to create a successful series. What made Blue’s Clues remarkable was more than just the many innovations it brought to the children’s media stage- it was the collaboration of gifted and creative professionals who contributed their education, talent, and experience to make these innovations possible. Angela remarked that she has worked on several talented production teams over the course of her career, but for Blue’s Clues “the stars were truly aligned”. Each department was brilliant and committed to the show’s mission, such as the animators who would often stay overnight to complete their work. To be successful, Angela cited the need to surround yourself with team players of all types and talents who will unite under a single vision and work diligently to bring it to life.
According to Traci, the heart of a children’s show comes from harnessing your individual inspiration stemming from the things that captivated you as a child. For instance, in creating the “yummy” look of the world, Traci turned to her love of arts and crafts as a child. She based the striated and monochromatic color scheme of every room in Blue’s house on the rows of colorful supplies she recalled being mesmerized by during trips to the craft store, and the show’s “Felt Friends” segments on the felt boards she loved to play with as a child. Her love of Fruit Stripe gum became Steve’s iconic green polo. When the show’s producers couldn’t afford to hire outside talent for the role, Traci gave life to Blue herself as her voice for the entirety of the series.
As we learned, creating a hit show requires genuine passion and a creative connection to your own life experience- it’s not enough to create a cookie cutter version of what you think a network might want. To create for kids, inspiration must be authentic and come from within.
According to Angela, it didn’t matter what the network wanted, what parents wanted, or even what the creators wanted- at the end of the day for the show to be successful it had to be kid tested and approved. The mission of empowering children was always at the core of the show’s mission and brand, with ample research conducted to better understand how best to reach their young viewers. When put to the test in focus groups, kids ultimately played a major role in swaying the creators most critical decisions, such as casting Steve Burns and Donovan Patton as the show’s host. Angela and Traci knew they had created something special when they observed split screen footage of children from their focus groups and witnessed their unbridled enthusiasm as they reacted alongside the show. In fact, the children’s reactions were so enthusiastic that their parents even asked to buy copies of the demo episode being shown in testing! When it comes to assessing winning children’s shows, no one has a better clue than kids themselves.
Donovan spoke to the importance of breaking down the monumental task of entertaining and inspiring children to the essentials. He attributes his successful succession hosting Blue’s Clues as Joe to the thorough training and advice he received from Steve Burns, the original host. Among the most important pointers he received was to always imagine that he was talking to just one child when he addressed the camera. As the only human actor in a green screened world, this advice kept him focused and mindful when filming.
When Donovan said that he missed Steve, Angela and Traci laughed and jokingly reassured the audience “But he’s still alive!” Regarding the supposed scandal surrounding Steve’s departure from Blue’s Clues, with certain tabloids suggesting that he had died of a drug overdose, Traci and Angela set the record straight. Steve left the show to pursue a career in music and, while initially it was a challenge for the creators, they found an affable and able successor in Donovan.
Once you’ve sniffed out the elements that can make your show great, it’s time to dig deep to the next level. Here Traci discussed the importance of ensuring that every last possible detail of the design, messaging, and writing is original and unique. Blue’s Clues was the first of its kind in many ways. It was the first children’s show to be fully animated using Macintosh computers, the first to introduce the string along narrative style, and one of the first to shatter gender expectations in a subtle but powerful way.
Traci and Angela deliberately chose to have a male host to give children a positive role model for boys asking for help and displaying vulnerability- especially following the industry’s falling out with long time frontman Pee Wee Herman. It is no coincidence that Blue, Magenta, and Green Puppy are all girl characters despite their colors. It is also no coincidence that none of them wore bows. Although many parents assumed that Blue was a boy, Traci said kids paid attention and knew better.
Angela made a point of saying that to fine tune ideas, a team should not spend ten years in development. It is important to get the show out there, assess what works, and keep modifying as you go. She stated that to create something new, creators must be brave with what they want to say. She then left us with this final piece of advice: “Work like you care, because if you care, you just might create something wonderful.” In the case of Blue’s Clue’s, the creators obviously cared a whole lot- and it worked wonderfully.
After we played Angela, Traci, and Donovan’s clues, we exercised our collective overabundance of children’s television knowledge in an epic game of Blue’s Clues trivia! The stakes were high as only the lucky winners walked away with their very own handy dandy notebook and crayon to show off to all the cool kids at school.
While you can’t win your own notebook anymore, you’re sure to “bow wow” any colleague in children’s media with these fast facts about everyone’s favorite blue pup:
What was the original title of Blue’s Clues?
What colored animal did Traci and Angela initially have in mind for their show?
While it’s hard for us to envision Blue’s Clues without Blue, the show began with a pussycat protagonist inspired by a pet owned by one of Traci’s close friends. When she and Angela learned that a feline friend already appeared in another show in development at Nick, they scrapped the cat for a puppy. The cat, which still adorned sketches hung in Angela’s office, eventually appeared as “Orange Kitten” in later seasons of the show.
How many reproductions of the iconic “thinking chair” exist?
The chair was also one of the few items in Blue’s house not created by Traci Paige Johnson- someone working on the show saw the curly armed chair and brought it to the attention of the creative team. They obtained the permission of the artist to use the design, and from there Steve and Joe were sitting pretty.
Into how many languages was Blue’s Clues translated?
That’s including American Sign Language! In addition to the international syndications, some countries including South Korea even had their own hosts!
How many people auditioned to replace Steve Burns as the host of Blue’s Clues?
But as we learned earlier, Donovan Patton was not your Average Joe! He claimed that he snagged the role because, like Burns, he could pull off an impressive Christopher Walken impression. Somewhere exists a tape of his audition with him and Steve acting out a scene of Blue’s Clues as a pair of Walkens!
Aside from clues, what else can viewers spot three of in every episode?
These smiling snails slid into nearly every scene of Blue’s beloved house- but NEVER appeared in the kitchen. Said Traci, “Angela thought that would be gross!” Angela agreed.
Trivia was followed with networking and noshing on delicious party treats, including these beautiful Blue’s Clues cupcakes.
Thank you to everyone who came out to celebrate- especially to our guests of honor Traci Paige Johnson, Angela Santomero, and Donovan Patton. As hopeful artists, researchers, actors, and children’s media creators, we aim to follow in your paw prints. Learning from you makes us feel that “we can do anything that we wanna do.”