Steve from “Blue’s Clues” Has Millennials in a Chokehold (And I Feel Fine)
If there’s one thing to count on in this unpredictable world, it’s that millennials will respond to anything that references their childhood nostalgia. Though they are receptive to reboots of beloved TV shows and movies, Funko Pops of their favorite characters, and even the return of certain food products, nothing compares to when Steve from Blue’s Clues shows up in their Twitter feed.
On September 7, actor and musician Steve Burns reprised the role he played from 1996 to 2002 for a short video posted on Nick Jr.’s Twitter and Instagram. In it, Steve talks to the camera and addresses his sudden departure from the show, and later expresses his gratitude and support of the now adult fans who watched him when they were younger. Needless to say, fans appreciated this brief message from their TV friend.
This video was retweeted over 800,000 times and received over 1 million likes on each platform as of this writing, made headlines on multiple media outlets, and led to an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Millennials and Gen-Zers alike expressed their catharsis in the form of both earnest and self-deprecating memes, quote tweets, and posts shared across Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram.
This is only part of a series of videos Nickelodeon produced to promote the 25th anniversary of Blue’s Clues (along with a movie of its revival series, Blue’s Clues and You!) that are targeted to millennials. Their other videos take inspiration from Buzzfeed and TikTok, as Burns and his successors, the underappreciated Donovan Patton (who played Steve’s brother Joe) and current host Josh Dela Cruz answer fan questions and react to their first episodes on the show. In a recent video, they sing and dance in character to a revamped version of the 90s one hit wonder song, Eiffel 65’s “I’m Blue (Da Ba Dee). This was something that six year old me imagined in her head that 28 year old me never thought she’d see fully realized.
There are similar children’s show performers who reprised their roles on social media, but Burns donning his signature green striped polo was different. Thousands shared that they cried after seeing his video and some said it gave them closure after feeling abandoned for the past 19 years. They were overjoyed at the supposed fact that their TV friend was there for them, and will watch practically anything he’s in as a result.
Though I may not feel exactly the same, this phenomenon touched me in a way I didn’t expect. While the reaction videos made me admire his sense of camaraderie with the other hosts, Burns’ video left me with a heavy heart as I walked towards my retail job. Steve (both the fictional character and the actor who played him), and Blue’s Clues as a whole, meant a lot to me.
For those unfamiliar with the show, Steve solved everyday problems with the help of clues left by his animated blue puppy (in between helping his talking household items and singing about the mail). An homage to Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Blue’s Clues was hugely influential for being one of the first educational kids’ shows to heavily rely on its main character interacting with the audience not just to teach lessons but also to keep the story going.
The key to Blue’s Clues’ success was how it encouraged its young audience to build a specifically parasocial relationship with Steve. Mr. Rogers was a wise but gentle authority figure who guided his audience like a surrogate grandfather. Steve didn’t hold that weight- he needed the audience to guide him. Though Steve was definitely older than the show’s target audience (Burns was 28 years old when he left the series), he was energetic and naïve in a way that allowed the preschool-aged audience to see him as their equal. This, along with Burns’ charmingly naturalistic performance, engaged its young audience in a way that remained etched in millennials’ collective memory even after they graduated from Nick. Jr, to Nickelodeon (and for some, Nick At Nite).
Millions of the preschool and elementary school aged children who watched Blue’s Clues really did believe that Steve connected with them through the screen. It took me years to realize that Burns couldn’t actually see and hear me through mine. An inconceivable amount of children truly believed that Steve was their best friend. This is something that caused Burns some conflict with his role, and he delved into this when he spoke at an event hosted by The Moth in 2010.
“I was saying all these wonderful things to kids (like) ‘You are so smart!’ and “You can do anything that you wanna do.’ But I couldn’t help thinking, ya know, is that true? Am I saying the right things to all these children? It felt like a tremendous responsibility.”
When Burns announced that he was leaving the show and had his fictional counterpart pass the torch to his younger brother Joe, most fans were devastated. For those too young to understand that Steve was a fictional character (let alone understanding why he left), it was as if their best friend abandoned them out of nowhere.
Even as a fan of the show, I never understood why my peers were so torn over him leaving the show. Perhaps it was because I was slightly too old (eight, to be exact) to be watching a show that was aimed at preschoolers, but I was excited for Steve’s journey to that really big school he called “college.” Granted, even people my age and older express their devastation over Steve leaving them, and they wanted answers despite Burns already giving a multitude of them over the course of his post Blue’s Clues career.
The show taught many lessons about reading, music, and math, but its key mantra (as Burns mentioned at The Moth) was that “you can do anything that you wanna do.” Telling children that they were capable was the heart of the show, even when they just might be as stumped as their TV friend. It gave them a sense of hope they retained in their adult years.
Personally, what Steve taught me was that being confused or lost was okay, and that I could be able to figure it all out even when it’s difficult. Honestly, Steve feeling despondent over failing to find a clue without his friends beyond the fourth wall in Blue’s Big Musical Movie was 10000 times more saddening than him leaving for college, and him finally finding one felt that much more rewarding.
I didn’t see that Steve video as an explanation nor an apology for why the character nor the actor himself left the show. I saw it as a small, perhaps calculated expression of solidarity with its adult viewers. Nickelodeon clearly noticed the engagement Burns brings every time he shows up in Blue’s Clues and You!; they clearly see nostalgia-stricken adults as a reliable audience on social media. Why miss an opportunity to tap into a market that not only craves 90s nostalgia but also has kids of their own to watch the show?
Near the end of the video, Steve looks right into the camera and leaves the viewer with these words: “I never forgot you, ever. And I’m super glad we’re still friends. You look great by the way, whatever it is you’re doing, it’s working.” Let’s be real- I knew that wasn’t literally true. However, at that small moment, I couldn’t help but feel seen.