By Whitney McIntosh
On my sketched-out schedule of the shows I want to talk about in this space, this month was supposed to be the classic Nickelodeon competition Legends of the Hidden Temple. However, Jon Bois over at SB Nation beat me to it by a few weeks. I really enjoyed his countdown of the worst moments from the show’s run, and you should all read both the original article and his follow-up interview with a former contestant if you were fans back when it originally aired. So, in light of not wanting to revisit all the same beats, I’ll be discussing some other Nickelodeon game shows from that era instead.
When I was a kid, no more than seven or eight, Nickelodeon was my main destination for TV watching. I’m sure anybody else my age was the same way. It’s that middle period in growing up where Saturday morning cartoons seem a little too young for you to watch, but you haven’t quite graduated to the older youth channels like Disney or ABC Family. Which is why it was so important for Nickelodeon to succeed in finding that sweet spot between broad slapstick fun and seeming mature for their target audience. It’s a unique point of view preteens have, one that lies between thinking they’re too old for the things they enjoyed as toddlers and not understanding how far away they still are from the shows their older siblings and friends watch, even if that’s just a Disney Channel Original Movie or some such. In this way, Nick crafting most of their game shows as copycats of other, adult, successes was the smartest way to give the illusion of maturity while still being loads of goofy fun.
The two best examples of this practice are Double Dare (and later Double Dare 2000) and GUTS. With the former, its existence ushered in an era of popularity and awareness that Nickelodeon had not previously possessed. With the latter, Nickelodeon cemented this popularity and began to explore its limits and potential by bringing in minor celebrities to guest star/compete.
Double Dare debuted in the mid-eighties with Marc Summers as host and the game’s premise mostly fleshed out, other than various minor evolutions that would naturally occur over the years. Two teams of two children each would compete to win cash and prizes by correctly answering questions or completing physical challenges. It essentially took the set design and half its premise from Family Feud, and added in the craziness and oddball challenges that can only be thought up in 1986.
The twist in how questions were answered was pretty brilliant, if only because they managed to make a childhood taunt into a game show facet without it seeming incredibly shoehorned. If one team wasn’t able to answer a question they could “dare” the others to do so for double the points, but that team could turn around and “double dare” them back for quadruple points. Risky, sometimes necessary, and mostly an all-around fun way to spice up what would normally be a straightforward and repetitive segment of each episode.
Although the show’s name refers to the question and answer portion, it was in the physical challenges that Double Dare really shined. One of the most integral parts of designing a game show tends to be finding the balance between winning being hard enough that not everyone can do it but looking easy enough that everyone thinks they can. Part of the fun in watching shows is thinking that you could easily accomplish anything going on on-screen at any given time. Do I think I could have answered every question correctly, completed each physical challenge and won the jackpot at the end? Absolutely. Am I aware that in no way, shape, or form would I have accomplished all of this as a 12-year-old? I am now. Double Dare masked the difficulty of winning the show with just how over the top their challenges were.
Before the final obstacle course was even on the horizon, the in-game challenges were a good preview of what was to come. Kids would have to do anything from catch cream pies being tossed from their partner in a pair of over-sized pants to fill a container with slime when your only way to transfer the slime was a sponge attached to a helmet. Between the fact that it was children scrambling around to do these things and the incredibly messy nature of each task, it didn’t take long for game play to reach ridiculous levels.
If the standard game play was crazy, the obstacle course was a thousand times as absurd. Trying to get through 10 obstacles in 60 seconds is already a tall order, adding slime or other liquid to almost every part only added to the flailing and falling going on. Starting out contestants might have to slide through a giant nose with slime serving as snot, only to then have their partner need to swim through a tank of slime or pudding or something. And to top it all off, there was a flag to be retrieved from every obstacle. Missed it? Go back and get it! To this day, I still can’t understand how kids were able to convince their parents that appearing on the show would be great fun for all and not incredibly embarrassing in any way shape or form. I’m pretty sure if I was a parent watching this and my kid told me “They’re doing a family version!” I wouldn’t be itching to sign up.
GUTS also tapped in to kids wanting to be part of a more grown-up show, but in an even more literal way. Everything that happened in the GUTS arena was at the same time grounded in reality and supersized. Each event the three contestants competed in was based on an actual sport, but was then given a twist or just translated to be bigger and better. For example, they may have had to dunk a basketball. But instead of just trying to run up and dunk on a child sized net, the pre-teens were attached to a harness and had to dunk on a basket not even Shaq could reach on his best day (possibly an overstatement).
This all tied back into the desire to do things adults could do that is inherently inside every kid. Every 12-year-old watching the NBA in 1994 wanted to dunk like Jordan, but that was pretty much impossible unless you considered your dad picking you up to put the ball in the net a viable option at feeling awesome. The whole setup was like pro sports on crack, down to how they split up events. By dividing the events into “Track”, “Field”, “Pool”, and “Aerial” it gave the proceedings the feel of Olympic trials. Granted, the events that actually fell into each of these categories weren’t specifically the same that would be there in a real Olympics, but to kids that doesn’t matter. Glory, prizes and bragging rights while getting to be in an awesome competition arena were all that mattered.
The best part of GUTS, and the part that was most blatantly ripped off from another show, was the Aggro Cragg. Taking a page right out of the final section of American Gladiators, the Aggro Cragg was a giant mountain complete with smoke and lights that the contestants had to climb as a final task. This was the mother of all kid-show tasks, something that seemed so giant and difficult that it was all the more amazing to watch kids your age reach the top, and all the more disappointing if they failed to get to the peak.
At the end of the day, I’m pretty sure every kid wanted to be on GUTS if not for the bragging rights and general awesome feeling than definitely for the fact that they got to be announced and interviewed like real professional athletes by Mike O’Malley, operating at a decidedly more upbeat state than he is as our current favorite Detroit mobster on Justified.
With both these shows, Nickelodeon was able to tap into a market of kids wanting to be older than they were, while still watching programming that was right in their wheelhouse. Nickelodeon hasn’t tried anything along the lines of these shows recently, and even special runs of GUTS and Double Dare were last seen almost a decade ago. With any luck children’s networks, even if Nickelodeon and Disney aren’t willing to take the risk, will attempt to capture the fun and competition of these two shows. Because for the kids who were lucky enough to appear and the audience alike, it really was just all fun and games.
Previously on Game Night: Love Connection and The Newlywed Game
Whitney McIntosh resides in Massachusetts and is an undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut. You can follow her on twitter at @whitneym02.