We Double Dare You

And then there’s Double Dare.

It was the show that helped usher Nickelodeon into a newly established administration with Gerry Laybourne re-branding and recreating the kid-friendly channel into the First Network for Kids (exclamation mark). You may have fond memories of Double Dare’s super-sloppy obstacle courses and colander-hat-wearing-egg-throwing physical challenges, but what you might not have known then and probably don’t realize now is that Double Dare brought in a lot more green than just slime (or, in this incarnation, “gak”).

There’s a reason that, of all the other shows produced during the eighties and early nineties, Double Dare is the one that endured until a relatively recent end. Debuting for the first time as a featured host of his own television show was effervescent Marc Summers, who is as omnipresent on the Food Network today as he was on Nickelodeon back in the day.

“I was a kid coming out of the womb knowing I wanted to be on television,” Summers told me during our phone interview. Summers’ determination at a young age was brought on by a stint on Romper Room at age five in which he saw “how much fun the adults making the show were having.”

His name change from Marc Berkowitz to Marc Summers occurred thanks in part to what he felt to be anti-Semitism at a radio station at which he worked and due to the revelation of infamous Son of Sam being David Berkowitz. Summers’ new name would be homage to a fellow radio personality.

“In ’86, a friend of mine got the original call to go audition for Double Dare, but he had decided to stop trying to be ‘talent’ and wanted to be a producer. He called me up and said, ‘I don’t know, there’s some show, I think it’s called Double Dare. And I’ve never heard of this network, it’s called Nickelodeon, and why don’t you go to the audition instead of me?’”

Summers did exactly that, besting what he reported to be 2,000 candidates in New York and 1,000 in Los Angeles.

The show was created by a team including You Can’t Do That on Television wunderkind Geoffrey Darby who would have an impressively large hand in bringing the mess to Double Dare… along with much of the rest of the network at this time. He was assisted by a young up-and-comer who had been working in Nick’s promotions department.

Bob Mittenthal would have his hand in a number of Nickelodeon shows over these years, too.

“I didn’t really have any interest in children’s television,” Mittenthal told me. “It was kind of a happy accident that they [Nick’s promo department] needed someone and decided to give me a shot. I ended up liking it and fitting in well with the people. It was a time of big growth for them.”

“They were interested in doing a game show,” Mittenthal continued. “A lot of cable networks follow this pattern. Game shows are generally pretty cheap to produce. When the people don’t have a ton of money to do scripted programming, one of the first things they look to do is game shows.”

“When we were kids, there were a lot more game shows on daytime TV,” said longtime Double Dare director Dana Calderwood (who also worked on such old faves as Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego). Though everyone I spoke to — from Summers to Mittenthal, to set designer Byron Taylor — compared the show to a kind of kids’ take on the 1950s game show Beat the Clock, Calderwood also made reference in his interview to personal favorites Concentration, To Tell The Truth, and You Don’t Say.

“Game shows were a staple for all of us when we were kids,” Calderwood said. “Long before Double Dare. It was something where you went home after school and there might be a game show on. You might watch that, you might watch a movie, you might go out and play baseball. It was something that we were much more conscious of.”

“I think I was probably too dumb to realize it would be complicated,” Calderwood said about directing a game show of his own for the first time.

“The games were often very fast, and there’s a lot of cutting. But, they’re also very formulaic. In other words: You know what’s going to happen. In sports, you don’t necessarily know if they’re going to hit the ball or not. In a game show, a question is going to be asked, they’re going to ring in, it’s going to be this side or that side — so you’re ready with those two cameras, and now we’re going to do a stunt so everybody walks downstage on this camera. There’s really a formula to it.”

Part of that formula on Mittenthal’s structural level was especially appealing to Nickelodeon and their new vision of how to develop the network.

Said Mittenthal: “One of the concerns about doing a trivia show was that there’s a right answer and a wrong answer. There was a lot of celebration of being a kid at Nickelodeon, and they didn’t want to make kids feel bad about themselves. They realized that with this idea of a dare, there was no penalty for not knowing the answer; in fact, not knowing the answer made something even better happen.”

Sticking to what has always been a firm budget at Nickelodeon — something that set designer Taylor (responsible for overseeing the designs of all of DD’s obstacle courses and physical challenge stunts) referred to as the largest limitation on the show — the creators produced the program’s pilot in a most unusual place.

“We actually shot a pilot using a couple of VHS camcorders in the basement of Geoffrey Darby’s house in New Jersey,” Mittenthal said. “That’s the way that they used to do all of their game show pilots. When they tested it, kids absolutely didn’t care at all that it was shot on VHS in somebody’s basement. They just wanted to see people get messed up.”

Initially, Mittenthal had wanted to call the show Truth or Dare, feeling that the series could profit off of the notoriety of one of many childhood games. When it was discovered this title could not be used, “Double Dare just seemed like the natural place to go.”

The host in that makeshift VHS basement pilot was Darby himself.

“So, we now we needed a host. It became very clear very quickly that actors are not game show hosts,” Mittenthal said. “Game show hosts are born and it’s not a ‘part’ you can take on, because it’s so on-your feet.”

“Marc Summers came to us on a casting tape from his agent and he just jumped out at us right away. I think there was maybe a little bit of hesitation based on the fact that he didn’t look like a kid, which is I think what they wanted at first. But, he was so good at moving along the show and the handling of spontaneous situations that arose. He was born to do it and he was great.”

“All I knew was that it was going to get me on television,” Summers said about taking on the host of a new show for a cable network… at a time when cable didn’t mean much.

“You have to remember,” Summers said, “this was when CNN was known as ‘Chicken Noodle News.’ I mean, I didn’t know what Nickelodeon was, other than at that time I had small kids and when we’d wake up at two in the morning, we’d watch that Pinwheel show and that was about the most I knew about Nickelodeon at the time. I just wanted to work, so I didn’t give a shit about cable, not-cable, broadcast, syndication. I just wanted to get on TV.”

In the end, it turned out to be a successful choice on the part of the creators of DD and Summers who quickly became a producer of the program and eventually would oversee production on almost every level throughout the series’ multiple runs.

“I was having fun,” Summers said. “Are you kidding me? How could you not? They were paying me to go throw green liquids at 11-year-olds and I was laughing my ass off. So how bad could it be?”

The fact that, yes, Summers absolutely enjoyed his time on DD may be a surprise to those of us who had always heard that he lives with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Visions of Jack Nicholson’s irate and valetudinarian character from As Good as It Gets may crop on, and someone “like that” working on a game show like Double Dare with all its guck and multi-colored sluice doesn’t seem to compute.

Today, Summers is very vocal about his OCD and is a proactive advocate for the community of those living with the aberration. Back when the show was being produced, no one would have known better.

“Nobody understands,” Summers reacted to my inquiry about having OCD while working on DD. “First of all, that whole thing has been blown so far out of proportion. I never had one bit of a problem. One thing, if you had any problem, you could talk to everybody on the set and there was never any issue. Number two, I didn’t even understand what the hell the show was [when I first started].”

“When I walked in the first day in Philadelphia and saw all these obstacles and they were putting whipped cream and food coloring on, the first thing I said to Geoffrey Darby was, ‘What the hell is that?!’ And he said, ‘Well that’s our obstacle course.’ When I did the audition, I was asking questions and we were doing physical challenges.”

“So, I didn’t know what the obstacle course was. I didn’t even have any idea. I just remember this: When they were putting chocolate pudding and ice cream and all this stuff around, I said, ‘Do you really think kids would want to do that?’ I mean, that was my first thing: ‘Really? Do you think kids want to jump in that crap?’”

“And if you look at the first thirteen episodes, I was just baffled, standing as far away from those kids as possible — and I guess that was the OCD coming out: Don’t touch me with that crap. Then Michael Klinghoffer [one of the show creators] and all the producers said, ‘You have to get more involved, you gotta hang out with the kids,’ and I went, ‘Okay.’ I never went, ‘Oh my god, I’m not doing that.’ It was my chance to be on TV. There was never an issue.”

“It wasn’t until after I came out and talked about it when Gerry Laybourne called me to apologize. And I said, ‘Apologize for what?’ and she said, ‘I had no idea.’ And I said, ‘You know what? Neither did I.’”

Explaining to me that he “couldn’t say enough good things about Marc Summers,” Calderwood told me that they would have all done whatever it took to get the show to be the best it could be. “It was like going to camp or school or a war together,” he said.

“It was everybody’s first big show.”

“[Marc] did not like to get messy, but he never told any of us that. We never knew that until years later that it was really hard for him to do that piece of it. We couldn’t believe it. I asked him about it, and he would say he would just have to wait until he could get out of there and get to the hotel to take a hot shower.”

“He said it was terrible sometimes, but he did it because he knew that’s what the show was and wanted the show to be good. He just put on a brave face and worked himself through it. “

“We were never aware of it. It is true, though. Marc talks about it. It’s something that he’s active in it as a ‘cause.’ We didn’t have any idea that that was an issue for him.”

“He fit in really well with the producers of the show, partly because he had so much game show experience himself. He became an integral part of the creative team of the show, from the beginning. I think those guys became friends and have remained friends over the years. He was one of the guys.”

Summers did have a few particular peccadilloes when it came to the free-flowing, splattering mess on DD. “The only thing that was totally disgusting was they tried to do a physical challenge once with canned dog food. If you open up a can of dog food anywhere near me, I will start throwing up.”

“They opened up this can of dog food and started putting it in bowls, and kids had to throw it or something. I literally had to walk outside of the studio, and they had to change the physical challenge because I was so violently ill from the smell of freakin’ dog food.”

“That had nothing to do with OCD; that was just a sensory thing. I only feed my animals dry food. I just can’t get into that wet stuff, it makes me throw up. That had nothing to do with OCD, that’s just being a person.”

“Towards the end — especially when we were doing Family Double Dare on Fox — we got knee-deep in shit, and I could care less. I was having fun.”

It was clear that a major part of all of this “fun” was the signature kid-centric obstacle courses and physical challenges involving gigantic toiletries gone amuck, human hamster wheels, and plenty of food-based products such as one of Summers’ favorites, the Gum Drop.

Calderwood was a writer of DD’s questions (revealing to me that, yes, they did have a formula even to this aspect of the show, with a series of easy, medium, and hard questions in order to help shape the show according to when a physical challenge would come up).

As with the others with whom I spoke, Calderwood explained that though everyone on the show knew the kids were “tuning in for the mess,” the questions were an important ingredient of the show. They helped to pace the action and led to maintaining tension through points being counted. Not to mention, in Calderwood’s estimation, it would have been difficult to create and run all obstacle courses all the time — with the setting-up of and afterward cleaning, in particular — throughout four to five episodes a day.

Set designer Byron Taylor received his graduate degree from NYU where he studied, surprise, set design… though his original aspirations were for the theater. “I had no intention in working in television,” he said. “I was from California. I could’ve stayed there and gotten into the business that way, but wanted to work in live theater.”

A year or so out of school, doing what he could to pay the bills with freelance drafting work, Taylor ran into a college friend a few years his senior named Jim Fenhagen. Fenhagen had created the original design of DD (a set that was to represent everything from a “bathroom” to a “natatorium,” from what everyone told me) but the obstacle courses themselves still needed to be designed on a regular basis.

Fenhagen brought Taylor aboard and, as Taylor tells it, “Two weeks drafting in the studio became then going down to Philadelphia where we shot the first couple of seasons of the show, supervising the installation of the set, and it sort of snowballed from there.”

Along with what he had told me about limitations with budgets on the obstacle courses and physical challenges he designed, Taylor explained the other challenge for him was the fact that, “Nobody had done a kids game show for a long time by that point and certainly not like this. Nobody at the Nickelodeon office had ever done this before, either.”

“You had to sort of figure it out and make it up as you went along. We had to go through the whole process of getting props for them and testing them to make sure they could actually be done. So it was an interesting process that slowly developed.”

“Things got to be rather elaborate pretty quickly. All of the obstacles had to be done at a shop because a lot of the stuff by virtue of its scale and the materials involved, you had to do it in a controlled environment.”

“We pushed the envelope pretty far. Things would come from the shop and you would try them out. Basically, you were guessing when you would draw them up. Once you got it there and you put kids through it and you put the mess on it, it would complicate factors, so you would have to rework pieces occasionally once you got them in the studio.”

Lisa Shaftel, one of the crafts artists who physically made many of the props on the first DD episodes, told me a few goodies about how she would sometimes have to test the obstacles herself.

“I was the smallest person in the shop, so the carpenters used to use me as the guinea pig to go through the obstacles and the props to see if the kids could reach, like if things were too big or too small.”

“One of the things that we built was a very simplified vertical ant farm that was basically a large plywood box with acrylic, Plexiglass sheets/panels on the front side. They built this sort of maze inside that the kids had to climb through, and it was 95% finished and they called me over to go through to test it out, and I climbed up inside it and the distance was too far and I couldn’t reach, and I got stuck inside it.”

“I had to sit there for a while, while the carpenters unscrewed all the Plexi-panels and got a ladder to get me out. It was kind of like, ‘You will never believe what happened to me at work today. I can’t believe I get paid for this.’”

Shaftel finished up her anecdote telling me that, unfortunately, because of the hold-up, the show’s iconic kid-sized ant farm didn’t get shipped on time because it had to be torn apart and completely rebuilt, “you know, so the kids could get through it.”

“A number of those ideas came from riding the train back and forth from New York [where the Nick head offices were and where Taylor lived with his wife with whom he worked then and now] and Philadelphia,” Taylor said. “A number of times I’d be sitting next to Geoffrey and we’d be free-associating. A bunch of ideas came from that. I could find notes that came from those trips.”

“There were very few strictures that were placed on what we could do,” Taylor said. “Obviously, we had to stay away from guns. A water pistol is a great device, but if you can’t use it because it’s shaped like a gun, you have to find other unusual ways of spraying water. That was one limitation.”

“They didn’t want kids to eat so much. You don’t want a bunch of kids choking on Ritz Crackers because you’re doing that gag where you stuff your mouth with crackers and try to whistle. There’s a fine line they had to maintain about those kinds of things.”

“And demonstrating things that were too realistic. Too much like what kids might want to try at home. I’m sure enough kids tried jumping off roofs with a cape on their back because they saw Superman in the fifties.”

“We did a thing where we had a stuffed cat that we swung by its tail and tried to get through a window or some crazy stunt, but that never reappeared. I remember there was a thing about feeding a baby — a realistic kind of doll and splattering it with food — and not only was it hard for Marc out there by himself judging these things, but it was also just a bad idea: Kids throwing food at their younger siblings if they tried to recreate it at home with a real baby.”

From the folks with whom I spoke, at least, seems as though danger on the show or in the home wasn’t much of an issue. There was the broken arm that befell a kid who had apparently lied on his application and had fragile bones (Summers had to run out of the studio once the bone went through the arm, wondering how stage assistant Robin Morrella “could stay around for that”).

There was the bleacher that collapsed, leaving one of the adult men in the audience with a sliced penis and most likely at least a free pair of British Knights, courtesy the show for his trouble (wouldn’t you think?). And there was the kid who fell down one of the slides, his father — a lawyer — suggesting to Summers that the show either give over the big screen TV that would have be won if the kid had negotiated the obstacle successfully… or be sued (they settled on the TV).

After that incident, Summers noted, all future DD show contestant applications were screened for any kids whose parents were attorneys.

Summers told me there was a series of what he referred to as “nuisance cases” in which Nickelodeon would normally just settle in lieu of a potential public embarrassment. One story was too much to leave unsaid:

“We used to pie the parents like crazy. And if the parents weren’t hit in the face hard enough, I would say, ‘That’s not how you do it! This is how you do it!’ And I would really trash the parents. So, we do the show on a Sunday, and on Wednesday I get the call from the Viacom attorneys. ‘Do you remember when you threw a pie in a parent’s face? Well, they’re suing us because the lady said she can’t have sex anymore since you threw a pie in her face.’ And I started to laugh my ass off. They ended up giving her $25,000 to go away.”

This was an era before Jackass and — for most of the show’s run — Beavis and Butt-Head. There were no “Don’t try this at home, kids” messages on DD, and no one I talked to felt that would have been necessary.

“It all seemed like good, harmless fun,” Mittenthal said. “I was pretty young at the time, and didn’t have any kids of my own. I was not really focused on imitative behavior and how that might piss a parent off. I think that other people involved in the production in the show might have been more sensitive about it than I was.”

Calderwood said it wasn’t much of a concern for him except for: “We had to always pass these stunts by the lawyers. There were really rigorous safety standards on every single obstacle. ‘You gotta put safety tape here. You gotta put friction tape here.’”

“In the first season, the floor was a smooth surface, and by the second season, they’d gotten some stuff that had some traction to it. And we would show them how to run on the course before every obstacle course. We would say the best way to run is to pick up your feet, don’t slide your feet, sashay around and you won’t slip and fall. The funny thing is some kids wouldn’t believe us and they wouldn’t listen.”

“We would give them every conceivable safety tip. We wanted to have winners, too.”

“We were concerned about safety but we wanted them to win. So you walked up to that line as far as you could, obviously. There were some obstacles we could never do because they would never give us approval. It happened a couple of times. And usually what they would do is cannibalize the pieces and come up with another idea with it to sort of save money. I do remember once or twice, they wouldn’t let us use it as is.”

Summers had a much more pragmatic view of the issue of safety and kids trying this shit at home:

“I used to have parents stop me and yell at me about my job, or they would be upset that ‘My kids ruined my living room. They built an obstacle course. They put coffee grounds on my carpet.’”

“One Halloween, somebody knocked on the door, and they said, ‘Oh my god, you’re the guy from that terrible show.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ and they said, “Oh, my kids destroyed my house because of you.’”

“And my response to them is: Be a parent. My job is to host TV shows. If you can’t rule your kids, it’s not my problem. It’s your problem. When I came back out that next morning, after Halloween, this lady had taken all the Styrofoam, and filled my tree areas and where all the dirt and flowerbeds were supposed to be, she came in and just destroyed my place as her big Screw You kind of moment.”

“There was very early on a perception that we were wasting food,” Mittenthal said. “Some of the Nickelodeon people were really assailed for that, that there were people starving in the world and that we were ‘using food to play with.’”

“We were very sensitive to that. At that point, we never used anything that was identifiable that was ‘real food,’ that would sustain life. They might have still used chocolate. It wasn’t whipped cream, it was gak or something like that. We didn’t want to send a message that it was okay to waste food.”

The issue came to weigh day upon even the shoulders of Taylor.

“That was a big issue always,” Taylor said. “There were certain foods that it was basically: How could you recreate them synthetically? We used a lot of stuff that would be considered junk food. A lot of Jell-O. Non-dairy topping. And colored it to make it look like all kinds of stuff.”

“We didn’t use the same green slime that Geoffrey used [on You Can’t Do That on Television], because if it sat out on the stage under the hot lights, an oatmeal-based slime would bake like a rock, and if you didn’t get those off the set you’d have chunks of, like, greenish plaster. We used to like applesauce — that was my favorite with a little bit of food coloring. Little milk powder, something to make it opaque.”

“We used food,” Summers confirmed. “We used eggs. We used chocolate pudding. The reality of it was, ‘Do you want to sustain yourself on chocolate pudding and whipped cream and all that crap? Go ahead.’ Did we waste eggs? I suppose we did. But, somehow not going through 100 eggs a week on DD isn’t going to solve the homeless problem.”

Then again, according to Shaftel who has made a career out of creating the kinds of props she materialized for DD along with other children’s shows like Sesame Street, “The nature of productions is they’re insanely wasteful. Every time I work on a film, everything goes into the dumpster at the end.”

“The amount of lumber and the plastics that go into the dumpster after being used for three weeks is horrifying. I don’t think it’s possible to clean up that business because everything is temporary.”

At least on DD, Shaftel says she never thought kids watching the show were getting the message that being wasteful was all right.

One thing Nickelodeon definitely never wasted in those early days was a good concept. When DD went on to help finance so much of the rest of the channel’s lineup and further development, other incarnations were established.

Super Sloppy Double Dare was just the same show, marketed a different way,” Mittenthal said. “Double Dare 2000 was when they brought it back after it went away for a while. They made a lot of money on that show for a good number of years. None of which went to the creators.”

Family Double Dare began on the new (and flailing desperately) Fox Network in 1988 and was, again, essentially no different from the original show except for one thing:

“The kids were there to have fun,” Summers said. “They didn’t care if they won money or prizes. They just wanted to get messy. But the parents — when we started giving away station wagons and minivans — they got crazy. There were times when the parents would get upset if they lost, which was so ridiculous.”

“Parents would pin their kids up against the wall,” Summers revealed. “And they’d grab their kids by the neck. ‘I needed that car and you screwed up!’ And we’d have to separate parents from kids.”

Mittenthal’s response to my question of what made the show so special was its indulging in something that he called “so forbidden. Kids were always being told to clean up their room and be neat and tidy and not make a mess. Here was this thing that was like jumping into a mud puddle, but much more colorful and much more mud. It was a kid’s fantasy of doing something completely forbidden.”

“There was nothing on air that looked like it,” Taylor said. He went on to illuminate for me the entire design of the show being based on an Italian art movement in the 1980s called “Memphis.” (Imagine a page of Ikea furniture… all pieces of which are brilliantly colored in an effulgent array of hues.)

“The design theme or movement involved a lot of flat graphics,” Taylor continued. “It was a weird amalgam of machine-made stuff but also handmade in a way as well. Had a kind of a post-punk feeling, perhaps?”

“I would say virtually 95% of it [the look of Double Dare] or more was taken from that design aesthetic. Other things: Rube Goldberg, the game Mouse Trap (if we could get close to that, that was a great thing). Those were the key elements.”

Taylor went on about Double Dare’s resonance from then until now: “I think MTV was still in a brick loft at that point. That whole kind of aesthetic washed over everything after that. All kids shows and graphic design absorbed all of that and spit that out over the next couple of years.”

“I can’t imagine Double Dare being done in a network environment,” Calderwood said. “Couldn’t have been done. Couldn’t pick up a prop, couldn’t say what would happen if picked this up and put it over Marc’s head, and then ran over and did this and let’s pull this over and [etc.].”

“I think the cable environment was a far more creative environment to learn in and to create in, but we probably didn’t know it at the time, because we all thought, ‘Well, we’ll just do this for a while, then we’ll move to a network some time where all the cool things happen,’ and it’s really further from the truth than we realized.”

With his characteristic bravado, Summers summed it up for me in one last quip: “You could bring Double Dare back tomorrow. Something I’ve been wanting to do, but Nickelodeon doesn’t get it.”

“Could a show like that come back now?” Mittenthal responded to my inquiry. “God, I don’t know. I’m sure they’ll try it in the next couple of years once people forget about it again. I think TV is something where things get rehashed and recycled constantly. They’ll find some new way to do it and probably have some online component.”

Mathew Klickstein is the author of SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age, which is in stores everywhere and will tell you more about Nickelodeon than you probably should know.

We Double Dare You