With the recent launch of Paramount+ (formerly CBS All Access), MTV’s most iconic reality programming is getting a long-awaited renaissance. Along with a reunion show for the original cast of Real World and a forthcoming reboot of Road Rules, the network’s new The Challenge: All Stars is reuniting the network’s most memorable personalities from late ’90s and early aughts (Ruthie! Big Easy! Syrus! Beth!) to battle out in a challenge of Olympic proportions and remind us why the series is the blueprint for today’s biggest reality-competition crazes, from Big Brother to The Amazing Race to Survivor.
It’s all thanks to Mark Long, referred to by Challenge fans as the series’ “godfather.” The alum of the inaugural Road Rules season and two-time Challenge champion tweeted an idea for the spin-off last summer, followed by a social-media campaign called “We Want OGs” that got the attention of news outlets and, ultimately, MTV. Now, Long is serving double duty as the show’s executive producer and one of its most fearsome contestants. Vulture spoke to the reality veteran about his new behind-the-scenes role, getting the OGs back together, and what he sees for the future of the competition.
How did the idea for an All Stars spin-off come to you?
I’ve thought about it for years. As I was sitting around during quarantine, I just had a little bit more time on my hands. I’ve always had people come up to me through the years, saying, “Oh, you’ve got to come back.” It was just kind of impossible as I got older because leaving for ten weeks on a regular Challenge, it was just not feasible, whether it was family stuff or career stuff or doing other TV jobs and whatnot. So I thought I’d throw out a tweet saying, “How would you all feel about a two or three-week challenge with all OGs?” And I think US Weekly was the first to pick up, and it went viral. So I knew there was an audience for it. I think the time and the culture in 2021 is just so perfect for it because everyone just seems to be riding that nostalgia train of things that they grew up with in the past that they love and they wish they had again. So the fact that a lot of these fans have grown up with us, I knew there was a yearning for this.
What was it like being an executive producer for the first time?
I did so much pre-production of this show before I even did the deal with Bunim/Murray [Productions]. I talked to so many cast members from the OG era and kind of got them psyched and pumped up about what the project was. And I kind of said, “Hey, look. Nothing’s in stone yet. It’s an idea. But if this thing turns into a reality could I include you?” And 99.9 percent were like, “Hell yes, include me.” Once I went down that path of producing and getting the cast excited, it was such an easier call for Bunim/Murray to reach out to these people, because they expected it. I definitely think I played a huge part in really putting the gas to the fire to this idea.
But when Bunim/Murray and Paramount+ wanted me to be a cast member, all my ideas and all the secrets I was going to find out were shut down because they didn’t want me to have a competitive advantage. So I didn’t know the format when we left. I didn’t know the final cast. I didn’t even know TJ [Lavin] was hosting it till I showed up, that’s how out of the loop I became at that moment. So the fact that they let me produce and they let me compete — I always say I’m like a player-coach in the NBA. I coach the team, and I play. And I love being the face of the show that brought this idea to life.
So the show is called All Stars, but the cast is sort of a mixed bag of people with great records and people with not-so-great records. What would you say makes a Challenge All Star?
I always loved the term “OG.” So if I had a 100 percent vote in that matter, I would’ve called it that. But there are a lot of people involved in this process and a lot of other people who have their opinions as well. But I think what people are confusing — they’re kind of looking at “All Stars” as the best of the best in terms of competition, like, who has won the most or or who has competed the most or the best. But I think how they use “All Stars” in the series is more like, bigger personalities. Like, who was an All Star in their personality? Or who was a fan favorite back in the day? Or who was someone who had a moment in the challenges that stood out? So I think rather in terms of a record as a challenge competitor, just more of a blend of personality, fan favorites, or big moments that you’re involved in.
What was it like working with this particular group of people? Did you know most of the cast?
I knew a lot of the cast. The only people I hadn’t met in person were Jonna and Kendal. The others I’ve met and done challenges with many times in the past.
I read in an interview that you wanted to bring back a lightheartedness to the franchise. Could you expand on that? Because I’ve definitely noticed the regular show taking a more serious tone in the past two seasons.
I just think the fans were yearning for something that was more fun. A lot of these fans have grown up with us over the years, 20-plus years. And they miss the nostalgic feel of it and just lightheartedness. And I believe we delivered that in the first episode with just the ’90s party, and just made it a point to not be so gameplay 24/7 but to have those moments that we can all laugh together and just have a great time. And it’s going to get even more and more [fun] as we go along.
What I loved about the first challenge was that everyone was encouraging one another and seemed genuinely excited just to be competing again. What was the mood like on the first day?
When we pulled up to the first challenge the night before, we knew we were competing the next morning, so people were excited, nervous, scared, happy. It was just all those emotions. And then when it came to explaining the challenge, that this was the real Challenge — that’s when we knew that The Challenge was absolutely real and wasn’t going to be a water-balloon throw in the backyard or whatever. The swim [in the first challenge] wasn’t that bad. It was just the water was 49 degrees. Your body is not used to that, so everyone was breaking down. You see Arissa kind of have a convulsion coming out of the water. Kendal got yanked out. Laterrian almost died. So at that moment right there, we were like, You know what? This is not going to be easy. TJ’s going to make us earn our way to that $500,000. This isn’t backyard fun games. This is going to be legit.
Do you still keep up with The Challenge? And are there any competitors you’re rooting for these days?
I’m just waiting for [Cory] to step it up and win one, because I think it would be a good story because of the kids that he has on Teen Mom and everyone in his family that people have been exposed to. He has opened up his family to viewers and fans to be a part of it. He would be a great winner in the future. And I think he’s a good, solid personality for the game. A lot of people I think want more out of Kaycee in terms of personality, but I know she’s a fighter. And I know she’s really physical and could play the game well. I could see her winning one in the future. And I love Jenny. She’s always fun.
It’s funny, though, and kind of ironic [that] for the past handful of years there hasn’t been a winner over on that side that wasn’t an OG, from the CTs to the Bananas to the Ashley Mitchells. It’s so funny when all these new kids talk all this crap, and then they blow it. And then they’ll lose it in the finals. So until they win — until Fessy wins, he can’t compare himself to anyone because he’s the sidekick. He’s not the king yet until he wins one, no matter how big he is.
What are your long-term hopes for All Stars? Did you pitch it as a one-time thing, or would you like to see it continue?
In a perfect world, I think we could do many, many seasons of All Stars because, the first go-around, I had at least 80 people reach out to me who were all top-notch personalities. It was just that the timing wasn’t right or they didn’t have passports or their kids were going back to school. So there are plenty of cast members to pull from for many, many seasons of All Stars. I think, in a perfect world, I’d love to see us knock out ten seasons of All Stars, and then almost like a series spin-off, I could see the best of the best OGs going against the best of the best young bucks. And it would be like the Super Bowl of Challenges. And I’ll tell you what, people will lose their minds. I think it would be the most-watched Challenge ever in the history of Challenges if that happened.
This interview has been edited and condensed.