When Double Dare premiered in 1986, it became an instant kid-friendly sensation. Hosted by Marc Summers, the gak-soaked Nickelodeon game show aired in some form or another on the network until 1993. Although the show would return years later as Double Dare 2000 with host Jason Harris, the Summers years were the show’s glory days, a bacchanal of gloppy intensity and genial after-school gaming, something that former viewers, now in their 30s or middle-aged, have come to remember with increasing fondness as the years have gone by.
This Wednesday night, Nickelodeon will air a special commemorative episode of Double Dare celebrating the show’s 30th anniversary year. Summers will return, along with announcer John Harvey and production assistant Robin Russo. In the spirit of that super sloppy reunion, The A.V. Club set out to discover the origins of the obstacle course, the show’s most memorable and popular segment. Below, in oral history form, you’ll hear from the show’s creators and production staff, as well as from Summers, Russo, and Harvey themselves. The results are fascinating, a look back at a relatively undocumented time in television that viewers might remember but not know the stories behind. Slip on your big, white Reeboks; grab a set of kneepads; and get reading.
Double Dare was created by a number of people who were working on different projects at Nickelodeon at the time; the network felt like it needed a game show. The initial idea was based on the kids’ game Truth Or Dare, but once it became clear that the game needed an ending, the obstacle course was introduced.
Geoffrey Darby, executive producer and Double Dare co-creator: I recall I said, “I always wanted to put a live kid through a Rube Goldberg machine where they would be the pinball in [the game] Mouse Trap.”
Bob Mittenthal, Double Dare co-creator: I kind of hated the obstacle course in the beginning, even though it’s clearly everybody’s favorite part of the show. Everyone was like, “Let’s just do an obstacle course,” and I was like, “That has nothing to do with the rest of the show.”
I don’t know if you’re familiar with Battle Of The Network Stars, but ABC used to do it, and one of their events was an obstacle course. It was always really cool and really visual and physical, but to bring that into Double Dare, it had nothing to do with the game.
I guess the thing that tied it all together was the idea of the mess. At the beginning, we didn’t know it was going to be the messiest show on Earth until we really started to develop it.
Mike Klinghoffer, Double Dare co-creator: It really started with “traditional obstacles.” It was a wall that we could try and put a rope on. It really was the sort of classic military obstacle course to some degree. Those were the first obstacles that we came up with, but we always knew that we were going to mess them up.
We probably had four obstacles at the start, and I would say that probably none of them lasted very long. They were boring.
Jim Fenhagen, Double Dare set designer: I had previously been doing some work for Nickelodeon, and they had this idea for this game show, Double Dare. They brought me on board really early when they were trying to figure out if it was indeed a show that could work and how it would work.
I remember some of my first involvement was when the group that was producing it wanted to do a mock show, like a really low-budget test of the idea. They rented a loft space downtown in New York and got some kids to be contestants.
Geoffrey Darby, executive producer and co-creator: [In the pilot] the team [that won] would choose which one of the kids would go through the obstacle course collecting flags as they went. At the end, they’d see how far they got within a certain amount of time. The other kid basically just held the flags as he watched his partner go through the obstacle course.
After we shot the pilot, we sort of all looked at each other and said, “You know, we really should just make this a pass-the-flag. The next kid does the next obstacle to make it more inclusive.”
Even with the bargain basement pilot, Nickelodeon quickly got on board, perhaps because of one of Geoffrey Darby’s most audacious promises.
Geoffrey Darby, executive producer and co-creator: I promised we would bring the show in under $10,000 an episode.
The A.V. Club: What did that cost include?
Geoffrey Darby, executive producer and co-creator: Everything. Absolutely everything. Well, everything except for my salary and Michael Klinghoffer’s salary, because we were on staff. Everything else hit the budget. That’s why we ended up with some inexpensive obstacles, like a pillowcase full of feathers or a bunch of balloons with a flag in one of the balloons. We had those kinds of things scattered amongst the other obstacles, because we only had so much money for the set and stuff.
Once the show was piloted, Jim Fenhagen made a model of the set so that the show’s creators could shop it around to interested advertisers.
Geoffrey Darby, executive producer and co-creator: We would take [the model] around to ad sales meetings, because no one had ever seen [the show] or imagined what it would be, as you might imagine. No one had ever seen a Rube Goldberg machine that we’d put kids through. So he made a model, and off I went trying to sell this show to advertising companies without any tape yet. This was going to be [Nick’s] big fall launch, and there’s nothing on tape. There’s nothing on anything. We didn’t want to show them the pilot because, you know, it’s a couple of folding chairs and folding tables and people at big notepads writing “20” in magic marker and then ripping the page off and writing “40.” It was like, “That’s going to be your show?” I could just hear the “No one would ever buy that.”
Mike Klinghoffer, co-creator: We started working in about March. That’s when we met for the first time to try and figure out a game show for the network. I think we did the initial pilot, which Geoffrey Darby hosted, around May. Focus groups came in, I think around early June. We got the go-ahead to do the show sometime in July, and that gave us two and a half months to build the obstacle course and build the entire set.
With the show in production, designing the obstacles fell to set designers Jim Fenhagen and Byron Taylor, who began work based on a list of obstacle names and minimal concepts from the show creators.
Mike Klinghoffer, co-creator: We sat in a room as the show was coming together thinking about obstacle courses. The human hamster wheel, the Wringer, the Sundae Slide, and the tank were probably the immediate ones that we knew we always wanted. We always knew we wanted a tank that we could constantly fill with things.
Dana Calderwood, director: We used to get together in a room—and by we I mean directors, producers, set designers, sometimes network executives, certainly Marc Summers was a big part of it—and we would just pitch ideas. Usually it was predicated on a couple of criteria, amongst which was, “What’s messy?” So that led us to a giant nose that you have to pick. And then when we got the idea for the One-Ton Human Hamster Wheel, it was just, “Let’s take things and make large versions of them.”
Jim Fenhagen, set designer: We were brainstorming, and I would do sketches. We would take them to the producer and say, “We want to do this giant nose that you reach up inside of and pull out the clue.” And they went, “Yeah, that’s great!” And we wanted to do slides that you go up and slide down and land in this gunk, and you have to slip across. It was things like that that, as designers, our imaginations… We could run wild. We’d get input from the producers and directors on which ones would work, but it was pretty much our creation to come up with the obstacle course.
Geoffrey Darby, executive producer and co-creator: We did the Sundae Slide because it was inexpensive. We could go buy a slide—seriously, you go and buy a slide. It doesn’t cost that much, like $500. Paint it funky colors, and make the kid climb up it and slide down. Grab the flag on a pad—because you needed to have a pad—and put muck on it.
Byron Taylor, set designer: The Wringer was another one on the list. That’s the kinds of things I worked on, and also on creating color elevations of all the set pieces that could go to the shop in order for them to be painted—placing patterns and that sort of thing. It had that particular look from the ’80s, so there was a lot of work that way, to figure out how those patterns are going to be replicated. All that was done with paint back in the day, rather than printed on, or with more modern techniques…
There was that particular kind of 1980s Italian design aesthetic that we were using, that Memphis style. We would look at lots of books and imagery of real things. Obviously, a hamster wheel, you can kind of imagine how that would be translated. The Wringer, you could look at pictures of real laundry wringers. Then you’d pull in those design references and put elements together until you find something that works, and draw it up. And then hopefully [the shop] could interpret it, because I don’t think anybody had built one up before, that’s for sure, at least that a person’s going to ride through. It was a little bit trial and error.
Mike Klinghoffer, co-creator: We tried [to do poop-related obstacles] but they were not allowed. We couldn’t show a butt, but we could do a mouth. We could do a nose. We even got turned down for an armpit at one point in time. I’m still not even sure why.
Once obstacles went into production, the crew discovered they were facing a unique set of problems.
Jim Fenhagen, set designer: We had a really great scene shop that was called Bruce And Bruce. They were good for the kinds of things that we were doing. They were really creative and young guys. I went to the Bruce that I knew and said, “We’re doing this thing. Do you want to help me figure this stuff out?” Having the shop there, they also had this big warehouse, so we’d order stuff and set stuff up there and make sure it worked. So we got to test stuff out in Bruce’s shop, and he would help us.
We got swimming pool supply catalogs to get the slide, and they built the hamster wheel from scratch. It was so big, and it wasn’t like they had that.
Steve Pannepacker, property master: Byron [Taylor] wanted to do an obstacle that was a big wedge of swiss cheese, and it had to be at least six or seven feet tall by eight feet long. But it was a wedge, and it had holes cut out of it, and in the holes of the swiss cheese where you looked for the flag, we put Cheez Whiz. Large cans of that.
We had a company that had big pieces of foam, and they could cut it, and so forth. We had them cut out this wedge and we put the holes in it, but this wedge, we couldn’t put it in the truck. We had to have the stagehands walk it down the street. It was about three blocks away, and we had eight to 10 stagehands moving this wedge of cheese through the city streets of Philadelphia so they could bring it into the studio. Which, to see a big wedge of swiss cheese come down the streets of Philadelphia, that’s pretty fun.
We also did a big peanut butter and jelly sandwich that was two 4-foot pieces of bread that were cut out. You couldn’t just make it out of foam, though. It was always a process. Foam is so absorbent that you can’t just do that. So we would have to make latex rubberized paint, and it would take eight coats of it to finally get it so that the obstacle could be used again at the end of the day.
Geoffrey Darby, executive producer and co-creator: The One-Ton Human Hamster Wheel was actually a human hamster wheel. Remember, go back to Rube Goldberg here. Put a kid in a hamster wheel. Wouldn’t that be funny? We thought that would be really funny. It was only called the One-Ton Human Hamster Wheel, though, because when the shop made it, they said, “It weighs a ton,” not meaning it actually weighs a ton, as in 2,000 pounds. They just said, “It weighs a ton,” and that’s why we called it the One-Ton Human Hamster Wheel.
Car Wash was another one of the original ones. It was easy. You just had to put up these big foam things, and the kid had to squeeze through them while there was water pouring down.
Robin Russo, Double Dare production assistant: [Later], kids would get pulled out of the audience, and they would always ask to go through the Car Wash for some reason. The crew made that happen.
Jim Fenhagen, set designer: We had a certain amount of space within the studio to do the obstacles, so we had to lay them out in a course that you could run, and then we had the audience around there. So it all had to be figured out, how to fit it all into the studio.
Dana Calderwood, Double Dare director: We had graph paper and little cutouts of every obstacle. I believe there were about 40 of them, and there were eight within an obstacle course. So you would just mix and match. You would always have one or two really big ones that had to stay on set for a couple of days or a week or so, just because you wouldn’t have the time to move them in and out, and then a bunch of ones that the stage crew could just roll into place, or that type of thing.
Byron Taylor, set designer: Eventually, we painted ourselves into certain corners just by virtue of the size of some of these things. They could only fit certain places in the obstacle course. If you watch episodes of the show, you’ll probably see certain ones always in the same place. The Sundae Slide, or the hamster wheel. There are a few others like that, where they fit in certain places and not others, because they were too big. The hamster wheel’s footprint was sort of an L shape, where you went in and made a 90-degree turn to exit, so that sort of limited where you could put it, in some respects.
Geoffrey Darby, executive producer and co-creator: Originally, the hamster wheel had mirrors on it, and there was a light that hit the mirror, and when it hit the mirror, the number would go up, and that just never seemed to work. So instead, we had a person stand there and flip the switch every time the light went by. We tried to automate it, and it just didn’t work. You want to make it so that there’s no human cause for error, so someone couldn’t say they didn’t win the hamster wheel because the guy didn’t flip the switch.
John Harvey, Double Dare announcer: I remember each time we’d come back [to the set] it would be almost like a little kid at Christmas, because it would be like, “Oh, my god, what has Byron Taylor cooked up this time? What has he invented?”
Somebody was just asking me today about the gumball machine, and I said, “It was enormous. It was so high that it almost grazed the light grid overhead.” And they asked, “Why would they build it that big?” And I said, “Because they could.” Nickelodeon, god bless them, in those days, they were either just complete loonies or they had no idea that you needed to control these maniacs, but they really gave us a lot of creative freedom.
The show’s first day of filming finally arrived, though it didn’t exactly go smoothly.
Dana Calderwood, director: The very first obstacle on the very first day… I think it was called Feather Pillow.
Mike Klinghoffer, co-creator: It was called Nightmare.
Dana Calderwood, director: Basically, it was a giant sack of feathers, and you would have to dig in there and find the flag and hand it to your partner and move on. What happened is that they dove in, and feathers were flying everywhere, so it was giving us the right look we wanted for television. And they couldn’t find the flag. The entire 60 seconds went through, and they didn’t find the flag, so we went and looked, and sure enough, they had forgotten to put the flag in. So we said, “All right, we have to do it again, but this time, let’s make it easier for them.” So we take them out of the room, and we put the flag right in the top so they would find it right away and move on, because they were pretty upset. They thought they’d lost, and it was our fault.
So then the second version of the obstacle course happens. This time, they wisely decide that since they’d dug to the bottom of this giant feather pillow before, they would save time, so they just took the thing and dumped it upside down on the ground. Of course, the flag that we’d just hidden under a single layer of feathers on the top was now buried under a giant mountain at the bottom of the pile. They’d made their lot. And again, they went through the whole 60 seconds and didn’t find it. We walked over and showed them, “You guys, it’s there.”
So the third time, we said, “What can we do?” We just stuck it down in the middle somewhere, and they found it that time.
Geoffrey Darby, executive producer and co-creator: That poor girl. She was crawling around amongst all these feathers looking completely sad and distressed that she couldn’t get a flag. She couldn’t even get through obstacle one.
I remember asking the studio audience, “Should we do it again?” It wasn’t strictly by the rules, because we shouldn’t have let them go again, but we asked the studio audience, and they all agreed that we should let them do it again.
Dana Calderwood, director: That was the very first obstacle course run, and we were thinking, “Oh, my god, we’re about to make 65 of these, and it’s totally broken and doesn’t work.” We’d tested it in office situations, but we didn’t have the big, expensive props that were built to look wonderful and Nickelodeon-like.
I will say, I think we banished that stunt. I think it was only used a few more times.
Even the floor of the studio turned out to be a problem.
Byron Taylor, set designer: We were at WHYY in Philadelphia, which is this PBS station. They had an epoxy television studio floor. It was poured, so it was very smooth, and you could roll cameras on it.
The floor was supposed to be a lavender color for the show, and the way they used to do this, apparently, according to one of the producers who came from Canada, was that they would put down a liquid material that you could then strip off. It was sort of like liquid rubber or liquid plastic, and it was used in paint booths, apparently. So if you were painting cars or assembly-line products, you could spray this material on the conveyor belts and other machinery and whatnot, and build up layer after layer of paint, and then before you’d leave, you could strip it all off and start the next day. But it’s an industrial coating, and you’re supposed to have a respirator and proper equipment to do this, and we just had some stagehands in this enclosed space, and we’re pouring this toxic material all over the floor, and everybody’s getting lightheaded. It was just a mess.
Steve Pannepacker, property master: We used a lot of mops. We couldn’t hose. There was no runoff drop that we could use. One of the biggest concerns was always how slippery the floor was. Especially once it got whipped cream on it, there wasn’t much you could do.
Byron Taylor, set designer: We learned [that it was slippery] on practically the first day. One of the camera people got a fracture or something. He went down early on one of the rehearsals, or during one of the first shows. He worked the remainder of that first season with his ankle taped up. It was a constant nightmare.
John Harvey, announcer: Gradually, the set began to morph a little bit. I don’t know exactly when it came in, but they eventually used a hard rubber flooring material, like linoleum. It was a continuous piece, and it was brightly colored, and they could use a squeegee on it. They built troughs in the front of the set, and in between every break, they’d take these giant squeegees and pull all this crap into these troughs and put the grates back over the top of them. The good part was that after a day of hot lights, it smelled like death.
Robin Russo, production assistant: Oh, god, it was terrible. Absolutely terrible.
Steve Pannepacker, property master: You could walk in the studio early in the morning and you could just smell the sour build-up. You couldn’t forget it.
Marc Summers, Double Dare host: The first day it smelled good, and by day four it smelled like an old high school cafeteria…
At the end of season one, we’d done 65 episodes or something, and you figure, “Well, hell. We’ll never do this again. We’ll get canceled.” Well, we got picked up, but they didn’t clean that blue, shiny floor particularly well. So when they unrolled it, anybody who touched that floor broke out in the most disgusting blisters. It was like everybody had leprosy. It was the most bizarre thing in the world. Anybody who touched anything on that floor who then touched their face would break out in horrible stuff.
With the show filming 65 episodes a season on a shoestring budget, producers had to figure out how to maximize their time and space.
Mike Klinghoffer, co-creator: We had a little map of the studio, and we had cutouts of every obstacle, and we would put them on the paper and move them around. I would go to my hotel room every night, take my obstacle kit with me, place them on the paper, bring them in the next morning, and take them to the Xerox machine. I’d then give the copies to the Map Lord, as we called him. He was the head of the crew. He was in charge of putting the obstacles out. And then those would be the obstacles for the day.
We had a very weak system in that the obstacles were too big and heavy to move for every show. So what we’d do was that every day would get better. First day A, second day B, third day C, and so on. Then when we programmed what would go on the air, we knew that no A would ever air in the same week, no B would ever air in the same week, no C would ever air in the same week, so it looked like obstacles changed every day, even though we shot four, sometimes five shows with the same obstacles every day.
Dana Calderwood, director: So [that] the obstacle course wasn’t always the same, we would just simply start at a different place. So the first show went one through eight, and the second show went three through two or whatever it was. We would move the signs. So on camera, it looked like we had a different layout. We’d also run the opposite direction, too.
Mike Klinghoffer, co-creator: Once we set up an obstacle course in the morning, we would try to run it ourselves without any mess or anything on it, just to see how long it would take. This was at the beginning when we were all novices trying to figure it out. So that would tell us how much slop we’d need. We’d be like, “This one was a hard course, so we could just slop here, here, and here.” Or “This was an easy course, let’s make the Sundae Slide harder.” We had secrets that we could do that would make it more difficult or not. If we put chocolate syrup on the sides, then it was harder to go up. If we left the sides dry, it would be easier to do.
So, there were things like that that we’d make gakkier or less gakky. Also, we’d try and figure out, you know, if we made it gakkier earlier, that’s harder because you’re messy earlier and you’re slipping and sliding. If the gak came later, you’d get farther, faster.
Dana Calderwood, director: Some of them, like the Slime Canal—sometimes it would just be filled with water, but other times it would be filled with pudding. So certain obstacles became more and more messy based on what we did to them. Sometimes if you had to climb up the slide for the Sundae Slide, we would actually put a mess at the bottom so you would have to get your feet dirty before you started climbing. It became a real science.
This would become an even bigger concern later, as the show became more popular, moved to a bigger space, and the crew had a larger budget to play with.
Byron Taylor, set designer: It was always like, could you really get from point A to point B when you had more space and you had these more elaborate contraptions? That became a factor, too, to a certain extent. How big could some of these things be? How long could they take to go through? Later on, as we became more baroque with some of these obstacles, that was a concern. Yes, we can build it, but we had things with conveyor belts and mechanical contraptions, turntables, and it was a question of how fast you could make these things go. Could you still get through an obstacle in, say, eight seconds? Because other obstacles might be that much faster, and you could do those in three to four seconds, so you could afford an eight- to 10-second obstacle somewhere else. You didn’t want to trap the kids in where there just wouldn’t be enough time to get through it.
Dana Calderwood, director: We really didn’t know if we would have winners or not. Almost every game show has a stated number of wins per episode. Sometimes we’d go a long time without a winner, and there’s not a lot that we can do because of standards and practices, and fairness issues and things like that, so you can’t change the obstacle course midday. The rules were that we had to pick an obstacle course and live with it all day, whether we had a winner or not. But the next day, we could try to make it a little easier by making one or two of the obstacles ones that you could run through quickly and grab a flag. But nothing guaranteed a winner.
I do know that we were trying to get a winner a week. Out of 65 shows, we would have 13 winners. If there’s a game that ends with a grand-prize winner, you always want to see that happen once a week, if possible. It keeps people coming back. Because if the game looks impossible, people lose interest.
Geoffrey Darby, executive producer and co-creator: The prizes themselves, though, the dollar value wasn’t as important as the intrinsic value to the kids. In other words, a CD player or a DVD player was $200 or something. And a set of encyclopedias—you just remember, this was 30 years ago—but those might be worth $1,000. The kid would much rather have the DVD player for $200. So the dollar valued of the prize didn’t go up. It was the intrinsic value to the audience that went up. So, the encyclopedia might be at number three, and really it should be at number six or seven.
Dana Calderwood, director: You want to do prizes more than you want to do money. Because money costs exactly how much it costs. If it’s a $5,000 prize, then that’s what you get. But with prizes, there’s a perceived value, and sometimes Disney World donates prizes because they get the recognition value. It’s called a promotional consideration. And the kids just loved them.
We did some testing, and lots of kids don’t really have a perceived value of what the value of money is. They don’t know what they can get for the money. But they know a big, shiny picture of a trip or a new bike or a television or something like that, that’s cool. Right away they know what they’re playing for.
Geoffrey Darby, executive producer and co-creator: The idea of money [in the trivia round] versus prizes [at the end] was also a way for us to level a playing field, so that the kids who won could afford to pay the taxes on the prizes they won. Because we were in Philadelphia, we had kids from inner-city schools, and if they won $2,000 worth of prizes, and then the family can’t afford to pay the taxes? God, can you imagine the kids? That was why we put money into the game. It was pragmatic.
Marc Summers, host: The kids would be funny, because they would watch the show at home and then scream at the TV set and say, “If I ever got that chance, I would do better.” And so, they’d get there, they win, and then they’re in a daze, because they can’t believe that they got on the show and they actually won.
So, what we used to do during the last commercial break was walk them around to each obstacle. “Okay, who’s doing obstacle one, three, five, and seven? Okay, then you’re doing two, four, six, and eight. Here’s what you need to do, okay? The first one is called ‘Inside Out,’ and that means there’s a pillowcase filled with feathers, and you’ve got to find it in there. Let me tell you a little hint: What you should do is probably dump all the feathers out first and then look for the flag. If you reach inside, it’s not going to happen. Got it?” “Yeah, right.” “When you get to the Sundae Slide, please go up the sides, because if you go up the center, you’ll get your foot in the whipped cream and chocolate pudding, and then you’ll never get up. Got it?” “Yeah, right.”
Mike Klinghoffer, co-creator: “Look, this is the Sundae Slide. You should try and go up the side,” and so forth. “When you come down, lift your feet up. Try and put your butt right into the whipped cream instead of your feet, so your feet stay dry and you’ll do better on the obstacle course. It may feel more messy, but you’re going to do better.” “Grab the flag but don’t carry it with you. Stuff it in your shirt, and move on to the next.”
Marc Summers, host: You might as well have said stuff in Spanish, French, or Japanese. They never heard a word of it, because we’d say, “On your mark, get set, go!” and they forgot everything, and then when they couldn’t do it, they couldn’t understand why. We gave them every hint that was legally possible, and they wouldn’t follow through on it.
John Harvey, announcer: It wasn’t like there were tears on the set ever, though. They were excited they got to run the obstacle course.
Marc Summers, host: There wasn’t a lot of disappointment. The fact that they got on the program, that they got on the obstacle course, they were thrilled with that.
John Harvey, announcer: I think after five episodes I went, “Oh, my god, they really don’t give a crap about the prizes. They just want to get goo all over them and be given permission to jump into a vat of green mess and get completely covered head to toe.”
Dana Calderwood, director: We used to shoot the show in Philadelphia, and then we shot in New York, and the last seasons were done in Florida, but the viewers don’t know where it’s shot, necessarily. One time, a kid won the obstacle course, and the grand prize was a trip to Disney World. The kid started to cry because that wasn’t special at all. He lived in Orlando. He had been to Disney World. That wasn’t a grand prize as far as he was concerned. So we had to address that in future seasons.
I felt so badly for that poor little kid. He couldn’t help himself. He just burst into tears. Poor guy. I think they worked something out with him, though. I think they may have switched a prize.
Geoffrey Darby, executive producer and co-creator: I think we gave them the trip, and they probably sold it to somebody. I have no idea.
The mess was a big part of the show, and a big part of what went on behind the scenes.
Byron Taylor, set designer: You couldn’t really use canned whipped cream, because it would break down. You’d make a pie backstage, but then in the time that it took to wheel it out, it’s under the television lights—you never know exactly when something’s going to happen, because things could stop, and the kids might not take the physical challenge. You might have it ready backstage, but they might answer the question correctly, so you wasted time making a pie, and then it just sits there and deflates.
So, we had to find a better solution. Someone, maybe it was Steve [Pannepacker], found that there was a product that commercial kitchens could buy called Baker’s Cream. It was like buying a carton of heavy cream, but if you whipped it, it could become stiff. Depending on how long you whipped it, it could become very stiff and hold its shape. So that was used for everything from whipped-cream pies to—in the Sundae Slide, we had to make three scoops of ice cream at the bottom that the kids landed in. That was just stiffly whipped Baker’s Cream that had food coloring added to it. You could make it look like a scoop of chocolate, a scoop of vanilla, and a scoop of strawberry, or whatever.
Steve Pannepacker, property master: The first thing I would do every day was start getting the whipped cream ready for all the obstacles.
Byron Taylor, set designer: We would buy literally hundreds of gallons of that stuff at a time. Eventually, when we were down in Florida, we had a walk-in refrigerator, and we would get Baker’s Cream deliveries practically every day. We had these huge 60-quart standing mixers, and the cream came in half-gallon cartons or something, so you’d just pour carton after carton of this stuff in there and start whipping. It would take an entire bucket from the mixer to make one scoop of ice cream on the Sundae Slide.
Steve Pannepacker, property master: We had giant fridges and we tried to save it. We tried to put some in the refrigerator at the end of the night, but we would always make more.
Byron Taylor, set designer: It was a tremendous cost, and a tremendous investment in time whipping that material up.
Although the show filmed five episodes a day at its peak, it filmed each episode’s trivia and physical challenge portions back to back before lunch, and each episode’s obstacle courses back to back after lunch.
Byron Taylor, set designer: Since we would shoot a number of shows per day, we would have to re-dress the obstacles. Once the kids slid into a pile or into the sundae at the bottom of the slide and destroy it, we’d have to go back and mound it back up and dress it and make it look presentable again, because in a few minutes we were going to possibly run another obstacle course, and then a few minutes after that, we were going to run another one. So we would try to use some of that material over again, scoop it back up, make a mound again, dress it with some more clean-looking cream on the outside, and then they’d do it again.
Steve Pannepacker, property master: I still have memories of how, when [the whipped cream] fell, it curdled. We cleaned up, but you never got it all. Over the years, we’d do some of the same obstacles. We’d clean them all, but every year when we got them out of storage, they’d still smell like sour milk.
Robin Russo, production assistant: I can’t eat whipped cream to this day. I can’t smell it, and I can’t look at it.
One of the most memorable moments on the set involved a big tank full of baked beans.
Steve Pannepacker, property master: The tank was always one of the most fun obstacles. It was 10 feet long and three or five feet wide.
John Harvey, announcer: We used to fill it with balloons, sponges, rubber balls, whatever.
Byron Taylor, set designer: The tank was supposed to be water-tight. That was the theory, at least… It invariably leaked. [Eventually,] I found a company that would make swimming pool liners in the Midwest someplace. I don’t know where, and they were quite happy to make us all kinds of crazy stuff… We had them make a clear liner to fit the tank, and then we could fill it with liquid.
John Harvey, announcer: One time, we got the bright idea that we’d take outdated, not allowed to sell anymore, government surplus baked beans, and we filled that tank with baked beans.
Byron Taylor, set designer: We had to go all over the city of Philadelphia to get big restaurant-sized cans of Heinz beans or whatever. We went to all the commercial food places and bought them out. We bought bags of dried beans, even. I would say it was mostly water, a lot of beans, and maybe there was even some pudding thrown in there.
John Harvey, announcer: When you fill a tank that big with baked beans, you want to get your money’s worth. So all week, we got 25 episodes out of the baked beans. The end of the week comes, and they’ve been under the lights all week long, sitting there at night stewing away. We go, “How do we get rid of all these baked beans?”
Dana Calderwood, director: By the end of the third day under the hot lights, it was aromatic, to say the least. It was just disgusting. Ultimately, the stagehands didn’t even want to clean it up with buckets.
John Harvey, announcer: [Steve Pannepacker] called the honey wagon. You know, the guy who brings the big sucker truck that sucks out septic tanks. He’s parked outside on 7th and Arch in Philadelphia, and he runs a big, long hose into the baked bean tank that’s been there all week under the lights and sucks it out.
Byron Taylor, set designer: Our real mistake was, to make it look like there were pieces of pork in there, we put chunks of square foam rubber in the tank. You couldn’t see through the beans, so [the septic tank man] would suck up these hunks of foam into his hose, and they’d shut everything down. It took him hours eventually to get all the beans and avoid the foam.
John Harvey, announcer: He came back in and said, “You guys know what I do for a living? This is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.”
The crew also experimented with other foodstuffs.
Steve Pannepacker, property master: Did anyone ever tell you they’ve made 500 gallons of Jell-O? We set out to do that when we wanted to fill the tank with Jell-O. That was quite the undertaking. It was winter, and we had 50 five-gallon buckets. We were able to heat it up hot enough, and then put it outside. It would cool, and we were able to fill the tank with 500 gallons of Jell-O.
Byron Taylor, set designer: When we did the first rehearsal or two, we had one obstacle called Ketchup And Mustard. We went out and got real ketchup and mustard, big cans of it. Number 10 cans from commercial kitchen stores. We put that at the bottom of the obstacle, but we found out that if you got any of that on you, it stained your hands and your clothes, and it stained the obstacle yellow, like hot dog mustard. Also, if you got it in your eyes, that vinegar was so terrible.
So, we quickly figured out we couldn’t use that stuff. Instead, we wound up using pudding for a lot of stuff. We would buy large cans of pudding and tint them to make them look like ketchup or mustard, or green slime, for that matter.
We didn’t use the recipe from You Can’t Do That On Television [for slime], because the oatmeal would dry and harden under the lights, and you literally couldn’t get rid of it. It would turn into plaster. We used a combination of pudding, and I liked applesauce, because it was translucent. You tinted it.
Mike Klinghoffer, co-creator: We were always asked about the waste of food. That was a hot topic of conversation while we were shooting the show. It always bothered me greatly. The first time I was asked that, I was stunned. They said, “Don’t you feel like you’re wasting food? There are starving people in the world.” I was just amazed. Really? Somebody who is starving would want our whipped cream and chocolate syrup? It just seemed silly.
I looked at a person who asked that question in an interview and said, “Let me ask you a question. Do you think anyone ever asked that question to the people who were working on Animal House when they were shooting that movie? ‘Oh, they had a food fight. What a waste of food!’ No.” Only because it was somehow a kids’ game show, it became a heavy topic.
Marc Summers, host: Klinghoffer [eventually] made [something] up, because he was the best at this stuff. [He would say] we would go to food warehouses and try and find product that was dated that they couldn’t sell in supermarkets or to restaurants anymore, and they would sell us the dated stuff. It was more B.S. than I can begin to tell you, but we just got tired of dealing with people saying that we were not helping homeless people by throwing eggs and using pudding.
As one might expect, the Double Dare obstacle course was not an entirely safe place, despite the show’s best efforts.
Mike Klinghoffer, co-creator: At the beginning of every season, we had our insurance people come to the set, so we could show them every obstacle and how it worked, so they could sign off for safety reasons.
As far as I can recall, we only had one kid who ever got hurt on the obstacle course.
Marc Summers, host: There were actually two kids that got hurt. See? This is why you talk to Marc Summers.
The first kid, the parents lied. We made the kids fill out forms that said, “Do you have any broken bones?”
Mike Klinghoffer, co-creator: You had to have your health forms signed by your doctor.
Marc Summers, host: The kid said no, he had no broken bones. We went from obstacle one to obstacle two, he slipped and fell, and the bone went right through his arm. I left the studio, because I thought I was going to throw up. Robin [Russo] was like a nurse and amazing. Ends up that the kid had glass bones, and he had broken 17 bones in his body. He couldn’t go up a staircase without breaking a bone. So there was that.
But here was the other one. We had an obstacle called the Sewer Chute, which was, you’d go up a ladder and then go down a ladder in a very narrow sort of Plexiglass box, and the kid coming down fell backwards, and it looked like he snapped his neck. I thought he was dead. If you see me on the course, all I say over and over again is, “Are you okay? Are you okay? Are you sure you’re okay?”
We go into the control room after the fact, and this kid should not be alive. His neck snapped like I couldn’t believe. [Geoffrey] Darby used to say, when they’re that young, they bounce, but this one was scary as hell.
So the kid only got to obstacle number six, and we said, “Hey, nice job. You’re doing great. See you tomorrow on Double Dare.” Well, we found out that the kid’s father was an attorney, and he came into the control room afterwards and said, “You know, that was a very dangerous obstacle course.” “Yeah, I know, we’ll remember that.” And he goes, “A large-screen TV was the prize for obstacle number seven.” Then he takes out his business card and hands it to us and says, “I’ll be happy not to sue you guys if you give him the TV from obstacle number seven. Otherwise, we got a problem here.” They went into a room, came back, and said, “Yes, sir, you want that TV? That’s your TV. No problem.” And that was the end of that.
From that point, they always looked at the kids’ applications, and if any kid had a parent who was an attorney, they never got on the show after that.
Mike Klinghoffer, co-creator: We had a registered nurse on set. Nurse Joan. It was originally thought of for if a kid falls and gets hurt, but really I think she saw more crew members than contestants. It was people falling and flipping over. Also, getting things in your eyes.
Marc Summers, host: The kid with the glass bones, sadly, that obstacle course was never completed. They figured after he got his arm repaired, he’d come back to run the course. But he never did, and I felt bad for the kid. He never got to complete it.
Mike Klinghoffer, co-creator: We also learned about the words “attractive nuisance” [while we were filming].
We filled the tank one day with Styrofoam peanuts. You know, simple and easy. Marc would come by [during filming] and say, “Oh, look. Today in the tank we have Styrofoam peanuts.” And then he took a bite and said, “Mmm, delicious.” Show airs, and a week later, we get a letter from a kid’s parent who is an attorney. It says, “My kid started eating Styrofoam peanuts, because he saw Marc Summers do it. You created an attractive nuisance.” That’s when we learned that every time we did something like that, we had to say, “Don’t try this at home.”
Over all its iterations—Double Dare, Super Sloppy Double Dare, Family Double Dare, and Double Dare 2000—Double Dare ultimately aired about 500 total episodes. And though the set was a gak-drenched mess every single day, the cast and crew still remember it fondly.
John Harvey, announcer: You could almost bake a cake in your hair after the lights had been on you for a while.
Robin Russo, production assistant: Nothing was worse than when it got stuck in your hair.
John Harvey, announcer: But did we mention it was the time of our lives?
Robin Russo, production assistant: Exactly.