In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, paper, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
The kind of show that both inspired and caused anxiety in millions of kids, Nickelodeon Guts ruled the cable network from 1992 to 1995 in its various iterations. With the Aggro Crag anchoring the show’s “Extreme Arena,” Nickelodeon Guts was part sports competition and part rigging exhibition, with each episode’s three contestants competing in various events that were vaguely reminiscent of a particular sport without really being like that sport at all. (“Bull’s Eye,” for instance, asked Nerf bow-wielding contestants hooked to bungee cords to jump up and down off tall stacks of mats while simultaneously trying hit a target with individual foam arrows.)
A Florida resident at the time, Anna Mercedes Morris competed on Guts in 1993. She won, tasting victory at the peak of the Aggro Crag, and has since grown up to be a stunt double, appearing in movies like 2 Fast 2 Furious and 127 Hours, and on shows like Pretty Little Liars, Californication, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. She even worked in stunts on My Family’s Got Guts, an iteration of Guts that Nickelodeon launched in 2008. The A.V. Club talked to her about the Aggro Crag, that damn bungee maze thing, and whether she still “has it.” (GUTS!)
The A.V. Club: How did you end up being a Guts contestant?
Anna Mercedes Morris: I saw the commercial on Nickelodeon saying that there was an open call audition. I lived in Florida and the studio was over in Orlando at Universal Studios. When I saw the commercial, I told my dad, “I want to go to this open call,” and so he drove me over to Orlando and I did the open call.
They did the audition there at the soundstage, and they had two stages of the audition. I made it all the way through. And then by the end of the day, they said they’d call about whether you get on the show. I don’t remember how many weeks later it was, but they called and gave us a shoot date, and so my dad drove me back over and we shot the show there at the stages at Universal.
AVC: Do you have a sense of what they were looking for or why you made it? Were you athletic?
AMM: I was an athlete. I did karate, cheerleading, gymnastics.
AVC: So you were willing to put your body on the line?
AMM: Yeah. I was like, “I got this, I could do that.”
AVC: Do you remember what they tryouts were like? Were they having you do obstacles that you’d seen on the show?
AMM: Yeah, they had a couple of the different obstacles that they have in the show. They put together a sort of mock course and had the kids go through it, and they timed you. And that was it, like a big cattle call.
AVC: What was it like when you filmed your episode? Were they filming multiple episodes in one day?
AMM: Yeah, they filmed a bunch of shows in one day.
The audiences that you see sitting in the little stands on the side, they’re actually park guests from Universal Studios. They had a kiosk outside in the park allowing park guests to come in and be a part of tapings. I don’t remember exactly how many episodes they shot within one day, but it was quite a few. I want to say maybe two or three.
AVC: Did they let you pick what color uniform you wanted?
AMM: No, they picked our colors for us. They just kind of were like, “Here’s your shirt, here’s your shoes.”
AVC: “Here’s your bike shorts.”
AMM: Yeah, the bike shorts. They let us keep our tops and the shorts and our Reebok tennis shoes, because the show was sponsored by Reebok.
But, yeah, they fit us with our kneepads and the helmets and kind of prepped us. We all changed into our things and then we were all in a greenroom waiting and then they’d bring us out onstage. They were really great. Nickelodeon was great with walking everyone through the process, and everyone’s parents sat in the greenroom and got to watch the taping from the greenroom.
AVC: Did they let you choose your on-screen nickname?
AMM: Yeah. They asked you about a nickname, but I was so silly, I was like, “Uh… I don’t know.” I just was one of those people that’s a little shy, and so they kind of made it up for me. Like mine was Anna “The Roadrunner” Morris. And I was like, “Okay, sure. Sounds fine to me.”
AVC: I mean this in the best way, but it doesn’t seem like Guts really had a verbal personality requirement for its contestants like, say, Wheel Of Fortune does. You guys just had to be tough, athletic, badass kids.
AMM: It was interesting, the dynamic, because it was me, another girl, and a guy. What was really funny is that the boy who was on the show, when he saw that he was up against two girls, he got really cocky. When you re-watch the episode, it’s funny to watch when he wins the first two obstacles, because his interviews were really hilarious. He was so cocky. Even the announcer, he was pretty funny.
AVC: Mike O’Malley?
AMM: Yeah. He was hilarious because he just was like, “Ohhh-kay, kid,” because the guy was a little too full of himself. Then I beat him on the third obstacle, and I started beating him on the fourth one, and he got quieter and quieter and less cocky and less cocky at the end.
AVC: Did that add fuel to your fire? Like do you remember being like, “fuck this kid.”
AMM: Yeah! I also had all the spotters that were spotting us—the crew of safety people, and they were really great. They were all like, “Anna, beat this kid. Shut him up and beat him.”
AVC: That’s so nice.
AMM: They were definitely pumping me up to beat him, which I knew I could, and then when we did the Aggro Crag and I beat him, he was really not happy.
AVC: Let’s go back. You’re in your uniform and ready to go. Did they teach you the events before you ran them? Did they let you practice?
AMM: No, we didn’t practice anything. They just kind of explained it right there on the spot. I think basically by having us do those auditions, they weeded out the kids who weren’t athletic enough to fully do anything. When we got there, I didn’t know which challenges they were going to have us do, and so it was one of those things where they explained it to us as we were literally taping it.
AVC: Do you remember which events were harder? Anything with bouncing seems like it would have been taxing.
AMM: I actually loved the bouncing ones a lot, because I did gymnastics and cheerleading and trampoline classes all the time, so for me, I loved doing the harness and jumping off of the things. The one with the bow and arrow, the Nerf thing where you’re hitting targets—
AVC: You killed that.
AMM: That was my favorite. If I could put that in my backyard I probably would do it every day just for fun.
The pool one was challenging, just because of all the different dynamics. It was interesting; I’d never seen that one before on the show. That one was a little challenging, but just because I grew up in Florida, wakeboarding and kneeboarding, I kind of had a grasp on that one. More so than most people.
AVC: With the bouncing ones, if you can’t get it down, you’re really screwed. If you get off a bounce and have to start pulling yourself up, it’s over.
AMM: I think any of the girls who did really well on the show were ones that came from a background with gymnastics or any other type of sport that required practice. Like, if you were doing dance classes every day. I think those kind of people ended up doing better at these kind of challenges.
AVC: So they would just kind of rough you through everything? They’d say, “Okay, you’re going to jump off this, you’re going to try to hit that mark, you’re going to hit the wall, you’re going to try to get all the baseballs.” And then they’d say, “Okay, go.”
AMM: Pretty much. The only thing they did in advance was just fit us into the harnesses so that when we went to tape and we walked over to the event we could just get in our harness and it was already sized up for us.
AVC: The taping must have moved pretty fast.
AMM: It really did. It moves pretty quickly. I was probably on the third season of the show if not more—I know they did Global Guts—so they had it down to a science by that point. They knew how they were going to make it all happen and go.
AVC: Everybody always wants to know about the Aggro Crag.
AMM: The Aggro Crag is awesome.
AVC: One of my co-workers wanted to know if the Aggro Crag was as intimidating as it appeared on TV.
AMM: It actually was. It took up a good amount of the soundstage, and what’s crazy is that it’s as blinding as it seems on television. I just remember they gave us the goggles and we had a mouthpiece in and literally as you’re crossing to hit the actuators, there’s the confetti cannons going off in your face, there’s these misters, and it’s even squirting water sometimes. There’s just so much coming at you and you’re like, “Oh my god, where’s that button?”
AVC: How did you know where the actuators were?
AMM: As we were standing there and as Mike O’Malley was explaining it to the camera, we were standing there with our safety person, and they were pointing out the actuators on each side. While you’re waiting there with them and getting ready to go, that’s when you’re like looking at your path and seeing where everything is and hopefully you remember it as you’re walking through it because you can’t miss one. You have to go back and get it, and so you’ve got to hit all of them. It’s one of those things where you get that little bit of prep time to kind of see what you need to do and visualize all of them—because when you got up there you couldn’t see them at all.
AVC: Did you have a plan?
AMM: No, no plan, except to beat the other kids.
A funny thing about our show is that we actually had to tape the Aggro Crag part a second time. We had to shoot it twice because the first time we did it, the kid Paul won and then the girl Lauren crossed over into my side and they disqualified her. But when they looked at the tape while we were taping the finale part with the awards, the editors noticed that Paul used the side handrail at one point to get up. And so they brought us into the greenroom with our parents and they told us that they had noticed that Paul used the handrail. They were like, “It’s kind of up to you guys.” Lauren would be disqualified and Paul would be disqualified, so I’d win by default, or they said we could redo it and just run it again. We all decided to run it again. And so we did it again, and that’s when I beat him.
AVC: Paul must have been super pissed.
AMM: They already taped the award ceremony where he was the winner. They actually kept the audience there, and then they had this little meeting, and then they brought us all in the greenroom and they were like, “So, this is what happened and it’s up to you guys.” And so he legitimately at first won the show, but if they kept it the way it was, they would just re-tape the winner because they would say, “He’s disqualified, she’s disqualified, Anna wins.” And I didn’t want to win that way.
AVC: That was big of you. It’s also cool because you got to do it twice.
AMM: Yeah, yeah. I definitely had an idea of where everything was and I knew I was going to beat this kid this time.
AVC: It was close, too. You guys were about a fraction of a second away from each other.
AMM: I totally slipped at the very end and I was like, “Shit, get up!”
AVC: As a kid, those final challenges always got me really worked up. They were so tense. I’d yell at the screen. Even now, 22 years later, it’s angst-inducing to watch. I was stressing out thinking, “Is she going to do it?”
AMM: I know. You’re like, “Oh my god, come on, do it!”
AVC: You won the piece of the Aggro Crag, but did you win anything else?
AMM: You get to keep the medal they give you. They actually give you your gold Guts medal, and each contestant gets their silver or bronze one. It comes in a case and everything. And then the piece of the Aggro Crag, which is technically your trophy, when it showed up, it’s not the same one they hand you. It’s the same shape as the one they hand you when you’re on the podium, but that one is a little awkward and heavy because of the way they have it glowing. The one they sent me was a neon lamp with a pull-string.
AVC: Was it plastic or glass?
AMM: It was all plastic. It looked just like the one they hand us but it was plastic with a neon light inside of it with a pull-string to turn it on and off, and it glowed green. It had a metal placard on the front of it saying the episode I was on, my name, “Anna ‘Roadrunner’ Morris,” first place or whatever. It was really sad when the neon lights in that lamp died.
AVC: Do you still have it?
AMM: No, I don’t even remember what happened to it. I know when it stopped working I was really upset about it.
When I was a kid, my parents were divorced, so I moved a quite a bit so I don’t remember what happened to it.
What was funny was when GAS, the cable network, started re-airing old Guts episodes, I kept getting bombarded by random people through Facebook asking me if I was the Anna Morris that won Guts and if I still had the piece of the Aggro Crag and people offered me money for it. I had to tell them, “I’m sorry, I don’t.”
I do have my medal. I have it in its box still. I think I posted a picture of it on Facebook not that long ago for Throwback Thursday.
AVC: Do you think being on Guts contributed to you wanting to be a stunt person?
AMM: Absolutely. I was 13 when I did the show, and it just so happened that a couple years later my dad lost his job at the Kennedy Space Center and we moved to Orlando. Actually, we moved across the street from Universal Studios. I went to Dr. Phillips High School, which was right across the street from where we taped Guts. My first job was at Universal Studios with the Wild West Stunt Show as a horse wrangler, and it’s just really bizarre how it all worked out, because I got into the stunt business by being there at the Wild West Stunt Show, and all the stunt people were like, “Wow, you ride horses, you have karate, gymnastics, cheerleading, and a diving background.” They were like, “Those are all the things you need to do stunts,” and I was like, ”You just get to play all day and you get paid?” It was like, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
AVC: And you ended up doing stunts on the re-booted Guts in 2008?
AMM: The stunt coordinator was my buddy Danny Wayne, and when he called and offered me the job, he had no idea that I had been on the show. When he called me he was like, “Oh, we’re shooting it in Orlando,” and I was like, “I went to high school across the street from the soundstage. Oh, and by the way I was on that show when I was 13.” He was like, “Shut up. Are you serious?”
I worked on the reboot as a rigger. I helped all the family contestants get in their harnesses. We did prep where we were testing and setting up all the different stunts and everything, and then when we went to taping, I was one of the safety spotters for the families, helping them get in their harnesses and explaining the stuff for them.
AVC: And you got to give the kids the same kind of badass encouragement you got.
AMM: Exactly. It was a lot of fun.
Actually, the host was this guy Ben Lyons.When the producers and everyone realized that I was there and that I had been on the show, they had him do an interview with me. I don’t know what they ever did with it or if it aired. But they did have the host interview me about being on the show and then being a stunt person.
AVC: What was the hardest part about the whole event? Was it the thing with the rubber bands?
AMM: That stupid rubber band jungle was a pain in my butt. But I was on an adrenaline high for at least a couple weeks afterward.
AVC: You were probably super popular in your school when it aired.
AMM: It was funny because when it aired I’d changed high schools. I was going to high school in Orlando. So it kind of stunk because I wasn’t around all my friends that I grew up with. I just ended up celebrating by myself with my family.
What’s even funnier is that when I switched schools to Dr. Phillips, that kid Paul—the one that I beat on the show—he was a year younger than me in that school and I ran into him in the hallway with his friends.
AVC: What was that like?
AMM: It was funny.
AVC: You were like, “Oh, hey. I have that big piece of Aggro Crag that you almost won but then you didn’t win.”
AMM: He found me on Facebook years later when they were re-airing those shows and he made a comment saying something like, “I’ve never been able to live that down.” I think it really has changed this poor kid’s life that I beat him on Guts.
AVC: Well, at least it was close. And he didn’t come in third.
AMM: I felt so bad. I was like, “I think this thing has probably bothered him his whole childhood.”
AVC: My co-worker, the same guy that wanted to know if it was intimidating, wanted to know, “d-d-d-do you have it? Guts?” And thanks to that question, I’ve had the theme stuck in my head all day.
AMM: Oh, I know. You can’t get away from it once you start watching the shows.
But yeah, I’ve always been a fearless, go after whatever person. Growing up riding horses, you learned if they busted you off you had to just get back on, so guts is something that’s just in my nature. Especially because of what I pursued a career in, I just have to have that kind of mentality.