Cats and babies. According to Byron Taylor, the art director who spent seven years involved in the creation of the slippery, weirdly ingenious obstacles that populated Nickelodeon’s Double Dare, those were virtually the only themes considered off limits.
“The lawyers had what they called an attractive nuisance,” he says. “That’s when a kid might see something on TV and then try to imitate it at home. We had a game where we tossed plush cats into these big clown pants, and another where we threw pudding at a doll. You couldn’t do either one. They were afraid kids would pick cats up by their tail and swing them around or throw food at real babies.”
Over the course of roughly 500 episodes of the 1986-93 original series and its many spin-offs, the crew got to do pretty much everything else involving replica mucus. “That period of time was sort of a transition," he says. "Now it’s commonplace to have all kinds of fart jokes. The level of taste has gone down in the last 30 years. I guess we were part of that.”
Affectionately known as the "Glopmaster" on set, Taylor was kind enough to take us through some of the show’s most innovative (and disgusting) courses.
1. THE ONE TON HUMAN HAMSTER WHEEL
After graduating from New York University in 1985, Taylor got a call from Jim Fenhagen, a friend he met at local print shop who had just designed the stage for a new game show and needed help. Shortly, Fenhagen was off to ABC News; Taylor was playing in baked beans at a PBS station in Philadelphia. Among the stunts already sketched out: the human hamster wheel. “I think they had hired a writer in Los Angles who had worked on Beat the Clock to come up with some of them,” Taylor says. “It was solid, but what we learned was, you couldn’t get any traction on the drum coming off a gooey obstacle—not if your feet were covered in eggs and flour. We eventually had to add grip tape inside so that kids had a chance of getting this thing going.”
The Wheel was among the obstacles that cost several thousand dollars to fabricate, forcing the production to sprinkle in more economical courses to stay within budget: “It’s cheap to have someone run through tires filled with cake mix.”
2. PICK IT
The giant, snot-filled nose is reviled in Double Dare fandom not for its questionable taste but for the way it slowed the game down. “Once you stuff pudding up the nose and shove a flag in there, you cannot tell the difference between the vinyl flag material and goop,” Taylor says. “It would stick to the nostril. People were scraping, pulling, and grabbing. We eventually had to add an air cannon to just blow it out.” The nose seemed to grow more obscene with each passing season, going from relatively clean to encrusted in green phlegm even before contestants got to it. “I think we once added a zit filled with vanilla pudding,” Taylor says. “That was bizarre.”
3. KID FARM
Taylor says the idea for this kid-sized habitat came from David Letterman. “If you remember his old late night show, he had an ant farm for dogs. My thought was, ‘Let’s do one scaled big enough to put a kid through.’ We did it without any approval from the ant farm people, but I think we later gave some of those away as prizes.” According to Mathew Klickstein’s book, Slimed! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age, one adult employee tried it out and got stuck. “Wouldn’t surprise me,” Taylor says. “It was meant for 80-pound kids.”
4. SODA JERK
Double Dare was fond of super-sizing mechanical objects, including a typewriter, personal computer, and a mailbox. “I’m not sure kids would even know what a soda fountain looks like today,” Taylor says. “And some kids then didn’t know what a foot-activated pedal was.” You had to step on the right one to release two gallons of soda and a flag. “The bucket was essentially toilet apparatus," Taylor says. "When the pedal was hit, the flap would open. Getting the right amount of liquid was a problem.” Is Taylor surprised the show never worked in a gigantic toilet? “I can’t remember being told, ‘No toilets.’ We probably stayed away because it fell in the category of an attractive nuisance.”
5. THE WRINGER
Built in homage to the clunky (and dangerous) clothes wringers of the early 20th century, Taylor says the device was a cautionary tale when it came to using absorbent, open-celled foam. “We were just improvising and got some cheap mattress-type foam,” he says. “We didn’t know how to upholster something so it was airtight, and this thing just became like a big, soppy, stinking sponge you’d carry around. No matter how powerful an industrial cleaner you used, it would rot and smell.”
6. THE SUNDAE SLIDE
If Double Dare’s appeal needs to be condensed into one idea, it’s that it's the one place kids are rewarded for playing with their food. A fixture of the show, the Slide deposited players right into a six-foot diameter sundae. The piece was actually made of playground equipment modified so it could sit on a weighted base instead of being bolted to the ground. (All of the courses needed to be mobile.) “It was a signature piece," Taylor says. "We had to use a non-dairy whipped topping called Baker’s Cream because the real stuff would just melt under the lights. Over time, we developed a kitchen where we’d whip up gallons of the stuff. We had to find an 80-quart mixer."
7. SANDWICHES, WAFFLES, AND OTHER OVERSIZED FOODSTUFFS
Marinating latex foam props in condiments always made for an excellent visual, but the show learned early on to make them with colored pudding: Actual mustard and ketchup hurts. “On the first episode, we used the real stuff, and if you get it on your hands and feet and then touch your eye, it’s painful without eye protection," Taylor says. "We learned that very quickly.” Some “breads” would be too big to drag out and hose down. If they got a hole where food could enter, it could proceed to sit and stew until the following season. “It’s not a problem over three weeks," Taylor says, "but if you stick it in a hot warehouse for six months, it will smell. Yes.”
8. GUM DROP
Marc Summers’ favorite obstacle, and possibly the most visually interesting of the lot: Kids would leap into a vertical ball bit and come tumbling out of the bottom. “We’d come up with ideas just riding the train into the Philadelphia studio from New York,” Taylor says. “After so many years, it’s like, what else can we do?” The drawback was the door, which had to be opened by a stagehand with a switch. “Early on, we learned a kid could hit his head riding the balls down and smacking into the door, so we padded it,” Taylor says.
The balls came from a local outdoor amusement park that let the show scoop up their inventory during the winter months, and, says Taylor, “they would be covered in snow and ice. We’d have to thaw them out. Eventually, we realized the name and number of the company was printed on every one. So once someone looked at the ball, we called and ordered them directly.”
9. DOWN THE HATCH
Possibly the only obstacle designed after a celebrity, this slime-caked maw was inspired by an illustration of Diana Ross. “What happened was, I saw a caricature of her and just copied it as closely as I could,” Taylor says. Eventually, the teeth began to suffer from rot: “The bodies were rubbing all over the teeth and they just started to come apart. We did this, the nose, a foot. We went through as many body parts as we could put on air.”
10. FANCY FOOTWORK
A common image in clown-themed nightmares, the shoes tried to stomp contestants as they crawled across the platform. “That was incredibly complicated to do," Taylor says. "It was basically a blatant rip-off of old Rube Goldberg cartoons. The shoes were on pistons, so the rods could get bent by kids and then not retract.” Over time, toilet paper and gum began to appear on their bottoms. That level of repulsive detail was usually up to producers or stagehands—and occasionally Summers himself. "Obviously," one parent wrote in, "you cannot eat and watch Double Dare at the same time."
All images courtesy of Nickelodeon.