Three decades ago, execs at pioneering kids network Nickelodeon realized that they wanted to do more than just air old comedy repeats (“Dennis the Menace”) and Canadian imports (“You Can’t Do That on Television”). But this was the early days of cable, and there were no budgets for such lofty goals.
That’s how the network’s first game show, “Double Dare,” came to be produced at the local PBS station in Philadelphia. “Nickelodeon couldn’t do [shows] in LA and they couldn’t do them in New York because the cost was too prohibitive,” recalled host Marc Summers. “They found out that the PBS station in Philly, WHYY, wanted to open up a production wing, so the station said, ‘If you help us, we’ll help you. Would you put ads in the trade magazines and say, ‘Hey, we had this great experience down in Philly,’ so other people will come knocking on our door and we can open up another revenue stream?'”
According to Summers, the first episodes of “Double Dare” cost about $12,000 an episode. “It was hysterical,” he said. “We could do five episodes for $60,000. Now, you can’t open a door in a studio for that!”
As “Double Dare” became more successful, the show eventually moved to New York, then helped open the production facilities at Universal Studios Orlando, and even spawned a primetime version on Fox (the celebrity-heavy “Family Double Dare”).
And 30 years later, Nickelodeon has reached generations of kids with hits like “SpongeBob SquarePants,” “All That” and “iCarly.” But “Double Dare,” which celebrates its 30th anniversary with a retrospective special on Wednesday night, helped start it all.
“It’s meant everything [to fans],” said Keith Dawkins, who oversees Nickelodeon’s retro block “The Splat” as executive vice president of TeenNick and Nicktoons. “‘You’re bringing my childhood back to life’ is something I hear over and over again. He and that show and Nickelodeon were pivotal parts of their childhood.”
But in 1986, the idea of a kids-centered cable network airing an original game show was considered pretty ambitious, even with that flimsy price tag.
“They did focus groups and found out that kids live vicariously through their parents, watching ‘Price is Right,’ ‘Jeopardy,’ and ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ but they didn’t have their own game show,” Summers said. Nickelodeon executives realized that kids loved to play “Truth or Dare,” and that kids liked getting messy – but they also wanted to get prizes and they also wanted money.
All of that went into “Double Dare,” which contained both a question segment and a physical challenge segment if a contestant took a “dare.”
“The staff had never really done much television production,” Summers said. “Mike Klinghoffer, our director, had never directed a TV show. Alan Silberberg wrote the material and wrote it to what the kids liked. We put stuff on the air that made people scratch their heads at some point, which was hysterical, but we got away with murder because executives were so busy trying to get other stuff on, they never even looked at the shows.”
To host “Double Dare,” Nickelodeon first considered Soupy Sales, who had hosted kids shows in the 1950s and 1960s, but he was ultimately considered to be too old. Summers said he also heard that Dana Carvey was also offered the gig before taking “Saturday Night Live.”
At the time, Summers had been making a nice living as a warm-up comedian on shows like “Star Search,” “Alice” and “Webster.” But those jobs started to dry up, and he was about to make a dramatic career change.
“I had one foot out the door,” he said. “I had opened up a smoked salmon business. I put a freezer in my garage and I knocked on small deli doors. The next thing I know, we’re selling 80,000 pounds of smoked salmon to the Price Club. Then we got into Trader Joes. All of a sudden I went, well, I guess show business wasn’t meant for me.”
But then a ventriloquist pal who got the call for the “Double Dare” audition wasn’t interested, and told Summers about it instead. “My agent didn’t even set it up,” he said. “Today I’m not even sure that if you went and said, ‘I’m here instead of the other guy’ that they’d even let you in the room.”
John Harvey, the show’s sidekick announcer, was a former Philadelphia DJ who needed a job when the producers called. Robin Russo was a production assistant who was put on camera when producers realized they needed someone on stage to facilitate the physical challenges.
“It was all a series of interesting missteps and mistakes that turned into what it turned into,” Summers said. “Then when it hit the airwaves, cable at the time didn’t have a lot of visibility, but those kids who had it would go to the playground and said, ‘We saw this guy jump into 5,000 pounds of baked beans on a kids’ show called ‘Double Dare.'”
“Double Dare” ended its run in the early 1990s, and returned briefly in 2000. But “we struck a nerve in a generation,” Summers said. “I was backstage at a Bruno Mars concert and they said, ‘Do you want to meet him?’ He saw me, runs down the hall, throws his arms around me and hugs me. I said, ‘Oh, my God. Do you know who I am?’ And he goes, ‘You raised me.’ It’s like, that was weird.”
Summers moved on to become a successful producer and host on Food Network shows such as “Unwrapped” and “Restaurant Impossible.” But “Double Dare” put him on the map, and given TV’s penchant for nostalgia, was happy to help Nickelodeon mark the show’s 30th anniversary – starting with an event at this summer’s San Diego Comic-Con.
“We did a live Facebook version that aired out of a night club and it was the hottest ticket in town,” he said. “We had this massive Nick booth on the floor and people standing in line for autographs. Nostalgia.”
The “Double Dare” special will include Summers, Harvey and Russo reuniting to screen vintage content plus new games – featuring a reunion-within-a-reunion: Several stars from “All That” (including Lori Beth Denberg, Josh Server, Kel Mitchell and Danny Tamberelli) join to play the game.
Summers said he has heard that, in success, “Double Dare” could return as an adult version for Nick at Nite. “Let’s bring it back,” he said.
Dawkins didn’t dismiss the idea: ” The audience will determine where we go with this… Libraries are coveted. The fact that we have this library that allows us to dive into it and create some new experiences – not only for nostalgia audience but a new kid audience.”
Watch below for some of “Double Dare’s” greatest moments:
“Double Dare Reunion Special” airs Wednesday, Nov. 23, at 9 p.m. ET on Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite.