Double Dare: who can forget it? It was the kiddie game show that put children through challenges such as throwing a football to your partner while blindfolded (oh, and your partner is blindfolded, too) or trying to assemble a Mr. Potato Head toy in less than 20 seconds (tougher than it sounds). There were obstacle courses whose stations included a slide slathered with chocolate sauce, and “The Icy Trike,” in which a luckless young person had to negotiate a baby-size tricycle across a surface slicked with vegetable oil.
I’d say that the appeal of Double Dare (which aired from 1986 to 1993 with variations that included Family Double Dare and Super Sloppy Double Dare) was to people who, had they been born a generation earlier, might have idolized the Three Stooges — all that sticky slapstick, y’know — but Double Dare was a kid’s show that appealed to boys, girls, men, and women: It was an equal-opportunity happy mess of a show.
As I wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer at the time of its greatest popularity, Double Dare “is like a televised Van Halen concert marinated in raw eggs and green slime.” (Hey, it was the ’80s: Van Halen was the right cultural comparison at the time.)
I have a soft spot in my heart and head for Double Dare. In my head, because I know it’s really not a great show by any standard, but it’s awfully fun and entertaining. In my heart, because my daughters loved it — it was the first TV-show taping I took them to, when the series was filming in Philadelphia. In 1988, we attended a Double Dare “Celebrity Week” edition whose big name celebrity guest was Married… With Children‘s David Faustino, who taped a week’s worth of Dares in two days and gamely threw himself into a grinning mouth, scooted down the throat, and landed in a pile of what looked like regurgitated guacamole.
My daughters loved the show. As pre-teens, they were bedazzled by the joltingly bright, candy-colored set (even done on the cheap at Philadelphia’s WHYY TV studios, the back-drops and props were a psychedelic riot of reds, oranges, purples, and yellows). They loved to watch host Marc Summers bound around with pinball energy, dressed in a semi-informal uniform of jacket and tie and sneakers. And my kids identified enthusiastically with the young contestants: There, but for the grace of a parent who knew better, would they be, slip-sliding through whipped cream-slicked obstacle courses. (My most neat, fastidious daughter also appreciated that there was a relative lack of slime on Double Dare: excitement and messiness, yes, but slime was destined to be enshrined elsewhere on Nickelodeon.)
For me, Summers was an excellent host for this kind of show. He never condescended to the children, but tossed in pop-culture references and little jokes whose punchlines that only parents would get. Summers was also a one-man safety patrol, making sure the wee ones didn’t trip and break their ankles as the kiddie audience screamed encouragement during the challenges. And he maintained some nice, goofy byplay with Double Dare’s announcer, Harvey (whom Philly residents knew as “Harvey in the Morning” on local radio).
Double Dare actually holds up pretty well when you look at YouTube clips: People diving through bright-colored tubes and smushing pies down their pants as the studio audience cheers deafeningly is irresistible, timeless stuff. Double Dare turned everyone who took part in it into an accidental comedian, but it did so without snark or humiliation. (For that, you had to grow up and appear on ABC’s Wipeout.)
Summers, who was always super-nice to the kids while managing to telegraph to any adults watching how ridiculous the show and his job really was. “It’s a great country, isn’t it?” Summers told me at the time. “Where else could you become famous offering kids a clean towel after you’ve just told them to have an egg fight?”