Marc Summers’ name is synonymous with Nickelodeon shows like What Would You Do and Double Dare, two shows built on surrealism, nonsense, and, above all, the value of mess. These shows dumped thousands of gallons of milk, rice, ketchup, cream pies, and slime on contestants. They washed away the heavy burden of people’s dignity and allowed them to enjoy being silly, to be messy crazy children regardless of their ages. However, few people know that the prince of mess himself, Marc Summers, battled with obsessive-compulsive disorder through the entire gooey process.
Marc Summers’ OCD was intense. Though he laughed along with the audience when someone poured slime on his head, when pie was smeared on his face, or when he was knocked into a gigantic peanut butter jelly sandwich, I can’t imagine the mental agony he experienced internally. After each show, he would shower at the studio, and then go back to his hotel and shower again. His home was meticulously arranged. Everything had its place. His life consisted of two polar opposites—his messy carefree professional life and his obsessively hygienic personal life. So why would someone with a serious mental condition like OCD immerse themselves over and over in shows that reveled in messiness?
I would submit that Nickelodeon’s brand identity revolved not around getting children to watch more TV, but about pushing children out into a dirty messy crazy world, to embrace play without restraint. Shows like Wild and Crazy Kids, Guts, and Legends of the Hidden Temple emphasized the value of play in children’s lives, particularly physically active forms of play. In Wild and Crazy Kids, children participated in pie fights, had chocolate sauce dumped on their heads, and competed in long jumps into pits of mud or shaving cream. In “Guts”, kids competed in boat races, fabricated ski slopes, and conventional sports like football or soccer. At the end, they climbed a giant artificial mountain called the Mega Crag or the Aggro Crag or the Super Aggro Crag, and as they ascended, they were blinded by strobe lights, showered in fake snow, pelted with rocks, confused with confetti and glitter (referred to as “nuclear flying crystals”), and generally attacked with shit. In Legends of the Hidden Temple, children climbed across rope bridges over pools, waded through Styrofoam filled “swamps,” smashed vases, and were molested by creepy Mayan dudes to get through the temple to the prize artifact. These were shows about breaking down the barriers between children and the physical world. Kids whose lives mostly consisted of sitting in front of a TV playing video games or watching cable television were thrust into a slimy messy wonderland of insanity.
Marc Summer’s story is particularly inspiring because as he’s breaking down these children’s barriers, he’s breaking down his own as well. I believe episode after episode, he was being spiritually cleansed of a debilitating mental illness—a baptism of slime, if you will. I believe—torturous as it may have been—that it was therapeutic on some level. His shows, after all, were by far the messiest and strangest.
Let’s consider What Would You Do? Here’s a show that was basically the movie Saw except with cream pies instead of elaborate death traps. There was a pie coaster, a pie pod, a pie pendulum, a pie slide, and an insane contraption called the “Pie Wash” which spun contestants around in a leather chair and enveloped them in cream shot from three nozzles. Of course, there were other features on the show. One, I remember in particular was a pre-taped candid camera style segment in which kids were brought into a barber shop where every kid who came out had a weird haircut—half shaved off, patchy, Mohawks, etc. They filmed the kids’ reaction to seeing these crazy haircuts, their ever mounting terror as they approached the barber. They also staged competitions between audience members over who could blow up a balloon and pop it the fastest or who could drink a glass of milk the fastest, and whoever won got to nail the loser in the face with a pie.
I think a common theme among these activities is the degradation of contestants’ dignity to reveal underlying vulnerabilities which unite us all—vulnerabilities which are then buried in pie. Kids are told day in and day out, “Don’t get messy,” “Wear a napkin,” “Don’t step in that,” or “You can’t go outside; it’s raining.” They become disconnected from reality. They feel as if they’re sealed in a bubble, that nothing can touch them. To break through this, as Henry David Thoreau went to Walden or Rodion from Crime and Punishment kneeled down and kissed the earth, these children are dunked in comically large pies or sprayed with mustard.
Marc Summer’s other show, his most popular, was possibly the most surreal game show ever created—Double Dare. Following brief uninteresting segments in which contestants were asked staggeringly simple trivia question, the show degenerated into what can only be described as a visual acid trip. Children rolled their parents up in tacos and dumped hot sauce on them. Parents threw giant donuts on their children’s heads, and then unleashed a shower of powdered sugar on them. During “Pie in the Pants”, a contestant had to catch 3 or 4 pies in a pair of oversized clown pants within the specified time limit, while his/her teammate launched them from a foot-operated seesaw at the opposite end of the stage. My God, if Salvador Dali could have lived to see this show, he would have shit himself.
My favorite part was the end of the show where the winning team had to traverse a dreamlike obstacle course by picking giant noses, scouring through sandwiches the size of a front yard, and crawling through chocolate covered tunnels. Contestants frequently got caught on the giant pie or the giant sandwich, searching for a flag under all that goop, finding nothing. When this happened, Marc Summers would come by and help them a bit, feeling around in the sandwich, pointing out the flag if he saw it. Contestants never suspected the psychological cost of this.
Surely, near the end of the show, after the family had won the trip to the Bahamas or whatever, Marc Summers must have felt a creeping dread. At this part of the show, he would often get slimed, he would get pushed into the giant pie, or he’d receive a pie in the face. And he just had to smile at all of it. And laugh. And hold back the tears.
The strength of this man astounds me. Every day, he woke up, and not only faced his worst fear, but was enveloped by it, had it dumped all over his body. Every day, he ignored his overwhelming revulsion, his unfathomable anxiety, and became a man of stone. Through his example, perhaps we too became more comfortable with this strange messy world.