Friday, August 13, 2021

Melissa Joan Hart Explains It All

In conversation, Melissa Joan Hart looks back on the beloved SNICK sitcom, what it was like to be the first female lead on Nickelodeon, and how she feels about rebooting ‘Sabrina: The Teenage Witch’

Melissa Joan Hart recently revisited her time at Nickelodeon, a period she remembers fondly—even if she went through it as a teenager, and never expected so many other people to remember it fondly decades later.

“At the time, cable was so new,” Hart said about starring in Nickelodeon’s early-’90s teen comedy Clarissa Explains It All. “Nickelodeon was so new. And Nickelodeon was known as a game-show network. Double Dare and You Can’t Do That on Television were the two big shows that I watched.”

Clarissa debuted in 1991, and by the summer of 1992, it was the unofficial main event to the network’s popular Saturday night lineup known as SNICK, a two-hour block of targeted programming that kept tweens and teens entertained for more than a decade. But while Clarissa wrapped for good in 1994 after a total of 65 episodes, the show remained popular and gained a new audience when Nickelodeon began re-airing episodes in 2011. If everything old is new again in pop culture and fashion, Clarissa offered a timeless snapshot of the early- to mid-’90s on both fronts.

The Ringer's John Gonzalez recently spoke with Hart about what it was like to make that show in that era—complete with fourth-wall breaking, dream sequences, pet alligators, and a best friend who preferred climbing in through her window rather than walking in through her door.

John Gonzalez: So with Clarissa Explains It All, it’s still beloved. You were a teenager when you did the show and I was wondering if you had a sense then that you were creating something that would remain in the teen pop culture firmament for so long.

Melissa Joan Hart: Yes and no. I don’t take a project unless I know I’m going to be proud of it. With Clarissa, it was interesting because I was the same age as Clarissa. As she was growing up, I was growing up. And we did have a lot of the same temperament, a lot of the same no-nonsense attitude. If a boy can do it, I can do it. I wasn’t as tech savvy. I did learn a lot from her. And vice versa. I put a lot of me into the character.

It was interesting to be on such a smart show. Those writers were brilliant. Those writers went on to show-run shows like Friends and The Office and write things like The Hunger Games. It was definitely a really talented group of writers. Doing the show, I knew it was special. I knew it was a smart character. I knew it was a little different. To be on it, especially as I got older, it felt like it was a little too kiddie for me. But I was never not proud of my work. But when people said they watched it later on, I was like, “Oh, that’s a kid’s network, isn’t it? Aren’t you a little old for that?” The show, it never really took off at the time they were shooting it. Not that many people had cable. Not that many people were watching Nickelodeon. And then it slowly started to build. It became really big in reruns. And then it kind of exponentially grew over the years and over the decades. It’s an interesting little phenomenon.

JG: You mentioned the “If a boy can do it, I can do it” ethos. I believe you were the first female lead on the network, right?

MJH: I believe so. There had been the Lucys and the Mary Tyler Moores and the Laverne and Shirleys. But there weren’t a lot of shows at the time featuring young girls as the leads. I think there was My Two Dads. And Blossom came along kind of simultaneously. It was still pretty rare to see a girl lead a show without a boy. All the reports I saw were saying that it was groundbreaking and she’s the quintessential teen and all those things. I know the creator, Mitchell [Kriegman], did not want a blond for the part. That’s one of the things he was really against. And so he fought against me as long as he could until I finally won the battle.

JG: Congrats on the victory. That worked out for everyone. The show was really of the era—especially the intro/theme song. It’s extremely ’90s.

MJH: People still remember it. It was definitely catchy, mainly because it didn’t have many words. Everyone could hum along to it. Rachel Sweet did a great job with it. The whole show was very of its time. It holds up in certain ways. Certainly other things are definitely pointing at it being the ’90s. Although you wouldn’t know it today, because it seems like the fashion has reentered society. As far as the computer graphics and things that have gotten a little stale, if you were to do it now, it would be very different. At the time, it was pretty fun. I still know kids who watch it now.

JG: The fourth-wall breaking was also of the era. Now it feels like so many shows have done it but at the time …

MJH: … at the time it was only Ferris Bueller who had done it, right? That’s what the writers pulled it from. They wanted it to be a female Ferris Bueller in that way.

JG: What about some of the topics you dealt with? Clarissa was a teenage girl, so there were pimples and boys and getting a driver’s license. There was one episode where you got away with shoplifting.

MJH: Dating the bully. A lot of it was sibling-rivalry based. Every episode was sibling rivalry, right? That was sort of the B story. And the imagination, the dream sequences. We were all on Star Trek. Or I’m Joan of Arc burning at the stake. Or I’m in prison. Or we’re in 15th-century Italy. Those were always the most fun to shoot. Otherwise, it seemed like I was either in the kitchen, living room, or bedroom. If I was in bedroom, I was hanging out with Sam. Or if I was in the living room or kitchen, Mom or Dad were there and maybe some crazy aunt came over.

JG: Can we talk about the bedroom thing? The ladder—unconventional. Stairs and doors exist. I mentioned this to a coworker and he said “You idiot, stairs are for parents.”

MJH: I don’t know where he came up with that. I can imagine he just wanted a different way for someone to come in. What’s a different entrance we can use instead of everyone coming through the front door, everyone coming through that one door. You can’t surprise people with things. So Sam coming in and out of the window was brilliant. What’s funny is, that was a first-floor studio. So he was just laying down underneath the window. He’s laying on his back, and the ladder is hinged to the ground, and he’s laying it across his stomach. He’d wait there for two or three pages for me to do a monologue. And then he’d swing that ladder up, wait a few seconds, get on his hands and knees and slowly climb up the three rungs and just pretend he was actually coming up. Where he was really just laying right there. So I think it was actually pretty challenging.

JG: Now that’s acting. You mentioned you threw a lot of yourself into the show. I read somewhere that They Might Be Giants was included because you liked them. What other parts of Clarissa were taken from Melissa?

MJH: There was an episode where I play the flute. On every show they’re like, “What are your talents? Can you dance? Can you sing? Can you play an instrument?” I can play the flute. So Clarissa ended up playing the flute. There were some things I learned from her. I got interested in boxing and I’ve kind of always done boxing as an exercise. There were things that really stood out to me, like the fact that she wanted to be Jane Pauley for a little while there. She wanted to be a reporter, a news anchor. And so she says “The Dow was up six points today.” And she goes “and who is this Dow Jones guy and why does she keep going up and down?” That was a legitimate question for me. What does this mean? I don’t know what this means.

JG: When I told some of the staff that I was doing this interview with you, they were super excited. All of a sudden they had questions they wanted answered. Can we do some quick staff questions?

MJH: Sure.

JG: Great. They’ll be thrilled. First up: Was Elvis the Alligator real and was he legally allowed to be kept as a pet in the state where the show took place?

MJH: He was real. He only came in maybe once a month for maybe an hour to shoot. Usually we’d just use the same footage over and over again. When he was there, I wasn’t allowed to go near him because they were afraid I’d rip his teeth out—if he bit me and I pulled back I could rip his teeth out. I think he was a baby.

JG: OK, so they were worried about the alligator getting hurt if you got bit? That feels upside down to me but I’ve never been on television. Next one: Which telestrator came first—Clarissa or the NFL?

MJH: The drawing on the screen? I actually think it was Clarissa.

JG: You guys were trendsetters.

MJH: That’s interesting. Yeah, I don’t know. It’s funny, I wasn’t really aware of the NFL back then. They get very fancy with it now. Can you imagine what we could do on Clarissa today if we were to go back and do it?

JG: You mentioned the ’90s clothing that’s come back around. The staff was very interested in the wardrobe and especially Sam’s fashion at the time and how the wardrobe was put together.

MJH: We had an amazing designer named Lisa Lederer, God rest her soul. She was brilliant. She was from the East Village in New York City and came with her funky, funky style and was able to put it together where I looked like a normal teenager. There was no sexpot stuff going on. There were no tight fashions. It was layer upon layer of different things you would never think to put together. Giant shirts with a red and white skirt with purple leggings and boots and a big bow in the hair, a big scrunchie or something. No two looks were ever alike. I’ve had a ton of people over my lifetime tell me they got into fashion because of Clarissa. That’s such a huge honor to hear.

JG: What was it like working in Orlando during that era? There were a lot of boy bands and Disney kids roaming around and they wanted to know what kind of interaction you had with them.

MJH: I was so busy working, I rarely got to. We shared a hair and makeup team and we shared our tutors with the Mickey Mouse Club kids. Sometimes my tutors would feel a little bad that I was stuck with Sam and Ferguson only—Sean [O’Neal] and Jason [Zimbler]. And on my one day off—I got Saturdays off—if they were rehearsing they’d be like, “Come with us and see some other kids.” And I would get so excited. Or if someone like JoAnna Garcia was guest-starring on Clarissa, I would get so excited to be around other kids. So excited. I can’t even tell you. I would be thrilled to go see some other kids.

JG: They also want to know about your social media and you being one of the first celebs to use the follow-back strategy.

MJH: I was working with a social media team at the time that was teaching me some ways to really get a lot of interaction. It’s funny because a lot of conspiracy theories came out of it. One time I started following people in Australia and everybody thought I was going to be on I’m a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here! They assumed if I was following everyone on Twitter, I must have a reason that I wanted to know all the politicians and athletes and I obviously was trying to get in good with these people. It’s funny how these theories came out of this stuff. It was a great way to do it at first. I run into people all the time who are like, “Oh my gosh, you follow me on Twitter.” But it got to be a little overwhelming. I follow, like, a couple hundred thousand people on Twitter now. It’s really hard. I can’t keep up with my feed. It kind of swamped it. But I don’t want to unfollow anyone. I don’t want to make anyone feel bad, but I also can’t pay attention to it because it’s too busy.

JG: I’m going to go follow you right after this. I should have followed you before this. That was bad journalism by me. But I’m looking forward to a re-follow. [Writer’s postscript: She was already following me!]

MJH: To be honest, most of my Twitter now is just stuff I post on Instagram. I’ve always been a scrapbooker, so I like Instagram because it’s photos. I cannot figure out Facebook.

JG: I’m out on Facebook. I was an early anti-adopter of Facebook and I was proved right.

MJH: I can’t figure it out. I’m on it. I have to be on it. My sister helps me post stuff on there. I can’t figure out all the buttons and I don’t understand it. Instagram, I just post a picture and I put a caption and it’s like I’m scrapbooking. And then I link it to my Twitter.

JG: I look forward to your scrapbooking in my Twitter feed. Last one for you—and I feel like I know the answer because I’ve read about it—but the staff wanted to know if you’d rather reboot Clarissa or Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

MJH: We had talked about Clarissa. We were in contract for it. Nickelodeon has changed the people over there a few times. Different people want to do it. Different people don’t. I think it would be the best one to reboot. Sabrina already had a kind of reboot with a new cast, a younger cast, more of a YA horror genre. And I think Sabrina we ended so perfectly. Clarissa just kind of ended. We could use another button on what happened to her. But with Sabrina, that ship has sailed.

JG: You’re gonna need a new alligator. How long do they live?

MJH: I have no idea. But I doubt it’s still around.

Hart will be starring in the forthcoming Lifetime holiday movie, Mistletoe in Montana.

Clarissa Explains It All is available to stream on Paramount+! Try it FREE at!

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Between Two Petes

In conversation, Michael C. Maronna and Danny Tamberelli remember making ‘The Adventures of Pete & Pete’ and talk about their odd brotherhood … as well as blowing out an amp with Iggy Pop

Thirty years ago this week, a rising but not-yet-ubiquitous kids network by the name of Nickelodeon launched its first original animated series. Introduced on August 11, 1991, under the brand of “Nicktoons,” Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show would quickly become hits and change the course of animation, television, and popular culture at large. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is looking back at Nick’s best-ever characters and the legacy of the network as a whole. Throughout the week, we’ll be publishing essays, features, and interviews to get at the heart of what made Nick so dang fun—and now so nostalgic.

It all started with the name. Well, the names.

The Adventures of Pete & Pete began in Nickelodeon’s promotions department as a series of short interstitial commercial spots in the late 1980s. Soon, though, it grew into something larger for the still-buffering children’s cable channel: an ambitious series tracing the ongoing saga of two brothers trying to navigate adolescence in Wellsville, a surreal suburb populated by a wide variety of oddballs, lunatics, and Artie, the Strongest Man in the World—a loud man in horn-rimmed glasses and red-and-blue striped pajamas who may or may not be a superhero.

The older brother, played by Michael C. Maronna, was a straight-laced preteen working his way through the tricky business of growing up. The younger brother, played by Danny Tamberelli, was a pint-sized general with a leggy redhead named Petunia tattooed on his forearm who waged war against all forms of control and authority, as represented by a shadowy cabal called the International Adult Conspiracy.

Both brothers were named Pete Wrigley. This fact was never explained—or even raised as a topic of idle discussion—in the span of 18 shorts, five specials, and 34 episodes of television that stretched across seven years. It was, as Maronna recently told me, “the original weirdness of the show”—the jumping-off point for the oddities that would follow in the brothers’ journey through life in a town that felt a bit like someone had somehow gotten a series pickup out of the elevator pitch, “What if Blue Velvet, but for kids?”

Even in the context of Nickelodeon’s other kid-targeted early-’90s live-action programming—shows like Hey Dude, Clarissa Explains It All, Welcome Freshmen, and Salute Your Shorts—Pete & Pete stood out as singular. It was a higher-minded effort: for kids, sure, but also, like, cool. Lots of kids’ shows might tell 22-minute stories about stuff like trying to remember a song you liked, or the ignominy of having to wear a bear suit for your job at the driving range. This was the only one, though, that would consciously make every aspect of that story as weird as possible, and stuff the supporting cast with left-of-center indie-darling performers like Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Chris Elliott, and Syd Straw.

At the heart of it all, though, was the relationship between Maronna and Tamberelli: two kids trying to find their way in the world, alone and together, art imitating life.

A lot has changed for the Petes over the past three decades. Maronna, 43, has traded in life in front of the camera for a career working on sets as an electrician with IATSE Local 52. Tamberelli, 39, is a musician, playing in the bands Jounce and the Undone Sweaters. They’re husbands and fathers, scrambling to juggle work and family; they’re Brooklyn guys, as eager to grouse about the Mets and Giants as they are to reminisce about the old days.

Reminisce they will, though: on their podcast, The Adventures of Danny and Mike; in Nostalgia Personified, a live show in which they and fellow former child stars look back on their awkward years on camera; and, if you ask them nicely, over Zoom for The Ringer’s Nick Week package.

I caught up last month with Maronna and Tamberelli—who joined the call a bit late, thanks to a childcare scheduling snafu—to chat about, among other things: the blessing and curse of growing up, the joy and weight of making something that connects with people, pliability and puking, lubrication and gateway drugs, talking about your feelings, and called third strikes.

It was, appropriately, a pretty weird conversation.

Growing up, Pete & Pete was always my favorite thing on Nickelodeon, I think in large part because it was so dramatically different from everything else that was on the channel. What was it like to enter into that world when you were growing up? Because if I’m getting this right, the Pete & Pete shorts began in 1989—so you’re, what, 11 or 12 at that time?

Michael C. Maronna: I was 11 turning 12 when we first shot the first episodes of Pete & Pete. It was September of ’89 and I had just started a brand-new school. I lived in Brooklyn and Queens, and was starting to go to school in Manhattan, so this was a big change for me: being a big fish in a little pond, and then going to be a very little fish in a very big pond. That was sort of my mindset during one of the very first shorts of Pete & Pete in the late ’80s.

And then you enter a significantly larger pond, because the spots eventually start to catch on, and then it’s, “OK, now it’s going to be a full-on series.” What do you remember about realizing this was going to be a larger world and not just commercials—and especially a world that had a very specific tone?

Maronna: We managed to be pretty consistently weird from the jump. The first couple of episodes were racing down a hill on blocks of ice and bowling in the street with trophies, just smashing actual trophies. It felt super suburban to me—a little bit alien in that way, because I was a city kid and didn’t understand lawns and ennui and all that stuff.

It probably hit me that we were doing something bigger when we got the celebrity guest stars—getting Kate Pierson from the B-52s and Michael Stipe in the summer vacation episode, which was the first special that we did. It stayed pretty consistently weird after that. We did a few more specials in between shooting our 60-second ones, like the Valentine’s Day [episode] about killing a squid. I mean, even in Degrassi I don’t know that you’re going to see that. So, that world was nice.

The way the weirdness just kind of oozed from everything, I think you just stopped noticing it after a while. Like, you say cut after every take. “Cut. Wow, that was a weird line. We’re talking about phlegm again. We’re talking about brain stems.” I think you just become immersed in it. But you have to give so much credit to [Pete & Pete cocreators] Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi and [original director] Katherine Dieckmann, for stamping something pretty specific on there.

You mentioned the specificity, and I think a lot of that emanates from the relationship between your character, Pete, and Danny Tamberelli’s character, Pete. The concentric circles of weirdness go out from there, but the heart of the show is a big brother and a little brother relating to each other, and trying to stay connected.

Maronna: The original weirdness of the show, of both of us having the same name.

It starts from there—which, as I remember it, was wholly unexplained? Never even raised on the show?

Maronna: Yeah, we tend to just make up reasons when people ask us at conventions and stuff like that. This is my favorite: When I was born, our dad wasn’t there, and when Little Pete was born, our mom wasn’t there. So they just ended up picking the same name, somehow.

And everyone sort of flowed with it and vibed with it.

Maronna: Nerds are pliable. I don’t know what to tell you.

That’s a lesson from the show, to be sure.

Maronna: That actually sounds like a reality show on Fox: Nerds Are Pliable.

Why are you giving away pitches? We’re here talking and you’re out here wasting our money.

Maronna: I guess I’m socialist in that I’m happy to give away content for free. Go to for all your free stuff.

That’s literally our tagline. Going back to the relationship with you and Danny specifically, not just the characters: You go from having your own siblings and your real-life family to just, like, being given another one. And you’re an actor, but you’re also a kid, and the whole show has to revolve around you guys connecting. What was that like, to just sort of have a new brother?

Maronna: I wasn’t thinking about it as much at the time, but when I look back, I think the show is a polemic. It’s an angry editorial about growing up, and fighting against growing up, and cherishing being a kid. Maybe Little Pete’s character is in the grief stage, and I’m in the acceptance stage. … One would expect that my character could kind of advise him: “Listen, you know, I’ve been here before in growing up, and this is what you can expect.” But the setting where we were was so strange that the show was much more episodic than serial. We didn’t say what happened last time, or back at the house. “You remember when you learned not to pair a humidifier with a dehumidifier, because this will happen?” There weren’t that many callbacks like that. It just seemed like two guys on entirely different tracks ... I got into girls and he wanted to stay up all night, you know?

There’s obviously a large intervening period when the show is off the air. It ends airing in 1996 and then you’re a working actor but also going to college and growing up, and Danny’s going through his experiences as well. What was your relationship like after that?

Maronna: It fell off for a little while. We did hang out post-Pete & Pete before I went to school, but then I went away to school, and then that overlapped with him going away to school, so neither of us were really in the same place for a while. We reconnected in the mid-aughts, when I was living in Greenpoint and Dan was going to a rock show at the McCarren Park Pool. The day was pretty hot, and Tamberelli was pretty hung over, and soon after we connected, he proceeded to puke in between two cars there on Lorimer Street. But we kept talking, and we hung out after that, and started a podcast a few years later.

Having these regular check-ins with Danny, getting closer over time—is that scratching an itch for you, reconnecting with him in that way, developing new layers in that relationship?

Maronna: It’s just necessary for men to have friendships so they don’t kill themselves. If we don’t talk about our feelings, we’re going to get really pent up and messed up. So, it’s just good to have men to connect to.

That’s an extremely healthy way to look at that. It’s also sort of in the spirit of where you guys kind of started from: a show that was about being OK with being all the weird stuff that you feel growing up. Like, “Hey, yeah, everybody’s a mutant. Everybody’s a weirdo.”

Maronna: It was a little scared of female relationships, though. I think the way that [the show] presented both Ellen [Big Pete’s friend and later love interest, played by Alison Fanelli] and Nona [Little Pete’s friend, played by Michelle Trachtenberg] was as sort of special gals that had elite qualities. They were very good at things and we were scared of romance, collectively—of connecting with the female characters in the show. Like, there was that tension ongoing because it was a sign of adolescence. It was a sign of growing up, and the show was about keeping that at bay, fending off as much as you could. Maybe that was just Little Pete that was fending off girls, and Big Pete was already there trying to deal with it.

To what degree were you aware that the show was providing a cultural on-ramp for a lot of people? That’s the first place—I mean, I knew who R.E.M. was, so I recognized Michael Stipe selling ice cream on the boardwalk. Maybe I’d seen The Ben Stiller Show, so I recognized Janeane Garofalo as a teacher. There were these little breadcrumbs people caught along the way.

Maronna: So we were a gateway drug to other gateway drugs, is what you’re trying to say.

Well, yeah, and I might need to hold you accountable for some things, based on where those gateway drugs led me, but that’s absolutely right. To some degree, this is how culture gets passed down: Your older brother hears something, or your cool older cousin hears something, and then all of a sudden, you’re 9 years old listening to “Welcome to the Jungle,” and the world opens up. For a lot of us, your show was the cool cousin.

Maronna: When I was 18, living on the Lower East Side, I happened upon a bootleg copy of South Park’s “The Spirit of Christmas” on VHS. It had been dubbed and dubbed and dubbed and dubbed, and I don’t even know where it came from, but it fell into my hands. The thing about a piece of media is, when you hear it, you’re towed back in time to the place and the age and the feeling that you were when you first heard it. And I get a fair amount of nice stories coming my way, [where people say] “I had a rough time when I was a kid, but your show was something that I really enjoyed.” Or, “I liked your show because it was so absurd and it helped me to think in weird ways.” Those are typically a couple of angles that I would hear things from. Or, “I got my mom to watch the show,” which was another nice feeling. People watching the show with their family is nice.

Unfortunately, it feels like sort of a beautiful thing in a Ziploc bag, because there’s just 39 episodes and they’re not making any more. They’re never going to make any more. I’m not shutting the door on the reunion, but it’s just not going to happen. So, it’s not like a media empire. It feels more like a little nugget that people share and cultivate in a way, but it’s good to know that we’ve influenced other creative people.

Is there a weight to that, though? Like, I come to you—as I am now—and say, “I love this thing you did when you were a child, it meant a whole lot to me.” If every person you talk to that had a relationship to this thing you made is approaching you that same way … at a certain point, is that a hard thing to get your mind around a little bit?

Maronna: That’s a fair way to put that. And the fact is, all of the participants are alive and here today, in the present day, so we made it through that time, and we can remember that time.

But, like I’m saying: My parents got divorced. I was having a horrible time in high school while we were making the show, at the same time as I was traveling to other cities and doing Home Alone and Home Alone 2, and doing the specials for Pete & Pete, and acting and things like that. I’m not going to say it doesn’t hold the same place in my heart, but … you’re the guy who drives the car, as opposed to the people who are outside watching the car drive by. You get to enjoy the interior of the car more than the exterior of the car.

Maybe that’s too many metaphors.

If I may ask, how old is your child?

Maronna: My son’s going to be 5 later this year.

So, 5, I’m guessing, is a little early for showing them Pete & Pete.

Maronna: Yeah, but apparently his mom showed him The Secret of NIMH the other night. I feel like that’s pretty intense. I don’t think there are any stabbings in Pete & Pete. Put that on the poster: “There’s no stabbings in Pete & Pete.”

We have a guest in the Zoom so hold on one minute; I will admit him, and then you’re going to have to go through this whole thing again. OK: Hello Danny, do you hear us?

Danny Tamberelli: Hello! Hey, I am so sorry, man.

It’s all good. I’m Dan. Michael is off camera now. I think he’s playing hide and seek with you.

Maronna: I actually have to go pee, so I’ll let you guys catch up.

Michael and I have been talking for a little while, so I’ll just ask you a little bit of some of the same things that we were talking about and see if we can weave it in. Pete & Pete begins as a series of 60-second spots in 1989—what do you remember about first walking into that world?

Tamberelli: I always wanted to see the finished product, because everything was done out of sequence, so when I would watch it on TV, it was definitely a more unique show than other stuff on the network. But I don’t think I understood that it was, like, over people’s heads. I mean, my dad told me who Iggy Pop was, and he was like, “I can’t believe he’s going to be on the show!” I think that was sort of the difference between us and other shows that were on the network. I was like, “Oh, yeah, I don’t think it was too over my head,” because I didn’t really know what something being “over my head” was. Because I was just a little kid. I told somebody I had facial hair and I shaved it once and it never grew back, because I was trying to be a cool kid. But I didn’t understand how hair worked.

Maronna: Did you ever have a soul patch?

Tamberelli: What?

Maronna: Did you ever have a soul patch?

Tamberelli: Yes.

Maronna: You did, didn’t you?

Tamberelli: I did, but that was in my later years.

Maronna: You had a little Fred Durst at the time. You had a little backwards hat.

Tamberelli: No, no, no. It wasn’t Fred Durst-y.

Maronna: I’m sorry. It wasn’t all about the Nookie, the Nookie, the Nookie, the Nookie?

Tamberelli: No, no. I was on the Deftones train.

To the point that you just raised about your dad prepping you for Iggy Pop: Was there anybody that you were intimidated by?

Tamberelli: I wouldn’t say “intimidated,” but I would say I had starstruck moments.

Maronna: Sure. Juliana Hatfield. David Johansen, for sure.

Were you intimidated by Juliana Hatfield for the same reason I was intimidated by Juliana Hatfield?

Maronna: We are men, are we not? We’re not made of stone. We are made of flesh and blood and muscle and sinew, right? We breathe, we live … Dan was on top of it. Dan actually got autographs once in a while. I was, like, a little intimidated by all that stuff.

Tamberelli: The art imitating life in Pete & Pete was the fact that we weren’t the same age, so I got away with stuff.

Sort of flipping that, were any of those guest star visits or things that you remember particularly fondly?

Maronna: I remember blowing the amp with you and Iggy. Was that in the Catholic school?

Tamberelli: Yeah, the Catholic school in Nutley, [New Jersey, during the filming of the Season 3 episode “Dance Fever”].

Maronna: We did a few character-disjointed episodes, but you being able to do the super slide and me having a crush on Gabby [Glaser, guitarist in the band Luscious Jackson, who performed at the school dance in the episode] is just, like, here and here as far as the story. Sometimes, our plots were close together, but this one was way out here and way out there.

Tamberelli: You were trying to get with Luscious Jackson and I am happy to be doused in—

Maronna: You’re a lubricated floor mop or something.

Tamberelli: I just remember they were telling me, “This is the stuff that they used in Alien. This is, like, the goop that they used.”

Maronna: He was trying to cheer you up, bro! He was trying to get you hyped!

Tamberelli: That’s how he sold it to me. I was like, “All right, cool, man. Put it on. It’s good for Sigourney, it’s good for me.”

I did not realize we were going to get into alien lubricants today. Danny, you went through this period where the show goes off the air in ’96, but you’re continuing to still work on Nickelodeon. From your perspective, what was your relationship with Mike like during the years between when the show went off the air and when you reconnected later on?

Tamberelli: Well, it was that kind of weird thing—we were in that moment of being just old enough where, if we went to first grade and fifth grade, then yeah, we’re in the same elementary school. But then you’re not in the same middle school, and you miss each other in high school. I was dropping into high school as Mike was dropping into LSD. I mean ... college.

Maronna: And he still managed to graduate college before me.

Between doing the podcast for the last seven, eight years, and doing the Nostalgia Personified shows, I’m interested in that idea of relating to nostalgia, finding a way to process what your experiences were like, and figuring out how you can have fun with them moving forward. We’re in a time where every old show and property gets rebooted. Is that something you’d ever be interested in? Or is it like, “That was a specific time, in a specific place, and that’s over”?

Tamberelli: I think Mike and I both would say that was a time and a place and a perfect moment, and it’s hard to kind of revamp something like that. But if it was a present—

Maronna: If the money’s right.

Tamberelli: [Laughs.] That’s right. If it’s a present-day, money-right situation.

I had asked Michael this, Danny, as we are three dads: When your son is an age that is appropriate for these sorts of things, would you want to revisit the show with him? Do you think that would be a weird experience to do that, or something where you’d kind of like to see it through his eyes?

Tamberelli: I wouldn’t be opposed to showing it to him when I feel like it’s appropriate. Right now, it’s just Daniel Tiger, Curious George, and a little Sesame Street. Yeah, maybe I’d hold off the “Field of Pete” episode until he could fully understand.

Maronna: Oh my God, imagine Alfie grows up never cursing, but speaking exclusively in Little Pete insults from the baseball episode, which are just all, like, body horror.

Actually, I had a question about that for you, Michael, because we were talking about sports for a while before we started: In that episode, you reach a point when you no longer want to win on the strength of your brother’s mean-spirited insults and your coach’s magic frozen orange drink. Are you, in your actual life, an Unwritten Rules of Baseball guy, the kind who wants to win The Right Way?

Maronna: I know that that’s the character that I played, and I’m going to try and raise my son like that character.

Tamberelli: He’s the kind of guy that I know would never take a called third strike looking to potentially go to the World Series.

Maronna: No, I’m no Carlos Beltrán. But then again, I also did not have to quit just after being announced as Mets manager due to a horrible scandal.

Tamberelli: Well, that’s because you’re not a cheater, buddy. Bring it all full circle.

I don’t appreciate the heartbreaking Mets stuff.

Maronna: Oh, bro, he’s one of us.

Tamberelli: I was at that game. I was at that game. I walked underneath the train for like 30 fucking blocks in the rain just like, “What just happened?” I called my father and he was like, “Yeah, well, that’s what it means to be a Mets fan.” I’m like, “Thanks, Dad.”

Maronna: He’s like, “I’ve had a lot more years of this than you.”

Tamberelli: “I only got turned on in ’69!” Fuck you, Dad.

Well, I’m really glad that this conversation about The Adventures of Pete & Pete on Nickelodeon ended with, “Fuck you, Dad.”

Tamberelli: My pleasure. My pleasure. Thank you for waiting for me.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Quiet Down for Mrs. Hushbaum, One of Nick’s Most Memorable Characters

In an interview, Lori Beth Denberg explains her “motherly role” among the cast of ‘All That’ and why playing the Loud Librarian felt cathartic

Thirty years ago this week, a rising but not-yet-ubiquitous kids network by the name of Nickelodeon launched its first original animated series. Introduced on August 11, 1991, under the brand of “Nicktoons,” Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show would quickly become hits and change the course of animation, television, and popular culture at large. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is looking back at Nick’s best-ever characters and the legacy of the network as a whole. Throughout the week, we’ll be publishing essays, features, and interviews to get at the heart of what made Nick so dang fun—and now so nostalgic.

Mrs. Hushbaum is, first and foremost, a renaissance woman. An amateur weight lifter, bowler, karate chopper, and stone chiseler. A natural with a megaphone and a sledgehammer. The world’s only airhorn enthusiast. Furthermore, she’s a librarian. Yet one thing she has never been, and never will be, is quiet. That’s the basic gist of All That’s “Loud Librarian” sketch, which pits an inconsiderate custodian against a room of students who would like some freaking peace and quiet, please. In the early days of the show, Mrs. Hushbaum’s antics were, from a human resources perspective, not great: excessive paper-shredding, aggressive shushing, ownership of a parrot. But as she returned episode after episode, her offenses transcended workplace etiquette and morphed into flat-out absurdity: jackhammers, fireworks, and live bullfighting. It was outrageous, performative noise-making, noise-making that would shake even the most seasoned 411 operator to their core.

Behind the cacophony was the inimitable Lori Beth Denberg. At 18, she was the eldest and most precocious member of All That’s original cast, and adapted naturally to the variety show’s most commanding roles. (Other performances during her four years there include the cheery, unflinching school teacher Ms. Fingerly and, notably, herself as the host of the poetic faux news sketch, “Vital Information”). Twenty-seven years later, Mrs. Hushbaum stands out as Denberg’s crown jewel amid her murderers’ row of chaotic characters. The Ringer chatted with the 45-year-old podcaster and comedian to discuss the Loud Librarian’s origins, navigating her elaborate props, and Nickelodeon nostalgia.

What was your original All That audition like? Were you a child actor?

I was always involved in theater since I was 6, but like community theater, schools, that kind of thing. Never going on auditions, never had the head shots. But it was all I lived for. So I got the All That audition because of a drama competition I was in, in my senior year of high school, and the scene I was in won first place. At a showcase of all the first-place scenes, the producers from All That were scouting for kids. So they saw me perform my scene at the little showcase and then they called me in to audition. It was my first professional audition. It was at Paramount studios in a little theater. So when they called and were like, hey, come audition for this, I was like, yeah whatever. So I just kind of went on a lark. It wasn’t like “this is my big break” or anything like that. I did what I do, which is take whatever piece of material I have and try to get it across as it’s intended and even better and funnier. And then they called me back for one callback. And then they called and said that I’d gotten the job.

What was the creative process once you were on set and rolling?

From a production standpoint, doing sketch comedy is like doing 10 sitcoms a week. It has its own thing, cameras. You couldn’t ask for a more immersive education in production. And that was just great for me, especially because I was so eager to take it in. I felt like I was making up for 15 years of not having actually been an actor professionally like I’d wanted to be. I always knew I wanted to be an actor, I had no idea how it was going to happen, but then this is how it happened.

All the different characters fit the cast members’ personalities perfectly. How did you end up establishing a chemistry with your other costars as you guys started filming?

The stock answer for everything is always like, “We were like brothers and sisters, and we fought.” The youngest was 10 and I was 18, and that’s a big gap. When you’re 13, 14 to 18, that is a big chasm. So they would all play a bit goofy, and I would be the annoyed older sister. I kind of mom out and go camp counselor on everybody, and I still do it.

We were just at some convention, a bunch of us, and it was time to go do the panel, and we’re all backstage in the greeting room part, and so the woman from the convention, is like, “OK, it’s time to go,” and nobody’s paying attention, and I go, “All right, kids, let’s go.” I just get on it. And I remember Josh [Server] was like, “Nothing has changed.” I’ve got the loud voice. I just don’t stand for guff.

So you took on this motherly role.

Yeah. Motherly role, but not necessarily nurturing. If that doesn’t speak to Mrs. Hushbaum, I don’t know what does.

I understand the origin of the character.

You were saying all the characters fit us perfectly. And that’s because we had the sketches written for us when we got there, and then as we kept going with Season 1, as the writers and producers got to know us more, they started finding our strengths and started creating things more suited to us. A really good example is a sketch called “The Island Girls,” where it was me and Alisa [Reyes] on a deserted island. I’m LB. I’m annoyed and I’m sarcastic. And Alisa is like, 11 or 12, and so bouncy and so annoying, and they know that that’s like real life, and they’re like, “They should be stranded on a desert island together.” You know what I mean? And so that’s how something like that was born.

And then the Loud Librarian, I think it was just an idea that they had. I think Kevin Kopelow and Heath Seifert, who are just freaking awesome, extraordinarily accomplished writers, producers, executive producers, and show creators. They were original writers on All That, and then writers and producers. Kevin is Kevin the Stage Manager, who would say, “Five minutes, five minutes.” So I think that was just a character that they had tried to get going, and by the time everyone got to know each other, things just fit.

Did you audition for roles?

No, they just assigned people based on what they knew about us. It’s like, you have the teacher character, I’m going to be the teacher character. You have the Superdude character, it’s going to be one of the boys, which one? And they would just assign things out based on what went on. Once they got to know us more after a couple, three weeks, and spending time with us, they could really start to home in more on our individual little skill sets or quirks or whatever, to come up with more tailored stuff, like “Island Girls,” or even like my character Connie Muldoon. That came out of … Kenan played somebody who had a radio call-in show first season, and I was one of the people calling in to ask a question about my son, and I used this Minnesotan accent that the guys would use on Mystery Science Theater 3000, which is one of my favorite shows, one of my real comedy influences. So I just did it like that, and people just loved the voice. They were like, “It’s so funny.” And I’d done the voice, and then one day I go, “Why don’t I have a character for the only voice I do?” And they were like, “OK, fair enough.” So then they made Connie Muldoon, who just started as this woman with a funny voice, and then of course turned batshit crazy as time went on.

No matter which character you play, it starts with you having a certain teacherly or camp counselor aura, and then evolves into you going batshit crazy.

It’s like we always used to say, “There’s two ways to end an All That sketch: someone jumps out the window, or the cops come.”

Before Mrs. Hushbaum was created, what was your experience with librarians? Had you ever been shushed by one?

I have been shushed by many people in my life, but I don’t think by an actual librarian. The character of Mrs. Hushbaum isn’t based on anyone. It’s not. If it was, she would be in jail. It just was a nice little nugget of irony to play really straight. She’s a librarian telling you to be quiet, but she’s really loud.

Does she have a backstory in your mind? Like, where did she come from and how did she get so loud?

No, there is zero backstory to the Loud Librarian. I’ve never even thought about it before. Oh my God, now I really feel like a really delinquent actor.

It’s a sketch comedy—I don’t think you have to.

Mrs. Hushbaum during the Great Depression was a cannery worker and a housewife.

We have a background now. Is she the biggest troll on earth, or does she not know how loud she is?

No, I don’t think she knows it. I think she is absolutely earnest, but also horribly violent and mean. I did some tour dates before COVID, and hopefully we’ll do more. Me and [fellow All That actor] Danny Tamberelli, we would go and do little ones, like go to venues, breweries, and bars and stuff. We’d watch old sketches. And we just watched these Loud Librarians and I’d go, “She’s so violent. She’s so awful.” It gets the laugh, and it’s funny, and it’s ironic. But in hindsight she should not be allowed to teach at a junior high.

Definitely not. The props eventually got so elaborate that it must’ve just been a feat to navigate, because you’re just zooming across the stage.

When I first had Loud Librarians sketches in Orlando, I would go in at night, when everyone was gone, to work with my props. I would go through the sketches and practice stuff, because it was tons. You know, it’s like I have to throw this, and then I have to slam everything. And I would go through and do my own rehearsal just based on the props. There’s no one else there. I didn’t have to feed anyone else lines. I could just focus on that. As they got bigger and bigger, you have to keep topping yourself, especially in sketch comedy. You have to keep topping yourself. So yes, then there’s a bowling alley, then there’s a drum kit, then there’s a motorcycle. And it is a lot. It is a frigging marathon. That’s why people ask me, what’s your favorite character? And I’m like, I would say the Loud Librarian, but it’s so hard. But it’s also very cathartic to get to just scream shit, and throw things. I just get to throw things. It’s really cathartic to get to do that sometimes.

Did you have a place that you sourced that from? Did you ever get amped up and listen to, I don’t know, like Limp Bizkit or something beforehand?

No. I guess I’m just a person seething with rage. That could be it. That’s what you’re getting from me, right? Maybe I’m just one of those people that enjoys it. Like I was at a friend’s house and they were doing some construction. And so they were tearing down a wall and I was like, “Can I take a few smacks at it with a sledgehammer?”

What do you think about the intense amount of Nick ’90s nostalgia? Did you ever expect it to have this lasting effect?

Of course not. We all liked the show. I liked what I was doing. I thought I was doing a good job and I’m getting to do what I love to do, and thought it was funny and people liked it. But to think 30 years later, however long it’s been, that I’d still be having these conversations about it—it’s really great. And it’s really super nice.

At some point five years ago, it seems like all the ’90s kids got together and decided what they were going to say when they saw me was, “You made my childhood.” I hear that phrase all the fricking time and more. And I get amazing shit like tons of people saying, “You’re the only person that looked like me that was on TV” … or, “I was gay and I got bullied and then you would make me laugh.” All kinds of shit that you just can’t imagine, really, that—[I’m] just doing my job, trying to do what I need to do to put out into the world will have this effect on people. And that’s amazing. And then it just also doesn’t occur to you that, en masse, these people will grow older and become the center of society and make what they like the thing to be. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


How Nickelodeon Created Its Slime-Drenched ’90s Style

Thanks to its bright colors, clashing patterns, and a whole mess of green stuff, identifying with Nickelodeon was so easy because kids could so easily identify Nickelodeon shows

Thirty years ago this week, a rising but not-yet-ubiquitous kids network by the name of Nickelodeon launched its first original animated series. Introduced on August 11, 1991, under the brand of “Nicktoons,” Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show would quickly become hits and change the course of animation, television, and popular culture at large. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is looking back at Nick’s best-ever characters and the legacy of the network as a whole. Throughout the week, we’ll be publishing essays, features, and interviews to get at the heart of what made Nick so dang fun—and now so nostalgic.

TiffanyTiffany Pittman mostly remembers the yellow jumpsuit.

In the spring of 1991, the middle-schooler from Northwest Orlando had been selected by a Nickelodeon casting director to appear on the network’s new game show, Get the Picture. Hosted by Mike O’Malley, the program featured two teams competing to answer trivia questions before decoding a series of hidden images from a large, 16-monitor screen. For a teenage theater kid who’d grown up on Nickelodeon, the opportunity to be on television and peek behind the curtain of one of her favorite shows was “eye opening and fascinating for me,” she says.

After arriving at Nickelodeon Studios, inside Universal Studios’ theme park in Orlando, Pittman battled her nerves and slipped into the show’s required lemon-colored outfit—“like we were going onto a construction site,” she says with a laugh. Soon, she was shaking hands with O’Malley and taking in the sights and sounds of the stage, overwhelmed by its distinct shapes and patterns. “There were these colorful tubes and lights everywhere,” Pittman says. “It was very mechanical and had this tech vibe to it. I was just wowed by all of it.”

Indeed, Get the Picture provided a visual feast for those tuning in. Behind Pittman and the other jumpsuited contestants, stadium-style scoreboards overflowed with rainbow-colored wires while computer-like designs surrounded the blue-and-red-lit backdrops. “We really didn’t have a strong idea for that [show] visually,” says Byron Taylor, Nickelodeon’s head production designer. “But I saw a piece of clip art—a photograph of circuit boards in an electronic magazine–[with] all the transistors, diodes, and LED lights, and it looked stunning. We were playing games on these giant, rear-projection televisions. Why not be inside one?” The mazelike imagery even appeared on the interactive portions of the game, which included a makeshift putting green with bright pink golf balls and a primary-colored, numbered keypad for the show’s finale. “We got to use a lot of neon,” Taylor says. “That was a fun set to design.”

Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, that same kind of colorful anarchy and wacky set design saturated the best of Nickelodeon’s live-action programming. Between the surrealist obstacle courses on Double Dare, the multitiered rock formations on Legends of the Hidden Temple, and the spontaneous slime on Figure It Out, Nickelodeon boasted a fantastical, eye-popping aesthetic that distinguished it from every other network. Despite initially small budgets and limited space, each show leaned into its interactive, tactile environment, epitomizing Nick’s commitment to kid-inspired entertainment and hooking a generation in the process. Identifying with Nickelodeon became so easy because kids could so easily identify a Nickelodeon show. “It felt like we wanted shows to really stand out from what had gone before,” says Scott Webb, Nickelodeon’s creative director from 1983 to 2000. “The more we could hear directly from kids about what they liked, the more directly we could connect with them.”

As a firsthand witness to Nickelodeon’s kinetic iconography, Pittman can attest: “It jumped out at you.”

Before Nickelodeon began its surge of original programming, it needed to build a kid-friendly foundation. In 1984, five years after the cable channel launched, network head Geraldine Laybourne hired consultancy firm Fred/Alan—led by Fred Seibert and Alan Goodman—to resurrect its ratings and reupholster its branding. The pair had played a major role in determining MTV’s logo a few years earlier, and, after a series of meetings and focus groups discussing the company’s ethos, they got to work on Nickelodeon’s new artistic direction. “The big idea was it was tough to be a kid in a grown-up world. That idea has a whole lot of dimension,” Webb says. “The ideas that we were talking about had very little to do with television and had everything to do with the mission that we wanted to have for Nickelodeon in terms of making the world a better place for kids.”

They started with the logo. Nickelodeon’s original trademark was a silver sphere centered behind a rainbow-colored typeface, which Laybourne felt looked condescending. Instead, to accurately reflect the raucous and irreverent nature of kids, Seibert suggested using only the color orange—specifically Pantone 021—which could reliably deface any background it was slapped against. Even further, he and Goodman believed that as long as the color and font stayed the same, the orange backdrop could take any shape—a submarine, a hamburger, or later, after the introduction of slime, a big splat. “Kids are ever-changing, they’re not one thing,” Webb says. “We don’t think the logo should be one thing. Kids are loud and playful and dynamic and our logo should be that way, too.”

At the time, the only successful show Nickelodeon aired was a Canadian-produced sketch comedy called You Can’t Do That on Television. Created by Roger Price and Geoffrey Darby, the show featured preteen and teenage kids taking part in Saturday Night Live–style skits and often looked like “a live-action cartoon,” Darby says, crystallizing the playfully unpredictable direction Laybourne wanted to go. By 1986, as the network pushed for more original content, Laybourne had hired Darby and charged him with creating a game show in the same vein. Soon, he began hatching ideas with a team of creatives. “I’d always wanted to put a kid through a Rube Goldberg machine,” says Darby, who was inspired by similar-minded board games like Mouse Trap. “Wouldn’t it be great if the kid was like the ball that went through this obstacle course?”

That idea would eventually serve as Double Dare’s manic finale, but Darby still needed a structure for his game’s trivia segments. As he went around the room, asking colleagues about their favorite children’s games, Bob Mittenthal, who worked in the promotions department, blurted out, “Truth or Dare!” and Darby ran with it. “You could dare the other person to answer the question and they could double dare you back,” he says. In between segments, the producer added “physical challenges,” messy punishments (like dumping pizza toppings onto someone’s head) for a contestant’s inability to answer a question, which provided random bursts of action throughout the show. “They were looking for something new, novel,” Taylor says, “trying to create something that wasn’t there in the kids’ television market.”

With the conceptual architecture of Double Dare intact, the look and feel of the show—operating inside of Philadelphia’s WHYY studios—became paramount. At the time, Memphis design, an Italian postmodern architecture and design movement that originated in 1980, had become the hottest wave in high-end interior and commercial spaces. But the avant-garde trend, characterized by its abstract patterns, bright colors, and asymmetrical shapes, wasn’t readily visible in the mainstream outside of New York art galleries or glossy fashion magazines. At least, not until Double Dare. Inspired by the movement, the show’s early production designer, Jim Fenhagen, began building a set in line with Memphis-style colors and concepts. Eventually, Taylor took over the show, expanding on Fenhagen’s ideas by accentuating all the unique tones and colors that had been created. “[Jim] had about half of the obstacles designed at that point and I was coming in to finish the last half dozen,” Taylor says. “It was neat to do something that sort of looked different than anything else you could see on television.”

“It was about being more than a TV network. It was more about being a mission and a cause for kids.” —Scott Webb, former Nickelodeon creative director

In addition to the pop-art sensibilities on display, Darby had always wanted Double Dare to take on the feeling of a natatorium. The producer liked the large block designs that hovered over contestants, and, perhaps anticipating the gelatinous messes that would soak the floors, “we had drains on the main set so we could squeegee stuff off during the commercial breaks or in between physical challenges,” he says. By the time Marc Summers signed on to host, the studio—filled by clamorous crowds of kids—had been transformed into a stimulating amalgamation of flashing lights and bold colors, disparate shapes and clashing patterns. The blue laminate floors contrasted with the yellow polka-dotted podiums and orange-checkered trimmings, all ready to be defiled with splashes of pudding and whipped cream and other food-based liquids. “You turned on that show every day and you saw a knockoff of this high-end Italian style,” Taylor says. “They revamped the whole look of Nickelodeon, and it went from a staid kind of good-for-you, ‘eat your vegetables’ programming to kid-centric programming.”

“It was iconic for the company because it was the first real, original show, and it did spring directly from the brand identity,” Webb says. “They created a grammar for how to make that Nickelodeon identity come to life and still have a lot of respect and a lot of high production value so that kids didn’t feel like it was a cheap kids’ show. We were making stuff that we wanted to enjoy as well.”

Over the next couple of years, Darby and Taylor extended that identity into several other trivia-based, problem-solving game shows. And while not every program had the same shock-and-awe design as Double Dare, their unique conceptions, energetic pace, and participatory nature remained just as distinct—to both the contestants and those watching at home.

On Finders Keepers, a scavenger hunt show, two teams of contestants used telestrators to circle hidden shapes inside a picture (much like the back pages of Highlights magazine) in front of two larger-than-life windows and a big blue door. But for the prize rounds, the real fun took place on another stage, where Taylor had crafted a two-story, doll-house structure with various bathrooms, kitchens, and bedrooms for kids to tear apart in order to find secret objects. “I was a fan of postmodern architecture [and] I was ripping off a lot of those kinds of ideas. It was a massive piece of construction,” Taylor says.

Much like building an erector set, Taylor used steel frames for the structure’s skeleton and then attached theatrical flat boards to mimic wallpapered interiors. “As it kept growing, we wound up having to do it in a converted movie theater that was adjacent to the sound stage in Philadelphia,” he says. Because the telestrator game ultimately proved too stationary, Darby eventually required contestants to race each other by slapping colored vinyl shapes onto the hidden objects. Shortly after, the winners were ravaging through the drawers, desks, and shelves Taylor had created. “That was a crazy show,” Darby says. “Every room had its own sensibility. We had a modern bathroom, an old bathroom, a bake shop, a charcuterie … the set was driving it.”

The same could be said for Think Fast, once described to Taylor as “cool school,” in which Double Dare-esque obstacles and games took on a more academic sensibility. More spare in its design, the show featured two pairs of teams competing against each other to solve a variety of interactive puzzles and wordplay contests. At times, the stage, surrounded by a space-like backdrop, appeared as a futuristic classroom, and other times it resembled a playground, with basketball hoops and chain-link fencing surrounding the studio audience. At the end of the show, helmeted and goggled contestants played a live-action memory game, in which actors popped out of school lockers and tested each kid’s concentration skills. The lockers “matched the theme of the playground/gymnasium take that we had,” says Taylor, who designed a similar set for Make the Grade, a Jeopardy!-style contest that relied on video graphics. “I thought about The Jetsons when Elroy gets put in his bubble and winds up going to school,” Taylor says. “That literally is what it was. It was a version of the Jetsons’ environment.”

The success of these shows and their growing adolescent appeal proved to Laybourne that the network needed its own, central studio space, and in 1990, she convinced Universal Studios to let Nickelodeon establish residency inside its Orlando-based theme park. The two-floor building would house two large studios and become its own tourist attraction, especially for kids eager to watch and participate in the shows. As an additional resource, the studio’s location, nestled beside amusement rides, gave many producers and artists instant feedback. “You were, quite honestly, in the middle of a theme park every day,” says Richard Barry, a former senior producer and creative director at Nickelodeon. “If you wanted to try an idea, we’d run outside in the theme park, try it and come back in. How good is that?”

“You turned on that show every day and you saw a knockoff of this high-end Italian style. They revamped the whole look of Nickelodeon.” —Byron Taylor, Nickelodeon’s head production designer

Mostly, the studio gave kids another opportunity to physically engage with the network and its cotton-candy aesthetic. That was noticeable even on the building’s exterior. “The facade was literally a collage of colors, patterns, and even shapes that were taken from or inspired by that Memphis style of design and all the Nick shows,” says Taylor, who still remembers the excitement of spotting Nickelodeon’s 80-foot-wide orange logo from his car on Interstate 4.

“It was about being more than a TV network,” Webb says. “It was more about being a mission and a cause for kids.”

Under a more unified roof, shows such as Double Dare underwent bigger makeovers and took on numerous iterations. Soon, entire families and celebrities were slipping and sliding their way through obstacles, which became more screwball as the shows extended their runs. One frequently-used contraption was called the “One-Ton Human Hamster Wheel,” which required getting on all fours to rotate a heavy metal sphere. Another obstacle featured a giant head that contestants climbed through—“and that dictated the fact that you had to have something that looked like earwax, which turned out to be butterscotch pudding,” Taylor says. All of it was sloppy, outrageous fun, and brought even the most popular teenage celebrities competing down to a human level. “There’s that huge fantasy element, which is why everything was sort of bigger than life,” Darby says. “It’s fantasy, but an attainable fantasy. You could see yourself doing that.”

As a result, fans often flooded the studio’s mailroom with suggestions for their own kinds of obstacles, ideas that the pair occasionally utilized. For Taylor, every detail mattered, and the production designer often had to get creative with his space and budget, especially when it came to recycling used material. For example, one obstacle called the “Sundae Slide” forced contestants to barrel into a big bowl of Neapolitan-colored ice cream, a milky mixture whipped extra stiff, molded into a dome shape, and adorned with toppings. “But the minute the kid falls in it, you’ve made a huge mess and you’ve spent a lot of money prop-wise making this material,” Taylor says, “[so] you had to blend it all together and come up with some other kind of way of displaying it because you couldn’t throw it away every time.”

“It was about being more than a TV network. It was more about being a mission and a cause for kids.” —Webb

The obstacle course elements bled over into GUTS and Legends of the Hidden Temple, shows that featured more athletically-inclined participants. According to Darby, Hidden Temple, which was produced by an outside company, was a mix of Double Dare and Finders Keepers with an Indiana Jones aesthetic (it featured a “cohost” called Olmec, a talking stone head meant to represent Mesoamerican civilizations) and its trivia centered on history and geography. After a variety of physical challenges between six teams, winners needed to retrieve a historical artifact kept inside a giant, two-story temple, filled with multiple themed rooms, before time ran out. “They could go up and down, [but] it sort of depended on the route they took,” Taylor says. “We had to provide enough passageways—sometimes it turned into a dead end, but sometimes if they hit the right button it would lead them to another route.”

The various sports-based contests on GUTS had a simpler production design—contestants often competed around bike tracks and over swimming pools. But the show’s grand finale, which often determined the winner, took place on a mountain called the Aggro Crag, a neon-lit, artificial rock formation whose peak nearly touched the studio’s roof. Shot in almost mythical fashion (the camera introduced the final round by panning slowly down the mountain’s foggy topography), the Aggro Crag provided breathless entertainment, its amorphous shape and chaotic design cementing it as the most iconic ending to a Nickelodeon show.

But above everything that made the Crag so enticing, it was a mountain that kids everywhere could picture themselves climbing. “A critical thing,” Taylor says, “was that they saw themselves, or could imagine themselves, being there.”

One of the visual rules Darby aimed to keep during his tenure at Nickelodeon was, believe it or not, keeping the color green off the air. “Green was almost banned. I hated green,” Darby says. “If you put a person in front of green, their complexion goes really sallow. [It] looks awful.” The exception to this rule, of course, was filming slime, the bright-green, gelatinous concoction that embodied Nickelodeon’s anarchic and playful identity.

Arguably the most iconic part of the network, slime’s distinct coloration originated from a smelly accident. In the early stages of You Can’t Do That on Television, Price and Darby had written a skit that took place in a dungeon, where a kid pulled a toilet chain and got covered in waste. Because it would make a mess, the creators had planned to make it the last shot of the day, but filming ran long and the producers missed their window. The next week, unknown to them, green crud had grown over the sitting effluent, turning the repeated gag into something that looked radioactive. “It reeked to high heaven when we actually did it,” Darby says, “and it was a big hit.”

He and Price would eventually write an entire episode called “The Green Slime Show,” this time intentionally creating a green concoction—made of quick oats, baby shampoo, apple sauce, and green dye—that was more fluorescent and less … organic-looking. When Darby moved over to Double Dare, he brought the slime with him, inserting it into physical challenges like the Slime Canal and Nick Blimp, where it quickly became a hit. Eventually, the green goo migrated into other facets of the network and at contests like “Nick Takes Over Your School,” where teachers and parents would often get slimed. “We used to go to the store to take over these schools, and we would raid the local supermarket and buy all their oatmeal and baby shampoo and stuff,” says Barry.

In many ways, the sticky substance glued the network together. As Nickelodeon’s original programming expanded into animation and live-action sitcoms, a new show, Slime Time Live, began airing between the commercial breaks of popular shows. Also filmed at Nickelodeon Studios, it acted as a condensed trivia show, virtually sliming kids who video-called into the network, and bridging the visual gap between Nick’s various cartoons and game shows.

“If you go out in the backyard and get mud on your head, your parents would kill you, but if you got slimed, they wanted to take pictures of it.” —Richard Barry, former Nickelodeon senior producer and creative director

“Roger Price understood kids really have a shitty situation in life,” Webb says. “By having water and slime dumped on these kids and having them chained up as prisoners … for a kid watching at home, it had this catharsis. … It was never [meant] to be a punishment, and it was always a celebration.”

When Barry eventually became Chief Slime Officer, he ran with that belief, bringing a newer version of Slime Time Live back to the network in 2000. Though the substance changed—the green stuff became a methyl cellulose mix—it remained a two-hour hub for kids across the country to call in, win prizes, and watch the floors get messy. This time, even the audience winners at Nick Studios received a real dumping of slime in various, zany capacities. “It’s almost an approved mess,” Barry says. “If you go out in the backyard and get mud on your head, your parents would kill you, but if you got slimed, they wanted to take pictures of it.”

Throughout all of these shows—including, most prominently, Figure It Out, which dumped slime over numerous Nickelodeon TV stars—there was always the possibility that unlucky (or lucky!) kids might have their hair and outfit ruined. Much like the containers that held the slime, Nickelodeon programming always delivered spontaneity and unpredictability, which made it impossible to turn away from. “If you were getting slimed, you loved the first 10 seconds and you probably were getting cleaned up for the next 30 minutes,” Barry says with a laugh. “Everybody seemed to be really happy when anybody got slimed—it was always something you wanted to see.”

In the 1970s, the term “couch potato” had become a popular buzzword when describing kids zoning out in front of the TV. According to Daniel Anderson, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the prevailing thought was that kids were turning their minds off and being sucked into “a really effective kaleidoscope.” Over the next decade, however, Anderson pushed back against that general theory, studying the way preschoolers up through preteens watched and interacted with television. “When you get to older kids watching Nickelodeon game shows, if there was another kid in the room, they’d be constantly discussing what was going on,” Anderson says. “In ways that are not unlike adults, they’d be talking about the content and speculating about characters and so on.”

“If you go out in the backyard and get mud on your head, your parents would kill you, but if you got slimed, they wanted to take pictures of it.” —Barry

Along the same lines, Nickelodeon’s aesthetic proved to be catnip for children so used to seeing the muted colors of adult programming. As Anderson observed, when kids decided what to watch, Nick’s enhanced realities and brighter colors naturally drew them in. “The very top of the chart as you make your decision on whether I’m going to stay with [a show] is, ‘How does it look?’” says Anderson, who later advised the network on Blue’s Clues and Dora the Explorer.

Long before shows like American Ninja Warrior and Wipeout, Nickelodeon made sure the answer to that question was: unlike anything else. And though “kids’ game shows have dried up” today, Darby acknowledges, the stratified streaming world, with its endless options for children’s content, has only cast Nickelodeon’s nostalgic, neon era into sharper relief. Its decades-long staying power, Anderson suggests, is a credit to the network’s commitment to bold colors and interactive elements, but even more so in the way Nickelodeon highlighted its youthful faces. Whether it was a nervous game show contestant or a dorky sitcom star, Nickelodeon knew the power of showing fun, relatable kids doing fun, relatable things. As Pittman knows best, everyone looked the same type of silly in a bright yellow jumpsuit.

“That’s how I remember all of the kids that appeared on these Nickelodeon shows,” she says. “That’s what really drew me in and kept me watching.” 

Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in,, and The New York Times.


Do You Have It? An Oral History of ‘Nickelodeon GUTS’

How a crack creative team dreamed up the wildest kids’ game show of the ’90s, invented the Aggro Crag, and helped make Mike and Mo famous

Thirty years ago this week, a rising but not-yet-ubiquitous kids network by the name of Nickelodeon launched its first original animated series. Introduced on August 11, 1991, under the brand of “Nicktoons,” Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show would quickly become hits and change the course of animation, television, and popular culture at large. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is looking back at Nick’s best-ever characters and the legacy of the network as a whole. Throughout the week, we’ll be publishing essays, features, and interviews to get at the heart of what made Nick so dang fun—and now so nostalgic.

AlbieAlbie Hecht always wanted to dunk. But at just 5-foot-10, he settled for becoming a television producer instead of playing in the NBA. Then, in the early 1990s, he began developing a series that revived his childhood dream.

“The question I posed, and which I think we answered resoundingly,” Hecht says, “was, ‘How do we let kids live out their greatest sports fantasies?’”

This was the basic idea behind Nickelodeon GUTS, a show that delivered the ultimate in adolescent wish fulfillment. Every week, three teenage contestants competed in four Olympic-style, bungee-cord-enhanced events. Each half-hour episode culminated in a race up the Aggro Crag, an obstacle-loaded climbing wall that became a pop culture touchstone among ’90s kids.

To adults, GUTS resembled a junior version of American Gladiators, but in reality it was much different. Rather than team up to take down cartoonishly pumped-up bodybuilders, the young participants faced off against one another. The stars were teens, not superheroes. And presiding over it all was the boundlessly energetic Mike O’Malley, a host/unofficial coach who provided SportsCenter-anchor-like commentary and encouragement. This is what made Nickelodeon’s programming different: It wasn’t just about kids. It was for kids.

“We always positioned Nickelodeon as a kids network, not a family-friendly network,” says GUTS producer Doug Greiff. “It was OK to fart. It was OK to get dirty with slime. It was OK to do crazy, silly things.”

“Nickelodeon was a place where kids were in charge,” O’Malley says. “Nickelodeon was about fun.”

GUTS, which premiered in 1992, epitomized that ethos. Shot at Nickelodeon’s then-new production facility at Universal Studios in Orlando, it represented the next step in the evolution of a network that at the time was going beyond just Double Dare. An infusion of money that came with setting up shop in a theme park led to a glut of new original comedies, dramas, animation, and game shows.

For the better part of a decade, Central Florida was the epicenter of children’s entertainment. And for a while, it was the only place where kids had the chance to experience the exhilaration of climbing Mount Everest—or dunking like Michael Jordan.

Part 1: “We Need Something That Can Be a Spectacle.”
Nickelodeon launched in the late ’70s, but didn’t truly take off until the late ’80s, when the Marc Summers–hosted Double Dare became a huge hit. The network followed with Finders Keepers and Wild & Crazy Kids and by the early ’90s began eyeing even higher-concept game shows—including one that could’ve aired on ESPN.

Scott Fishman (cocreator): I was on staff at Nickelodeon and Byron Taylor was the production designer for Nickelodeon. Byron was the guy that designed all the Double Dare stuff. Brown Johnson, who at the time was the head of Nick productions, came to Byron and I and said, “We need to have a sports action/fantasy type show for kids. Can you and Byron work on some?”

Byron Taylor (cocreator and production designer): We hadn’t really done anything like it, physical stunts and things like that.

Fishman: We couldn’t shoot it. It would cost way too much money.

Taylor: I thought to get the most bang for our buck would be to do an animatic, which was an old technique used for making commercials where you would hire artists to draw things with very limited animation.

Fishman: We put together this little three-act animation and we called it The Ultimate Gamer. And Round 2 for us was this giant sphere that would spew slime and the kids had to climb up there. It started off with three contestants, and then the final person got to run through whatever the ultimate thing was.

Taylor: It was more an amorphous kind of blob really. But it had bungee games and things like that in it.

Fishman: At the same time, Albie Hecht was trying to produce this sports fantasy show for kids. And they basically put us in a room and said, “You three should talk.”

Albie Hecht (cocreator and executive producer): The process actually started with Nickelodeon themselves. Herb Scannell, head of programming, had looked out on the landscape and said, “Well, what’s popular out there for adults?” And they wanted to do some type of physical show. They had done the Double Dares and the Wild & Crazy Kids. But they hadn’t done anything in the sports area. And he said, “American Gladiators is really cool looking. Is there anything like that for kids?”

Magda Liolis (supervising producer and writer): I started with Albie at Chauncey Street Productions, which was the production company for Fred/Alan, MTV’s ad agency. Those guys came up with “I Want My MTV” and the Moon Man.

Doug Greiff (supervising producer): Albie had brought us to one of the weekly development meetings and he said, “Guys, we need a big show. We need something that can be a spectacle. Is there something else that we can do that’s not only about the mess and the slime and still be physical?”

Liolis: Albie is super collaborative. I feel like we just made the whole show together, all of us.

Greiff: Who came up with the name GUTS? I can’t really remember.

Hecht: I think we were all riffing off of the Nike [slogan], Just Do It. Some kind of action thing. And I wanted a word that meant something that if you had it, and you put it out there, and you felt it, you could win the competition.

Liolis: I remember collaborating on the tagline, “Do you have it? Guts!” And then Albie went to Rick Witkowski. He came up with that iconic theme song.

Greiff: We started off by just making a list of the sports that we knew kids played and/or watched.

Hecht: I had just come back from Australia and saw crazy people bungeeing.

Greiff: It was probably popular before that, but it seemed like there were more people that were bungeeing off bridges.

Hecht: We could use bungees to dunk, right?

Taylor: We knew it worked for American Gladiators, but could kids do it? And of course they could. It became a huge part of it. We must have had at least a dozen different games over the years of GUTS that involved the bungee, whether it’s the basketball thing or one where they shot Nerf arrows at a Velcro target.

Greiff: We often said, “This is kind of American Gladiators for kids.” But American Gladiators certainly had that big, ominous superathlete feel to it. We wanted kid athletes, but we wanted accessibility as well. Many of the people who watched this show as kids were like, “Give me a chance. You give me a bungee cord, I can do that.”

Fishman: Yes, we’ve all shot a basketball into a basket. But the whole thing about GUTS was the baskets were 11 feet high so that you could slam dunk a basketball higher than Michael Jordan.

Hecht: We had all these amazing events, but we needed this payoff. We went to climbing walls, which were emerging at the time.

Taylor: Albie had a rendering for a show that he had pitched to MTV, which was like a rock ’n’ roll–themed obstacle course and it looked big. It looked like it was the size of a football field, and in the middle of it was a mountain, covered with amps and guitars. So I think the idea had been percolating in his head.

Hecht: We came up with basically what is a giant climbing wall in the shape of a mountain, so we can build a mythology around it. We worked with Mike to create that. Every day, I made him do it differently to remind him that it was drama. It was that moment in Wide World of Sports when we’re about to see that ski jump that’s going to go potentially awry.

O’Malley: There were times when what you’re hearing on the show is the play-by-play that I made up out of the top of my head, with no second pass.

Taylor: We had to give them a three-sided mountain that had exactly the same complications and booby traps and effects built into it so that it was completely fair. The kids were on harnesses because we were just too concerned about them free-falling down.

Hecht: Magda came up with the name.

Greiff: This was before there was Google. She was just coming up with names for “extreme” and I think “aggro” was a term that was popular.

Liolis: I was just thinking, “What’s a cool way to say that?”

Hecht: We needed an arena: Where are we going to play our home games? So we created the Extreme Arena.

Taylor: We built all of the components for the bleachers, the pool, for the Crag—and everything else—off-site and trucked it over on many, many flatbeds. The whole Crag was only like 22 1/2 feet, something like that. It wasn’t that tall because we were hemmed in by the height of the studio. It was a weekend of nonstop terror putting this thing together and plumbing all of the air cannons and everything else that was in it.

Finally, we’re testing with stagehands and the professional stunt guys there for safety. The first guy, this little guy, was approximating the size of a kid. He was maybe 5-foot-2 or something; he wasn’t that tall but he was quite agile. We said, “OK, on your mark, get set, go.” So he tears off, runs straight up. Eight seconds. And this is like the end of the show—this is like you gotta fill a whole five minutes of airtime. And if the guy runs up the mountain in eight seconds, what are we going to do?

Hecht: The last piece we added was the actuators [so] they had to actually achieve a few goals on the way up.

Taylor: Obviously the kids weren’t going to be as agile as the stunt guy. But it was going to take longer. This was a way of guaranteeing that we were going to get the better part of a minute of content by making them hit all these buttons.

Greiff: We really saw it as a serious sports competition even though it was to win a little medal and a trophy.

Part 2: “GUTS at First Sight”
Before GUTS could get off the ground, it needed a host. To fill the role, the producers turned to a young actor from New Hampshire who already had Nickelodeon game show experience.

Mike O’Malley (host): I had done an episode of Law & Order, that was my first gig. I’m proud to say that I was in the first season of Law & Order. I have one line. We found a guy who was murdered by the mafia and my line was, “Sarge, we got a fresh one here.” Anyways, I was pursuing an acting career and I got an audition for Get the Picture.

Fishman: It was concentration. The squares would turn over and you’d have to guess what the puzzle was.

O’Malley: You get an audition and sometimes you get it. And that’s what happened. I was just like, “What am I doing now? I’m selling typewriter ribbons and laser toner cartridges. Here’s a job, I’m going to go do it. It may not be acting, but I can act like a kids’ game show host. I can act like a big brother to these kids in some way.” So I did it, and man, it changed my life. We did two seasons. I think we shot four episodes a day, and I think I got paid $250 an episode. I was 24 years old.

Hecht: The network actually suggested Mike to us.

O’Malley: Nickelodeon was really growing. There were all these young people at Nickelodeon in their late 20s and early 30s, and they were developing shows and making shows. And so Albie and Magda reached out to me, and I went and met with them.

Hecht: And that was love at first sight. That was GUTS at first sight. I mean, he’s a sports fan, albeit a dreaded Boston sports fan.

“I didn’t ask him to call her ‘Mo.’ All of a sudden, we heard him say, ‘Let’s go over to Mo.’ OK, I guess her name is Mo now.” —Albie Hecht, cocreator and executive producer
Greiff: He just had that overexcited, raw energy. We’re like, “Dude, this guy is either on something or that’s just the way he is, because he’s jumping out of his skin.”

O’Malley: I mean, that’s me. I’m just enthusiastic about things. You have to be. I learned this on Get the Picture and doing live Nickelodeon events.

Hecht: He had the energy, and this show needed energy to maintain the drama and the drive and help the kids. But it also needed the empathy that the agony of defeat could bring.

O’Malley: When I was a kid, I always liked it when an upperclassman or an older kid in the neighborhood treated me with respect and enthusiasm. I think it’s almost more important than when a parent or an uncle or a grandparent treats you well. When somebody who is closer to your age yet older enough that you look up to them notices you and treats you with encouragement and positivity, that can really impact your life.

Greiff: He also brought this playfulness and silliness that just added another level of comedy to it that I don’t think we had all necessarily envisioned. He was instrumental in coming up with the nicknames for each of the kids.

Liolis: We would talk to them and see if they had any nicknames. If they didn’t, we would just try to brainstorm some fun stuff for them. I think it gave the kids a little bit of a superpower.

Hecht: My nickname was “the Annihilator.” You can draw from that what you’d like.

Liolis: We were also looking for a referee. We wanted a female referee.

Moira Quirk (referee and cohost): I turned up like a complete prat, really. Had shorts and a T-shirt on. Baseball cap. It was Florida, I don’t know. I just turned up. I think they put me in a room in Nickelodeon—I knew casting people there because I’d done an episode of Clarissa Explains It All. I guess I was on the radar.

Greiff: Because she’s British, she had this gravitas.

Hecht: English accents have authority to me. So I was always mesmerized being able to have a Brit do the rules.

O’Malley: The whole, “Let’s go to Mo.” It was just goofy.

Hecht: I didn’t ask him to call her “Mo.” All of a sudden, we heard him say, “Let’s go over to Mo.” OK, I guess her name is Mo now.

Greiff: There was that look that she would give Mike that was almost like, “You’re an idiot.”

O’Malley: What am I doing? What am I? I’m some kid from New Hampshire. I’d rather be in Saving Private Ryan or whatever. But I got a job and I’m doing it, and I think it was the same thing for her. She was a very funny improvisational comedian, and she had other aspirations, too.

Quirk: I really hadn’t ever hung out with anyone like Mike ever before. He is a loud boy and just super American. He was just an East Coast loud boy. I love him dearly, but he was my first experience of that sort of lad. I went, “Whoop, you’re unusual.” And then I learned he wasn’t.

Part 3: “We Were Making Stuff for Kids That Never Existed”
In June 1990, a little more than a year after Disney unveiled its own movie-centric theme park, Universal Studios Florida opened to the public. One of its marquee attractions was Nickelodeon Studios, a working (and tourable) production hub. The result of a partnership between the film corporation and Nick, the facility quickly became the latter’s home base. By early 1994, the kids channel reportedly had shot 1,000 episodes of TV there and was employing an average of about 300 people per week.

But at the outset, Orlando was a whole new world for cast and crew members used to working in New York and Los Angeles. Building a show like GUTS from scratch, in the heat and humidity of Central Florida, was a challenge.

Chris Woods (producer): It was the whole idea that a third coast was going to happen.

Quirk: I always knew that they liked Florida because it was a right-to-work state. … I mean, they didn’t say, “Oh, Orlando, Florida, that looks good.” It was cheap and it was cheap for labor. And Universal was absolutely desperate because people kept turning up and going, “Excuse me, where’s the tour?” You know, the Hollywood tour. They were desperate to have something.

Liolis: Just the idea that you get to go to work in a theme park every day, that was pretty cool and sort of out of left field. It was odd, like everything was premade and man-made.

Greiff: A bunch of us were living in New York. Not clubbing it, but going to cool lounges. And then Orlando is like, “Hey, family entertainment! Every meal comes with french fries!”

Quirk: You ate a lot of fries.

Greiff: It is amusement park central.

O’Malley: Nickelodeon was like an attraction that you’d go and visit, like the Hall of Presidents, or the Haunted Mansion at Disney World.

Hecht: We go in the morning, we work. For lunch, we go out in the park, we ride “Jaws,” we play a few arcade games, we eat corn dogs, then we go back to work.

Quirk: I was in just such a state of culture shock. Because I’d moved from London to Orlando. I was in a supermarket and I guess they must’ve had an international aisle. I looked up and I saw a jar of Branston Pickle and I burst into tears.

Hecht: We hired this stunt coordinator, Kim Kahana, who was actually Charles Bronson’s stunt double and ran a really wild stunt camp out in the swamps outside of Orlando. It was incredible. Everything you would do in the movies was simulated, but in this very primitive camp where you had these acolytes who were his stunt kids that were learning from him.

“Something was wrong with my water heater so I had a plumber come over. He came into my office and he’s like, ‘Hey, man, is that the Aggro Crag?’” —Ben Crandall, contestant
Greiff: We did a lot of testing and R&D ourselves.

Hecht: These are tough stunts, right? And even in regular sports, there are injuries. So imagine asking these 10-year-old kids to do these competitive stunts. We did a lot to mitigate that. First, we had the stunt guys in the swamp trying everything out. Then Byron would build our own very rough prototype. The stunt guys would come in and show us what it would look like in a soundstage environment with mats. Then we’d refine it again. I insisted that we try it. I said, “I’m not going to ask the kids to do anything that I won’t do.”

Greiff: We were all the guinea pigs.

Liolis: We were all young and athletic. We were all sort of into sports and excited about it.

Greiff: We did games like “Free Kick” where it’s like, “How do we get an air cannon that can shoot soccer balls at you?” And we would all take turns standing in this giant net and try to block things. It came in really slow at first. This is fun. This is easy. And then Albie’s like, “Speed it up! Speed it up!” And next thing you know, we’re getting pelted.

Liolis: It was like trying to figure out sports fantasies. What does it mean, as a kid, to be able to dunk like your NBA heroes?

Taylor: When we did games like that, we had the platform that they leapt off of, the aerial bridge. It was all foam-covered, basically scaffolding. They were attached to the bungee cord and a harness and they would spring up.

Hecht: The stunt guys had done it at 12 feet or something. We were like, “OK, we’ll try it at 12 feet. Go ahead, Mags.” So she comes up and she comes down with such force, I thought both knees were going to blow out. She shot up 20 feet in the air. Oh, God. The poor kid.

Liolis: It was fun! The whole point was that we were making stuff for kids that never existed.

Part 4: “It Made These Wild Dreams Tangible”
For ’90s kids, Orlando was the ultimate vacation destination. But growing up in that area in that era meant more than just having access to theme parks. It gave young people a realistic chance to be on national television. Nickelodeon game shows like GUTS cast mostly local teens, some of whom went on to become musicians, actors, and professional athletes.

Ashley “The Face” Eckstein (contestant): I grew up in Orlando, Florida. That’s when they were calling it Hollywood East.

“Nervy” Nikki Heitzner Houle (contestant): I went to Dr. Phillips High School, which is literally right behind Universal.

Eckstein: You see our high school while you’re riding roller coasters. A lot of well-known celebrities and athletes have come out of that school.

Peter “Crash” Crescenti (contestant): You had the Backstreet Boys and ’NSync in Orlando at the time. I went to [Dr. Phillips] with Joey Fatone.

Heitzner Houle: When I was 15, I worked at SeaWorld. So I got into SeaWorld and Busch Gardens for free. I was a lifeguard at one point at Wet ’n Wild and I’d spend my days there and my evenings at the ice rink. I figure skated. And we would see some of the actors from Nickelodeon. They would come and hang out there.

Eckstein: Some people joke and they’re like, “Well, was it in the water?” I don’t think it was. It’s that growing up there, it made these wild dreams tangible.

Heitzner Houle: My brother was actually working at Universal at the time. That’s how we found out about the auditions.

Eckstein: When they needed local talent, they often came to our schools and would do casting. It was kind of a regular occurrence.

Taylor: They had to cast GUTS very carefully. You couldn’t just go and pull kids out of the line. You needed to make sure that they could perform, in a sense; that they had some kind of physical ability. Because they were going to be attached to a cord and jump off this platform 8 feet in the air.

Greiff: We tried to develop the events so they were as gender neutral as possible, so it wasn’t about strength, which was tough.

Woods: I think it was my decision how we matched them up. And I just want to say, being a pre–Title IX girl who proudly would have been more into athletics, after all those seasons of GUTS we came out with almost 50 percent girl winners and 50 percent boy winners.

Heitzner Houle: They had you doing some of the same things that they did on the show, with the bungee.

Eckstein: They would set up this inflatable obstacle course.

Crescenti: You had to go through different mazes and stuff like that.

Bobby “Lightning” Boswell (contestant): I was actually a little young. But one of my brothers was supposed to do it and we went to the [tryout] and they’d said I didn’t meet the weight requirement.

Eckstein: The first time I auditioned, I wasn’t heavy enough because they had a minimum. You had to weigh at least 90 pounds for the bungee cords.

Boswell: I think they felt bad and were like, “Just go ahead,” and let me try out thinking I wouldn’t make it. But the first obstacle course involved dribbling a soccer ball. It turns out I was pretty good at it.

Eckstein: The second time I tried out I was finally heavy enough. I had also auditioned for Legends of the Hidden Temple and they had a rule that you couldn’t do two shows in the same year. Unfortunately, I got picked for both and had to pick one. Of course I picked GUTS.

Ben “The Bruiser” Crandall (contestant): I had to do a swim event. And I did terrible, because when I pushed off the wall, my swimsuit came off. I probably finished last. But then there was an interview, and I remember them asking, “What was your most embarrassing memory?” And I was like, “Just now in the pool, my pants fell off.” I kind of feel like that’s why I got on the show.

Part 5: “One Chaos After Another”
On September 19, 1992, Nickelodeon GUTS premiered. To viewers, the first episode—and every subsequent installment—appeared to go off without a hitch. But filming an intricate sports game show with young contestants inside a theme park was always controlled chaos.

O’Malley: It was all shot there, and that’s where we’d get our crowds. I’m sure people were like, “Let’s go see the taping of a TV show.” And they’ve paid to go to Universal each day. Next thing you know, they’re at a taping for GUTS for the next five hours.

Hecht: At the beginning, the show wasn’t even on the air yet. But we needed a sports audience so we gave them towels [to wave], brought the kids out to introduce them—they’d come through a tunnel—and we told the crowd their names.

Eckstein: I did get to pick my nickname. At the time I played softball. And I would make this really ugly, fierce, mean face when I would run. My softball team nicknamed me “The Face.” To me, everyone understood. But well, outside of softball, people hear “The Face” and they think you’re good looking. People joke with me to this day about my nickname. I’m like, “No, it’s actually because of the mean face.”

Crescenti: I was nervous.

Heitzner Houle: There are lots of people and they just surround you. They’re everywhere.

Greiff: We would always shoot during the summer because that’s when the biggest crowds were.

Liolis: People would be like, “Oh, where’s your tan?” It’s like, “You think I see the outside?”

Greiff: We were shooting 40 episodes each season. We’re doing three, four episodes a day.

Eckstein: It was a machine. It was a whirlwind.

Boswell: You basically just sit around and you don’t do anything. And then all of a sudden you’re called into action. I was young, I was super energetic, and I think they hated me from behind the scenes because I was just talkative. I think they made a “no talking” rule for me.

Crescenti: I had to wear spandex pants with a yellow stripe on the side. I was like, “I’m not going on TV with these things.” I’m 14.

O’Malley: You’re going into a television show. You’re 12 or 13 years old. You’re getting pulled in 8 million directions and you’re playing new sports that you’ve never played before.

Eckstein: It’s a short rehearsal time. You don’t get much practice.

Greiff: The three contestants would have, I’d say, 10 or 15 minutes to do a couple jumps, but it takes a while to find your rhythm.

Fishman: You don’t want kids to fail on TV. You want good competition.

Hecht: The first shows were very smooth. I actually remember being remarkably blown away that it was working. And I was being entertained. And then immediately: just one chaos after the other.

Greiff: I was also the head referee. There was one episode where me and two other refs, each of us were keeping score for our player, and one of the other referees came up to me and was like, “Dude, I just blanked. I didn’t keep count.” I was like, “What do you mean?” And he’s like, “Dude, I just spaced. I think it may have been 11.” I’m like, “You can’t do this. This is a competition where kids are competing for medals.”

I remember getting on the radio, and Albie was like, “All right, Doug. What do we got?” And I’m like, “We got an issue.” And he’s like, “What do you mean we got an issue?” And I told him and he said, “What the fuck?” And I said, “Albie, I’m so sorry.” And we thought we were going to have to redo the event, but we just stopped and had to play back the tape.

Liolis: Think about the amount of coordination that it takes to shoot an episode of a show like that. There’s the whole stunt team, for one part. They all have to be doing their jobs right. There’s Mike and Mo. They have to be on point.

Greiff: I think they were really protective of one another in some ways. If Mike got too big, sometimes she would whisper something in his ear and vice versa. He was making sure that she was always happy and comfortable. It was a really nice partnership.

O’Malley: I would work on things that I’d maybe want to say, and then I was just reacting to what was happening. Sometimes it was good, and sometimes it wasn’t good. I would say you’re limited in your play-by-play calling because you couldn’t be like, “Oh this kid’s just terrible right now.”

Quirk: They were all really pretty great kids. I mean, there were probably a couple of times where it looked like someone was struggling. But it probably wasn’t so much that. It’s that they were ill-matched.

O’Malley: You also want to mix it up, so you’re not doing the same thing. There were a couple of events that were in the pool. Growing up in New Hampshire, if you fell off your bike you were “taking a dump.” And so I would say, “And Joey in blue, oh he fell off the boat. He took a dump in the pool.” I soon learned that did not mean the same thing everywhere.

“You’d see this huge mountain in front of you. It was just intimidating. And it’s loud in there. And they would tell you, ‘Listen, things are going to pop out at you.’” —Peter Crescenti, contestant
Eckstein: It was an exhausting day.

Crescenti: One was a swimming event where you had to collect tubes as you went from one side of the pool to the other. And that was cool.

Heitzner Houle: One was the moon shoes. You had the moon shoes and you go around the track. And I remember I fell.

Eckstein: I’m married to a professional athlete. [Editor’s note: Her husband is former major leaguer David Eckstein.] My husband laughs at me because he thinks I’m making an excuse with this: I was actually supposed to film a different day and we were on a family vacation and I couldn’t make that filming day, so they squeezed me into another filming day. I had a bit of a disadvantage because they try really hard to pair kids up that were the same weight, but I was barely over 90 pounds. I barely crossed the threshold. I was definitely overmatched. I ended up coming in second. I didn’t get the piece of the Aggro Crag.

Crandall: I was just determined to win. Because I knew all these people who were on the show.

Crescenti: You’d see this huge mountain in front of you. It was just intimidating. And it’s loud in there. And they would tell you, “Listen, things are going to pop out at you. And it’s confetti and stuff in your face. It’s going to move, some of the floor moves and rumbles.”

Hecht: There were boulder boys, we called them, at the back. And I had to cue them every time to drop the boulder at the right time.

Crescenti: That was intense. My Aggro Crag, me and the other guy, we got to the top roughly the same time. And he went with a big kind of arm slam to hit the buzzer and I just kind of went straight to it. And I beat him by like seconds, not even.

Taylor: We were really trying to come up with an idea for the trophy.

Hecht: I said, “We’ve got to give them a piece of the Crag to take home.”

Taylor: We wind up making this trophy, and if you’ve ever seen those early episodes, the kids are struggling. Even Mike O’Malley is probably struggling, because this thing was made out of plywood and maybe like a half-inch thing of plexiglass, and then all covered with fiberglass. I mean, it was 35 pounds. Kids could never get it over their heads.

Boswell: I remember the trophy. I equate it to a yacht with no engine in it. The front side of it looked really good for the TV, but the backside was duct taped and spray painted.

Crandall: I won [and] they were like, “When you get on the podium, try to make a big deal out of it.” You can see in my episode. I can’t actually get it over my head.

Taylor: We then had to make copies of that thing and box them up and ship them to kids. It took six months or more. Angry parents were calling, “Where’s my …”

Crescenti: We got it in the mail and it was awesome.

Crandall: It actually plugs in. It’s a light and it glows.

Crescenti: It was badass. And when I went to college and my freaking parents, I don’t know what they did with it. They got rid of it. I have my medal—I keep it here, close to my heart—but I don’t have the trophy. And that was the coolest thing.

Part 6: “Oh, My God. Is that a Piece of the Aggro Crag?”

GUTS was one of several ’90s hits that Nickelodeon launched in Orlando. It ran for four seasons, the last of which was an international competition dubbed Global GUTS. The show featured pro athlete cameos—Evander Holyfield, Picabo Street, Dominique Wilkins—and there was even a GUTS Super Nintendo game. Eventually, though, the franchise ran its course.

By the late ’90s, the network had already begun focusing on animated and scripted series. With talent starting to balk at working out of Central Florida, the network’s production began to shift to Los Angeles. In the mid-aughts, Nickelodeon Studios closed for good.

Quirk: I always remember just being surprised that we came back for a fourth season because generally things would come in threes.

Greiff: I felt like, “All right, I need a break.” I spent four summers in Orlando.

O’Malley: I personally didn’t want to do it anymore. I was starting to get opportunities to do sitcoms. And I had been out on the road doing live shows with Nickelodeon. Had they called me up and said, “Would you do another season of this [for] X amount of dollars?” there’s probably a chance that I would have.

Liolis: There is always a sort of expiration date on these things, because they want new stuff.

O’Malley: This is my take on it: All of the merchandising and licensing became more and more important. So you got All That, Rugrats, Doug, SpongeBob. All of that merchandising, all the opportunities to translate those to different languages and send them around the world.

Fishman: All of that stuff is happening in the middle-to-late ’90s. They’re moving a lot of their live action to the West Coast to satisfy those creative producers that are doing these shows for them.

Hecht: The business model they had was about repeating shows forever, right? And a show like GUTS didn’t necessarily repeat. You knew who the winner was and you were caught up in the excitement. It wasn’t like you could replay it like SpongeBob.

Fishman: So ’97 to 2005, I was the general manager of Nickelodeon Studios. Nickelodeon said, “You know what? It really doesn’t make sense for us to continue to house our production down there.” They already had Nick on Sunset. They had built Nick Animation Studio in Burbank. So when the deal ended in 2005, that was it. We sold the television equipment back to Universal and Nickelodeon basically walked away. The slime geyser was gone. One of those stages is now used by the Blue Man Group.

Nickelodeon ended up bringing back the sports show with My Family’s Got GUTS in 2008, but the rebooted series lasted only 22 episodes.

The creators of the original have spent the past three decades working in TV. Taylor’s production design on dozens of programs helped give Nick its distinct, kid-friendly look. Greiff, Liolis, and Fishman are prolific producers and executives. As president of Nickelodeon Entertainment in the late ’90s and early ’00s, Hecht had a hand in the development of, among other massively popular shows, SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer. Quirk has had a long career as a voice actor. And O’Malley is an Emmy Award–nominated TV actor, writer, and producer. He’s currently the showrunner of Starz’s upcoming pro wrestling drama, Heels.

As for the contestants? Even those who went on to do bigger and better things—Boswell, now a broadcaster, played 13 seasons in Major League Soccer and Eckstein, née Ashley Drane, is known for voicing Ahsoka Tano in multiple Star Wars animated series—will always have GUTS.

Boswell: I learned really early how chauvinistic our society is. Meaning: I lost to a girl that pretty much whupped our asses in every event, but there’s guys on my team that were like, “I can’t take you seriously, you lost to a girl.” I think we did a video spoof of it when I played for D.C. United, where I break it down.

Crescenti: It was kind of my claim to fame. I use it every chance I can get. I’ve got three kids now. And I showed them the video. At work, whenever there’s a “two truths and a lie,” that’s my go-to.

Crandall: Last year, something was wrong with my water heater so I had a plumber come over. He came into my office and he’s like, “Hey, man, is that the Aggro Crag?” I was like, “Yes.” He’s like, “Wait, were you on GUTS?” I was like, “Yeah.” He’s like, “Can I get a picture with you?”

Eckstein: I feel very blessed to say I’ve worked on some pretty cool projects. Being a part of GUTS is literally top five.

O’Malley: I realize the place that it holds in people. And it holds that place for me, because I loved it. So many people from that show were at my wedding. So I think that when you meet adults who have affection for watching those shows, you can tell that it’s genuine.

Quirk: I have been given free ice cream cones and free cups of coffee. “No, no, Mo, this is on me.”

Liolis: I have a piece of the Aggro Crag. I had it in my office for a very long time. Everybody wanted to take a picture with it. The Big Time Rush guys, they came in for some kind of meeting and they were like, “Oh, my God. Is that a piece of the Aggro Crag?”

Greiff: Somehow GUTS just continues to resonate with young people. I was the founder of a digital media company a couple years ago and I had some old GUTS medals on my desk and [coworkers are] like, “Dude, can I have that? Oh my God that would be awesome! We can put it on eBay.”

Hecht: Those were kids who were athletic, and loved the outdoors and challenges—they didn’t have any other place to go on Nick. They’re nostalgic about it.

O’Malley: That’s also part of what Nickelodeon was about. Nickelodeon was saying, “Kids are alive right now. They’re not just alive when they become adults. They’re alive right now.”

Interviews have been edited and condensed.


Nickelodeon’s Generational Divide

At the height of its power, Nickelodeon helped shape pop culture for almost two decades. While the network was ubiquitous for anyone who lived through the era, the way it was experienced was far from universal.

Thirty years ago this week, a rising, but not-yet-ubiquitous kids network by the name of Nickelodeon launched its first original animated series. Introduced on August 11, 1991, under the brand of “Nicktoons,” Doug, Rugrats, and Ren & Stimpy would quickly become hits and change the course of animation, television, and popular culture at large. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is looking back at Nick’s best-ever characters and the legacy of the network as a whole. Throughout the week, we’ll be publishing essays, features, and interviews to get at the heart of what made Nick so dang fun—and now so nostalgic.

On April 30, 1992, Nickelodeon GUTS emcee Mike O’Malley stood on a stage in front of the gaudy, glorious Nickelodeon Studios in Orlando, Florida, speaking to a crowd of stoked children and their obliging parents. NBC Blossom star Joey Lawrence was beside him in a vest and ripped jeans, ready to help seal and bury a time capsule for the next half-century. “On this spot, in 50 years,” O’Malley, dressed in a loud fuchsia button-up, declared, “the kids of the future will be able to come here and visit the first world headquarters for kids, and find out what was important for kids today.”

The capsule contained items that had been selected, O’Malley explained, by an official “Kids World Council” that sought to best represent its generation’s cultural and sociopolitical enthusiasms and concerns. Inside was a Game Boy, a VHS tape of Home Alone, a skateboard, and a piece of the Berlin Wall.

There was also a Ren & Stimpy shirt commemorating the launch of original Nicktoons programming less than a year earlier, and a jar of Nickelodeon Gak, the slimy-putty sensation banned by some schools and described by The Washington Post as a “jiggly, gross, stretchy, slippery, icky, and strangely addictive substance [that] smells like the butt end of a bad bottle of wine, feels like oysters, and comes in nine strikingly bright colors.” There was a copy of a TV Guide and a Michael Jackson CD. There were Reebok Pump sneakers, and materials about the AIDS crisis and Operation Desert Storm, and a hat bearing Lawrence’s himbo catchphrase: Whoa! When O’Malley couldn’t figure out how to extricate the tape from a “Kid Cam” operated by a girl named Vicki, he just stuck the entire camcorder into the vault.

The time capsule, the balloons, the building’s giant splatter-shaped logo—they were all the color Pantone 021, that unmistakable Nickelodeon orange. And the presentation itself was unmistakably Nickelodeon, too: absurd yet earnest; manufactured yet chaotic; treating green slime and the fall of the Soviet Union with roughly equal gravitas. This whole random shebang was the very essence of the network I’d been tuning in to daily for years to watch shows like Double Dare and Hey Dude. Its Orlando setting, with its polka-dot-and-zebra-print facade and its fountain of slime, was a Xanadu I dreamed of visiting, a place where I aspirationally mailed in so many failed sweepstakes entries.

Years after an event, you can examine and interpret the memories like they’re rings on a tree. I was in second grade at the time, right in a demographic sweet spot, which means this kind of thing was, and remains, absolute primo Nickelodeon to me, a key inclusion in my own mental time capsule. Talk to a number of my colleagues, however, and this era of Nickelodeon means little. Instead, they’re shocked and horrified that I’ve never seen a full episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, or heard of Henry Danger.

It’s not too different from the way albums released during one’s teenage years, or the starting quarterbacks who play during one’s early 20s, loom forever: apt and influential in an outsize way, enduring even in absentia. Nickelodeon has been around for more than 40 years, and it’s well aware that its most fervent viewers will eventually leave it. The result is many of those sweet spots for many people over the years, and many blank spots, too.

What is Nickelodeon? Depending on your age, the answer might be old-heady (Mr. Wizard’s World) or elder millennial (Salute Your Shorts) or Zoomer (that time they did the triple-crossover episode between iCarly, Zoey 101, and Drake & Josh). If you identified Avatar: The Last Airbender, you may be an Olympian who competed in this summer’s Tokyo Games. (The Dutch windsurfer who won gold credited his Airbender-inspired blue hairstyle for his victory, and the Mexican synchronized swim team wore costumes that paid homage to the show.) Perhaps the safe answer is “SpongeBob SquarePants,” one of the longest-running, highest-rated children’s series in all of television, and the choice of three of my friend’s kids, aged 10 to 18, when I asked them the question in a FaceTime conversation.

“SpongeBob is the Bugs Bunny of the modern generation,” says Fred Seibert, an entertainment executive who helped launch MTV Networks and redesign Nickelodeon in the ’80s. “I produced Fairly OddParents, which is, after SpongeBob, the most long-lived ratings-getter on Nickelodeon. But it’s not SpongeBob, in the same way that Daffy Duck isn’t Bugs Bunny. There are peaks, and SpongeBob was one of those peaks.”

My own Nickelodeon topography omits that peak, however, similar to the people out there who, bless their hearts, haven’t visually ascended the Aggro Crag. For me, Nickelodeon means distant memories of Pinwheel and David the Gnome. It means watching the first half of The Ren & Stimpy Show on Sunday mornings until my mom yelled that we were going to be late for church. It means living large on my friends’ living room floor, eating pizza and drinking cola and wearing Umbros and watching Roundhouse and Are You Afraid of the Dark? at sleepover parties. It means getting the straight-shot, no-bullshit news from Linda Ellerbee, and it means a young Alanis Morissette getting slimed. It means Mike O’Malley, and Nickelodeon Studios in Orlando, and a Christmas stocking full of Gak.

“If you remember the Gak container,” says Anne Kreamer, who launched Nickelodeon Magazine in 1990 and was also responsible for overseeing the network’s toy business, “you would put the Gak back into the thing and it would fart when you did.” Do I ever! “We had to fight hard with Mattel,” Kreamer remembers, “to get the extra three cents per container that it cost to get the lid that would actually make the sound. We always wanted to go above and beyond.” I wish I could hug her through the Zoom screen for enriching my childhood so.

It’s amazing to think how much content and delight Nickelodeon has brought to so many children over the years, given the way the first few years of Nickelodeon went. Launched nationally in 1979, the channel floundered for quite some time, unable to find a toehold despite being the only dedicated network for children. “It turns out that only one program gets a steady rating,” recalls Seibert, “and all the rest, you know, get what they call hashes.” Viewership was so low, in other words, that all that showed up was a dash. The one program that did succeed was the oddball and slime-fueled Canadian sketch comedy show You Can’t Do That on Television, which was named after actual studio notes.

Seibert and his business partner, Alan Goodman, had recently worked with studio honcho Bob Pittman to develop the logo and vision for MTV; Pittman would ask for their help with Nickelodeon, too. Neither of Seibert or Goodman had any experience with children; nor did Scott Nash or Tom Corey, the designers they brought in for help with the logo. But Seibert saw a link between what kids’ programming could be and what MTV was.

“Looney Tunes and rock ’n’ roll had a lot of things in common,” he says. “And one of those things that was in common was sort of a subversion of the established world, of parents, of teachers, of, you know, government and of the establishment.”

Eventually, a new logo and direction was born, one that spoke to that rejection of order. It was a mess, literally: the shape of a splat. It was also an invitation to imagine: The Nick logo wasn’t only a splat, it could be any orange shape that you could dream of, from an alligator to a blimp. Nash says the logo was a backup concept, one scribbled on a coffee cup on the plane ride ahead of a meeting with Seibert to present a different idea. The orange color was selected because it clashed with everything, and more importantly, “based on research that we found,” Nash says, “the colors that were least liked by adults at the time were orange and, like, slimy green. That sort of gave us our marching orders as to what the colors should be.” It would remain the corporate logo for more than two decades. And Nickelodeon would cultivate a reputation not just as a place to watch a designated program at a certain time, but as a place to just … watch. “The Nickelodeon clubhouse,” is how Seibert describes it. No parents allowed; the only place for kids.

In 1990, Kreamer wrote a letter to Geraldine Laybourne, the head of Nickelodeon, who would come to be known as the network’s “fairy godmother.” Kreamer had worked at Sesame Street in the 1970s, and in the 1980s she had been part of the brain trust behind the influential and satirical magazine Spy, along with her husband, Kurt Andersen, and longtime Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter.

“I wrote Gerry,” Kreamer says, “and said, you know, it strikes me that Sesame Street plus Spy magazine equals Nickelodeon.” She was hired not long after. The consumer products Kreamer oversaw were unlike most kids toy tie-ins of the time; they weren’t specific to any one show, or any one character, and they weren’t pink or blue. They were promoting the network, Nickelodeon, making sure those orange splats were everywhere to be found.

MyMy parents didn’t get the Disney Channel when I was a child, but sometimes I glimpsed it at friends’ houses and concluded that whereas the Disney Channel was a glittery destination for showbiz kids, Nickelodeon was wish fulfillment for the people. Kids passed along legends of friends’ cousins or cousins’ friends who had been lucky enough to live the dream in which Nickelodeon showed up one day to Take Over Their School. And one needn’t look further than the Super Toy Run, the ne plus ultra of Nickelodeon normal-kid excess. A kid—a kid like me, a kid who filled out one of those sweepstakes entries and sent it to Orlando—got to run through a toy store for five minutes and keep everything they could grab!

“Nick was so kid-centric, and just so focused on things that would be cool for kids to do,” O’Malley tells me about the toy run, which he hosted in the early ’90s. It blew even his mind. “I was only like 24 years old. I wasn’t that far away from being a kid myself,” he says. “Forget kids! Anyone that had ever played with a toy could imagine what that would be like.”

It’s the kind of thing that seemed too good to be true—surely behind the scenes, Nick was stingy with the winnings, a stickler for any items that touched the floor, a lawyer referring to tiny print, that sort of thing. But in one of my favorite things on the internet, an AV Club interview with two former Super Toy Run participants, each of them recalls the experience as somehow better than one could fathom. The network let them scout the store in advance and move things around so they could gather toys more quickly.

“I was playing the part of an older brother or a camp counselor to the younger kids or the younger cousins, who, you know, treated the kids with laughter and respect,” says O’Malley of the way he approached his various Nickelodeon gigs. (Since then, he has branched out into scripted acting and producing, and is both the showrunner and the villain of the upcoming wrestling drama Heels.) “You always have to put yourself in their shoes. The world is bigger to them. There’s a lot of rules. They’re constantly being told what to do. Wake up, go to bed, wash your hands, you know, change your clothes, learn your lessons, get inside, get outside.”

The spirit of Nickelodeon was the opposite. “Like, what would it be like to dunk a basketball?” he says. “Let’s put a bungee cord on your back so you can feel what that would feel like.” Want to throw food or pick your nose? Welcome to Double Dare, where you’re encouraged to do both. (Seibert says that in his mind, Nickelodeon falls into eras distinguished by being before or after Double Dare, and before or after SpongeBob.)

The era after SpongeBob saw Nickelodeon increasingly target a new demographic of kids. During the aughts, the network had a whole cohort of live-action tween-driven meta programming that felt specifically in competition with the Disney Channel’s vibe—like iCarly, about a teenager with a prospering web show, or Zoey 101, which starred Britney Spears’s sister Jamie Lynn and was set at a Malibu boarding school.

At the time, in my early-mid 20s, I was vaguely aware that a pal of mine in New York City with a job in the legal division of an investment bank also had a side gig in which he played bass on tour with two young Nickelodeon bros behind a quasi-mockumentary show called The Naked Brothers Band. “They were like the Beatles,” Chris Muir says when I call him to reminisce about it, “among 11-to-13-year-old girls.”

One of the first times he performed with Alex and Nat Wolff, at a shopping mall they traveled to via private plane, they were so swarmed by tween fans that the Wolffs had to hide out “in the back of, you know, an American Eagle or something,” Muir says. (He first got the gig after an agent saw him play with and for grown-ups at a bar on Manhattan’s Bleecker Street one night; when he ultimately left his day job a year later to spend more time touring, his boss said, Well, at least you aren’t going to Morgan Stanley.) The band’s most reliable banger was a song called “I Don’t Want to Go to School.” One time, they played a concert at Nassau Coliseum with some youngster named Justin Bieber, who absolutely crushed it.

On the road, during idle moments, the Wolffs introduced him to a strange show they loved that wasn’t particularly new—it had aired for close to a decade—but that he had never seen. “The Naked Brothers loved SpongeBob,” he says.

The Naked Brothers Band as a show lasted only for three seasons, from 2007 to 2009, though the Wolff brothers continued to tour musically afterward and have gone on to establish impressive acting careers, with appearances ranging from Broadway to Hereditary. The show’s Nickelodeon run coincided with Disney programming like Hannah Montana, which first aired in 2006, and Jonas (from the Jonas Brothers), which premiered in 2009. For years, Nickelodeon had two main competitors: Cartoon Network and Disney. Each network had a long history of competing and/or being inspired by one another. SpongeBob was in part a reaction to the Cartoon Network. ABC hired Melissa Joan Hart of Clarissa Explains It All fame to headline Sabrina the Teenage Witch; Disney poached the creator of Doug.

I ask one momquaintence whether she’ll ask her now-16-year-old what show first comes to mind upon hearing the word “Nickelodeon,” and before she does, she makes a prediction: “My hunch is that she’ll say something like, ‘That’s the channel that showed Big Time Rush, which you wouldn’t let me watch,’” she says, referring to a show that ran during those years in which four hockey players form a boy band. And she’s pretty close! A few minutes later, she tells me her daughter has texted her back to say: “iCarly, but you never let me watch that.” The power of Nickelodeon remains strong enough that even its absence is memorable.

AAfew years ago, Kreamer’s daughter, Lucy Andersen, went on eBay and bought the same Nickelodeon alarm clock she’d had as a kid—or, sorry, the same Nickelodeon Time Blaster, I should say. It has it all: the slime-green accents, the polka dots, the orange logo, and a handful of wacky wake-up sounds including an oncoming train and that classic interstitial nick nick nick nick na-nick nick nick / Nickelodeon … that was originally recorded for the network by a doo-wop band and is forever seared into the brains of both the kids who watched the channel and the adults who overheard it.

“I still love the ’90s Nickelodeon aesthetic,” Andersen, a designer in her early 30s, says. She hates to admit it, but even at the time, she knew her mom’s job was extremely cool. Andersen says she was a fan of Rocko’s Modern Life and Legends of the Hidden Temple back in the day (though sometimes cringes at the way the latter has aged). And like me, “I was never a big SpongeBob person,” Andersen says. “I would say, yeah, probably once I got to be … 12? I kind of left the world that was exposed to Nickelodeon.”

“That means,” says her mom, Kreamer, “that Nickelodeon did their job right.”

If the network once helped implicitly prepare its youth to leave its nest, it has followed that up over the years by issuing invitations for those same people to come back to find a place to crash.

When the network announced in 2011 that it would air a handful of ’90s-era shows like Clarissa Explains It All and The Adventures of Pete & Pete after midnight on TeenNick, an executive told EW that when the shows originally aired, “At the time, we were completely devoted to that audience ages 9, 10, and 11. … Those kids who are now 22, 23, and 24 want to bring that back.” That was a decade ago, and many of those kids now have kids of their own.

Nostalgia is a comfort as well as a currency, and in the land grab that is the “streaming wars,” competing content providers are hoping their past IP can generate future growth. While mediums like YouTube and TikTok might be shaking up the established channels of entertainment and content, in other ways they have deep ties to the past. (After all, Seibert points out, The Adventures of Pete & Pete was originally shot as 40 one-minute episodes. How positively TikTokian!)

These days, Nickelodeon’s home is on the newly rebranded streaming service Paramount+, where planned projects include a SpongeBob spinoff called The Patrick Star Show, Fairly OddParents and iCarly reboots, a PAW Patrol movie, and a “full-fledged franchise strategy,” as Paramount+ kids and family programming honcho Brian Robbins told The Hollywood Reporter, “creating films and spinoffs out of Avatar.”

Robbins himself has returned to Nickelodeon after some time away, and comes from a background that is more creative than managerial. The former producer of shows like All That and Kenan & Kel, Robbins started his own studio, AwesomenessTV, which developed short web shows for tween audiences as well as streaming hits like the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before franchise on Netflix and Hulu’s Pen15. Now he’s back, and he’s “redefining Nickelodeon through a lot of these social media stars who are making big shows for them,” Seibert says. “So, the wheel keeps turning, the creativity keeps moving, but it always is of a piece with the culture of today rather than the culture that used to be.”

Speaking of the culture that used to be: The old Nickelodeon Studios in Orlando—the first world headquarters for kids—is no longer. In fact, it’s been gone for a long time: Nickelodeon abandoned the space in 2005, less than a third of the way into that poor time capsule’s 50-year residency. The network stopped relying on live game shows the way it once did, and Nick’s success had led to a situation in which its stars became big enough to want to shoot in Los Angeles or New York, not Florida. Shortly after Nickelodeon moved out, the building got a new tenant: the Blue Man Group.

The time capsule has been moved twice: first to a Nickelodeon-branded hotel in Orlando, and then, upon that hotel’s rebranding, to Burbank, California, where it chills at the Nickelodeon Animation studios, waiting out another couple of decades. “We hope by then we have found solutions to our problems,” O’Malley said in 1992, “and that our dreams have become realities, and that the concerned kids of 1992 have become the concerned adults of the year 2042.” On at least one of those counts, I appear to be on the right path.

An earlier version of this piece misstated when the Jonas Brothers’ show premiered; it was after the Naked Brothers’ show premiered on Nickelodeon.


A Salute to Budnick, One of Nickelodeon’s Most Memorable Characters

In conversation, Danny Cooksey explains what it was like to play the king of camp on ‘Salute Your Shorts’ and how the character still gets him recognized today

Thirty years ago this week, a rising, but not-yet-ubiquitous kids network by the name of Nickelodeon launched its first original animated series. Introduced on August 11, 1991, under the brand of “Nicktoons,” Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show would quickly become hits and change the course of animation, television, and popular culture at large. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is looking back at Nick’s best-ever characters and the legacy of the network as a whole. Throughout the week, we’ll be publishing essays, features, and interviews to get at the heart of what made Nick so dang fun—and now so nostalgic.

My phone call with Danny Cooksey took a while to set up for a good reason: He was busy sending his son off to camp. That’s a rite of passage the 45-year-old actor and musician understands better than most.

In 1991 and 1992, Cooksey starred in Nickelodeon’s Salute Your Shorts, an ensemble comedy set at the fictional Camp Anawanna, where adolescents swam, played, went on trips, and tortured their counselor Kevin “Ug” Lee. Cooksey played Bobby Budnick, a troublemaker who bullies and schemes his way to legend status. With his fiery red mullet, headbanger style, and reflexive rebelliousness, he instantly became the show’s most recognizable character. And though he has a first name, most knew him simply as Budnick.

These days, the now slightly shorter-haired man behind the mononym gets why people still ask him about a series that lasted only two seasons. (Though even deep into reruns in the late ’90s, the show was a ratings success.) The idea of summer camp evokes nostalgia, even in those who never went. “It’s the notion of freedom,” Cooksey says. “No matter what age you are. If you’re a teenager, if you’re really young, it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m sort of on my own.’ I think it’s everybody’s first little taste of freedom. And even if they don’t experience that, it’s what they imagine that it could’ve been like.”

Salute Your Shorts, which creator Steve Slavkin based on his book of the same name, is stuffed full of classic camp tropes, including a corny alma mater that Budnick punches up with a fart joke. Yet it was funnier, warmer, and smarter than most programming aimed at preteens back then. Like real overnight camp, the single-camera show fostered a sense of togetherness—characters weren’t really roughing it in a bunk together, but it felt like they were.

For Cooksey, who in the mid-’80s had appeared in the final three seasons of Diff’rent Strokes, the early ’90s were heady times. The teenager also appeared in Terminator 2: Judgement Day as John Connor’s friend Tim, voiced Montana Max in Tiny Toon Adventures, and sang in the metal band Bad4Good. Still, he doesn’t mind that Budnick remains his signature role. Even if he still has to answer questions about the dreaded Awful Waffle.

“It’s like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction,” Cooksey says. “Nobody quite knows what it is.”

Here’s my interview with Cooksey. Read it right or pay the price.

I went to camp for a lot of years, and I remember watching Salute Your Shorts and being super jealous that the counselors were not in the cabins with you.

Total freedom.


That’s so funny. The camp that I went to was a skateboard camp. They probably still have it going, up in the redwoods. And all of the counselors were like pro-am skateboarders. Like, a counselor that could literally not give a shit what you’re doing. The counselors were like, “Sun’s up. You guys have a great day. Bye. Shower, don’t shower. Change clothes. I don’t freaking care. I’m going to skate.”

So by then, I think you had done several sitcoms, but can you take me through how you got the role?

I remember going to the audition, and I almost feel like I was brought in for the new kid [Michael], and then they just sort of go, “Well, that was good, but here, let’s try this.” I remember there being lots of different versions, like, “Let’s have you come in and read for this person …” And so, everybody’s sort of going in and reading in different pairs. And I remember, it ended up being myself and Michael Bower [who plays] Donkeylips. I remember just sort of thinking, “OK, this thing is locked down.”

Had you ever played a badass kid like that?

Not really. But I was already doing Montana Max. He was kind of the bad kid, too. It was so much fun to be that different character, because I had been the boy next door for, God, many years.

You’ll probably laugh at this question, but had you grown your hair out at that point? Because it’s such a distinct thing. People remember you for your hair.

It was different phases. I was growing it out and then Terminator came along, and then they cut it in this quintessential shaved-on-the-side mullet thing. So then, that was there. And then at one point in time there was a discussion whether it was too long. Wigs were brought up. There was a whole whoop-de-do. And then finally, at that age, I was literally just like, “I don’t give a shit. I’m growing my hair out.” I’m playing in a rock band. It is what it is.

So, you guys filmed in a boys’ camp at Griffith Park? Is that right?

All of the exterior stuff was all shot up in Griffith Park, and another place we also used up in the Canyons. And then the interiors were all done in North Hollywood.

Did it sort of feel like camp? Was there that camaraderie?

You know, it did. I mean, we weren’t on a studio lot, we weren’t at Nickelodeon Studios in Florida. We were sort of off in our own little world. I can see how that comes across, because we weren’t going to the Paramount lot commissary, you know what I mean?

I’m sure it blurred together, but do you have favorite episodes, or favorite moments from filming?

We also filmed really, really strangely. We would do four [episodes] and then come back and do two. But I think it was a capture the flag episode with a bunch of water balloons. My character really never got his [comeuppance]. Unlike Kirk [Baily], who played the counselor—every week, the poor guy was a target. In that particular episode, [there was] the Platoon death scene, where I’m just getting smashed with water balloons. I remember walking to set and every crew member on the planet had multiple water balloons. They were like, “All right, your turn, smartass.”

Did you notice people’s perceptions of you matching what you were on the show, versus what you really were in real life?

That was just kind of life. I ended up on Diff’rent Strokes when I was really young. It was like, “You’re in California, let’s go.” I wasn’t pursuing it and just sort of ended up on a prime-time show. Being recognized, that was just a thing. But it was funny with [Salute Your Shorts], because you’re in this little bubble. It was cable TV, so that was a little different. I mean, you didn’t have network upfronts, and all the promotion, and this machine behind things that I had done previously.

At some point, we went to Orlando to do some type of a Nickelodeon thing and a school group started singing the theme song to us. It was that moment where you go, “Oh yeah, I guess people really are watching this fictional TV show.”

So, you’ve got to tell me about your band. Was it Bad4Good?

Yeah, that was the project I was doing at the time.

It was a metal band, right?

Yeah. We were on Interscope Records, and Steve Vai produced an album for us. We worked our buns off for, gosh, almost two years. There were certain times that everything sort of overlapped, so I remember there was a period of time where I would go in the morning to do Salute Your Shorts, leave at lunchtime to do Tiny Toons, back from that over to the set of Terminator 2, and then I would record vocals and make a record at night after everything was over. And then repeat that the next day. It was a wild time.

How the hell do you manage that as a teenager?

You’re young. You have a lot of energy. And it’s exciting. I mean, it’s like, you’re doing this over here, and then you’re watching things get blown up for what you know is going to be a ginormous movie.

I know Salute Your Shorts has done reunions, but were your castmates like close camp buddies in real life? Do you occasionally reconnect with them?

We stayed in contact for the most part. Actually, Erik MacArthur and I lived together for a while. He’s the guy in the first season that plays Mike.

Is it odd seeing how long a tail the show had? It was on reruns forever.

Yeah, they played the heck out of it.

And I’m curious, are you surprised that a show like that hasn’t come up again? It seems primed for some sort of reboot.

I mean, there’s a million different ways to tell that story or bring it back, and it certainly helps that for a show that didn’t have that long of a run, and not that many episodes, it definitely has a little life of its own.

I think it would be perfect for some type of a reboot. A reboot in a grown-up fashion. Not necessarily safe for work, I guess. Because I mean, we were always sort of on the verge of, that’s not really appropriate for children’s television. So, that would seem like a logical step.

I don’t know if you’re sick of hearing this question, but how often do you get “Budnick”?

You know, it’s funny, as I’ve gotten older, I get recognized less and less. But what I get more of these days are people asking, “Where did you go to high school? Did we go to camp together? I know you …” I’m like, “Well, I guess we were kind of at camp together.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Mike O’Malley on testing for Ron Swanson and being the “older brother” of ’90s Nickelodeon
Actor and Heels showrunner Mike O'Malley takes a look back at his Hollywood successes and failures, from Meet Dave to The Good Place

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them about.

The actor: A sitcom staple who in recent years has turned toward showrunning, Mike O’Malley made his small screen debut as “New York Policeman #1" in the first season of Law & Order. He’d go on to host Guts and other Nickelodeon game shows before launching and losing an eponymous NBC sitcom. He quickly bounced back with Yes, Dear, where he brought his dry wit and dad sensibilities to millions of people for over 100 episodes. He charmed as Kurt’s father Burt Hummel for years on Glee, and more recently has popped up on episodes of The Good Place and Snowpiercer. His latest role—and showrunning gig—is as out-of-town promoter Charlie Gully on Starz’s excellent new pro-wrestling series Heels. In an interview with The A.V. Club, O’Malley shared his thoughts on success, failure, and why—barring moral objection—you always take an acting job.

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them about.

The actor: A sitcom staple who in recent years has turned toward showrunning, Mike O’Malley made his small screen debut as “New York Policeman #1" in the first season of Law & Order. He’d go on to host Guts and other Nickelodeon game shows before launching and losing an eponymous NBC sitcom. He quickly bounced back with Yes, Dear, where he brought his dry wit and dad sensibilities to millions of people for over 100 episodes. He charmed as Kurt’s father Burt Hummel for years on Glee, and more recently has popped up on episodes of The Good Place and Snowpiercer. His latest role—and showrunning gig—is as out-of-town promoter Charlie Gully on Starz’s excellent new pro-wrestling series Heels. In an interview with The A.V. Club, O’Malley shared his thoughts on success, failure, and why—barring moral objection—you always take an acting job.

Heels (2021)—Showrunner, “Charlie Gully”
Survivor’s Remorse (2014-2017)—Creator, showrunner

The A.V. Club: How did you prepare for your role as Heels’ showrunner, and how did you decide that you also wanted to be on screen?

Mike O’Malley: Believe it or not, I got this gig because I was the creator and showrunner of a show called Survivor’s Remorse, which was on Starz for four years. I’d written plays in college and then in my 20s, I’d written pilots and screenplays and plays, but I was focused more on acting. I have three children now, and when my wife and I were settling down and having kids, I wanted to just [be around more as a writer and producer]. What’s funny is that it ended up not being the case that I was around when I started writing because we shot four seasons of Survivor’s Remorse in Atlanta and also Heels in Atlanta.

I was in my 40s when I got my first staff writing job on Shameless because I really wanted to learn how to become a showrunner. And so I wrote on the first four seasons of that. I learned an awful lot. I co-wrote a couple of pilots with John Wells, and I learned an incredible amount from him. And then I had the opportunity to create Survivor’s Remorse with LeBron James and Maverick Carter and doing that, I really learned a lot and I loved working with Starz. One of the things I love about Starz is that they really love filmmaking. They’re very specific about their work.

So when Heels came up, Michael Waldron, who had created it, was not available to run the show because he was doing Loki. And so [Starz executives] Carmi Zlotnik and Jeff Hirsch reached out to me and said, “We had a good time doing Survivor’s Remorse. Would you be interested in doing this?” And I read the script and I loved it.

I also thought, “Wow, this could really be an amazing project” in terms of acting in it, too. When you’re an actor, you get to be a player on a team. It’s a really fun thing, especially if you get great relationships with the cast and you just have to do your part. There’s a lot of joy in just being an actor. It’s a craft. It’s hard work, but a lot of times I think a lot of the hard work has already been done in having weathered acting school, deciding to be an actor, getting an agent, and beginning to get work so people know you. Later on in your career, a lot of the panic about acting goes away because you get better at the craft, hopefully.

One of the things that happens when you’re a showrunner is that you’re so immersed in the overall producing and giving people good news and bad news that you miss the fun and the joy of acting. Being a showrunner is like being a head coach. Sometimes you’ve got to write a play that somebody doesn’t want to run or you’ve got to make a decision after somebody gives you feedback that doesn’t necessarily support what they want. And that’s part of the job. But it oftentimes puts you in opposition to other people. Whereas when you’re an actor, it’s just playing. It’s just joyful. And so I thought if I was going to be working this hard, being away from home and there was a part that I could play… I mean, I was selfish and I took the part. What can I say?

AVC: It’s a fun part, too. Gully’s wearing cool tracksuits and walking around in a huge mansion. He flies a helicopter. You’re not working in a coal mine.

MO: What’s interesting about that is that I totally put my look in the hands of Laura Bauer, who was our costume designer. I trust her implicitly and she had everything to do with deciding how I was going to look. I knew that I couldn’t be objective about it. What’s funny is it may not have been how I would have done it, but that’s probably good for the project, because the minute they dressed me in these outfits, every everyone in the cast was just… they were great to me. Obviously I’m still their boss, so to speak, but I think it was genuine and that it really helped.

What’s amazing about an outfit like that is that you’re really reminded as an actor that so much work is already being done for you. It really helps you stay grounded because obviously the outfit is ridiculous. I would never wear that in life. But the outfit is is projecting something to the audience just as the house is projecting something to the audience and the music and the fact that he’s flying a helicopter. It really helped me as an actor to just sit back and let the words do the work and the story do the work.

Yes, Dear (2000-2006)—“Jimmy Hughes”
My Own Worst Enemy (2008)—“Raymond Carter”
Snowpiercer (2020-present)—“Sam Roche”

AVC: It’s interesting that you bring that up, because you’ve done a lot of roles where you’re dressed as sort of an everyman, or—from what I can tell from Getty Images—like Mike O’Malley the person. In short, you’ve worn a lot of baseball caps. How often do you have input into that sort of stuff or is it just that it seems like what the character would wear?

MO: Well, I mean I would say that in Yes, Dear that was just a choice. He’s sort of an all-American guy, dad, flannel shirt, T-shirt, baseball cap. At this point now they even call that kind of baseball cap that I wore on that show a “dad cap.”

I would say the two most high profile roles that I’ve done were Burt Hummel on Glee and Jimmy on Yes, Dear, and I had a baseball cap for both of those things. I had some input on Yes, Dear, but I didn’t have any input on Burt Hummel. That was just how they wanted me to dress.

After Yes, Dear I was on My Own Worst Enemy with Christian Slater. I didn’t wear a hat in that show. I don’t wear a hat on Snowpiercer. And then sometimes in Glee they wouldn’t. But you know, I would just have to say a lot of it came from Yes, Dear. In the end we did 122 episodes of that show, and I always had a hat on.

In Snowpiercer, I’ve got this crazy pointy beard that I have no input on and looks ridiculous. Obviously in Heels and in the third season of Snowpiercer, which we just finished filming, the beard almost looks like I’m the Unabomber, which is a dated reference. My family hated it. They would joke to me when I finally shaved, they’d say “Wow, you look 10 years younger” And I’m like, “Wow. So I finally look my age?” and they said, “No, you look 65 with the beard.”

The thing about being an actor that most showrunners understand is that you want the actor to be comfortable on screen so they’re not thinking about their appearance or worried about how they look. And so that’s what I think about. I like to be comfortable when I’m doing things. In life, I dress very casually. And I think if that’s the vibe of what I’m doing in the show, I want to be casual.

Justified is another show where I didn’t wear a hat. They wanted him to be a little bit more menacing and they dressed him like a guy who thought he was dressing cool. But it wasn’t cool. I was wearing a Members Only jacket. It’s the kind of thing like “Oh, my gosh, this guy thinks he looks good, but he really doesn’t. He looks terrible.” I think that amounts to something about the character, too.

The Mike O’Malley Show (1999)—Creator, writer, “Mike”

AVC: Your first big show, The Mike O’Malley Show, aired only two episodes. What was it like to go through the process of getting that show off the ground, have a great cast, and then have it not do as well as you hoped? What did you learn from doing that show?

Mike O’Malley: What I learned from doing that show was—and thankfully I have lived my life this way—that you better have a solid group of family and friends, because when you deal with disappointments, you don’t want to just completely unravel and feel as if you don’t have anything worth offering in the business that you’ve chosen. I also learned that I have incredible representation. [My agents] are just incredibly great guys and they were like, “look, I know this seems like a setback, but you’re going to do great.” And six months later, I got Yes, Dear, and that went for a long time.

I don’t think I realized how difficult it was to get a show on network television. That was when they had the three major networks and then they had Fox, The WB, and UPN. So it was a hyper-competitive business and that didn’t dawn on me. What’s different now about the business is that it’s like a sporting event where you put a show on the air. It doesn’t matter how good or bad it is, you’re going up against competition every night, and that competition wants to absolutely crush you. We were on after Will & Grace and we’re were supposed to be going up against Sports Night on ABC. But then ABC double pumped Dharma & Greg, which was their big show, to blow us out of the water from the beginning.

When you’re out there working hard and you’re an actor and you’re auditioning for stuff, when you leave the audition room you don’t hear, “Oh, that guy sucked, I hated that guy. I hate that guy’s looks. I don’t think he’s funny.” You just don’t get the job. And so you’re going along in your life just trying to get jobs and you think, “I had a good audition, but I didn’t get it.” I had a sitcom [Life With Roger] that was on the WB that did well, and then I developed the show. You’re just humming along. You’re just paying attention to the positives. You’re trying to jump from opportunity to opportunity and make a living and make your life successful.

I think the ignorance was that when you open the newspaper every day and you read a bad review, you never think that that’s going to be about you. When a show gets canceled, you’re like, “Oh, yeah, that show got canceled.” It’s a spectator sport to everybody. When you develop your own sitcom, you’re hoping it’s going to be Seinfeld. It’s going to be Roseanne. It’s going to be Everybody Loves Raymond. At least that’s your goal, that you’re going to write and create a show that is going to fulfill all your creative and artistic desires and then be wildly successful. When it doesn’t happen… For me, I didn’t have a film career to go back to. I didn’t have a theater career to go back to. I wanted to do sitcoms.

Anyway, I had done a pilot for another show with Sam Simon, who had created The Simpsons. That one didn’t get picked up, but it led to the show at NBC. And, like you said, the cast was unbelievable. Will Arnett, Kate Walsh, my sister [Kerry O’Malley], Mark Rosenthal, Missy Yeager, all of whom I will say I’m still friends with.

AVC: There was a video going around recently by a comedian named Sarah Schaefer, and I know you retweeted it, but it illuminates just how hard it is for a show to ever see the light of day. It’s incredible that you got a show on the air at all, so you should be proud.

Mike O’Malley: It is unbelievable how many people have to get behind the idea of you being at the center of a show, or even cast in the show. It is remarkable how many people have to say yes to the idea of you being in something. It’s stunning. Stunning. I think most people wouldn’t do it if they really knew how hard it was. I certainly didn’t know how difficult it was. So I really wanted to get behind the scenes because every single part is debated by countless people, especially when you’re first starting out.

Get The Picture (1991)—Host
Nickelodeon Guts (1992-1993) —Host
Global Guts (1995)—Host

AVC: Speaking of first starting out, a lot of our readers will probably know you from your run on Nickelodeon. You were on a number of shows at Nick, including Guts. How did you first get involved with the network?

MO: I grew up in New Hampshire. I moved to New York. I studied acting with a great acting teacher, and then we had a showcase. All acting schools have a showcase where their graduating students perform some scenes and then they invite agents and managers and casting agents to come see them. As a result of that, I got an agent. I was submitted for an audition for a show called Get The Picture, and I got it. I did two seasons of Get The Picture. I think we made 115 episodes, and I think I was paid $250 an episode.

As a result of that show, I went on a national mall tour to market Nickelodeon. We would go to different malls and slime kids, and then they’d do little games from Double Dare. Ostensibly it was to try out for different Nickelodeon shows. Well, I shouldn’t say ostensibly. It was, but it was also to market Nickelodeon.

What really took off was when I was cast to be the host of Guts. We made four seasons and 120 episodes, and that was great. It was a great time in my life. I was in my early-to-mid 20s—I think I worked for Nickelodeon from about the time I was 23 to about the time I was 27 or 28. I was in New York, and then I was traveling around and seeing different parts of the country. That’s when we weren’t making the show. When we were back, the show was in Orlando and there were a lot people making shows for Nickelodeon. They were all very young people who had been given a lot of opportunities to create programing for the network.

I took the role on Guts very, very seriously. It was almost like I was an older brother or a school camp counselor to these kids. A lot of times when you work with kids, people talk down to them. They talk to them and in a voice where they say, “Hey, little guy! Good job.” I hated that when I was a kid. I always liked it when grown ups and older kids talked to me on the level and treated me with respect and and felt as if I was a full human being. And so that was how I looked at it on Guts.

Nickelodeon now isn’t what it was when I was in my 20s. Certainly, kids knew what Nickelodeon was, but nobody my age knew what Nickelodeon was. They knew it was a cable channel, but it wasn’t like what it is now. I could go and do a sitcom in the ’90s, and nobody who would be watching that sitcom would have any idea that I was on Nickelodeon. It’s only now that I do stuff now that people of a certain age are like, “Oh, yeah? Well, my favorite show you ever did was Guts.” What’s funny about that is that you get that from people where they feel like they’re heckling you a little bit. “I know you just did this dramatic arc, but I remember you on Nickelodeon.” I have nothing but absolute fond memories of my time on Nickelodeon, those people and doing that job. I loved it. You know, it’s in my Twitter bio because I’m proud of it.

AVC: It did always seem like people working at Nickelodeon were having a good time, like on shows like Figure It Out. That’s good, I suppose, because you guys were really grinding out the content. 120 episodes is a lot of episodes to make in a short amount of time.

Mike O’Malley: Yeah, but the alternative is that you’ve got to start working on a play that has 74 seats and you just hope somebody will come see it.

Graham Yost, who [worked on the Nickelodeon sitcom] Hey Dude, years later cast me on Justified. When you’re around young people and you’re not married and you don’t have kids and you’re making something just to get any foot in the door… For anyone who wants to be an actor, I think they should read this book because I think it’s one of the best biographies about being a young actor: It’s Charles Grodin’s book, It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here. I went on to read his other books and God rest his soul. I met him once and he was just a very kind man.

Anyway, he really breaks down in his biography how, as a young man, Charles Grodin used to do a Candid Camera with Ted Knight. He says if you can get a job in show business and it’s not coming up against your moral values, you should do it because you’re going to meet people. Right around the time I was doing Guts, Laurence Fishburne did Boyz N The Hood. Obviously, Laurence Fishburne is an amazing actor, but the story was that Laurence Fishburne had met John Singleton working on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Think about that. John Singleton is a P.A. on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and you don’t know he’s going to make Boyz N The Hood. Right around when I was starting out, Ed Burns had made his movie The Brothers McMullen, but he was a guy who worked at Entertainment Tonight as a P.A. and he saved film and on the weekends he’d use equipment, and he shot that movie. So that’s what it was like back then.

Obviously, I think it’s it’s easier now to make something, and video cameras did exist back then, but there was a lot of snobbery about, “Is it a film or is it done with video?” Nothing was being done with digital. It was just like, “Can you get into show business in any way?”

The people at Nickelodeon really helped me. They introduced me to people at MTV Networks and different casting directors. And they really helped me when I wrote a play and they bought the theater out for a night. That was a great place to work.

AVC: A few years back I interviewed some of the kids that did Nickelodeon’s annual Super Toy Run, and one of them mentioned how nice you were as the host, and that you had dinner with him and his family, and you’d see them around the hotel and whatever. So, you made an impression on those kids when you treated them well.

MO: That’s always nice to hear. Honestly, I could put myself in any of those kids’ shoes. It’s so nerve wracking when you’re a kid to be doing something where you know all eyes are on you. Certainly these kids knew that if they failed, all their friends at home would be seeing that they didn’t do well. You’re just trying to put yourself in other people’s shoes. That I was nice to that kid, it’s not like, “Oh, my gosh.” It’s just like that’s how I would want to be treated if I was a 12-year-old kid going on a Super Toy Run.

Law & Order (1991)—”New York Policeman #1"

AVC: Whenever I talk to someone for Random Roles and they were on Law & Order, I feel like it’s obligatory to talk about that show. One of your first roles ever was as “New York Policeman #1” on the first season of Law & Order. What do you remember about that experience? The show certainly wasn’t what it would become in later years.

MO: It was only two days, but I do have pride that I was in Law & Order season one. It was my first acting job and I had a real line. We were digging up a mafia burial ground in Jersey, and the overlook in the background is Manhattan and the Twin Towers. My line is, “Hey, sarge, we got a fresh one here.”

I had forgotten my glasses, and the shot was being done on a crane. I couldn’t see the assistant director give me the signal at all. The crane is showing me talking in the distance, because we found a dead body in an unmarked casket in a mafia burial ground. We’re in New York City cop attire, and I say, “Sarge. We got a fresh one here.” There were so many moving parts to the scene, and when I didn’t see the cue the first time. I completely blew it. So then we had to reset and then the assistant director had to basically jump up and down because I couldn’t see far away. So I saw the line and then I went running around the grave is if I’m one of the Three Stooges. It was one of the most awkward runs ever.

Then we were trying to lift the actor who’s playing the dead guy who’s got a bullet in his head out of the grave, and he was doing it so method. Well, I shouldn’t say that. He was doing it exactly how he should be doing it, because he was supposed to be dead, and he was so heavy. So it was me, and I’m getting paid a day rate to do this, and some other background actor who’s probably getting paid $70. We’ve got to lift this guy out of the grave over and over.

I remember that it was late at night. Michael Moriarty, George Dzundza, and Chris Noth were all there. It was like two days before Christmas, 11 o’clock at night. These guys are working out on the cold mafia burial ground and all bringing it. It was very, very exciting. I remember saying to Chris Noth—who I later worked with on The Perfect Man—I was like, “Hey, man, it’s my first job.” He said “Hey, congratulations.” Everyone was really nice.

AVC: Do you think working as an actor helps you be a better writer, producer, or showrunner?

MO: 100%, because an actor will come to the set and they say, “What is the objective that I’m playing? What do I want in the scene and who’s stopping me from getting it?” If you train as an actor, if you go to any acting school, you learn to break down the scene by saying, “What do I want and what’s stopping me from getting it?” And so if you write every scene knowing, as the writer or showrunner or director, that someone’s going to be asking you those questions, you put yourself in a better position.

I’m not saying that you have to be an actor to do that. I just know that I try to anticipate the questions that the actors will ask me on set, because to be a good showrunner, you need to keep things moving. You have the assembly line, especially in television, of producing seven, eight, nine, 10 pages a day. I learned this from John Wells especially, but the danger is that if you’re sitting there on set and you’re having a debate about what the person is doing… I’m not talking about how to play it. I could play it funny. I could play it dramatically. I could play it seductively. I could play it more demanding. There’s all the subtleties and shadings of performance, and that’s just sort of chef’s choice.

If you’re actually having to talk about the scene and if the actors don’t believe what they’re playing or you don’t give them a good answer, they’ll still do it, but they will begin to question your judgment, and that’s terrible. So you really need to say, “This is what the scene is about. The story we’re telling is this and that.” Your job as an actor is to really only worry about your character. What am I doing? What objective am I pursuing? How do I go about doing that and then learning my lines?

On Survivor’s Remorse, I would always write scenes the way I wished that I would have them. In other words, [as an actor] I would love to have a big long scene, five pages and a ton of dialogue where the scene was about the actors performing and not necessarily about the visuals. And so that’s how I write. Some actors love that. I’m sure some actors are like, “Oh, my gosh, there’s so many words I have to learn today.”

Glee (2009-2015)— “Burt Hummel”

AVC: You mentioned it a little bit before, but what was it like to work on Glee? And why do you think it was so important to see a character like Burt Hummel on TV?

MO: I first read the script and I was like, “Oh, man, I don’t wanna play this intolerant guy from the Midwest. I’ve seen this before.” But by the end of the show, he has this turn that’s like, “I’m not coming down to the basement saying I hate it because you’re dancing, I’m coming down to the basement because the music’s too loud,” which every parent can relate to. [When his son came out] He said, “I love you and I just want to be there for you.”

What I like about how they wrote Burt—and this is all writing that Brad [Falchuk] and Ian [Brennan] and Ryan [Murphy] did—is that they didn’t make him somebody who was like, “Now that I know this about you, we’re going to go to the parade in Greenwich Village and we’re going to go to the parade in West Hollywood and I’m going to get you a subscription to The Advocate.”

It’s very hard as a parent. I have three kids right now and you have to let them grow up by themselves or they will resist you, especially if you try to get too much into their business. So even though Burt may have had an inkling or an inclination that his son might be gay, it’s not up to him to say “You’re gay” until Kurt said it.

What was so wonderful about that particular part in that relationship is that it showed a way for a father and son, despite their perceived differences, to just love each other. One of the most important things as a parent is that you feel your child is happy and fulfilled and that they’re on a path and that you’re always a backstop for them. You’re always somebody who is there behind them all the way, no matter the mistakes they make, which is something I try to say to my kids.

I’ve had people stop me on the street and say “That relationship has helped me and my son. That relationship has helped me and my father.” I can’t take credit for that because I didn’t write it, but I was a part of it. The credit all goes to the story that the writers wanted to tell. And then acting opposite Chris Colfer... he was just so emotionally available. It really wasn’t like acting, I just thought “Here’s my son. I’m a dad, and I love my son and that’s all I got to do.” I just got to love him. When the overriding objective to play in every single scene is “I’m going to love my son,” then that really anchors your performance.

The Good Place (2018-2020)—“The Doorman”/“Jeff”
Meet Dave (2008)—“Knox”
Leatherheads (2008)—“Mickey”
Behind The Candelabra (2013)—“Tracy Schnelker”
Justified (2013)—“Nicky Augustine”

AVC: I want to ask about your role on The Good Place, because you were there at the end, as it were. How did you get brought onto that show, and what did you like about being the doorman?

MO: I had met Mike Schur many years ago and always wanted to work with him because I think he’s so funny. I tested for the part of Ron Swanson. I didn’t get it, and that was a bummer. They cast the right guy, but I would have liked to have done that part. And so, I’d see Mike and I’d sort of joke like, “Hey, man, was there nobody else I could have played on Parks?” But then Parks And Rec was on when I was doing Glee, so I wasn’t really available.

You’re always looking to work with the best. I’ve been lucky to work with Greg Garcia, John Wells, Ryan Murphy, and other really great showrunners. You want to work with them again and again because you see what it’s like to go to work on their set. Mike Schur has an impeccable and flawless reputation for being a great guy who’s also wildly talented. So when somebody like that calls you up and says, “Do you want to do something?” You’re like, “Yeah.” You don’t even really even ask what it is. When Greg Garcia calls, I say, “Yeah, I’ll be there,” and I don’t know the part. It’s just “How can I go be there and associate myself with talented people?”

The Good Place was a set where everybody was just amazing. They were just so friendly and I loved it. I loved working on that show. It was all about working with Mike.

It’s also knowing that—and this has happened to me time and again—but when I went to do Glee, it was only one episode. It turned into something else. And so I say this to my friends all the time: If you have an opportunity to work with a great showrunner, like if they call you up to do one part on a show, you go do it. You go meet and work with great people. You have no idea where it’s going to lead.

AVC: Are there other roles that you’ve taken because of that type of situation? Like, did you do Meet Dave because you wanted to work with Eddie Murphy? Or Leatherheads to work with George Clooney? Behind The Candelabra?

MO: I mean, all of those parts.

Behind The Candelabra, the part is nothing. I just wanted to work with Steven Soderbergh. He had cast me in The Informant!, but I couldn’t do it because I was working on My Own Worst Enemy with Christian Slater.

I took Snowpiercer just because I wanted to work with Jennifer Connelly, and I was a series regular this year and I’ve been there for three seasons.

I took a small part in Leatherheads because I wanted to work with George Clooney. Anything where it’s working with cool people, I want to go work with them. I took Meet Dave to work with Brian Robbins, who I knew from my Nickelodeon days. At Nickelodeon, I met Brian Robbins and I met Mike Tomlin, and I’m still friends with them to this day. They cast me in a number of different projects, and I’m working on a project with Mike Tomlin right now. It’s a relationship business.

Justified, I love that show. I thought it was such a high quality show. I went to do one episode and I ended up doing six or seven. Nicky Augustine was one of the best parts I’ve ever played, and I really got to do great work with Walton [Goggins], and with Timothy [Olyphant], Jere Burns, and Stephen Tobolowsky. That was fantastic.

A funny story from going work on Justified: When I showed up on the set, I had learned all my lines and when I got there, they said, “We’re going to throw this story out. I’m going to work on something else like it.” I was like, “Oh, my God, what are you going to do?” So, anyway, they came back and said, “Okay, so you and Stephen Tobolowsky, your characters went to grade school together.” Now, Stephen Tobolowsky is a well known, successful, amazing character actor. He’s also 20 years older than me. So when they said “You went to grade school together,” I immediately thought to myself, “Oh, my God, what am I going to do? Should I get a facelift? I’ve got to get to a chemical peel.” I mean, I’m not normally a vain person, but I thought if I looked like I went to grade school with him, what have I done wrong? No disrespect to Stephen. I’m just 20 years younger than him. You’re going to have to fact check that, but I believe I’m 20 years younger than him. At least 15. [According to publicly available information, the actors are 15 years apart in age.—Ed.] I thought, “maybe if he was in eighth grade and I was in first,” but no. We were buddies. We were in the same grade.

Escape To Margaritaville—Co-writer

AVC: You just worked with Greg Garcia writing the book for Escape To Margaritaville, the Jimmy Buffett musical on Broadway. That’s not something I think most people would think about when they think “Mike O’Malley.” How did you end up working on that?

MO: So, Frank Marshall, the famous Hollywood producer, is one of Jimmy Buffett’s best friends. About 15 years ago, Alan Kirschenbaum, who created Yes, Dear with Greg Garcia, he and I wrote a pilot for ABC based on and inspired by Jimmy Buffett short stories. That didn’t go forward, but then about seven or eight years later, I think in 2014, they called me and said, “Hey, we’re thinking about doing a musical. Would you be interested in doing this?” I was doing Survivor’s Remorse at the time, and I thought of Greg Garcia, who was a Jimmy Buffett fan. Greg has three shows that he’s put into syndication: Raising Hope, My Name Is Earl, and Yes, Dear. He’s an incredible storyteller. We were not going to do a biographical musical about Jimmy Buffett. We’re going to take his best known songs and try to create an original story that wove those songs together as story songs. And so we we met with Jimmy and Frank and then we we got hired to do it. And, man, we spent a lot of time working on that.

The hardest thing about doing a Broadway musical is that every night you’re going and you’re watching and seeing how things are playing and then you’re readjusting based on how those things are playing. You also have a time limit. It can’t really be much longer than two-and-a-half hours for a comedic show, maybe two hours and 15 minutes.

It’s just an incredible amount of moving parts. There’s music. If you’re going to end the scene, there’s things you learn. People who do musicals know this, but people who just watch musicals may not. It’s like, why all of a sudden is there a scene with these characters on stage? It’s because the other characters who were just on stage are changing their outfits. They have to be backstage doing something different so we can get ready to tell the next part of their story.

We had great actors in that. We were in very capable hands at the La Jolla Playhouse with Chris Ashley, who directed it. It was a gas. It was really fun working on that with Greg because I got to see him every day, and he’s a really funny guy.

Margaritaville is on a national tour right now and it’s playing in regional theaters. I just heard from family members saying, “We’re going to go see Margaritaville tonight.” One of the great things about a musical is that it can continue to be interpreted and performed all around the place. We’re getting ready to go to Vegas when we open back up [post-COVID-19 pandemic.]

It was an opportunity to, again, challenge myself in a new way and to work with a guy who had an incredible amount of success in Jimmy Buffett.

AVC: And you can probably get front row seats to any Jimmy Buffett show now—and any Lakers game Lebron plays, for that matter.

MO: 100%. 


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