Welcome to Reality TV Week at The Ringer! In addition to celebrating the best characters in the genre’s history, we’ll also be remembering some of its most iconic moments. First, we hit The Note on Jersey Shore; now, it’s time to remember the Bananas Backpack on The Challenge.
As much as sports are about results, or feats of athleticism, they’re also about narrative. The stories are necessary—without them, the results have little to no meaning. Tiger Woods’s win at the Masters in 2019 is nothing without the years of myth-building: the soaring success, the ad campaigns, then the car crash on Thanksgiving weekend, the solemn press conference, the many shots of Woods crumbling to his knees due to back pain, and the elaborate anecdotes about how the once-great golfer couldn’t even get out of bed on his own power. The Last Dance, a documentary essentially about marketing and mythmaking, is currently showing how crucial narrative is to sports’ impact and popularity.
So when we say that The Challenge is America’s fifth sport, it’s not just because the show’s contestants are forced into competitions that seem as athletically demanding—if not more—than a game of baseball or basketball. It’s because narrative is as crucial to The Challenge as it is in sports.
By 2010’s Cutthroat, the 20th season of The Challenge, Chris “CT” Tamburello had been out of the game for years. Undoubtedly the series’ most physically imposing figure, CT wasn’t able to channel his prowess and intensity into hard results—in both The Inferno 3 and The Duel II, CT was disqualified early on for punching a fellow contestant. While those incidents earned CT a prominent, if ignominious, spot in the series’ canon—the fight from The Duel II is worth a rewatch as an all-time chaotic reality TV moment—they’d also painted him as a liability, and worst of all, as a loser. CT may have been feared by everyone on The Challenge, but he still didn’t have any rings. And whether he’d even be allowed back on the show was a real question.
In CT’s absence, his rival Johnny Bananas asserted himself as the game’s best, smartest player and the polar opposite of CT. Bananas won by using strategy and intelligence more than brute force. With one elimination to go before the Cutthroat final, Johnny seemed well on his way to a third title.
The one advantage in mythmaking that The Challenge holds over other sports—and the reason why it’s officially classified as a reality show rather than a sport—is the ability to bend rules and regulations to produce ideally dramatic scenarios. (The reality TV version of Tiger’s Masters win is him winning in a neck-to-neck battle with Phil Mickelson; instead, reality had him two-putting to beat Francesco Molinari.) “All four people competing in tonight’s Gulag voted themselves in,” TJ Lavin tells the cast before Cutthroat’s last elimination challenge, which was set to feature Bananas and Tyler. “That, to me, shows a lot of heart; shows me that you really wanna fight each other and really wanna make this happen against each other.”
But a Bananas-Tyler elimination wouldn’t have been worthy of The Challenge; Bananas had size and experience on Tyler, and likely wouldn’t have struggled in the episode’s challenge: a competition in which competitors were attached by harness and were tasked with pulling their opponent to their designated end of a court. It was all becoming too easy for Johnny, and producers sensed it. So: “Unfortunately,” TJ continued, “it’s not gonna go down just like that.” This Gulag wouldn’t be a head-to-head competition, Teej explained; this one would be a competition to see who performed better against a ringer. And who was that ringer? Well, you could tell just by looking at Johnny Bananas’s reaction:
CT was long known as the most fearsome figure on the show, but had never won a title. Bananas, on the other hand, had conquered the game without really putting himself at physical risk. This artful twist by producers cured both issues, thrusting both competitors into a meaningful elimination (even if CT was just a Bowser-type final boss who’d have no impact on the Cutthroat final). Best of all, the face-off was loaded with animosity dating back to a near blowup on The Gauntlet III. “CT’s reputation in this game is … being an asshole,” Johnny says in the episode. Looking more juiced than ever, and with a fire never before seen in his eyes, CT counters: “They finally just let me out of my cage and I haven’t eaten yet … Johnny’s got a mouth on him for a little guy, and it’s time to put it to rest. I’m looking forward to putting him in the dirt.”
You know what happens next; just like The Shot in basketball and The Immaculate Reception in football, there’s a name for it: The Bananas Backpack. CT almost immediately gets Johnny off the ground, onto his back, and while the latter writhes around, grasping for leverage, CT actually stands up. With a grown man literally attached to him, he then stomps towards the finish line like the Terminator—one powerful, deliberate step after another. While Bananas continues to flail, CT throws the two of them onto a metal barrel and flattens it like a pancake. The whole thing takes just 19 seconds.
It’s one of the most shocking displays of strength you’ll ever see. It’s stunning, hilarious, and terrifying. The facial expressions of those who were lucky enough to witness the moment in person are priceless:
And for both characters, the challenge delivered what the audience wanted: in-game evidence of CT’s unparalleled power, and comeuppance for the often smug Johnny Bananas. On The Challenge or any other reality competition show, there will never be another moment like it. In fact, the moment is almost like a black hole, encompassing and eliminating everything around—its legend is so memorable that you forget that minutes later, the smaller Tyler actually gave CT some trouble and lasted longer than 19 seconds while attached to his back.
But the moment was more than a 19-second shot of adrenaline; it was a turning point in the series itself. Humiliated, Bananas would have to once again prove his Challenge prowess. And for CT, it was a statement, proof that The Challenge needed him. By the next season, he was back as a full-time cast member. And from there, his story became not about if he could manage to not punch someone, but if he could manage to finally join the winners’ circle—which he finally did three seasons later on Rivals II. Meanwhile, the Backpack cemented both CT and Johnny as the series’ most iconic players (both have advanced to the Sweet 16 in The Ringer’s Best Reality TV Character Bracket). From that point forward they were the game’s two to beat, even as we all knew which one of them would win in a simple game of brute strength.
“I will tell my grandchildren about this,” Paula says in a confessional after the Bananas Backpack scene.
Me too, Paula. Me too.