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.
Albie 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.
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.
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.
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.