Jack Herman: Do ya have it? Nick GAS

BY JACK HERMAN

Published October 17, 2006

Like I assume it does for many others of my generation, the mention of things like the Blue Barracudas, Merlock or Mark Summers conjures up memories of my youth.

Whether it was watching contestants collect pendants, fight evil warlords in a virtual-reality world or just take a pie in the face, I derived many hours of entertainment thanks to the genius that was the Nickelodeon game show division.

And armed with some free time and digital cable, I relived many of these great moments this weekend.

I cheered for the Silver Snakes as they grabbed the Golden Earing of Henry Morgan just as time expired. I rooted for Brian "Crazy Legs" Smalling as he recorded the perfect game in Guts, recovering after an early slip on the Aggro Crag to win his fifth out of five events. I clapped as Carl pulled off an amazing save to defeat Ace in a game of four square.

For those unfortunately unaware, Nickelodeon Games and Sports offers the opportunity to watch many of the classic sports-related game shows from the Nick archives ("Guts," "Legends of the Hidden Temple," etc.). Mix in some shorts encouraging kids to play sports and the hilarious "Heroes of the Game" collection (stories of playground lore backed by NFL Films-themed production), and you have an enjoyable experience that appeals to a broad range of fans: kids, nostalgic college students and Mike O'Malley's family.

The shows - like many artifacts of our youth - provide their fair share of unintentional comedy.

I chuckled immediately after turning on "Legends of the Hidden Temple" to see legendary host Kirk Fogg descend from the ceiling on a rope. Fogg kept the UIC on high, awkwardly putting his arm around the contestants. And nothing topped his declaration that "It's not about how many sacks, it's about how heavy the sacks are" during a game based on the weight of objects recovered.

"Guts" might be just as funny. O'Malley exudes such effort as the commentator, he's huffing and puffing more than the contestants at the end of each event. "Referee" Moira Quirk actually burst out laughing as she announced the athletes' times in one event, which were rather poor since each had fallen off a set of rings used to cross a portion of the course. And O'Malley interviewed contestants after the events, leading to thoughtful quotes such as, "I don't know I went out there and just, you know, played." (At least Crazy Legs has the media training portion down when he goes pro).

I also wonder where many of these kids are today. Does Birt "Radar" Reynolds regret pronouncing his love of Star Trek on cable television? Does Ty from Arkansas wish he never went on "Figure it Out" to advertise his pickle juice drinking championship?

But in all seriousness, these shows stand the test of time. The events in most of them are actually pretty innovative. The games had some cool concepts like combining brawns and brain ("Double Dare" and "Legends"), and giving everyone a sweet (and sometimes not-so-sweet) nickname ("Guts"). I even came across a column from the Cornell student newspaper in the course of my research that argued, rightly so, that pitting 12-year-old boys and girls against each other did quite a bit to break down the gender divide that appears in nearly every other sport.

Most importantly, though, it's fun to watch the contestants actually have fun.

They had little to win. Other than a $50 savings bond and a CD-ROM version of Compton's Encyclopedia, many of the shows had no real reward for their winners (except for a piece of the Aggro Crag).

They also had little to lose. There's no overbearing parents ready to lace into them for failing to throw enough Nerf balls through a suspended tire. No columnist ready to embarrass them in the next day's paper because they couldn't put together the monkey in the silver shrine quick enough. No multi-million dollar endorsement to lose because they missed an actuator.

These kids weren't training year round, waking up well before dawn and living their weekends in hotels in hopes of getting a scholarship one day.

It was kids on "Wild and Crazy Kids" just acting wild and crazy. Those on "Guts" just proving they had guts.

So maybe when you're telling your grandkids about sports of old, you won't have turn on ESPN Classic and explain about Kobe's legal troubles or Barry's huge head. Instead turn on channel 133 and give them a look at old Crazy Legs, and one of the best performances I've ever seen.

- Herman was disappointed to read on Wikipedia that Nickelodeon Studios has closed and the slime geyser is gone. You mad, too? E-mail him at jaherman@umich.edu.