The brain’s a funny thing when it comes to memory. For example, I can’t remember what color underwear I’m wearing right now but I can tell you that I was wearing a California Raisins “Let’s Party, Dude!” T-shirt when I got smashed in the head by a dodge ball in third grade and the gym teacher, thinking about the mounds of paper work he’d likely face if he reported a concussion, told me to “clam up, lie down on the bleachers, and sleep it off.”
So what is it about the brain that makes the storage of these memories possible? Turns out that just beyond the central gyri and the longitudinal thingamafulcrum resides the Spazzbrum, a squishy sausage-like thing that remembers every horrible, embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you. Yes, from that time in sixth grade when you farted during your oral presentation to the day you met the people who would eventually become your in-laws and, thanks to a gas station Subway sandwich, you puked Exorcist-style all over their bathroom. Seriously, it was everywhere. Anyway, despite all the pain and agony the Spazzbrum has caused me over the years, it is the reason I’m able to remember the following story in such gruesome detail. Therefore, I dedicate this story to you, Spazzbrum. Jerk.
Early on, I became obsessed with TV. Especially game shows. I was completely fascinated by this shiny world where toothy hosts made every moment feel important, as if the future of the world was riding on whether or not a contestant knew the retail price of a quart of motor oil. But more than the crisp $100 bills or the promise of a “brand, new car!,” what really fascinated me about game shows was that ordinary people (and by “ordinary people” I mean “people that looked like my school’s lunch lady”) could play a major role in a TV production.
Tic Tac Dough. Sale of the Century. Classic Concentration. The 1980s were a fantastic time for game shows. So fantastic that I actually enjoyed getting sick because it meant staying home from school and watching hours upon hours of game show schlock. Hell, I was more than willing to swallow a little cough medicine if it meant a hearty dose of Dr. Barker (“have your pets spayed and neutered!”), Dr. Dawson (“Suuuurvey Says!”), and Dr. Whatshisname from Press Your Luck (“No whammies, no whammies, stop!”).
And then there was Double Dare, Nickelodeon’s innovative game show for kids. I say innovative because, for the first time in television history, a game show dared to answer the age-old question: “what if we take a couple kids, cover them in a mysterious-yet-colorful slimy goo, and have ‘em pick plastic boogers out of a gigantic rubber nose?”
For advertisers, it was the perfect formula (messy + gross = ratings hit). For kids, it was the chance to live vicariously through the lucky contestants who got to do things like hurl pies at one another, dive face first down an ice cream-covered slide, and cannonball into a chocolate pool—all without a grownup shrieking about the mess you’ve made.
Oh yeah, you could also win money and cool prizes. See, on the show, two teams of two competed each other, answering a variety of questions ranging from ridiculous (“how many eyes does Michael J. Fox have?”) to downright hard (“what is the square root of 891305122.4?”). Now if a team got stumped on a question, they’d “dare” the other team to answer. If that team didn’t know, they’d “double dare” the other team who would then, either answer the question, or opt for a “physical challenge”—a rotating variety of different stunts that, more often that not, involved a player flinging something (i.e. bananas) across the stage for their teammate to catch with some kind of apparatus (i.e. their pants). All this built up to the show’s finale: a 60-second race through a wonderfully messy obstacle course.
For all the above reasons, Double Dare quickly became my favorite game show and I wanted so desperately to be on that stage catching bananas in my elastic blue tracksuit pants. The reality, however, was that Studio City was a world away from our house in the Orlando ‘burbs.
Everything changed in 1989. That’s when Orlando launched its plan to become “Hollywood East” by opening two new theme parks that doubled as full-working studios. And get this. One of the parks, Universal Studios was going to include Nickelodeon Studios.
Thank. You. God.
Now it turned out that God—obviously a fan of watching kids get slimed—was only getting started. See, in early 1990, The Orlando Sentinel announced that Nickelodeon was holding auditions for Family Double Dare. Whoa. All I had to do was convince my parents and sister to audition.
That turned out to be pretty easy. My sister, 18 months older and classically competitive, happily agreed. (Though, just to be safe, I had been fully prepared to whip out the “Do this for me and I’ll make your bed for a month” card). My parents were also on board. After all, Double Dare was textbook kitsch and my parents loved kitsch. From their collection of Howdy Doody and Welcome Back, Kotter lunchboxes to the department store mannequin positioned in our kitchen, our house was like one of those cool stores in near-abandoned strip malls that’s filled with talking Pee Wee Herman dolls, Mr. T trading cards, and stacks of dusty LIFE Magazines.
So with all Blooms on board, my dad called to set up an audition. He was told by the receptionist, “wear comfortable clothes because you’ll be performing a simple physical challenge.” Later that afternoon, we sat down to watch the show together. Immediately something jumped out at us: these families were really, really athletic. I don’t know why I never noticed this before—maybe I was too caught up in the whole “wouldn’t it be cool to be smothered in syrup” factor to realize—but catching oversized rubber frogs in frying pans while being blindfolded required real athletic skill. Now, with an audition date scheduled, I started to watch the show with new eyes. And what I saw scared the crap out of me: the contestants who I once idolized now looked eerily similar to the kids that tormented me daily in gym class.
Now it was one thing to be laughed at by the 20 kids in my gym class (“Easy out! Easy out!”); it was another to be humiliated in front of a national TV audience. See, I should explain that Blooms have never been what you’d call “athletic.” Not that we didn’t try. Hell, I tried every sport from soccer to karate and while it’s true that these trial periods typically lasted about three weeks, I had learned:
a) I didn’t like to sweat.
b) I didn’t like to hang around other kids who were sweating.
c) Wearing the team uniform was cool—until it got sweaty.
d) Gatorade is for drinking; not for pouring over your head.
e) A and C
f) All the above
And let’s not forget that whole can’t catch a ball/throw like a girl/complete and total lack of coordination syndrome that has plagued Blooms for centuries. But the challenge that lay ahead wasn’t some meaningless game of P.E. dodgeball or painfully long game of volleyball; it was Double Dare! And because of that, we were determined to kick butt at our audition. So much so that we did something totally crazy: we practiced. We actually transformed our living room into a makeshift Double Dare set and practiced different physical challenges.
My sister and I, standing on one side of the room, flung tennis balls to my parents who tried catching them in cowboy hats, sombreros, or other accessories from Halloween costumes from years past. We had races where we wore giant clown shoes (another Halloween favorite) and games of catch where we tossed tennis shoes into pots. We even dug up my old tricycle and pedaled zigzag around a line of cones in our foyer.
After a week of strenuous practice, two things were clear:
- We had roughly the coordination of a pile of mud.
- Because of that, our only hope of making it on the show was to somehow find a way to stand out from every other family.
About a week later (despite the fact we practiced every day, we had somehow become less coordinated), it was time to audition. As we drove along I-4, my heart raced at the thought of seeing Nickelodeon Studios. After all, this was going to my very first taste into the magical world of television! I was going to be in a real-life working soundstage! I was going to be surrounded by spotlights, cameras, and props! I was going to…
a rundown office park?!?
Something had to be wrong. Where was the giant Nickelodeon sign…or any sign for that matter? And where was the green slime? The only thing that came close was the mold growing on the front door. This was all wrong. We walked through the front door and saw a torn sheet of notebook paper posted with black duct tape on a far wall:
We followed the arrow and walked down a long hallway. At the end was a woman in her late 50s sitting behind a bridge table. With dirty blonde hair and slimy leathery skin, this woman was the last person I’d expect to find at a kid’s network.
“Who are you?” she barked in a gravely voice that sounded like equal parts lifelong smoker and razor blade gargler.
“We’re here to audition,” my dad said.
“Obviously. What’s your name?”
“We’re the Blooms.”
“Wait over there,” she nodded at the wall.
My confidence was fading quickly. I had expected the bright and vibrant world of Nickelodeon. Instead, I was in the black and white world of Nick at Nite—minus the canned laughter. About twenty minutes later, a door opened and out walked a family of four. They were everything we weren’t: tall, blonde, and tan. They were all smiles are they strut down the hallway and looked us up and down, their eyes saying “Easy out! Easy out!”
A minute or so later, a man, a youthful 40 with sandy blonde hair and a neon orange Nickelodeon shirt, emerged from the room. After a brief consultation with leathery lady, he looked at us.
“Right here!” my parents answered together, way too enthusiastically.
“Well, let’s get started then.” He gestured toward the room and we followed.
“My name’s Gary,” he said. “This’ll be pretty simple.”
“Gary, before we begin,” started my mom. “We’ve got something to say to you.”
[SPOILER ALERT: What happens next is embarrassing. It’s also ridiculous. It’s one of those things that you look back on after the fact and wonder justwhatinthehell you were thinking. Anyway, at the risk of further embarrassing myself, as well as my sister and parents who were so kind to go along with this whole thing in the first place, I’ll proceed. Just remember, you’ve been warned.]
Like I said, we knew we weren’t going to get by on our athletic prowess alone. So, as a surefire way to impress the casting director, we came to the audition with a little something extra: a song.
That’s right. For some reason, we thought, “hey, if we can’t climb monkey bars blindfolded, we’ll sing our way into the show!” It was just like Lucy scheming to get a spot in Ricky’s show, only a lot less funny. Here now, published for the first time anywhere, is the song.
[Sung to the tune of “New York, New York”]
Start spreading the slime
We’re ready to-daaaay
We want to be contestants on
Fam’ly Double Daaaaare
Our tennis shoes
Are longing to stray
We’ll run that obstacle course
In the fastest waaaay
This went on for three more verses before we finished with a show stopping display of jazz hands and the toothiest smiles we could muster. We waited for Gary to shower us with praise. What we got instead was a really long silence. Finally he said something.
“You know, um, contestants don’t sing on the show,” he said.
“Yeah, we know,” my mom said in between breaths. “We thought we’d give you something special.”
Yes! Our plan to stand out was working!
“Whatever. I need you to do a physical challenge.”
Do you know that feeling you of dread you get before diving off the high board, taking a final exam, or if you’re a Bloom, doing anything that requires athleticism? Multiply that by 20 and that’s how we felt at that moment.
That’s it? No throwing? No catching? We could handle a little lemon passing, no problem!
Gary called, “Ready, set, go!” and were we off and running. My dad tried passing the lemon to my mom. Thirty seconds later they were still trying. I caught a glimpse of Gary, he seemed concerned. We were in trouble. Finally, my parents managed to pass the lemon, which meant it was now up to my mom and me. With the lemon under her chin, my mom leaned down to pass it to me. The lemon fell to the ground and rolled.
And that’s when things really started to go really, really wrong.
My sister yelled, “What are you doing?!?”
My dad shouted, “Pick it up! Pick it up!”
My mom and I scrambled, Three Stooges-style, after the lemon.
“C’mon, you’re messing up!” my sister screamed.
“Hurry, hurry!” my dad added.
Finally, my mom grabbed it and tossed it to me. Big mistake. I didn’t catch the lemon. Instead, it fell to the ground again and rolled across the floor again. My dad started laughing uncontrollably and my mom wasn’t far behind.
“Hurry! You’re messing up!” my sister said. “C’mon, c’mon!”
I grabbed the lemon and placed it under my chin. Now with the clock racing and the pressure on, I did the only thing I could to salvage the mess we’d created: cheat. Violating the cardinal rule of lemon passing, I used my hands to transfer the fruit from my chin to my sister who was quick to point out, “stop cheating, Robbie!”
Mercifully, Gary stepped in.
“Uh, thanks for coming in.”
And then, the most ridiculous question in the history of ridiculous questions. Asked by me: “are we gonna be on the show?”
Gary looked at me paused. Maybe he was seriously considering putting us on the show! Maybe just maybe we had impressed him with our song and, well, unique physical challenge!
“We’ll, uh, let you know.”
Then again, maybe Gary was just trying to find a polite way to let down a 13-year-old kid.
After the audition disaster, it was business as usual in the Bloom household. My parents continued to laugh through the times when life gives you a lemon…and you drop it. My sister, always the competitive one, became the official “rule policewomen” in the house and ensured that games of Monopoly were not only played fair and square but also ensured they were no longer fun. As for me, I watched as that season’s episodes of Family Double Dare came and went and eventually accepted that Gary wasn’t going to call. Meanwhile, I continued to obsess about the mystical world inside the TV screen and dreaming that one day I’d be a part of it. Assuming I wouldn’t have to pass a lemon under my chin, of course.