by Ted Lehr
Debuting in 1986 on Nickelodeon, the children’s game show Double Dare was an immediate sensation. Filled with fun trivia questions, ridiculous physical challenges and gallons of slime, the show struck a chord with kids across America like none prior.
The Devil Strip recently sat down with the maestro behind the mayhem, Marc Summers, prior to the live version of the show rolling into town at the Akron Civic Theatre on May 16. We talk about his early career, children and Mad Magazine.
The Devil Strip: What were your favorite shows as a child?
Marc Summers: Oh, no one has ever asked me that question. That’s fantastic. I would say, believe it or not, as a child, anything that was a variety show. The Ed Sullivan Show was one of my favorite shows… the Hollywood Palace… anything with Steve Allen. I was addicted to variety because I was enthralled with stand-up comedians. And I also loved game shows. I would watch anything with Bob Barker. Comedy, variety and game shows were probably my favorites.
TDS: You mentioned comedy. Prior to hosting, you were a comedian — how did you break into that?
MS: I started in Boston while I was going to college. I was doing magic at the time and I started adding more comedy to my magic. I started at the Magic Castle here in L.A. in 1973. Around 1976, I auditioned at the Comedy Store and became a regular. Dave (Letterman) and Jay (Leno) and (Garry) Shandling… we all started about the same time.
TDS: How did you learn about the opportunity to host Double Dare?
MS: It was a mistake, like most good things that have happened in my life. I was not doing a whole bunch. (A friend in the business) got called to do an audition for a company called “Nickelodeon.” He said, “They wanna do a game show. Why don’t you go instead of me?”
And so I showed up and said that Dave Garrison was supposed to be here, but he can’t do it, so I’m filling in for him. You couldn’t do that today, but somehow we got away with it.
They had auditioned 1,000 people in New York and didn’t like any of them. I was the first guy to audition in L.A. They called me back three times and I eventually ended up with the show.
TDS: What was the audition like?
MS: It was a mock-up of the show, with adults playing the parts of kids. It was down to me and one other guy, but neither of us had ever worked with kids.
I said, “Why don’t you fly us to New York and put us in a studio with kids and let the best man win?” So that’s what they did.
The other person and I both (did the audition with children). They called me two days later and said, “You got it.”
I asked them why I got the job.
They said, “Quite honestly, you were about the same. But at the end of his audition he looked at the camera and said, ‘Do you want me to do anything else?’ and I looked at the camera and said, ‘We’ll be back with more Double Dare after this.”
Because I threw to a commercial they thought that was more professional, so I got the job.
TDS: Going into the audition, had you patterned yourself after anyone in particular?
MS: Bob Barker had an influence on me because I idolized him. There was something fascinating about him. And (Johnny) Carson, he started out as a magician. All these little tie-ins were there. If you watched Carson he would do bits of Jonathan Winters. He’d do bits of Jack Benny. I think we are all influenced over the years by various people.
TDS: After so many years of working with children, what is the key to relating to them?
MS: I never treated them like kids. I never thought of them as kids. I treated them like adults. I never spoke down to them. I think they respected the fact that I never disrespected them. I think that’s what worked.
TDS: During the first year of the show, Double Dare tripled Nickelodeon’s afternoon viewership. Were you caught off-guard by the immediate success?
MS: No. They had done all this research and realized that kids were living vicariously through their parents. They did not have their own game show. The timing was right. They took all this stuff they learned in focus groups about kids loving messiness and money and having fun and it all sort of worked. It was the simplicity. Kids were being rewarded for things they’d normally be sent to their room for.
TDS: You put your time in as a comedian and magician. What was it like to finally have a hit?
MS: Well, you never believe it. You go in, shoot X amount of episodes and think, “Well, I’ll never do this again.” I shot (the first) 65 Double Dare episodes, went home, and thought I better find another job. Needless to say, I didn’t have to for many years.
TDS: What was an average taping cycle like?
MS: We started doing four a day, then five. We were doing five shows a day for six days a week. That’s 30 shows. To shoot 65 episodes didn’t take me too long. We were done in two and one-half weeks.
When we went into syndication, we were doing 120 shows. We started in January and went to May 1. It took so much time to write questions and come up with physical challenges and obstacles that we would take time off in between.
TDS: What is your favorite physical challenge?
MS: I’d say “Pies in the Pants” because it just makes me laugh. Call me sophomoric, but there is something ridiculous and fun about it.
TDS: The show has enjoyed a deep reach into popular culture. What was it like being immortalized in Mad Magazine?
MS: Oh my god, that was like dying and going to heaven. (It) was massive. That was being recognized across the country as a cultural, iconic “thing” that you never think will happen to you. I’ve done Oprah. I was on the Tonight Show. I’ve done Howard Stern and thrown the first pitch out at Fenway Park. But I gotta put Mad Magazine at the top of the list of everything.
TDS: The current live tour has been in effect since October of last year.
MS: We did 15 shows in the fall. We just did another 15. It’ll be 45 after this go-round. And then we go out Oct. 14 through Nov. 3. I think there is one group of shows after that. We will be doing over 70 shows this year.
TDS: What’s it like being on the road?
MS: I love it. It’s exhausting, but fun at the same time. I was nervous with the first 15 because I wasn’t sure if anyone would care or anyone would come, but we were selling out like crazy and the fans were insane. Word of mouth took it from there. When we came back three weeks ago, my feeling was to just go out and have fun. I go out and enjoy myself. I laugh like crazy and have a ball.
The first act is 45-50 minutes. We do physical challenges with parents and kids. Then we take a short break. When we come back, we play “Musical Pies.” Then we pick audience members to compete to play on Double Dare and we actually play the game as you see it on TV. There are cash prizes and interactions. Growing up in Indiana, I used to go to these Fourth of July picnics. I compare it to that.
TDS: What’s the difference between hosting the televised version of Double Dare versus the live events? Does it take a different set of skills?
MS: Oh god, yes. On the televised show, I’m in a box. I have to hit the commercials at the right time, etc… The skills for that is one thing. But keep in mind: I have a background in live performing. I get to exercise all those skills. (At the live shows) I don’t have any deadlines. If the audience is hot, I’ll keep screwing around with them.
TDS: After so many years of working with children, what have you learned about them?
MS: (Kids) are super smart and completely honest. They will tell you to your face whether you look good, if they are annoyed with what you do or your breath smells. They don’t hold anything back. You gotta laugh at that because they have no filters. At some point (in life) we get those filters. We think that we shouldn’t say this or we shouldn’t say that. Life is so much more interesting when we are honest. There’s not many people who get honest when they get older.
TDS: The show rolls into Akron on May 16. What can fans expect that day?
MS: It’s an opportunity for kids and parents to play together. They can interact together. There are upwards of 60-70 people who get on stage. So for an audience of a couple thousand, not everyone gets there. But I guarantee you that the people in the audience are having just as much fun as the people on stage. Not to sound like PT Barnum, but the show is fun for kids from five to 105.
Marc Summers brings Double Dare Live to the Akron Civic Theatre on Thursday, May 16. Visit https://www.akroncivic.com/shows/21 for ticket pricing and availability.
Ted Lehr has been a freelance culture critic for The Devil Strip since 2016.
Image: Used with permission from representatives for Marc Summers.