In September 1992, Nickelodeon—known then for cartoons, late-night Mister Ed reruns and its signature green slime—launched a youth-oriented sports game show, Guts, that turned 10- to 15-year-old kids into high-flying, rock-climbing superstars. Dunking, surfing, midflight-bow-and-arrowing—all of it was possible with a seemingly endless supply of bungee cords. Contestants went head-to-head in extreme versions of everyday sports, winning somewhere between 300 and 100 points at each of three preliminary-round events. ... And then came the daunting Aggro Crag.
For four seasons the show asked adolescent contestants, D-d-d-do you have it?! Now, 26 years after its debut, and with Nickelodeon staples like Double Dare returning to the small screen, Sports Illustrated spoke with Guts crew members, on-air talent and contestants about what made the show special, and how a mountain with a mind of its own captured the imaginations of children everywhere.
Scott Fishman (co-creator, executive in charge of production): Nickelodeon management came to Byron and I, and said, “We want to create a fantasy or action sports show for kids.”
Byron Taylor (co-creator, production designer): It was just another project—it wasn’t Guts yet. We wound up making an animatic [a pitch reel, typically using crude animation]. Animatics are usually 30 seconds or a minute. We made an eight-minute-long version.
Fishman: We called it The Ultimate Challenge. The network didn’t want to call it that. “If you have an ultimate challenge, how do you build on that? What’s next?” We had two or three rounds in our first version; we eliminated kids as we went and one kid got to do a final run for a prize.
Taylor: It had some of the stuff that eventually went into Guts, like the bungee game.
Fishman: The second round in our animatic was this giant ball that would spew slime. We were Nickelodeon. We used slime.
Taylor: It didn’t have the sports overlay yet. That’s what Albie brought.
Albie Hecht (co-creator, executive producer): I wanted to take Double Dare to the next level. American Gladiators was on at the time; that was an eye-opener stunt show for adults.
Fishman: The head of Nick told us Albie had this idea for a fantasy sports show for kids. We started with our two concepts, tore them apart and put them back together.
Hecht: I felt that kids deserved their own shows. Court shows were all the rage, like The People’s Court; that’s why we created Kids Court on Nickelodeon. So we said: Let’s make a big stunt show for kids.
Taylor: That led to a lot of very specific things that we needed to have: an arena, a track, a pool. ... We had games that required soccer balls and nets. ... Then we asked: What would it be like if we changed the size of the ball? What if a player was aided by a bungee cord? How could you alter track and field? We twisted every sports concept.
Magda Liolis (supervising producer): We would sit around and ask, “What would be cool? What did you wish you could do as a kid?”
Chris Woods (producer): And it had to be something you couldn’t do in your backyard. It had to take you higher, push you further.
Hecht: We went and tested some ideas. We hired Kim Kahana, Charles Bronson’s stunt double. He was a wonderful guy, but intimidating, like he was going to wipe us out. He [ran] a stunt school for us in the swamps outside Orlando. It was like going up-river with Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. It was very spartan, like Parris Island Marines training.
Liolis: A lot of the shows on Nick were like, “Do this at home.” We were like, “You can’t do this at home.”
Hecht: There were two months more of testing—extreme vetting and safety. We tested with stunt people first. Then the producers would have to go.
Liolis: I’d jump off some scaffolding, slam my knees and go, “Oh, we need to pad those for the kids.”
Hecht: I weighed 160 pounds but the kids weighed 60. That was another level of adjustment. So we brought in test contestants. We wanted everything to be fair—if you had three contestants with different weights, each of them needed different slacks [on the bungee] to equalize their weights.
Fishman: The bungee off the bridge [a setup of three padded sets of stairs positioned around a central point toward which players could launch themselves on a bungee rig] started with basketball.
Hecht: Elastic basketball—it was the ultimate Guts game.
Fishman: Our baskets were set at 11 feet, so players could dunk a basketball higher than Michael Jordan.
Hecht: It was magic. I was this frustrated Jewish point guard from Queens who always had a fantasy that I could dunk a basketball. My brother had even set up a seven-foot hoop in our backyard garage so we could dunk.
Taylor: The bungee became an iconic element of Guts. We developed a number of games on that same rig. But that setup was expensive.
Fishman: [Beyond the film festival,] Cannes also hosts an annual television programming convention, where people are looking to buy and syndicate programming. [We’d try] to sell the format of Guts to other countries. We’d set up the [bungee] rig and a basket on the beach, and you would have all these people in suits and dresses who wanted to try it.
Liolis: The show was going to be about fulfilling fantasies, doing things you can’t do in real life.
Fishman: A couple things we decided from Nickelodeon’s research: We would never eliminate anyone; we’d have three kids there the whole episode. Kids didn’t want other kids eliminated. It wouldn’t be like a regular game show.
Hecht: It wasn’t “You won, and you two lost.” [Everyone] got to run around the track. It was joyful and cheerful and celebratory.
Liolis: Eventually we had to think of something snappy, something catchy that expressed the idea of Guts for the tagline.
Rick Witkowski (theme song composer): Albie explained that he was going for “American Gladiators for kids.”
Liolis: It was about having a fearlessness to try this stuff—and we needed something that spoke to that in a short phrase. I was probably looking at a thesaurus.
Witkowski: I wanted to do something hip hop-y. Cinematic hip hop. Classical, epic gladiator. Ben-Hur-ish. ... They wanted to use the stutter thing. Once I got all of those elements in and came up with the D-d-d-do you have it, I’d sold them on it.
Having secured the largest workspace at Universal Studios in Florida, Sound Stage 21, the production team needed a host, a referee and kids who would fly through the air.
Mike O’Malley (host): I was hosting a show called Get the Picture on Nick.
Hecht: Mike embodied three things that we needed. Energy—this show was going to have so much energy. We needed someone who could keep up with that. An athlete—he’s a rabid Boston sports fan; he grew up playing baseball, basketball; loved sportscasting. And a sense of joyous competition—he would make the kids feel comfortable and get the best from them. Mike was amazing at that.
Woods: Mike didn’t want to be a kids TV host forever. But when Albie went to him about Guts, how could he say no?
Moira Quirk (referee): I’d come to America [from England] to spend two weeks with my grandma and I was working at Universal Studios. And that short trip just sort of became forever.
Hecht: Whenever I hear a British accent I think of authority. I loved that Moira had a British accent. It felt authoritative.
Liolis: She was funny and had an attitude. She was so tiny but in charge.
Hecht: She was this beautiful little imp, the same size as the kids. They loved her; she made them feel comfortable.
Quirk: Being very English, I knew nothing of American sport. I still called football “American football”. I liked to watch skiing and tennis—I was that sort of sports fan.
Liolis: She brought a cheekiness to it. Kids are fascinated by hearing different accents.
Hecht: They were so magical, those kids.
Quirk: The first couple years, they recruited the kids from [Orlando-area] sports centers and police clubs. As the show progressed, they came from further afield.
Woods: And they were really competitive. We did not have one bad sport, ever. Nobody cried. The three kids would be together all day, isolated from their families, and they bonded really well.
Hecht: We didn’t want kids who were overly competitive. We didn’t want people who were out to win, win, win.
Quirk: I remember one girl who sucked at everything. Bless her. She was competing against two kids [who were out of her league], but she was pleased as punch to be there. Grinned all day. And yeah, there were a couple of dicky kids. And kids who hadn’t taken their meds.
Ben Lyons (host, My Family’s Got Guts spinoff): There were some kids who were deer-in-headlights with all the cameras and the excitement.
Ashley “The Face” Drane Eckstein (contestant, January 1995; today: voice actress): I grew up right by Universal Studios. They used to host auditions at our school and at our local YMCA.
Bobby “Lightning” Boswell (contestant, November 1994; today: defender on MLS’s Atlanta United ): I grew up in Tampa and they had casting calls in the paper. My brother fit the requirements—I didn’t. We went to the open tryouts and my mom kind of talked them into letting me do it.
Claudia “Cougar” Centesimo (contestant, December 1992; today: real estate agent): There were flyers in our high school weight room [for tryouts] during the summer.
Dwayne “The Viper” Polzer (contestant, September 1994; today: engineer): The tryouts were advertised in our newspaper. My father saw it; since I was athletic and he had aspirations of me being an actor, he thought it would be pretty cool.
Jana “The Warrior” Waring Helms (contestant, November 1992 and July ’93; today: freelance writer): I was a gymnast. Someone dropped by the gym and gave us a flyer for tryouts.
Polzer: We didn’t have cable. We ended up getting it so we could watch, to do research.
Boswell: It took like 12 hours to film a 30-minute show. It was exhaustingly long. And they said our episode was short.
Polzer: They’d tape three shows in the same day. They would set up one event and then use it for each of those three shows. It made for a long day—like 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Lyons: We did it with no teleprompter, no script. ... The key, I remember, was just keeping my voice. You’re doing three shows a day, you’re screaming, you have to be the most excited guy out there. I would drink water with lemon, hot tea. ... We would tape and be done around 1 p.m. I would just go back to my trailer and watch old episodes of 90210. It was my way to decompress and reset before the afternoon sessions.
Centesimo: They gave me free sneakers—free Reeboks. It was awesome! They offered me a sandwich! That was the first time anybody had done something like that for me.
Boswell: You’d practice one run of the thing, but you weren’t allowed to see anyone else do it. Then you had to wait around. It was very strange. I’m so high-energy and I remember them being annoyed. They made a “no talking” rule for me.
Eckstein: You underestimate how exhausting the challenges are. You look at these kids on TV and you think it’s going to be so easy. I remember barely being able to stand up at the end of it.
Boswell: They wanted you to milk it, and I’m dramatic, so I fit right in.
Polzer: [After I won], people started calling me “the Viper” [at school].
Hecht: We wanted viewers to embrace the contestants’ personalities—that’s why we had them choose nicknames.
Eckstein:My episode is on YouTube, and I’m so embarrassed by my nickname, “the Face.” It sounds so vain. Really, it’s the opposite. I was making fun of myself!
Polzer: Back in the days of CB radio, my handle was “the Exterminator.” Another girl on my episode [of Guts] chose “Eliminator” for a nickname. The producers called me the night before we shot and asked if I could change mine [because it was too close]. My heart sank. But then the [CBS] show Viper, about the car, came on. ...
Helms: Nobody at school knew beforehand about my appearance. The next day I go in and [they ask], “Were you on Nickelodeon last night?!” This was before DVR. Luckily I won, so it wasn’t too embarrassing.
Boswell: Throughout high school I got made fun of. I lost to a girl. They were like, “What a loser.” People still give me a hard time about that. [Later] I’d get drunk Facebook messages, like: You pussy, you lost to a girl. I would always write back, Hey thanks for the support! Later it would become clear [that I played 12 years in MLS], and they’d apologize.
Woods: We actually had 50% boy winners and 50% girl winners. We only ever had one serious injury. On Global Guts a Russian girl dislocated her shoulder. But she was O.K.
To end each episode, every contestant had to climb up a mountain—a living, breathing, color-changing peak that spewed glitter and smoke, with boulders falling and water spraying. It had, as O’Malley once described it, a “sound and fury.” This was the Aggro Crag.
Hecht: We were asking ourselves, “How do we top this fantasy? How do we go big?”
Woods: We needed an endgame. You couldn’t just have three events and then that’s it. We had some brainstorming sessions—What’s the coolest endgame in the world?
Hecht: If we put a mountain inside an arena and shot it in a way that looked big, kids would think this was King of the Hill.
Liolis: What’s another word for a mountain? Crag. And aggro—in the skateboard lingo, aggressive. You wanted kids to feel it was the ultimate ending to the show, the peak of the experience.
Fishman: Structurally, the way we built the scoring, even if you were in third place, the points you would get for winning the Crag would put you in first. It gave us this come-from-behind factor.
Taylor: The Crag was about 75 feet wide and maybe 30-something feet deep. It was built in modules—plywood covered with foam, painted—shipped in on a truck and then applied to a scaffolding.
Liolis: It was intimidating and monstrous... and we tried to make it fun with lightning, special effects, confetti blasts, stuff that would teeter. ...
Taylor: It would fight back. We built a very elaborate control system. Some things were triggered by the contestant moving up the hill—they would pass [and break] a photoelectric cell and trigger an effect a few feet ahead. ... We also had three guys in the crag, one for each face of the mountain. They each had a stick; they would push the platform above them, which was hinged, and it would dump rocks down the top of the Crag. ... Or [the contestants] would physically step on a platform that was hinged, and their weight would shift the platform, triggering an effect at some other point on the Crag—maybe a confetti cannon filled with glittery Mylar.
Fishman: Tiny pieces of tin foil that blew everywhere. Six months after we finished shooting Guts, you had Mylar in your shoes, in your house—it was everywhere.
Helms: The glitter bombs are super annoying. It’s wet and sticky.
Hecht: I always thought of [the Aggro Crag] as Lord of the Rings–meets–the Olympics, this Game of Thrones fantasy.
Quirk: I did go up the Aggro Crag. It was fun. I was an adult so I would shout things like, “Ooh, it’s squishy!”
O’Malley: I didn’t try the events. I wasn’t about to get hurt doing something stupid.
Lyons: I went up the Aggro Crag every day. It’s high up—there’s smoke, lights, things moving...
Woods: The friggin’ Aggro Crag. That thing was murder.
Polzer: I didn’t win the Crag. But no one knew who won; our scores ended up being so close. There was some deliberation. Someone had touched one of the side rails. My dad heard some of the refs yelling, “We gotta fix that!’” They were debating whether touching the rails helped [the other contestant]. We had no idea what was going on. We were trying to do the math in our heads.
Boswell: I didn’t win, but I had a lot of people contact me trying to buy [the piece of Crag that is awarded to winners]. Someone offered me $3,500 once.
Hecht: A piece of Crag goes for a lot of money—like three grand for one of those things. People always ask me what happened to the Crag.
Lyons: I cannot confirm or deny if there is a piece of the Aggro Crag at my house.
Fishman: That’s classified information.
Hecht: I tell people it’s stored away like [the Ark of the Covenant] at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
After four seasons and 160 episodes—including the spinoff Global Guts, with contestants from Mexico, Israel and across Europe—the show was cancelled in 1996. But Nickelodeon was born as the land of reruns, and Guts enjoyed an afterlife, with repeats airing until 2007. In ’08 there was even a rebirth: a family version called My Family’s Got Guts, which ran for one season. And that nostalgia is catching on. The minor-league Brooklyn Cyclones hosted a Guts night in ’15—fans got a (replica) piece of Crag and the Cyclones wore Guts-inspired jerseys. A year later, Mountain Dew built a replica Crag in New York City (with input from Taylor) as part of a marketing campaign. The show even has a celebrity following: Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda called one former winner his hero, and SI Swimsuit model Chrissy Teigen tweeted, “I would pay 1,000 dollars per episode to see the same people from Guts climb the same agro [sic] crag 20 years later.”
Hecht: I can’t tell you how many kids have said, “I watched that show and I set up a course in my backyard or living room.” ... Or how many of those kids’ parents said that I ruined their living room.
Liolis:Guts had that I-wish-I-could-be-on-it factor.
Lyons: During lunch breaks [on shooting days] I would be like, “Hey, can we get the safety crew together so I can do the slalom for an hour?” And they’d let me be a big kid. That was so cool, doing a children’s program at the highest level.
Liolis: For the kids who were involved, the experience left them with awesome memories that have lasted longer than any sort of material game show prize would have.
Taylor: It was very cool to be involved with something that so many people found important.
Lyons: One kid was struggling on a wall—and when he got up there [he had] that pure fun-and-enthusiasm-and-joy sense of accomplishment. He was small, I remember. I thought: That’s going to stay with him the rest of his life. It was about finding those moments.
Boswell: When I meet people overseas and say I was on Nickelodeon, they don’t realize it was a one-off. They think, You were a child actor—they think that’s a lot cooler. I was on a ship in Australia and some guy looked me up and he told the whole boat, “This guy was a famous child actor!” Everyone started giving me stuff and taking photos.
Polzer: One of my friends was over at my house and posted a picture of my trophy on Reddit. It blew up. (One memorable Reddit post: “There were two types of kids in the ’90s: ones who wanted to be on Guts, and liars.”)
Helms: My husband found [my piece of the Aggro Crag]. He was like, “We have to dust this off and bring it out.” He got the Crag tattooed on his arm for me.
Boswell: I still have my shirt [from the show]. My friends would wear the [runner-up] medal out at night. Today it’s either in a box or in the trash at some bar.
Liolis: I got a piece of the Crag. I had it in my office (at Nickelodeon, where she’s still a producer) and people would come in—people in their 20s and 30s, who watched it as kids—and go, “Uhhh, can I take a picture?” Everyone wants to hold it over their head as if they won it. I didn’t know that was a thing.
Helms: I’ve been getting fan letters for 10, 15 years. People watch the show and try to figure out what I’m doing now. I’m paralyzed [after an accident suffered while working as a gymnast at SeaWorld]. I’ll get letters, like, “Oh my god, I watched you kick ass on Guts and now I read that you’re paralyzed; I’m so sad. It must be a crazy ride, finding out what happened to me.
Hecht: That show gave kids a sense of self-confidence. It gave them the courage to live out their fantasies.
Eckstein:Guts showed me that [anything is] possible. It blew the ceiling off the possibilities. It sounds cheesy, but I wanted to be an actress and that got me the opportunity to be on film sets. [Eckstein works today as a voice actress; she played Ahsoka Tano in the critically acclaimed Star Wars: The Clone Wars.]
Helms: I’ve gotten letters [from other girls] saying, “You don’t even know what you meant to my sister, watching you kick those guys’ butts.” I’m like, What? I felt like a dumb old kid just playing around out there. I had no idea what that might’ve meant for someone [to see that].
Quirk: People in their late 20s or early 30s go crazy if they see me. They’ll come up to me.
Witkowski: I went to a Pirates game the other night and we stopped at a local establishment for a nightcap. We met a kid in his late 20s, early 30s. My buddy introduced me and said, “This guy did the music from Guts.” The other guy went crazy. “Get out of here!” He wanted to get a picture of me. He said he used to fight with his sister over what to watch on TV—he always wanted to watch Guts.
Hecht: You know, there’s another season of My Family’s Got Guts in the can that they never ran. ...
Liolis: I’d go back in a second.