When Slime Ruled the World: The Making and Tasting of Nickelodeon's Green Goo
The creators of one of the most popular phenomenons in kids' TV history open up about its edible past and present.
During the 1980s & '90s, there was no bigger star on cable television than slime. Green, gooey and oozy, the liquid was poured with impunity on the heads of kids and celebrities alike. Slime was sloppy, gross and totally bizarre.
It was also, for a majority of its existence, edible. While the recipe went through several iterations and variations, the slime that became a mainstay on the hit Nickelodeon game show Double Dare was made from ingredients often found in kids' lunch bags - vanilla pudding, green food coloring and apple sauce.
But slime's origins weren't this clean-cut. Food & Wine spoke with three of the main players behind its messy takeover of America's youth. Geoffrey Darby was the co-creator of the show You Can't Do That On Television and slime's founding father. Double Dare host Marc Summers saw more heads covered in green grossness than any person should ever have to see. And Double Dare's art director, Byron Taylor was the one who designed the obstacle course and turned the making of slime into a food science.
Here now, in all of its green glob glory, is the story of slime.
In The Beginning, It Was Slop
On February 3rd, 1979, You Can't Do That On Television premiered on CJOH-TV in Ottawa. Created by Roger Price and co-developed Darby, the conceit was that the network had hired kids to take over the show's production in order to save money. The show was supposed to be from a child's point of view which gave them license to run amuck. Says Darby, "The show was based on anarchy."
Slime made its debut in the fourth episode of the first season. As Darby explains it, slime came from an organic place. They were planning to shoot a sketch at the end of the day with the joke being "whatever you do, kid, don't pull that chain." Of course, the kid pulls the chain and sewage gets dumped on him. At the beginning of the day, Darby instructed the production facilities' cafeteria to scrape all the leftover food from plates into a bucket and save it for the sketch. The plan was to add a little water and, bam, perfect sewage. Unfortunately, time ran out on shooting that particular sketch (due to child labor laws) and they pushed the shoot until next week.
A week later, as they were prepping to shoot the sketch, the prop person told Darby that they had a problem. No one had bothered getting a new bucket of leftovers. There's just the old one that's been sitting in the corner for the last week. And, in that time, eight inches of green "crud" has grown on top of it. Because they were a small production with a shoestring budget, Darby made an executive decision, "I just said, 'dump it on the kid anyway'."
And that's exactly what happened. The kid pulled the chain and down comes a frothy moldy mix of week-old cafeteria leftovers. Darby says he was pretty sure that the kid had no clue what hit him. "It reeked to high heaven. It was truly the grossest thing of all time," says Darby, "Oh my God, it was awful." But it was funny. Says Darby, "Roger and I looked at each other and said we got something here."
They Did Do It On Television
In 1981, Nickelodeon picked up the show and You Can't Do That On Television was broadcast into millions of American homes. While Price & Darby were confident slime would be the show's calling card, they knew they couldn't just dump buckets of moldy cafeteria leftovers on kids. It smelled, it was disgusting and frankly, it was dangerous. So, they started experimenting with non-toxic, inexpensive and mostly edible ingredients. Naturally, their first choice was a liquid-y version of green Jello. Says Darby, "It made a nice splat sound, but it wasn't slimy enough." Then, they moved to green-tinted Cream of Wheat for its consistency with a little bit of cooking oil to hold it all together. But the cream of wheat proved too hard to wash out of hair. "It wasn't really the hair on top of your head," explains Darby, "It was your body hair... your arms, legs, back. It was everywhere. It was truly dreadful." And for one day unfortunate day they even added dish detergent, but that stung cast members' eyes.
Finally, they settled on a much more reasonable solution - "no tears" baby shampoo. It was non-toxic, washed away the oatmeal chunks and didn't leave anyone screaming in pain. For the rest of the 10-season run of You Can't Do That On Television, slime was Cream of Wheat, green food coloring, cooking oil and "no tears" baby shampoo.
Gallons of Slime
Nickelodeon loved dumping slime on kids so much they made it a defining feature in their new kid-centric game show Double Dare, which premiered on October 6th, 1986. The premise was simple: get as disgusting as possible. "If you are an 11-year-old kid, all your parents are doing is telling you to stay clean and don't get messy," the host of Double Dare Marc Summers told Food & Wine, "and now we are giving prizes and money for rolling around and get messy... Yeah, (kids) loved it."
However, for practical and legal reasons, slime's formula had to change. For one, the game show needed a lot of it—gallons worth of the green ooze. The original recipe was just too complex and labor-intensive for the amount that the game show needed to make on a daily basis. Also, Cream of Wheat was a problem. "If the stuff flew around on the set and it couldn't be cleaned right away... it just dried in place," says Double Dare's art decorator Byron Taylor, "You would find globules of dried oatmeal....it would cook under the studio lights and bake onto the set."
In addition, legal restrictions were imposed. "The insurance company was all over us. We had to have them inspect every obstacle, every physical challenge," says Summers, "One of the requirements was that if the food got in the mouth of the kid, it had to be edible."
So, they improvised and settled on a concoction of vanilla pudding, green food coloring and apple sauce with, according to Taylor, a touch of non-dairy creamer. "We basically didn't know what we were doing," says Taylor, "Nobody had ever done anything like this before." But it met all the insurance requirements—it was edible, the ingredients were readily available and it was easy to whip up.
There's long been a myth—one Nickelodeon themselves perpetuated—that the pudding was "stale-dated." In other words, it was past its “best by” date. Both Summers and Taylor say that's bunk. "It was such bullshit, I can't even begin to tell you," says Summers, "It was used to keep the American public off our backs so they wouldn't scream at us for wasting food... Everything we used was the industrial-sized cans. It wasn't expired at all. By the way, it would have contradicted everything that the insurance company wanted. If it was expired, kids wouldn't have been able to put in their mouths and eat it."
The Green Legend
Before long, slime was oozing its way into the hearts and minds of children across the world. Says Darby, "Every kid wanted to be slimed." And it wasn't just kids either. Many celebrities took their turn in the slimelight, including Richard Simmons, Halle Berry, Rosie O'Donnell, Will Smith and Steven Spielberg—who hated it. Laughs Summers, "(Spielberg said) it felt like his son threw up on him."
Darby admits that he refused to ever be slimed himself. "It was described to me by a child that it was like being behind a cow when it lifted its tail," says Darby, "After that description... no."
As the host of Double Dare for seven seasons, Summers probably had more slime dumped on him than any other person in recorded history. Needless to say, he doesn't give it a ringing endorsement either. "It could either fly down your face or slowly drip down if it was thicker," says Summers, "If it was thick, thin, cold or warm... bottom line, it didn't feel fantastic. If you were 11, it may be the greatest feeling in the world. But tell me one good reason a grown-up would want that." But he did say it tasted pretty good, "It's vanilla pudding with applesauce! How bad could it be?!" Certainly a whole lot better than week-old moldy cafeteria food.