Coolio. Danny Tamberelli. Jesse Camp. Lori Beth Denberg. Amanda Bynes. Richard Simmons… All of these people have something in common—they've all been slimed.
The falling green goop was a defining characteristic of Nickelodeon from the 80s onward. The first official sliming, as far as I can tell, comes from the first episode of You Can't Do That on Television, which originally aired on CJOH-TV in Ottawa in 1979. During a skit where a kid is chained up for detention in a dungeon, he's told not to pull on his shackles. When he does, a toilet flushes and the signature green slime that has become so ubiquitous with Nickelodeon pours down on his head. It's a great gag that brought on two decades of slop.
An apocryphal story about that scene and the creation of the green slime comes from Mathew Klickstein's Slimed! An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age. Geoffrey Darby, producer of You Can't Do That on Television, explained that the slime was never meant to be slime. They'd prepared a bucket of food slop to dump on the kid's head. After waiting for a week due to unexpected delays, "…there were eight inches of green crud growing over the top of the bucket." But time was running too short to make a new bucket of refuse. "We had to get the scene. We couldn't get more slop… So we said, Dump it on the kid anyway."
After seeing the scene, I'm dubious. The slime doesn't look like rotten and moldy food. And who would dump that on a kid? (I t's worth noting that Klickstein went on to give a career-killing racist and sexist interview while promoting his book.)
As You Can't Do That on Television grew in popularity, the show became one of the first major purchases of Nickelodeon. Unsure of who their target audience was, Nickelodeon ran syndicated episodes of the Canadian show all the time. It was a huge hit that helped define the early days of the channel. As the series progressed, one thing was abundantly clear—kids loved the slime.
The use of slime spread to other shows. In Double Dare, kids faced off against slime during many of the most memorable "physical challenges." Slipping and sliding around a sound stage, the knee-pad clad kids did everything from shoving their arms up giant noses to letting a Nickelodeon blimp dump slime on them—all in an effort to collect those elusive red flags and win the game. In Wild and Crazy Kids, a competition show for kids that encouraged playing outside, the three kid-hosts got slimed while announcing contests and awarding prizes. Slime became so synonymous with the network, the green stuff even flowed during commercial "bumps" and interstitial ads.
Eventually, the network cashed on slime and started hawking it to kids in various goofy spin-off products. Nickelodeon Slime Shampoo, by Fisher-Price, became all the rage when it pretty much invented the kids haircare market in the late 80s. And toy sales of a Nick-branded slimy substance, Gak, soared in the 1990s (and is still on sale today). As Erik Davis reported in the Village Voice in 1993, "Last year, Gak was Mattel's best-selling product, and this year the company estimates it will sell 8 million 'splats'—the air-tight plastic containers that package Gak."
From 1990 until the mid 2000s, the best place to get slimed was at Nickelodeon Studios in Orlando, Florida. It was a hybrid of a soundstage and a theme park, where they held tapings of shows like Double Dare, Clarissa Explains It All, Legends of the Hidden Temple, and much more. There was also a lot of slime. One attraction known as the "Slime Geyser" spewed the green stuff into the air, while the tapings of live shows that encouraged audience participation kept the kids soaked in it.
Lori Beth Denberg is an expert on the green goop. By the time she joined the network in 1994, slime "was already an institution." She got drenched in the stuff during her tenure on All That and the slime-happy gameshow Figure It Out.
She poo-pooed Darby's account, telling me there was no rotten food in slime. "The party line that they would tell kids was that slime was mined from the center of the Earth… The true gloppy slime was oatmeal and applesauce and green food color. A good slime, if it was just oatmeal, would 'plop.' I haven't found whatever it was in there that made it loosen up and ooze."
The actress, who now officiates weddings and stars in indie films, explained that the slime they used to get doused in was a bit of a nuisance. "The green color would just stain your bras and underwear forever." According to her, your best bet was to, "Sit straight up or lean back a little bit… If you're gonna get slimed, get slimed. Don't curl up in a ball and let it run down your back… into your buttcrack."
Applesauce and slimy butts aside, it's still a wonder how sliming became such a phenomenon. Heather Lappi, a school psychologist in Philadelphia, offered me an explanation for why young people were so obsessed with the green stuff. "In school and at home, children are accustomed to structure. From the moment they wake until bedtime each night, their day is planned down to the minute. Watching another child get slimed or messy and knowing that the child is not going to get grounded or have to clean up the mess is very alluring."
But it may not just be the wild nature of seeing a big mess that excites kids, added Lappi: "Some may argue that getting slimed is a sort of comedy that experts (all the way back to Plato and Aristotle) call the superiority theory of humor. We laugh about misfortunes of others (schadenfreude), because these misfortunes assert our superiority over their shortcomings. Although sliming is arguably less intense than what our great philosophers were eluding to, humans, even the ones with the best intentions, often instinctively laugh first and help second when another experiences misfortune."
Unfortunately, sliming ain't what it used to be. With the so-called "Glory Days" of Nickelodeon waning (numbers took a sharp downturn in 2012), slime has been relegated to award shows and YouTube clips. The Nickelodeon Studios theme park, where kids could go to get slimed in real life, was shut down in 2004. The only place to get doused in green goo seems to be a Nickelodeon-themed resort in Orlando where water-park games include the occasional sliming.
The kids who grew up in the 90s still have now become nostalgic for all things Nickelodeon—including the slime. There's a live-streaming website dedicated to Nick reruns where you can watch countless hours of slimming. And there have been innumerable petitions to bring back Nickelodeon's original slime-laden 90s-era programming.
This reverence among millennials for the slime era makes some sense. According to author Carl Wilson in his 2011 essay "My So-Called Adulthood," "… nostalgia is a glue that reinforces bonds of solidarity and shared experience. It's especially helpful if you're careful to recall that the time in question was hell as much as heaven."
Maybe if we think about Zubaz at the same time as we remember old episodes of Pete & Pete, we'll come out of our reverie with a clearer picture of our nascent years. Were the 1990s kind of slimy? Sure, but as Lori Beth Denberg told me on the phone, "Don't hide from the slime, embrace it."
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