Virtually from the moment that it launched 30 years ago this week, people both loved and misunderstood American Gladiators. For a show that was successful with viewers and which inspired a constellation of spinoffs and reboots and knockoffs, it’s a strange legacy. Bill Hicks’ “Go back to bed, America” bit on the show is probably still the most famous of said misunderstandings, with the comedian lamenting the show as the downfall of civilization, and more specifically as a bunch of “pituitary retards bang[ing] their fucking skulls together” in service of the most low-brow entertainment humanly possible. The name definitely evokes such a response, but treating the show as complete shlock leaves out a lot of interesting stuff, and obscures why American Gladiators worked, and why most attempts at similar shows haven’t.
Alternative sports-adjacent programming—call it “junk sports” for short—was a big deal in syndication for the Fall 1989 season, to the point where even the notoriously behind he times American Wrestling Association took a shot at a pilot that would fit that market. The same week that American Gladiators premiered, it was joined by Rollergames, a roller derby revival on a figure eight track that involved an alligator pit, as well as the Monster Truck/tractor pull show Tuff Trax. Only Gladiators was a clear hit, but the show that launched three decades ago was not quite the one that everyone remembers. It was notably unpolished, shot on a dark, tiny soundstage, and there were no standardized uniforms for the contestants, who were officially dubbed “contenders.” The titular Gladiators each had villainous personas, the referee was a medieval executioner, and an uncomfortably dry Joe Theismann was the host.
There were also some elements of the version that would really click later on, like the basic game formats and Mike Adamle’s excitable presence as Theismann’s co-host, but in terms of look and feel, the first shows had little resemblance to the goofy juggernaut that entertained fans deep into the 1990s. Pro wrestling works in its own realm, but the pro wrestling trappings given to the Gladiators and the cartoonishness of the referee didn’t work at all on this weird physical game show. To make matters worse, the cheap set made the action feel small and unimportant even though the shows featured a steady dose of contact sports action ready to burst out.
That format was thrown out after the first half of the season was over, with the only holdovers being Adamle and the Gladiators’ goofy names. Nitro was still Nitro and not Dan Clark, but he went from being a stilted, cocky villain to the handsome, likable team captain of the Gladiators. Former Raiders tight end Todd Christensen replaced Theismann, which didn’t really work, either, but they were most of the way there. The concept was now basically played straight and the set design completely revamped. They’d just about figured it out.
By the time season two started, everything clicked into place. Adamle was now the host, with NFL Hall of Famer Larry Csonka as the analyst, and their chemistry turned out to be the missing ingredient. Having two innately likable former football players banteringly guide the viewer through a series of brightly colored, slightly offbeat yet clearly challenging physical games (or “events” in show parlance) turned out to be just close enough to mainstream sports that people understood how to watch it.
The emphasis on the particular rules and the eventual addition of locker room interviews and training videos just further emphasized the point: This game show was a big deal in the world of athletics because it was so confidently presented as one. “Confidently” is a key word there, because as some varieties of bad pro wrestling have shown, constantly begging for legitimacy is a quick way to look thirsty and second-rate. The action on American Gladiators was effortlessly framed as if the show’s tournaments were already there.
Think for a moment about the shows with strands of American Gladiators in their DNA, and which made it and which didn’t. Knights and Warriors, from the ‘92-’93 season, was the most direct knock-off, but despite clear effort put into the game designs it was too hung up on its medieval gimmickry, not to mention hamstrung by infomercial host Joe Fowler as its grating emcee. (Fowler would later go to WWE as “Mean” Gene Okerlund’s replacement when the show was cancelled, only to quickly flame out because his style still was too much, even for pro wrestling.) That short-lived show premiered the same week as Nickelodeon GUTS, which, while divorced of the contact sports elements since the contestants were kids, had a good bit more Gladiators-style gravity and became one of the iconic children’s shows of its era. Wild West Showdown, from the ‘94-’95 season, was basically a more committed version of Knights and Warriors, up to and including Joe Fowler as the host. That one didn’t work, either. Neither did 1999’s Battle Dome, which was launched after American Gladiators was cancelled and played it mostly straight; that one made it to two seasons, but the personalities crafted for the show’s “Warriors” were closer to a parody of pro wrestling than the more earnest stuff that made American Gladiators work.
On the other hand, very different shows like Iron Chef and Ninja Warrior, which sort of fit into the wider “sports entertainment” umbrella while not knocking off the Gladiators format, have worked and continued to work great, in large part because of just how straight they played it. Once these shows stop taking their concept, if not themselves, with a modicum of seriousness, they tend to fall apart. The disastrous Iron Chef USA with William Shatner was weirdly intent on kidding its own existence, right down to a scoring system that made no sense, and the joke never landed. Some of the knockoffs also didn’t work because they were just inferior game shows, but the easiest way to fail was to make a show that reflected the sneering conventional wisdom on a show like American Gladiators, instead of the thing itself.
This applies within the extended universe of Gladiators shows, too. In the ‘90s, successful spin-offs, generally named Gladiators, launched in the United Kingdom, Finland, Australia, and South Africa, with the UK version in particular proving a massive hit. The Finnish version was more or less the American show with the same basic set, but the UK version—as well as the ones that followed in Australia and South Africa, which were patterned after the UK one instead of the American original—were a bigger, better version of the concept. Instead of being produced on a soundstage, the tapings were an arena event that provided the one thing that the original was missing—the atmosphere of a major sporting event. When, late in the American show’s life, the limited run of International Gladiators episodes showed up in syndication, it was a major shock to see massive crowds, more events with bigger scope—they were thinking bigger with things like Poleaxe, here—and a “big game” atmosphere complete with classic rock songs on the P.A. at key moments. I remember the experience as authentically startling, as if I’d had my eyes opened to a new world of possibilities for one of my favorite TV shows.
The NBC revival from 2008 didn’t heed those lessons, and veered instead into the trappings of every bad NBC reality/game show of that era. In other words, it felt every bit as manufactured and phony as the original didn’t. Outside of basic TV production necessities, there was never the impression that the producers of the original were attempting to deceive the viewer. The 2008 version, on the other hand, was manipulative to the point of being insulting. One episode in particular stands out, here. Among the most iconic elements of the franchise was the “travelator,” an inclined reverse treadmill obstacle in the show-closing “Eliminator” course; it was the opening obstacle in season two before eventually being moved to the end of the course in later seasons, spinoffs, and revivals. One 2008 episode featured a contender, actor John Siciliano, who had a prosthetic leg; not surprisingly, he had difficulty going up an obstacle that had become difficult for most contenders to traverse after getting past the rest of the revival’s long, arduous Eliminator course. After a couple tries, though, there was hope.
“This could be it,” the announcer bellowed, followed by “Outstanding, young man!” when the contender reached the top. “What an inspiration, ladies and gentlemen!” That last part was absolutely true, because the revival’s course was a motherfucker under the best of circumstances, and it was legitimately inspiring to see Siciliano get through it. But the moment rang hollow from a TV perspective: At some point between Siciliano’s second and third attempts at the travelator, the mechanical portion of the obstacle had been turned off. In and of itself, this wouldn’t be a big deal, as there had been rule sets allowing contenders to go up the non-treadmill part of the obstacle after a certain number of failed attempts. But the announcer pretending that nothing had changed and acting as if Siciliano made it up the working travelator cheapened the moment. The man had already gotten his metal prosthetic stuck in the cargo net climb and easily gotten past a host of other challenging obstacles, and yet they still felt compelled to muck it up. An authentically impressive sports achievement was cheapened into something more like phony reality show television.
The original’s basic respect for the concept and its competitors kept it from doing that, and that veneer of “sports”—that and the suspension of disbelief that it won—was what made American Gladiators work. Better still, they made it feel like something new, where the best moments don’t seem like part of a game show, a reality show, or even pro wrestling. They feel, for lack of a better comparison, like great sports moments. Kyler Storm doing a full flip over Turbo in the football down that was the first half of Breakthrough and Conquer would be the stuff of viral internet legend if it happened today. (Turbo punching Storm in the fucking face during Swingshot would also earn legendary status, albeit for different reasons, as would actor Billy Wirth getting into a fight with Gemini in the first season.) Wesley “Two Scoops” Berry, a burn survivor whose athletic attributes were perfectly built for mastering American Gladiators, basically broke the game and would be a walking meme today.
But the best moments weren’t just spectacular. They were, like the best sports moments, also dramatic as hell. Tim Goldrick’s Eliminator win over Coz Worthington had all of the makings of a classic moment: There were big stakes, as at was the second semifinal matchup of the first half of season three, with the winner taking on Marc Ortega. Worthington had to overcome a 3.5-second head start due to Goldrick’s seven-point lead and somehow basically did, with the two ending up neck and neck down the stretch. And it ended with a spectacular photo finish, where Worthington did a running, jumping somersault over the final hurdle to try to make it to the finish line ahead of Goldrick in a single motion. Goldrick still won, but the surprise was that Ortega would outdo the moment a few months later.
Ortega bested Goldrick to win the first half of season three, then returned for the Grand Championship against second-half winner Joseph “Bam Bam” Mauro, the world’s buffest baker. Ortega was behind by eight points going into The Eliminator, giving Mauro a healthy four-second lead. For most of the race, Mauro basically stayed four seconds ahead, making it seem like a foregone conclusion that he had the win in the bag ... until he slipped and fell twice right before the end.
Ortega caught up, caught a lucky break with a Gladiator completely missing him with an oversized medicine ball, and flung himself over the final hurdle, limbs outstretched, sending him across the finish line on the floor as Mauro broke through the tape. As referee Larry Thompson viewed the videotape, Ortega’s family poured out of the stands to celebrate, and moments later, it was official: His left arm made it across ahead of Mauro, and he was the Grand Champion.
That moment was burned into my memory to such a degree that when the show’s intermittent reruns hit ESPN Classic about 15 years ago and got up to season three—a season that previous rerun cycles had skipped—I knew that I had to record it and make it available online. It felt like a public service, almost, because if I didn’t record it, there was a good chance that nobody else would. I had to be able to relive this moment and share it with others. The grit of Marc Ortega digging that deep, the athleticism on display, the drama of the moment, and Mike Adamle’s reaction—it was something I wanted to relive, and preserve. Yes, it was a goofy made-for-TV spectacle, but it was also sports at its best. If you held your nose at it, you deserved to miss out.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the Babyface v. Heel subscription blog/newsletter and co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com/everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.