David Hurwitz remembers the exact moment he knew his name would be enshrined in the annals of television notoriety. The year was 2001, and he and his creative collaborator, Matt Kunitz, were watching a woman drink worms out of a martini glass on the set of their NBC reality show Fear Factor. “I think the glass had, like, three earthworms and a silkworm in it,” the producer tells Yahoo Entertainment now. “We watched her try to drink them, and then her gag reflex kicked in. We looked at each other and went, ‘We’re going to hell.’”
Where the duo actually went was to the top of the Nielsen charts. When Fear Factor — hosted by podcast king Joe Rogan — premiered on June 11, 2001, the series was an instant success story, giving NBC a reality franchise that could compete with hits like Survivor and Big Brother on CBS. "Everyone was saying, ‘All the networks are looking for the next Survivor,” recalls Kunitz, who had gotten his start working on such pioneering MTV reality fare as The Real World and the inaugural Real World/Road Rules Challenge.
"At the time, it was really just Survivor and Big Brother,” agrees Hurwitz, whose early reality credits included The Man Show and Before They Were Stars. "There was no such thing at NBC as the 'reality TV department.' Literally, the gentleman that oversaw specials like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was our executive!"
Like both of CBS’s reality hits, Fear Factor was an Americanized version of a European reality series — Now or Neverland, produced by the Dutch media company, Endemol. Kunitz stumbled upon the Dutch version after NBC abandoned its initial plan for a flagship reality series: a U.S. adaptation of Chains of Love, a dubious Endemol-made dating show that chained strangers together with romance as the prize. “I was like, ‘This is a terrible idea,’” Kunitz says of that series. “‘I don’t know what you guys are thinking.’” (The NBC version of Chains of Love was shut down before shooting began, but was later revived for UPN and ran for six episodes.)
With the network still needing to make good on its contract with Endemol, Kunitz reviewed all of their programs and saw the most potential in Now or Neverland, where ordinary contestants participated in a series of dangerous stunts. “But I told them, ‘If we’re going to do it, we’ve really got to go big with it.’”
And Fear Factor went big from the beginning. The series premiere required the contestants to be dragged by a horse, and then lie down in a bed of live rats. The players who made it past those obstacles then had to navigate their way around a taxi that was suspended hundreds of feet in the air over a reservoir. Other Season 1 challenges included a snake pit, a sky-high rope crawl, a water tank and consuming a variety of gross substances from the aforementioned “Wormtinis” and “Beetle Bowls” to pig hearts and sheep’s eyes.
Even as contestants — and TV critics — gagged, audiences at home ate all of that stuff up; Fear Factor gross-out stunts, gleefully narrated by Rogan, were basically the TV version of internet clickbait. “We were getting 18 million viewers — that would never happen today,” Kunitz says. “The gross stunts were great, not only because they were visceral and offered something you’d never seen before, but it also helped with the budget.”
But the producers also discovered there were downsides to being known as the grossest show on television. “It’s ironic: On an average episode, we could have people flipping a car through a moving train, and also have people eating worms — and audiences would only remember the eating worm challenge!” Kunitz says. Adds Hurwitz, “To this day, people only talk about Fear Factor as ‘the gross show.’ They never go, ‘That’s the show where they’re in a speeding car, it goes throw a moving train and lands on the other side!’ They only ever talk about, ‘Oh, they ate deer testicles!’”
In a final twist of irony, a gross-out stunt wound up being the reason why Fear Factor went from NBC’s signature reality franchise to the TV graveyard. After finishing out its initial run in 2006, the network revived the series for its 10th anniversary in 2011 with much of the original creative team intact. “They said, ‘We want this to be bigger and better than ever,’” says Kunitz. So he and Hurwitz plotted out a season filled with challenges that pushed the boundaries of where they had gone before. But they eventually found the one thing you can’t do on network television… and it involved donkey semen.
For a never-aired episode called “Hee Haw! Hee Haw!” the producers planned two major stunts — including that “car through a moving train” challenge — with an eating challenge in between. For that particular meal, they decided that donkey semen would be on the menu. Both Hurwitz and Kunitz stress that NBC was entirely aware of what they had planned. “Everybody approved it,” says Hurwitz. “Everything we did on the show, whether it was eating duck embryo or something else, was checked off by Endemol and NBC. So everybody knew.” Adds Kunitz, “We didn’t go rogue. Everyone signed off on every challenge, from the network to the studio.”
Looking back now, Kunitz sees how the donkey semen idea may have been doomed from the start. “Normally there was a rule that if you vomited during a gross stunt, you’d be eliminated,” he explains. “And if everybody was eliminated, you’d cut the prize in half and everyone would come to the last challenge. We realized that would be a problem, because we had a limited number of cars for the last challenge. So we changed the rules and said, ‘If you vomit [the donkey semen], you have to vomit into your glass and then keep drinking it.’”
As with all the challenges featured on Fear Factor, the producers tested that rule change with willing crew members, offering extra cash for their participation. Right away, Kunitz could see warning signs ahead. “It was terrible. When we were testing it, we were like, ‘Oh my god, this has gone too far.’ We felt so bad for the crew members doing the test. I remember that Joe felt so bad, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of $100 bills and just gave it to the poor guys.”
Kunitz’s trepidation only increased when they filmed the stunt for real. “We knew we were really pushing it, and we decided that we should air it later in the season so we didn’t get in any trouble. We edited the show and sent it to NBC and they were like, ‘It looks good.’ We thought, ‘There’s no way we’re not going to get any notes on this.’”
Sure enough, five weeks later, NBC quickly changed its mind. Kunitz and Hurwitz were brought in to meet with the network’s censor as they tried to find a way to salvage the challenge. “We would sit in the edit bay and negotiate. The censor would say, ‘You show this shot, but you can’t show this shot because it’s too gross.’ Or, ‘Don’t cut to the donkey while they’re doing this.’ We made it as tame as we possibly could for what it was.”
NBC and the producers eventually settled on a January 2012 airdate for the episode. But a week prior to its premiere, an NBC executive offered TMZ an exclusive image from “Hee Haw! Hee Haw!” — a shot that Hurwitz himself snapped and featured, in Kunitz’s words, “a big, full glass of donkey semen,” with the donkeys in the back of the frame. TMZ published the photo, alongside a story that acknowledged the behind the scenes fears about the challenge. “That article came out, and every late night host on every network started talking about Fear Factor,” Kunitz says. “That’s what we wanted, right?”
As it turns out, that’s not what Comcast — which had recently purchased a controlling stake in NBC Universal from its previous owners, General Electric — wanted at all. According to Kunitz, Comcast executives strongly encouraged the network to drop the episode altogether. NBC went one step further. “Their reaction was, ‘Yeah guys, we’re not going to air that and, unfortunately, we’re also done with the show.’”
Fear Factor’s cancellation was officially announced in May and, to this day, the donkey semen challenge has never been shown publicly. (Apparently, the episode did air in Denmark, as TMZ helpfully reported.) “It’s a bummer because we did this one amazing stunt that no one got to see,” Hurwitz says, referencing the grand finale. “There was something written about how we were frat boy producers gone wild, but we were in our forties with kids at that point! We were the furthest thing removed from that, and we always had checks and balances.”
Fear Factor eventually returned to the airwaves via a 2017 MTV reboot hosted by Chris “Ludacris” Bridges. But neither of the original producers were involved in that stripped-down version. “It just felt like it was going to be too small," says Kunitz, who recently created the hit ABC reality series, Wipeout, while Hurwitz is currently working on Fox's upcoming revival of You Bet Your Life hosted by Jay Leno.
"This is a show that really deserves to be big and have big budgets," he continues. "But I would be open to another giant network version of it. I won't be surprised if we Fear Factor on another network sometime in the future because it's a classic show and people love it. Would we do donkey semen again? No! We learned our lesson on that one."
Here are some of the other lessons — and behind the scenes stories — that the Fear Factor producers shared with Yahoo Entertainment from their time overseeing the biggest, grossest show in reality history.
Phil Keoghan almost hosted Fear Factor
Before landing his two-decade gig hosting CBS's other reality hit, The Amazing Race, Phil Keoghan auditioned to host Fear Factor. Although he was ultimately "Philiminated" from contention, both producers remember being impressed by the New Zealand-born television personality. "Phil really stuck out," Kunitz says now. "Everyone that came in was very respectful and said, 'This would be a great show. I'd love to host it, and I'm really excited about it.'"
In contrast, Joe Rogan came in with the exact opposite attitude — and that's what won him the gig. "Joe came into the conference room, watched a sizzle reel and thought it was ridiculous," Hurwitz remembers. "He never stopped saying 'I don't think this is going to last.'" That irreverence clicked for the kind of show the duo wanted Fear Factor to be. "We didn't just want another guy in a khaki shirt saying, 'Are you ready?'" laughs Hurwitz. We wanted somebody that was going to say what the viewer at home was thinking."
"We knew Joe was going to speak his mind — if he doesn't like a contestant, he's not going to pretend he likes the contestant," adds Kunitz, remembering an episode where Rogan actively rooted for a player to lose. "I've never worked with a host before or since that would get in fights with contestants because he's so genuine! There's no filter with Joe, and that's what made him so great on Fear Factor and so successful today on his podcast."
If you can't take the smell, stay out of the kitchen
They may have required contestants (and crew members) to ingest gross substances, but Hurwitz and Kunitz made sure to side-step trying out any of Fear Factor's gross-out eating challenges themselves. That said, they often got a whiff of what their staff was cooking up. "The test kitchen was in our office, and the smells that would come of out if were just horrific," Kunitz says, chuckling. "There was never a chance that I was going to test any of the gross stuff."
Sometimes inspiration would strike outside of the kitchen as well. Hurwitz remembers the crew testing out the cow eyeball-eating challenge for a Season 3 episode, and discovering a way to make the experience even grosser. "Someone bit into an eyeball, and the membrane juice just shoots across! First we were like, 'Oh man, that's gross.' And then we went, 'Hey, is there a way where we can do a challenge where they have to bite into an eye, squirt out the juice, get the juice up to a certain level in a cup and then drink it?'"
And just like that, drinking cow eye juice was on the menu for Season 4. "It's almost the way a game would return on The Price is Right," Hurwitz says. "And that's what you wanted to do — you wanted to best yourselves. But it always had to be done safely. You never wanted to put someone in a situation where they'd be hurt."
They didn't start the fire
Besides thinking of the contestants' safety, the Fear Factor producing team also kept the safety of the viewing audience at the front of their minds. To avoid impressionable fans from attempting some of these stunts at home — ignoring the content warning that played before every episode — the challenges had to be impossible to pull off in a backyard.
"You never saw us set a contestant on fire because our fear was some dumb kid at home might think, 'I'm going to pour some kerosene on me and set myself on fire and jump in the pool!'" Kuntiz explains. "But kids don't own helicopters and trains and semi-trucks, so as long as we're keeping it at a level of stunt that they can't easily repeat, we'll be safe."
In fact, Kunitz claims that the series made viewers more safe in some cases. "We'd do a lot of stunts where contestants would be in a car that would launch into the water and have to escape as it was sinking," he remembers. In 2005, a California prison guard escaped from her own flooded car using the techniques she learned on Fear Factor. "She remembered what Joe said on Fear Factor and used that to save her life. So we actually did some good!"
Maybe they're not going to hell after all…
Fear Factor is currently streaming on Hulu
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