In the late ’90s, Nickelodeon hatched what is one of the most brilliant cross-promotional schemes in modern history: Figure It Out. The game show starred panelists guessing the special talent of one particular kid, but in a twist, all the panelists were Nickelodeon personalities. The whole thing was entertaining on its own, but was also a half-hour advertisement for all the network’s other properties. In many ways, it was one of the first innovators of product placement.
Less cynically and post-childhood, I’d have said that Figure It Out was awesome. Hosted by former sports commentator and Olympic gold medalist (?!) Summer Sanders, the premise was simple and fun. There were lots of opportunities for slime, and almost every episode featured either future DUI magnet Amanda Bynes or the absolutely brilliant Lori Beth Denberg on the panel.
Denberg, if you recall, was the face of the “Vital Information” sketch on All That, and in that role, she defined much of my early childhood. The deadpan delivery, quick one-liners, absurdist premise: all of it was hilarious to me. I was the kind of kid that didn’t laugh too much at gross-out humor (I was a bit of a priss back then), but that was the exact kind of comic style I could appreciate.
On Figure It Out, Denberg was no less hilarious, and she was always a highlight, even when her panel was weighed down by losers like Danny Tamberelli. (Tamberelli was also Denberg’s absolutely miscast replacement on “Vital Information” – whoever thought that was a masterstroke of genius deserves the firing they inevitably received.) She had repartee with the other panelists and with Sanders, and she managed to make every joke land.
The Figure It Out era marked the end of Nick’s ability to really innovate with its programming. Nowadays, everything’s simply a spinoff of everything else, mirroring the Disney Channel formula. However, they’ve brought Figure It Out back, and while it’s not as amusing without the old panelists, the format is exactly the same, right down to the noise they play when someone gets an answer right. In this age of ’90s nostalgia and remakes that’s still winding down, it’s nice to see a rehash that really pays tribute to the original series.
Now, if only we could get Denberg and Sanders back on there. Below, check out one of the best Lori Beth Denberg episodes of Figure It Out.