The Challenge: Making the Show Better vs Being Good on the Show Chapter 1: The Top Banana
One of the most common discussions topics among hardcore fans is whether or not a cast member makes the show better. The discussion usually centers around a few characters. I am starting a new series in which I discuss why certain players or types of players make the show better or not. For the first chapter, there is nobody better to talk about than the face of the franchise, Johnny Bananas. A man who I actually believe is awesome on the show, limits the potential of the show.
If you have read my articles, you can tell I hold a good amount of distaste towards Johnny Bananas. However, I do acknowledge that Bananas is probably the greatest competitor in Challenge history as his 5 wins during a 7 season stretch between the Island and Free Agents is a run that will never be replicated again, unless Landon were to come out of retirement. Likewise, I think his entire run on Free Agents. In which he eliminates two of the greatest competitors ever, wins clutch challenges, and pulls off a first place finish, is one of the greatest all-time Challenge performances
While I often find his humor elementary and cliche (he literally reuses the same jokes), he does also have truly funny moments — making fun of Hunter and Nelson after the Champs Team demolished the Underdogs on Invasion was hilarious. The “who put a nickel in Joss” line from this season was probably his best off the cuff line ever. Since Rivals 1, if you measure his performance and presence on the show, Johnny Bananas has ALWAYS been a good addition to the show. Even if you hate him, you cannot deny he gets a reaction out of you and is at the least, a solid competitor. However, this does not necessarily mean he makes the show better.
There are two reasons why Bananas’ presence on a show makes it worse, one is adaptability, the other is pure gameplay (which is also related to adaptability).
As the years go by, new challengers are constantly cycled in, building generations of players. Johnny comes from a generation with many of the franchises legends and began appearing alongside Wes, Kenny, and Evan, with CT, Derrick, and Landon debuting a little bit before them. Even today, the Young Bucks (Cory, Hunter and Nelson) have now reached veteran status as Joss, Kyle, Paulie, and many others become the new generation. Back in the day, Bananas was actually a pretty great social player who, despite being a prankster and a dick, had many friends and aligned with two of the strongest players who dominated the era and brought Bananas along for the ride as the #3.
Bananas’ main issue is that he never evolved as a social player. Bananas often operates on a surface level and does not develop deeper connections, mostly because he relies on his fame and accolades. If you watch and listen to him closely, Bananas repeats the same jokes and the same stories over and over again. He speaks in cliches and avoids any real conversations. For some of you, it may sound like it is not his job to become friends with Sylvia, but when Bananas was at his best he had a multitude of friends like Paula, Sarah, Leroy, Casey, Mark Long, Derrick K, Nany, and of course Evan and Kenny. In recent seasons, his biggest “allies” have been Tony (crossed him on Vendettas), Cara Maria (hated each other for years), Zach (crossed each other multiple seasons), and rookie girls who he doesn’t have a relationship with by the next season. His inability to create real relationships has hampered him.
Bananas is the face of the Challenge, the other two faces debuted around the same time he did, CT and Wes. Excluding Diem, CT rarely had good relationships with people outside of the game. He has actually improved his social game by miles in the modern era by acting as “Dad CT” in the Challenge houses, and it’s adorable e.g. he was able to talk Ashley off a cliff on Invasion and acts as a mentor to Hunter. CT understands that it is a new era of the Challenge and it is their time to be the stars. As long as he gets a bigger paycheck, CT is 1000% fine with not being in the spotlight. He prefers to play with the veterans, CT simply understands you have to put over the younger guys sometimes. Johnny Bananas is like Triple H and CT is like Chris Jericho, at the end of the day, the guy who is willing to hand over the reigns to the new era while being secure in their own greatness is usually favored.
Wes is the complete opposite of CT, in that he has had many friendships outside the game and has established actual relationships with them.
The first photo is from Wes’s small wedding where he had Lacey, Rachel, and Melinda from his Real World days there, his best friend from Austin, Nehemiah, officiated the wedding, and Devin, a person he met on his last real season of the Challenge, was also there. Devin and the rest of those people debuted on MTV over a decade apart and yet he is there for Wes’ wedding along with them. The second photo is from Wes’ bachelor party weekend, with his long-time friend Brad (last time they did a season together was the Ruins), Louie Vito from Champs vs Pros 1, and Josh Murray from Champs vs Stars 2. He talked about working on projects on Challenge Mania with Louise Hazel and Boobie Gibson. The craziest part is Wes is described as this Machiavellian manipulator who is only in the game for himself, yet he creates these legitimate relationships and has adapted well. Wes has always been willing to work with anyone and the allies he has had in the past include Devin, Zach, Thomas Buell, Aneesa, Jay, Averey, Adam Kuhn, and Beth. That is the most Hodge podge group of people in Challenge history. Hell, he even worked with Leroy, and the two HATED each other.
Circling back to Johnny Bananas, his unwillingness to adapt in some ways has made him a star in that he is able to play up the “underdog” card, however, he is not an underdog because of those around him, he is an underdog because he refuses to adapt.
I think Bananas makes some of the best short-term moves in Challenge history. His ability to strong-arm weaker minded people like Jenna and Aneesa on Bloodlines into making moves to further his game displays a master at work. Revealing that Cara Maria was hooking up with Thomas to Abram was a dirty move — but a move which ultimately kept him out of elimination as it geared Abram’s focus towards eliminating Thomas. He has these strokes of brilliance which are incredible to watch. However, his long-term gameplay has, in many ways, become too stale especially in the evolving era of the Challenge.
The Challenge used to be very confused on the daily challenge element with eliminations coming secondary. With team bank accounts and fewer eliminations, players could relax knowing that they were a veteran and they performed well, they would have a spot in the final with their friends. This type of gameplay existed for some time after seasons became pairs and individuals. In the modern era, you do not have to be good at daily challenges to succeed. Ashley Mitchell has no incredibly outward skills besides maybe puzzles when it comes to missions and competitions, however, she has done well enough while playing a highly political and social game to win twice in an era in which winning is very difficult.
Bananas likes to link up with the other veterans, avoid big moves and avoid creating an obvious target, and slither your way to the end. In the old version of the game, it was the safest and most effective way to play the game and it is the reason he became the best player in Challenge history. Were all of his wins pretty? No. Some were even pretty luck, however, he understood that getting to a final meant he had a chance to win.
The modern-day Bananas plays a pretty boring game and relies too heavily on the past and pushes too much on future seasons when operating in the present. During Vendettas, when Tony was playing around with the idea of throwing Bananas into elimination against Devin, Bananas told Tony if he throws him in, he will try to eliminate him in every challenge going forward. He literally threatened Tony with future challenges versus actually playing the game he was involved in. Bananas’ rigid game has come to haunt him in recent years as younger players are not afraid to take shots at him. Devin, Shane, and the Lavender Ladies are individually nowhere near as good as he is competitively — unfortunately for Bananas, he’s not good enough for them to be afraid of him. If anything, Bananas is helping the other strong players in the game by not making big moves, as he always remains the biggest target of his alliance while being (possibly) the most beatable one in an elimination. On Free Agents, Bananas had the house against him and he won because he was in his prime and was able to win by dominating challenges and eliminations. He is not the same guy at all anymore. His partner was Tony, the best player from the previous season who was coming off a spinoff win — they lost two elimination and couldn’t even make the final. Bananas’ prime is over and he NEEDS to evolve.
CT and Wes are also victims of their own gameplay. Despite making it to the final on Dirty 30, CT played a bad game. He won almost every daily challenge and had influence over others on who to vote into elimination. CT would preach about wanting to run the final with the strongest people because he did not want to end up with a weak partner during the final if it came down to teams or partners. He went to a final with two of the strongest players in Challenge history and finished in 3rd. The 3rd place finish giving him 15k is nice — but not so nice when you consider it is 435k less than first. On the other side of the coin, Wes attempts to eliminate the best players from the game before the final in order to give himself the best chance to win the final. He makes low risk investments in rookie players to possibly payoff big and then makes big risk moves with power to get a big pay off. Wes has been able to get Bananas, Evan, and Darrell eliminated by making big moves, and he has also seen his game completely blow up in his face. Even though he is a legend, Wes only has four finals appearances in his career. If he played a safer game like Bananas, he probably would’ve reached more finals. Does Wes become an icon if he does not play the game as himself?
Everyone can be a good competitor when given the chance. Preston on Free Agents, Tonya on Inferno 3, and Sarah Greyson on the original Gauntlet shows that anyone can do well when given the opportunity to perform. Making big moves turns players into legends. Kam playing the entire house to save her friends and pick the players she wanted to go into elimination was an example of good physical player displaying they can run the game politically too. Tony and Kailah showed they had balls when they gave Devin his chance to take out Bananas, and Devin finally gave himself some legitimacy by calling his shot and doing work. Vendettas was a fun season due to the influx of good rookies forcing people to play the game and establish new relationships. Dirty 30 was a game of veterans targeting rookies to the point where a three man alliance was forced to take on each other and then one of them taking on the rest of the vets.
Johnny Bananas is the STAR of the Challenge. He has people tuning in just for him and with that alone, everything I’ve written is in many ways muted because it does not reflect a significant portion of “Challenge Fans”.
Similar to Russell Westbrook, Michael Vick, or Allen Iverson, Johnny Bananas is a great player whose style of game-play vaults him into star status and will give the show a raised floor where you can at least rely on constructing a show around him, however, as much as he raises the floor, he also puts a ceiling on its potential.