In the fall of 2015, my teenage daughter Tia crafted a spectacular, life-sized poodle out of feminine hygiene products.
“It’s a tampoodle,” she told me.
She made this, uh, artwork as an audition piece—to showcase her creative skills, as a tryout for an elite team in some kind of national scavenger hunt. (She made the team.)
I thought the tampoodle was cute. I thought it was great fun that Tia was joining some kind of scavenger hunt.
I had no idea what kind of ride was ahead.
When most people think of a scavenger hunt, they probably imagine the list of items includes, you know, “Get the dean’s signature” or “Find a dog with a curly tail.”
GISHWHES is not that.
It stands for the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen. (Its creator acknowledges GISHWHES may be the Ugliest Acronym the World Has Ever Seen.)
Teams of 15 have one week to complete about 200 extremely difficult or hilarious tasks. They prove they’ve completed each item by submitting a photo or video of it; their $20 entry fees go to a charity, and the winning team gets a trip to some exotic location with Misha Collins, the hunt’s founder.
Sample items from past GISHWHES lists:
• Do a dramatic reading of your grade-school report card.
• Find someone you love and butter them up—literally. Cover them in butter and then give them a big hug.
• Glaciers are melting—so act accordingly. Pose at a major glacier wearing a swimsuit with floaties.
• Have a tea party with a pediatric cancer patient, where you’re dressed as a character from “Alice in Wonderland.”
• Tour a sewage treatment plant dressed in formal attire with an accompanying violinist or flutist.
• Film an erotically charged conversation between a housewife and pizza delivery man. The actors can ONLY talk about grammar and fonts.
What astonished me is what a big deal GISHWHES is. Last year, 55,000 people registered to participate—not including all the friends and family members who lent favors, assistance, and props. (Registration for this year’s hunt opens this week.)
GISHWHES holds seven Guinness World Records, including Biggest Media Scavenger Hunt, Largest Online Photo Album of Hugs, Longest Chain of Safety Pins, Most Pledges for a Charitable Campaign, and Largest Gathering of People in French Maid Outfits. (Why is there a Guinness record for Largest Gathering of People in French Maid Outfits!?)
But in the end, GISHWHES is an event that does good in the world. Over the years, GISHWHES list items have persuaded players to a) raise over $1 million for charity, b) donate hundreds of thousands of pints of blood, c) volunteer at soup kitchens, d) register thousands of citizens to vote, and e) register to become bone-marrow donors. (That last item has already saved two lives, according to GISHWHES producers.)
And the 2016 hunt raised $250,000 to buy homes for five Syrian refugee families.
So yes, GISHWHES is a do-gooder enterprise. But it’s also brilliantly clever, gut-bustingly funny, and positively unforgettable.
So my question is: Why haven’t people heard of GISHWHES? Why isn’t it a cultural thing?
Why isn’t it, at the very least, a reality show? It’d be the most entertaining show on TV.
Well, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. With the tolerance of my superiors at Yahoo, I decided to make my own darned reality show. Above on this page is Episode 1 of a five-part series.
GISHWHES was created, and is run to this day, by TV actor Misha Collins, a costar of the CW series “Supernatural.” (His heartthrob status helps explain why GISHWHES participants are predominantly female.)
“I went to the University of Chicago,” he told me. “The University of Chicago has a scavenger hunt that we call Scav, that has been running about 30 years now. It took place over the course of a long weekend. We would completely abandon our academics and our sense of decency for those three days, and go all-out for this scavenger hunt. And I loved it. I actually think that it was one of the most educational aspects of my college experience, and infused with the most joy.”
Years later, after a decade of struggling as an actor in Los Angeles, Collins finally landed a show. “I got on this TV show ‘Supernatural,’ and I developed a little bit of a fandom following, and I started to notice that there was a high level of creative engagement from our fans. That got my wheels turning. What can I do with this? How can I have fun with it?”
Collins’s first side project with his fans was a charity called Random Acts. “We’ve done some pretty big projects. We built an orphanage in Haiti; we’re finishing building a high school in Nicaragua right now. But we also do myriad smaller projects all over the world—as small as bringing roses into a senior citizen home.”
Then, in 2009, as a lark, Collins ran a little scavenger hunt from his Twitter account. About 300 people participated; they were instructed to photograph their submissions and send them to an email address that Collins set up.
“People engaged in it with an enthusiasm and a committedness that I could not’ve anticipated,” he says now. “I remember sitting in my apartment, looking at the submissions that had come in, and thinking, ‘This is amazing!’ The art people were creating, the tasks that I thought were impossible that people were pulling off—! I remember, ‘This is what I wanna do for my life’s work. This is awesome.’”
And so, in 2010, GISHWHES was born.
For the 2016 hunt, I embedded myself with my daughter’s GISHWHES team for the week. I filmed their efforts and followed their frustrations and joys. In the coming episodes, you’ll get to meet them—and you’ll get go to inside world’s biggest scavenger hunt.
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David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below. On the web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s email@example.com. You can read all his articles here, or you can sign up to get his columns by email.