Let’s Get Inventin’ was a late-noughties reality TV show that pitted children and scientists against common sense. Josie Adams looks back at what made it great.
Our screens have played host to many questionable children’s television shows over the years: Bumble, Drew Neemia-era Sticky TV, and Worzel Gummidge Down Under are just three examples. But none were more frantic than the apex of child-friendly primetime pandemonium, Let’s Get Inventin’.
From 2006 through to 2013, NZ on Air paid for seven seasons of Let’s Get Inventin’, a show that swept up awards for turning children’s ideas into very real and often horrifying inventions. Some of the children wanted to make the world a better place. Some wanted anarchy, chaos, and to drink straight from the udder of a cow. Finally, they had the means.
Presented by NZ Idol alum Clinton Randell and loose cannon stuntman Chris Stapp (as Mr Metal), the show was guaranteed to be a perfect combination of compelling and panic-stricken. Each season started with a selection of kids and their ideas. They would pitch a concept, work with scientists to build it, and the New Zealand public would vote on the best. It was a novel concept: adults taking kids’ ideas seriously.
Winners would receive $10,000 worth of patenting and business advice, and all the kids on season one got a ride in the Gibbs Aquada, an amphibious vehicle invented in Auckland that Richard Branson once used to set a record crossing the English Channel.
Natalie Crimp’s invention, the SunSticker, which lets you know when you’ve had enough sun exposure, impressed American billionaire Julian Robertson so much that he offered her a full scholarship to Duke University.
You could separate the child inventors into two camps: pragmatists and idealists. The pragmatists made inventions to reduce chores: the Tablenator, Papernator, and Waste-Away are just a few excellent ideas. They prove that burdening children with enough menial labour to dissatisfy them and enough sugar to get their minds racing could, one day, be how we win the war.
The idealists were one bad PE class away from losing the fucking plot. They were children on the edge. Alongside your classic Rocket Skates, this group invented the Very Lazy Boy – a normal La-Z-Boy with a mini fridge and jet pulse engine – and the Terminator Mailbox, intended to destroy vandals with paintballs to the gut. They prove nothing but that Jordan Peterson’s chaos is real and currently covering your conservatory in Sharpie.
One particular invention that tested the limits of human existence was Human Skeet Shoot, which fired people six metres in the air so they could be pelted with rotten tomatoes. Was this dangerous? “We were very professional and didn’t harm anyone,” show creator Luke Nola told The Spinoff, before amending his statement: “Chris Stapp got a bit beat up.”
A specialist circle of child inventors on Great Barrier Island answered an age-old question: can you kill an animal on kids TV? With context, yes. The children of Kaitoke school were asked to solve the island’s rat infestation problem. Bonfires, blenders, and beatings galore were proposed, but the winner was the Brothel of Death. Female rats in a cage attracted males who, upon entering, would be zapped dead by 30,000 volts. “You couldn’t kill a rat for fun or target practice on a kids’ TV show,” explained Nola, highlighting the environmental angle of the inventions. The workshop paid off; a quick zap is more humane than poison.
One ex-inventor, Rachel Barker, described her time on the show as an equally enjoyable and bizarre experience. “Clint Randall, who hosted the show at the time, was a huge support and wonderful onscreen partner,” she told The Spinoff. “It might not have been for all kids as there was a lot of waiting around, infrequent eating, adult chat and pressure, but I was fascinated by TV and filmmaking at that age so I was so happy to be there.”
Her 2009 invention was a machine that could tie up hair “to a questionable degree” without the use of hands. She explained the concept further: “It was an upside down K-Mart bucket attached to a huge battery creating an air vacuum, with a too-complicated-for-13-year-old-me-to-understand mechanism that released and tightened a two-part elastic tie over the hair.”
She didn’t win. “Compared to a rat trapping system installed on Great Barrier Island my invention didn’t really stand up.”
Barker now works as a video editor, “accidental actor,” and part-time filmmaker. “I genuinely think LGI helped get me here,” she said.
Let’s Get Inventin’ has screened in 150 countries around the world, inspired two similar shows in the UK, and is still streaming on HeiHei six years after it ended. The concept that kids love inventing shouldn’t have been revolutionary – but it was. “Everyone thinks you have to be science smart, but you don’t,” said Nola about the concept. “Anyone can be an inventor.”
Watch Let’s Get Inventin’ on HEIHEI here.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.