You Can’t Do That on Television (1979-1990)
You Can’t Do That on Television is a Canadian series which initially aired on the CTV station in Ottawa in 1979. Just two years later, it began broadcasting on American TV via the cable network Nickelodeon. Cable TV itself was just beginning its rise at this point, and Nickelodeon was the cable network meant for kids (keeping in mind that, like the Disney Channel, there was only one network with this name at that point). This was no doubt a big reason why the series truly took off at that moment.
Along with The Muppet Show, this is probably the only variety show I made a point to watch during its initial run. Perhaps this is because, like Jim Henson’s series, it was made specifically for kids, but instead of Kermit and the gang, we get teens and even pre-teens doing comedy gags.
The show itself had a sketch comedy format similar to the aforementioned Muppet Show, as well as Saturday Night Live. There was a specific theme for each installment, and each would begin with a spoof announcement (accompanied by a bizarre pic) saying that the originally scheduled show would not be airing today and would be replaced by You Can’t Do That on Television, which would then be referred to in an insulting way. For instance, one such opening stated: “Rambo’s Armpits will not be seen today in order for us to bring you something that smells even worse.”
The title sequence for the show was an animated segment of likenesses of the young cast getting assembled and pouring from a faucet and into a school bus at a place called the Children’s Television Sausage Factory. It concluded with a likeness of actor Les Lye (who played all the adult men on the show) looking horrified as he gets the logo of the show stamped on his face. An interesting side note: This sequence was inspired by Terry Gilliam’s animated credit sequences, like the one for Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
This was followed by an official introduction to the week’s installment, which could range from “medicine” to “divorce”.
The rest of the episode would contain skits of various sorts, with occasional returns to the main floor. Such skits took place at what was supposed to be a family home, with Lye and actress Abby Hagyard playing the parents. Others would take place at a video arcade called Blip’s, and others at a restaurant called Barth’s (whose owner the kids often called “Barf” due to the often-sickening nature of the food he served). There was also a school location with Lye as the overly-stuffy teacher Mr. Schidler, and a locker room setting with him playing an overbearing coach. He also played a Latin American-sounding colonel would would always attempt to execute one of the kids via an unseen firing squad (who were simply called “the amigos”), but would usually be the one on the receiving end of the gunfire when the would-be victim would trick him into saying “fire”.
In addition, there were several minutes in each installment devoted to what the cast called “opposite skits”. These attempted to get laughs by having the kids and adults want the opposite of what one would usually think. For example, one skit had Mr. Schidler preparing to show Back to the Future to his class, while the students all demanded documentaries. Another had the mom insisting that her kids feed the family cat on the dinner table. This block of skits would begin and end with the screen going upside down and right side up.
The locker room would also serve as the setting for another five-minute block of the show called “locker jokes”. These involved the kids, all snug in the lockers, popping out and (what else?) telling a joke or brief story with a witty ending to one of the other kids.
But the most notorious gag on the show was when the cast got green slime (reportedly, cottage cheese with green food coloring) dumped on them when they didn’t know the answer to a question. They would also get water poured on them whenever that substance was mentioned. A 1986 installment actually involved red slime being used when it looked like the Soviets were going to take control of the show.
To help insure that the cast wouldn’t go blind from the slime or the water, a tarp was placed over the main portion of the set for scenes in which an actor was to be dumped on. On occasion, it could be seen or heard underneath the actors, who were often barefoot when on the receiving end. Those who were doused with slime or water were reportedly paid extra for their trouble, and such scenes were often the final ones filmed, allowing them to go and rinse off afterwards.
One of the best things about this show was that the cast was always funny, because they were allowed to act like kids. This is why, unlike other TV and film sets, there were no tutors or schooling for the young cast on the set. The schedule was designed so they could go to school at the same time as their peers as they filmed the series.
While this series didn’t have famous guest stars like other variety shows, it did mark the beginning of stardom for some of its cast. Perhaps the most notable ones in the case of this show are music star Alanis Morissette, who was a regular on the show in 1986, as well as Bill Prady, who wrote some of the early episodes and has since gone on to be a producer of such shows as Caroline in the City, Dream On, and The Big Bang Theory.
Not surprisingly, the rest of cast would also change over the course of the show’s run. The was mainly due to each of them becoming adults over the years.
The cast members that always stuck out for me were the ones that ended up being with the show the longest. Among them were Christine McGlade, or “Moose” as everyone called her, who introduced each installment for most of the show’s run, as well as her sidekick, the always-chatty Lisa Ruddy. McGlade reportedly got her slot on show when she actually came by the set to support a friend who was auditioning and show creator Roger Price insisted that she herself audition. Another cast member, Kevin Kubusheskie, would eventually become a stage producer on the show.
But a great deal of the credit for the show must go to Lye (who died in 2009), who was always hilarious whenever he was playing any of the adults, including the smart-ass studio tech Ross, who would always banter with Christine and the other kids during the course of each installment.
The show quickly became a goldmine for Nickelodeon throughout the ’80s. The green slime left a particular impression, as the network used it on some of its other shows such as the game show Double Dare, as part of the obstacle course the contestants had to go through to get the big prizes. There was even a Green Slime Shampoo made available via that game show and Nickelodeon-sponsored contests for a time.
Low ratings would lead to Nickelodeon ending You Can’t Do That on Television in 1990, although it would air in reruns until 1994. In 2015, its sister network TeenNick began rerunning episodes of the series.
The trademark slime also became a reason why the show would be criticized in some circles, mainly from parents who found some of the humor disgusting. Price even reported that Fred Rogers (yes, Mr. Rogers himself) disliked the show, although Price noted that Rogers’s audience was a younger age set than his own show.
Also, two episodes of the show would come to be banned. The 1984 segment which focused on divorce (in which literally half of everything on the show is taken when the unseen producer gets a divorce) was banned in Canada for making light of a subject that should be taken seriously, especially on a children’s show. Three years later, the show’s look at adoption would be banned in the U.S. for having moments that depicted adopted children being treated as pets or slave labor.
Looking back now, some of the gross-out humor may stick out a bit more, but there’s a place for that in the world, so the fact that the show was still hilarious in other ways makes me accept it.
As McGlade once told the Huffington Post:
You Can’t Do That on Television was kind of anti-educational. It’s funny because I’ve worked in educational media and one of my former cast mates grew up to be a teacher. But actually, Roger Price was a very rebellious anti-establishment man. His thought process was “If the kids took over the studio, all these fun, silly, hilarious things could happen.”
I’d say this statement is a nice explanation of why kids fell in love with the show the way they did. It also makes the show’s title all the more fitting. Heck, I know of no other show since in which kids took center stage in this manner. In recent years, variety shows themselves have been, more or less, dethroned by the reality shows that the airwaves are currently inundated with, and as far as I know, none of those appeal to kids the way this show did.
A documentary on the series called You Can’t Do That on Film was released in 2004, with many of the cast discussing their experiences on the show and its impact. It is currently available on DVD and streaming from Amazon.