You Can't Do That On Television
When I launched SydLexia.com in November of 2004, I knew right away that I wanted to do an article on You Can't Do That On Television. Unfortunately, I had two big problems. First of all, the bootlegs of the show that I had at the time were of an exceptionally poor quality, so I couldn't draw screenshots from them. Secondly, it is a hard show to review. Let me explain. YCDTOTV was a Canadian sketch comedy show aimed at children that became a huge hit in the U.S. on Nickelodeon. Between 1981 and 1990, nine seasons and 130 episodes of the half-hour minute show were produced. The cast was primarily made of kids, most of whom only stayed on the show for a year or two. In these nine seasons, there were over fifty different cast members. Herein lies the problem. Since a sketch comedy show is not episodic, it generally has to be reviewed based on its cast. However since the cast changed drastically over the years, this is an impossibility. Unlike Saturday Night Live or even All That, the show didn't have different eras; the show's basic content remained consistent regardless of the cast. You Can't Do That On Television was interesting because the show was comprised entirely out of recurring sketches such as The Opposites and Blip's Arcade. Each week, these sketches were incorporated into a different theme. These themes included a multitude of different things such as cosmetics, revenge, adoption, and the paranormal. I suppose that because each episode has a theme that I could review an episode based on its theme. However, that would be a huge disservice to the show. What made YCDTOTV such a great show was the memorable recurring characters. So here is my solution: I am going to discuss the most significant cast members and the best characters. Ready, set, go.
--- Major Players On YCDTOTV ---
Christine "Moose" McGlade, 1981-1986
One of the most bizarre facets of You Can't Do That On Television was that all of its young cast members played themselves. Whether she was in a Barth's Burgery sketch, delivering a monologue, or arguing with Ross, Christine was generally addressed by her real name. Although Christine wasn't particularly fat, some of the other cast members addressed her as Moose sometimes. I don't recall if it was ever explained where the nickname came from, but presumably it stemmed from the fact that she was bigger and older than most of the other cast members. Christine started on the show in 1979 when it was a 60-minute live variety show that aired in Ottawa, Canada. She lasted until 1986, longer than any other cast member. Christine's appearance in sketches was usually minimal, but she was the show's hostess. She would introduce the weekly theme and usually do a monologue on it later in the show. Because of this, Christine was more or less the face of YCDTOTV and easily one of its most popular cast members. By 1986, however, she was in her twenties and it was time to go.
Lisa Ruddy, 1981-1985
Whereas Christine was levelheaded, Lisa was ditzy and obnoxious. In fact, one of the early dynamics of the show involved Lisa harassing Christine with her general idiocy and quirkiness. Out of the dozens of cast members that the show had, Lisa stands out as perhaps the most genuinely annoying one ever. But just like Christine, she is also one of the most memorable.
Alasdair Gillis, 1982-1986
I had always thought this kid's name was Alistair, like that guy Alistair Cookie who hosted Monsterpiece Theatre. But it's not; it's Alasdair. Both names sound almost exactly the same and both are quite unusual, which is part of what made Alasdair one of the show's stars. Of course, his longevity also played a part in that, as did his above average acting ability.
Doug "Dougie" Ptolemy, 1982-1987
Dougie was about 10 when he first joined the cast of YCDTOTV and he aged during his tenure on the show. For 5 years, Doug was a familiar face among the revolving door cast. Doug is a student of martial arts and a former drug user. With a resume like that, he could be the next Walker, Texas Ranger.
Vanessa Lindores, 1982-1987
Just like Doug, Vanessa was on the show from 1982-1987. She's kinda scary looking, but she's probably a nice person. In later episodes, Doug made a lot of jokes at her expense. Like most other YCDTOTV alumni, she apparently gave up acting when she left the show. However, she did appear in Project 131, a special reunion episode that was produced exclusively for the SlimeCon 2004 fan convention.
Adam Reid, 1984-1987
Adam was on the show for three years and then he began writing for the show. Since then, he has appeared in the 2001 Facts of Life made-for-TV reunion movie as well as the 1996 film Kids In The Hall: Brain Candy where he played a suicidal teenager who was saved by Gleemonex. He also directed a 1999 TV series called System Crash and a short film called The Best Girl in 2000. It is great that he is still active in the entertainment industry, but it rather depressing that this short list of credits is more than most other YCDTOTV alumni have.
Stephanie Chow, 1984-1987
News flash: Canada is full of white people. They don't call it The Great White North for nothing, you know. So it's no surprise that Stephanie Chow was one of the few minority cast members that YCDTOTV ever had. She was also one of the shortest cast members that the show ever had, which probably didn't do much to combat popular stereotypes about Asians.
Abby Hagyard, 1982-1990
While the kids played themselves on the show, the adult actors played actual characters. For the vast majority of the show's run, Abby Hagyard played all of the various adult females roles. If I recall correctly, there were really only main two ones: Valerie Prevert and the librarian. More often than not, she was playing Valerie, a mom with a blue dress, yellow apron, and yellow gloves. Abby was on the show from 1982 until the bitter end, providing a much-needed constant in an everchanging sea of faces.
OK, so water isn't really an actor. Nevertheless, it was a big part of the show. Whenever a cast member said the word "water", some nice fresh H20 would rain down upon that person. This was a classic bit, but it was not the most famous falling liquid to emerge from You Can't Do That On Television...
Three words: I don't know. If anyone were to utter that simple everyday phrase on the YCDTOTV set, that person would get green slime dumped on them. This was the show's trademark joke and a significant portion of the Nickelodeon legacy is built upon it. In fact, it was so popular that Nickelodeon still used green slime in various promotional bits long after they stopped airing the show. Pies were also fairly common on the show, but I am not going to highlight them since they're oldhat.
The real star of the show was not Vanessa, Alasdair, or even Christine; it was Les Lye. Les Lye was the only actor who was on the show for its entire run. He also played every single adult male character on the show: the producer Ross Ewich, the bus driver Snake Eyes, Barth, Blip, Senator Lance Prevert, El Capitan, the teacher, the principal, and virtually every other character that made the show great. The guy had some good range. Maybe I was too naïve or inattentive, but when I watched this growing up, I never realized that the same actor played all of those characters. I could easily tell that Barth and the dad were the same guy, but it never occurred to me that is was Ross. Hell, I never even realized that Ross was a paid actor and not their real producer.
--- Other Notable Cast Members ---
Alanis Morrissette, 1986
In case you've never watched VH1, pop superstar Alanis Morrissette was briefly a cast member on YCDTOTV. She looks kinda weird with short hair. I'm not the only person who thinks this... some of her coworkers found her to be less than desirable. Alanis lasted less than a year; she was kicked off the show once her addiction to jagged little pills was discovered. I just thought you oughta know that.
Matthew Godfrey, 1986-1987
Matthew Godfrey was a cast member on YCDTOTV for two years. While he never became ridiculously famous like Alanis, he does look kinda like Jamie Lawson (actor Jerry Supiran) from Small Wonder. That's gotta count for something, right? Yeah, I know I'm reaching.
OK, Skeletor was never really on the show. Too bad. The poor bastard was never able to conquer Eternia, but he probably could have easily dominated the Canadian soundstage that YCDTOTV was filmed on. This completes the Taking Up Space So Alanis Isn't The Only Person Under The 'Other Notable Cast Members' Heading portion of this review.
--- The Show ---
What exactly was You Can't Do That On Television? I said before that it was a sketch comedy show aimed at children. While that is certainly true, it doesn't even begin to truly explain things. At its core YCDTOTV was a television show about a television show. The main part of the program took place on a Canadian soundstage where producer Ross Ewich tried to coax a group of slightly cynical and largely unphotogenic child actors into fulfilling their contractual obligations. It was during these segments that the episode's theme was established and that the viewers would get the most direct commentaries on it. The kids all went by their real first names, but they had contrived onscreen personalities. For example, while most of the kids probably loved doing the show, one of the big running jokes was that none of them wanted to be there because they thought that it was terrible. In between the soundstage segments, there were all sorts of sketches that pitted the kids against a hostile universe filled with inept teachers, reckless bus drivers, and dungeons. Yes, dungeons. Below see some of the best recurring characters. This means that you will *not* see the camp counselor, the sports coach, or the priest.
Senator Lance Prevert and Valerie Prevert
Meet the YCDTOTV parents, Lance and Valerie Prevert. Whenever a sketch involved some sort of family dynamic, these were the mother and father that were used. However, exactly whose parents they were supposed to be changed from sketch to sketch. In one segment, Alasdair might be their only child while in another sketch both Marjorie and Dougie might answer to them. And sometimes, without any further explanation whatsoever, they were Stephanie's parents. You Can't Do That On Television did cover adoption once, but the episode was banned in the US because it offended orphans. I don't understand why the fuck America was so concerned about offending orphans... and who the hell gave those lazy bastards access to cable TV? Cable was a fucking status symbol in the 80s, it wasn't something that everyone had. Maybe if those parentless losers had praticed saying "Please sir, may I have some more?" in their most adorable voices instead of sitting on their fat asses watching Nickelodeon, they would have been adopted.
Inconsistent children aside, they weren't bad parents. Sure, Lance never bathed and was often hypocritical when it came to advice that he gave his children. True, Valerie's cooking consisted mostly of lima beans, liver, fish heads, and other disgusting things. And yes, they often made ridiculous demands of their children such as ordering them to fix the TV antenna on the roof or telling them to use both sides of the toilet paper to save money. But other than that, they weren't negligent or irresponsible at all. Well, at least they never murdered any of the kids. In addition to being a lazy parent, Lance was also a lazy politician. He was supposed to be a member of the Canadian Senate, but I don't remember ever seeing him do anything work-related. This was supposed to be a biting commentary on Canadian politics. Apparently in Canada, Senators are appointed by the majority party and have very little real power. Senate seats are generally giving to old, burned-out party cronies who don't show up very often. When I was ten, all that shit was definitely waaaaaay over my head.
Blip was a portly, greedy arcade owner who didn't seem to like kids too much. What he *did* love was their money. Blip was always trying to coax and/or cheat kids out of their allowances. Kids who were too good at video games and racked up too many extra lives or free games would often find themselves thrown out of the arcade and banned for life. On at least one occasion, an arcade machine blew up one of the children. Oh well, that's life.
Long before The Simpsons gave us Otto The Bus Driver, YCDTOTV gave us Snake Eyes. Snake Eyes was a reckless bus driver with a predilection for speeding and a knack for crashing. Every day he endangered the lives of hapless schoolchildren. This is one of several sketches that touches upon an existentialist theme. Whether intentional or not, YCDTOTV depicted a child's life as essentially meaningless. The kids on the show had no choices, nor did they even have the illusion of choice. They generally found themselves at the mercy of inept adults, adults who had seemingly unlimited authority and zero accountability. This was a theme that most children at home could easily identify with, but it was executed at such an absurd level that it was fun instead of horribly depressing.
While male college professors are typically pretty cool guys, male schoolteachers are generally pretty sad. With his inability to spell, control a class, or pick out a proper outfit, Mr. Shidler was no exception. Shidler was good at assigning busy work, catching cheaters and failing students, but not at actually teaching. The blackboard behind him was usually covered with sad attempts at words such GEL-LOUSY (jealousy) and KARREARS (careers). When Winnie The Pooh can spell better than you, you know you're fucked.
In addition to bearing a striking resemblance to Groucho Marx, the doctor had a penchant for performing bizarre medical procedures and overcharging his patients, even when he messed things up. Much like Groucho, the doctor could generally be found holding a cigar. By the 1980s, there was plenty of scientific evidence to show that smoking was unhealthy, so even the most dense members of the target demographic were quite aware that it was rather ironic for a doctor to be smoking. If the show had been from the 1940s, most of us probably wouldn't have seen anything wrong with it.
One of the most bizarre characters on the show was El Capitan, a Fidel Castro wannabe who was obsessed with executing children for some unknown reason. There were a few instances where he got away with it, but most of the time, his victims would find a way to trick him into saying "fire" while he was convenientally standing in front of post that the child was tied to. El Capitan's firing squad had no self control or decision-making skills whatsoever, so they would immediately starting shooting once the command to fire was given. Thus, the captain was regularly duped into getting himself killed. In the post-Columbine atmosphere that still dominates America, there's no way Nickelodeon would get away with airing something like this today.; whiny self-righteous parents would complain that it was too violent. Oh wait, parents *did* complain when the show originally aired. But since there's a significantly higher level of nuisance lawsuits and obnoxious lobbyists than there were in 80s, Nickelodeon would probably wuss out and cave in. Maybe not though. Currently, the network has yet to give in to stupidass demands to make SpongeBob and Patrick less gay. SpongeBob is pretty gay all right but he's probably not homosexual. Not that I particularly fucking care either way. If that's the type of dumb shit the kids want to watch, then let's throw big heaping handfuls of it at them.
In most cases, children getting executed is a really big downer, like in Assault on Precinct 13 (the original, not the retarded remake). In YCDTOTV, it was so nonsensical that it was funny. Come on, where in the hell was a Latino military officer finding all these Canadian children to execute? Also, what sort of crime could a twelve-year-old possibly commit that would merit execution? And finally, as I already mentioned, the victims usually managed to turn the tables. In fact, this was the only sketch where kids consistently triumphed over adults.
The Dungeon Keeper
Another one of the more surreal sketches involved children being trapped in a dungeon by some sort of military officer. Much like the firing squad sketches, it was never revealed how the children got there. These segments usually involved some sort of torture or jokes involving a skeleton that was chained to the wall. Of course, some of the jokes were bad enough to be considered torture.
The detention sketch and the dungeon sketch were originally one in the same, but they were later split into two different sketches. However, the detention room still retained many prisonesque qualities: the walls were made of stone, the room was completely undecorated, and there were chains on the wall. The main difference was that a child might eventually get out of dentention. Also, the principal who ran detention was a cynical adminstrator while the dungeon keeper was just plain sadistic.
Along with Ross and El Capitan, Barth is one of the best YCDTOTV characters. Barth ran a highly unsanitary fast food joint where rats, cats, socks, vomit, and perhaps even people were made into burgers. Barth was incredibly proud of his disgusting burgers and would get quite annoyed when his patrons made fun of his cuisine, but he never got so pissed that he kicked them out. Oddly enough, the kids kept going back to Barth's even though they hated the food. Go figure.
In its heyday, You Can't Do That On Television really pushed the envelope as to what constituted acceptable children's programming. It was sometimes crude, often cynical, and always irreverent. No show since then, except for perhaps Ren & Stimpy, has grossed out and pissed off as many parents and teachers as YCDTOTV did in the 80s. Of course, the show was not entirely original. YCDTOTV drew heavily from more adult-oriented comedy that came before. One obvious influence is Monty Python's Flying Circus, so it is no small coincidence that the You Can't Do That On Television intro imitates the animation style of Terry Gilliam. It is Python that inspired the show's absurdist elements. Another show that helped shape the Nickelodeon hit was Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. Laugh-In succeeded by using recurring characters and catchphrases, which is the same route that YCDTOTV took. The water gag was borrowed from Laugh-In, where the trigger that got you doused was "Sock it to me!" instead of the much more innocuous "water". You Can't Do That On Television also copied one of Laugh-In's most famous bit: the joke wall. Cast members would pop out of panels on the wall to trade quips with each other. YCDTOTV adapted the joke wall into a locker room, where cast members would emerge from lockers and do jokes. The locker jokes were usually cheesy one-liners that were scientifically designed to make you groan. Still, it was an entertaining shtick.
I don't know what else I can say about You Can't Do That On Television... If you've never seen it, the few clips that I've provided don't even begin to do it justice. If you *do* remember the show, join me in a prayer that it might someday be released on DVD. Starting with Season 1 of Clarissa Explains It All, Nickelodeon will begin issuing its Rewind Collection on DVD in May 2005. Unfortunately, Nick doesn't own the rights to YCDTOTV; the Canadian station CJOH does. CJOH has stated in the past that they are not interested in airing reruns of the show because they would have to pay royalties to everyone involved in its production and the cost is prohibitive. I imagine similiar difficulties might prevent it from being released on DVD. So if you ever want to see the show again, you'll have to find other means. Well, I guess that's all I have to say. Below you'll find the seven video clips of the show: the four that were interspersed in the article and three new ones. I'm outta here.
The YCDTOTV Intro
A 1983 Nickelodeon Promo
The Fight For Alanis
I Don't Know
Posted by: Syd Lexia
WHO DO YOU THINK'S IN THE BURGERS?