I have not thought about the long-running children’s sketch show, You Can’t Do That On Television in years, but I woke up this morning with a strange memory of Barth (of Barth’s Burgers) exclaiming, “Duh! I heard that,” a long-running joke from the series that my own father worked into the running jokes of my family growing up. Most people that remember You Can’t Do That On Television at all probably first remember that it was where Alanis Morissette got her start. What I didn’t remember, really, was how edgy the long-running Canadian and Nickelodeon produced series was: For a kid’s show, it had bite, featuring curses cut short (to get past censors), lots of shout-outs to Monty Python (the opening credits sequence was inspired by Terry Gilliam) and suggestions that mouse heads and tails, used kitty litter, and maggots (among many other things) made up the contents of Barth’s Burgers. (“Duh! I heard that.”)
Heavily modeled on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, the idea behind You Can’t Do That On Television was to create a kid’s show with no educational value whatsoever, which was novel for children’s programming at the time (as opposed to routine now). But ultimately, I think, there was plenty of value in it sense of humor, which would shape the minds of an entire generation. Remember when a character would find out what was in Barth’s burger would vomit, and that vomit would be made into Barth’s special sauce?
What an awesome f***ing show.
Anyway, here’s a few quick facts about You Can’t Do That On Television, designed not to blow minds, but as a reminder of the what an outstanding kid’s show it was.
1. You Can’t Do That On Television ran from 1979 to 1990, but its first incarnation — which originally aired in only Canada — was cancelled after its first season (go figure? It aired on Tuesday nights in Canada, after all). It was originally called Whatever Turns You On, and although the cast, the layout, and the sense of humor all derived from the original show, it’s otherwise unrecognizable as You Can’t Do That On Television.
2. The good episodes of You Can’t Do That On Television basically ended in 1987, when the series creator/showrunner, Roger Price, moved to France and production was suspended. It returned two years later with a mostly new cast and a much heavier reliance on toilet humor, but it wasn’t the same. Ratings fell (it fell to the fifth highest-rated show on the network), and production officially stopped, as Nickelodeon shifted focus to content produced by in-house. Reruns, however, continued to run until 1994.
3. I have strong memories of only a few of the characters: Barth (of course), Alisdair, Alanis Morissette, and Moose. Moose was the long-running host played by Christine McGlade. McGlade actually didn’t even plan to be on the show; she accompanied a friend to the auditions, and when they insisted that she either audition or leave, she agreed to audition. She ended up leaving in 1986, the last original kid member of the show, after hosting 89 episodes.
Here’s McGlade then and now. (She now runs the largest volunteer organization in Canada).
And for those of you not familiar with the show, here’s what Alanis Morissette — who would grow up and write about going down on Full House’s Uncle Joey in a theater — looked like on the show.
4. Many people know that the green slime, which has become a Nickelodeon trademark, originated on You Can’t Do That On Television. It would be poured on a character anytime he or she said “I don’t know,” while water would be poured on them anytime they said “water” or “wet.” But did you know that kids on the show got paid extra for episodes in which they were doused with water or green slime — $75 for water and $150 for slime? Also, Nickelodeon trademarked the green slime (it is technically called “Nickelodeon slime”). The recipe was a closely held secret, but I believe Marc Summers (host of Double Dare, which incorporated the green slime into its show) once said that it was made of food coloring, vanilla pudding, and oatmeal.
5. In 1994, a documentary about the show, You Can’t Do That On Film was released. The few reviews I’ve seen say it doesn’t provide a ton of insight, but the trailer at least provides you with a look at what many of the actors look like grown up (ten years ago, at least).
Les Lye, who played Barth and is completely white-haired in the trailer above, passed away in 2009.
6. Like I mentioned above, for a kid’s show, You Can’t Do That On Television was edgy for its time. In fact, one episode, “Adoptions” was banned in the United States after one airing, and never aired in Canada. It was banned for its cavalier treatment of the sensitive subject, and fears that adopted children would take offense (one violent segment involved “Little Orphan Andrea”). A couple of episodes also had to be censored: One for including a scene in which two characters were reading a Playboy magazine, another for references to a serial killer character called “Killer Curtis” because, at the time there actually was a serial killer in the United States by that name.