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Cathode Ray Mission: YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION (1979)

CanTV expert Cameron Archer navigates the often inhospitable landscape of Canadian television for the CATHODE RAY MISSION, our regular blog column that highlights some of Canadian television’s most offbeat offerings.

For this column, we’ve decided to do something a little different and look at a Canadian TV show that  straddles the line between “cult” and “mainstream hit.” Mainstream hits are obviously not Canuxploitation, and YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION (CJOH, 1979; CJOH/CTV/Nickelodeon, 1981-87, 1989-90) was a mainstream cable hit in its day. The show is most fondly remembered in its half-hour format on Nickelodeon. It was literally the primordial slime from which Nickelodeon was born.

What some YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION fans don’t remember is the show’s formative years, as an hour-long Saturday morning variety hour. Early YTV viewers might be familiar with WHATEVER TURNS YOU ON (CTV, 1979), YCDTOTV‘s half-hour primetime variant.

The Basic Formula

YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION takes its cues from ROWAN AND MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN (NBC, 1968-73) — short sketches, catchphrases, recurring characters, and heavy repetition. What sets YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION apart from LAUGH-IN is its casual contempt for authority, and its insistence that child amateurs perform the comedy. Les Lye, the sole adult male castmember, appears in all incarnations of YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION/WHATEVER TURNS YOU ON.

Viewers who watched Nickelodeon and/or CTV in the 1980s likely know what the show’s sketches are like. Nickelodeon’s signature slime comes from YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION. If I type the words “Barth’s Burgers,” readers of a certain age will likely wonder what Barth puts in them.

A Dixieland jazz arrangement of “The William Tell Overture” identifies YCDTOTV, the way “The Liberty Bell” identifies MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS (BBC1, 1969-73; BBC2, 1974 as MONTY PYTHON). Other elements ganked from MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS include the Terry Gilliam-esque opening credits, a public-domain theme song, and that casual contempt for authority.

The Weird Bits

The 1979 and early 1981 versions of YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION barely resemble the Nickelodeon version. CJOH originally formatted the show as a variety hour — sketches, disco dances, call-in contests, live transitions, and “music videos” of various origins. Video game competitions took the place of the disco dances, in 1981.

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Cathode Ray Mission: THE VACANT LOT (1993-94)

CanTV expert Cameron Archer navigates the often inhospitable landscape of Canadian television for the CATHODE RAY MISSION, our regular blog column that highlights some of Canadian television’s most offbeat offerings.

Debutting in 1993 and lasting a full six episodes, CBC’s sketch comedy showcase THE VACANT LOT (CBC, 1993-94; Comedy Central, 1994) was one of a handful of attempts by the natinoal network to exploit the success of their flagship show, THE KIDS IN THE HALL (CBC, 1988-94; CBS/HBO, 1988-95). THE VACANT LOT featured Mark McKinney’s brother, Nick McKinney and it was executive produced by Jim Biederman, who  fulfilled the same role for THE KIDS IN THE HALL.

THE VACANT LOT‘s most appealing feature was the full support of Lorne Michaels’ production company, Broadway Video. Michaels needs no introduction — SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (NBC, 1975- ) and THE KIDS IN THE HALL are his two most enduring cultural signposts. THE VACANT LOT was in a unique position to become the next big Canadian comedy export. Unfortunately, that never happened.

The Basic Formula

The show basically cribs THE KIDS IN THE HALL‘s formula. It’s a Broadway Video show, so it’s slick, looks good, and is America-ready. Troupe members Vito Viscomi, Rob Gfroerer, Nick McKinney and Paul Greenberg are set to be household names, on par with Dave Foley, Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson, Kevin McDonald and Bruce McCulloch.

The Weird Bits

THE KIDS IN THE HALL starts with Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet’s “Having an Average Weekend,” and scnes of  the Kids having fun. It doesn’t let viewers in on the show’s potentially offensive material right away. By comparison, The Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” serves as THE VACANT LOT‘s theme song. An allusion to the Maxell “Blown Away Guy” commercial lets the audience know what The Vacant Lot are about, from the off.

THE VACANT LOT is less straightforward, and more absurd, than THE KIDS IN THE HALL. But THE VACANT LOT also looks unfinished and spotty, as the castmembers feel the television medium out. Broadway Video’s series often look like that by design, but THE VACANT LOT is messy even by BV standards.

Let’s Watch

The first part of episode 5 (or episode 1, in the Comedy Central run.)

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