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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 ┬ástraddles 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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