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.

WHATEVER TURNS YOU ON‘s format is a cross between LAUGH-IN and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (NBC, 1975- ). LAUGH-IN‘s Ruth Buzzi is the adult female castmember, while musical guests perform on-stage. Buzzi only appeared on WTYO.

WTYO was scheduled Tuesdays at 7:30 PM ET, on CTV. The show’s ill-considered timeslot caused WTYO to die, near the end of December 1979. Unfortunately for CTV, YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION survived that first brush with death.

Let’s Watch

The ninth episode of the 1979 season, “Executive Washrooms,” first part of four. The episode aired April 7, 1979. HERMAN cartoonist Jim Unger appears in this episode. This episode reveals how ballsy YCDTOTV was. The episode makes fun of CJOH randomly changing its locks. Keep in mind, this is 1979. Children’s shows never focused this much on bathrooms, or executive (forgive me for this pun) waste.

Only a few episodes from the 1979 season are known to exist, and all episodes come from off-air recordings. The CJOH versions of the 1981 episodes are just as obscure, and aren’t even on YouTube…that I know of.

Next, the entire hour-long pilot for WHATEVER TURNS YOU ON, essentially a tweaked 1979 edition of YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION. The show aired in YCDTOTV‘s timeslot the week after YCDTOTV‘s first-season finale, on May 12, 1979.


Cultural Legacy

Screw the formalities — YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION is as much of a Canadian sketch comedy milestone as SECOND CITY TELEVISION (Global, 1976-79; CBC, 1980-83; NBC, 1981-83 as SCTV NETWORK 90/SCTV NETWORK; Cinemax/Superchannel, 1983-84 as SCTV CHANNEL) and THE KIDS IN THE HALL (CBC, 1988-94; CBS/HBO, 1988-95). However, YCDTOTV hasn’t earned the same reputation as the latter two shows, as it’s a children’s show and isn’t currently in reruns.

Nickelodeon became America’s dominant children’s cable channel by 1985, though YCDTOTV existed on Nickelodeon as far back as 1981. Once Nickelodeon hit big, YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION rode Nick’s orange, slimy wave.

Canada never embraced YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION as much as the United States. By the mid-1980s, YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION was a once-a-week show on CTV, in a shitty Saturday 11:30 AM timeslot. YCDTOTV was the rare case of a Canadian show doing far better in America than in its home country.

YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION rated its own American variant, as DON’T LOOK NOW (WGBH Boston/PBS, 1983). It was as straight a clone of YCDTOTV‘s 1979 and 1981 CJOH seasons as was legally possible, and did quite well on PBS. It made no attempt to be educational, which doomed the series beyond its six one-hour, live episodes. Show creator Roger Price, and original YCDTOTV writer/director Geoffrey Darby, were behind DON’T LOOK NOW.

YCDTOTV spinoff TURKEY TELEVISION (Nickelodeon, 1985-86) featured original sketches performed by YCDTOTV regulars, mixed in with random clips. Both DON’T LOOK NOW and TURKEY TELEVISION were worthy shows, but they weren’t YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION.

Current Whereabouts

Roger Price, who is also famous for creating THE TOMORROW PEOPLE (Thames/ITV, 1973-79, Thames/Talkback Thames/ITV, 1992-95), is retired. He currently lives in France.

Geoffrey Darby eventually became a top Nickelodeon executive. He moved to Whittle Communications’ Medical News Network, in 1992. After Whittle Communications collapsed around 1994-95, Darby became president of Viacom Interactive Services, where he helped launch Noggin. In 1997, Darby helped launch CBS Eye on People/Discovery People, the ill-fated human interest news network.

In 1999, Darby hooked up with former Nickelodeon president Geraldine Laybourne. Together, they got female-oriented cable channel Oxygen off the ground. Darby stayed with Oxygen until 2007. After a brief fling (2009-10) with NBCUniversal’s The Weather Channel, Darby became executive vice president/general manager of Martha Stewart Omnimedia, where he works today.

Christine “Moose” McGlade, the host of both YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION and WHATEVER TURNS YOU ON, left YCDTOTV in 1986, to focus on TURKEY TELEVISION. McGlade was a director for TFO and TVOntario from 1992-99, a director/producer for CBC Playground from 1999-2000, and a writer/producer for YTV from 2000-03.

During her YTV stint, McGlade helped reboot the BRAINWASH weekend morning programming block, as it became SNIT STATION. The Saturday morning block became VORTEX, from 2001-06. Currently, McGlade manages interactive and digital media for TVOntario. Les Lye is almost as well-known for WILLY & FLOYD (CJOH/syndicated, 1966-88; he was Floyd) as YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION.

Lye spent most of his career at CJOH, after stints on radio with CFRA and CKEY, and a three-year run co-hosting talk show CONTACT. Lye retired after YCDTOTV, and passed away on July 21, 2009.

I feel bad not mentioning the whereabouts of other original YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION/WHATEVER TURNS YOU ON castmembers, such as Kevin Somers, Kevin Schenk, and Lisa Ruddy. At the same time, the show’s cast changed on a regular basis. In 1979 alone, YCDTOTV featured twenty-two castmembers. Seven of the castmembers “graduated” to WHATEVER TURNS YOU ON. As a showcase for amateur actors, the only familiarity YCDTOTV bred was with its recurring characters.

The Final Cut

In 1981, Nickelodeon was a showpiece for the American cable industry — high-minded, educational, yet unprofitable by design. YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION was Nick’s biggest hit, in the bad old days. Nickelodeon eventually understood the lessons of YCDTOTV — don’t talk down to kids, knock everyone down a peg when necessary, and relate to your audience.

CJOH mounted a few notable local shows after YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISIONHOMEGROWN CAFE (CJOH, c. 1989-98), HIGHSCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (CJOH, 1986?-89?), DENIM BLUES (CJOH, 1988?-90?), and the deathless newsmagazine, REGIONAL CONTACT (CJOH, 1988?- ). Unfortunately, CJOH’s reputation for local television was gradually pared down to local news, and REGIONAL CONTACT.

YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION started as a way to fill time, as CJOH needed to compete with American fare. But by the time of its 1990 cancellation, YCDTOTV directly influenced American fare, even though it wasn’t much of a factor in Canada. How many Canadian shows hold this distinction? The only show that immediately comes to my mind is ED, EDD N EDDY (Cartoon Network, 1999-2009).

YCDTOTV set the tone for a multi-billion dollar cable channel, yet it’s most well-remembered in Canada today as a show Alanis Morissette appeared in, as a child. That’s crazier than any opposite sketch YCDTOTV ever aired.


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