Thursday, July 30, 2009

YCDTOT and RIP Les Lye

By Scott

[Scott remembers You Can't Do That On Television, and I was surprised to discover that I was persuaded here that it was pretty ahead of its time.]

Upon hearing the news that Les Lye, the actor who played the adult male roles on You Can't Do That On Televsion, passed away this weekend, I found myself watching old clips on youtube and reading up on the show online. In doing so, I came across the following quote from Justin Cammy, a former cast member who is now a professor at Smith College. Seeing as how many of us on the blog probably grew up with the show, I thought it might be worth posting/discussing:

"You Can't Do That on Television was the first post-modern children's program of my generation. It subverted all recognizable forms and deconstructed the pre-teen's understanding of such important institutions as the family, the school and the video arcade. When the schoolteacher did not know any better than to call Milton's masterpiece "Pair of Dice Lost", the program functioned as an ideological clarion call to future college students like you who would go on to demand the displacement of an ossified Western canon with more relevant investigations of low culture."

I would like to point out that I always felt, and watching old episodes confirmed, that the show was very much a junior Monty Python and that went much deeper than the Giliam-esque opening sequence. It also pre-figured a lot of what we see on Adult Swim; particularly the sort of 'Short Attention Span Theatre' of shows like Robot Chicken as, on YCDTOT, most of the sketches were only between 30 seconds to about a minute in length.


scott91777 said...

after I sent this to Geoff, another way the show was ahead of it's time occured to me:

It's important to remember that this show pre-dated shows like the simpsons and most of the programming than Nick would eventually become famous for. As a result, while it's pretty tame by todays standards, it was considered quite raunchy for its time. Many kids were NOT allowed to watch the show. Also, it's probably the first show for kids that I can remember which actively ENCOURAGED them to rebel against authority figures like teachers and parents and, in its sketches, ridiculed and demeaned those authority figures.

Jason said...

It also led to some great sequences in that "April Fool's Day" episode of NewsRadio.

plok said...

My God, that's a bit of a stretch though, isn't it?

ba said...

It was also Canadian, was it not? That sort of explains everything right there.

Heck, Alanis Morissette was even in it.

plok said...

It was Canadian, and lousy...I didn't know it'd had such a long life in other countries though.

Maybe it got more interesting?

scott91777 said...


Are you Canadian? I know one of the interesting things that came up when reading about the show is that it was never really that popular in Canada.

plok said...

Yup, Canadian...and, I mean I can't speak for everybody (certainly not for anybody outside my age-bracket), but "not popular" is a polite word for what it was.

So, that "postmodern" contention really has me scratching my head. Plus all the "groundbreaking" kind of stuff, I just don't see it.

Jason said...

I seem to recall that I crushed on that main girl from the show (whose name was Christine but was sometimes called "Moose").

I feel, though, that I am as dubious as plok is on this one. I seem to recall even back then thinking that a lot of the skits were pretty stupid, and the one-joke characters were pretty repetitive. I just watched because I thought the girl was cute, and because I always wanted to see someone get slimed. (The slime moment in "You Can't Do That on Television" was kind of like the transformations on the old Bill Bixby Hulk. They both only happened like twice per episode, and if there was a third occurrence, it was like a special treat. The rest of the show was boring but you watched the whole thing waiting for that bright green color to show up on the TV screen. )

DH said...

I remember Alanis. I loved her then and love her now. Christine was cute and very 'crush-worthy'. I was always a big fan of the 'opposite sketches'. I don't know why people dog on Canada. They have given the world lots of beautiful and talented women and for that I love you Canada!

James said...

Monty Python itself kind of grew out of a kids' show.

scott91777 said...

Yeah, 'Moose' is a lot cuter than I remembered her being... although she did have a case of horrible 80s hair. Fun Fact: between the 1981 and 82 season she cropped her hair short and died it punk rock style so, for the entire 82 season, she wore a wig; two wigs actually: A really expensive one of human hair and a cheap synthetic one for when she had to be slimed or watered.

plok said...

Yeah, it doesn't have to be groundbreaking in an overlooked way, just because it was not very good and watched by millions. Does it? I mean, is that how we determine what groundbreaking is?

The postmodern stuff one could easily make a case for, as that's more about the en-coding than the de-coding...but even so, why perform the operation on this show, and not some other? You really have to suspect the original comment was made with tongue in cheek: if "You Can't Do That" set some kind of pace, surely you'd at least expect other shows that kept such a pace to be following it in some sense...but it isn't hard to name better shows, that did all this a lot more consciously, that came after
YCDT while still clearly not being influenced by it. Not too difficult to argue, also, that YCDT was a flawed attempt to model earlier shows, performances, traditions in youth theatre, in which case the question again becomes why...why is YCDT assumed to be special, just because it was middling popular and kinda crap? When there are lots of middling-popular, kinda-crap shows out there.

Also, I'm dubious about the assumptions about how kids pick up attitudes toward authority that are embedded here: as though a kid's show will always be a more efficacious propagandizing or educational tool just by virtue of it being "for kids". Not necessarily: I'd be very comfortable betting that more kids' social attitudes have been shaped by Charlie Chaplin shorts, than by episodes of Rugrats.

scott91777 said...


One could also argue that the Warner Bros. cartoons were actually far more successfully subversive long before the show (and I'd be willing to bet that THEY were a bigger part of shaping social attitudes than Charlie Chaplin Shorts).

However, I do think that the show did set the tone for a lot of much better shows that came afterwards on Nickelodeon and other networks. You're right of course, it isn't really a show that you can still watch as an adult and get any real enjoyment other than nostalgia. But still, at the time it was originally on the air, I really enjoyed it.

So, I guess we can trump this one up to nostalgia on my part. I'm actually surprised that feelings here have been so mixed; most of my friends have only the fondest memories of this show.

I guess it's kind of like a friend of mine who absolutely loves to watch the old super-friends cartoons yet I really get nothing out of them and, personally, I would much rather watch Batman TAS or Justice League/Justice League Unlimited.

plok said...

The only thing I get out of the Super Friends show is the incredible rightness of the Superman voicing...but then that's me, and sure I think a lot of all this stuff can be chalked up to nostalgia: I think my crap childhood stuff is awesome, you think yours is awesome and that mine is stupid, and we're both probably wrong, but not definitely wrong. But, you know, I wasn't trying to be dickish about it, and I really do have no idea how YCDT may have influenced Nickelodeon, and that (I think) would be the major traceable influence...might even be a profound influence actually, who knows?

Also, if it did in fact create for YOU the anarchic cultural go-to-town-ness that the Warner Bros. and the Marx Bros. (and the Venture Bros.!) have for me, then the observation might be totally accurate, and I might be too old to have grokked it in the first place, as well as too knee-jerk prejudiced to see it now...I mean I don't really believe I've missed all that, but I've got to admit I might've. Nevertheless! Postmodernism's a way of reading rather than a way of writing, n'est-ce pas? Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck are as great as they are, I think, and we're just fortunate enough to be able to see contrast if YCDT is great, I think it must only be great in our seeing, and therefore it's fortunate, to be perceived of or thought on that way. Because: green slime. That's an effect for which critical contextualization can't come too easy, I figure. Gotta stretch for it.

Ehhh, but you know I might be full of it, I hope. Who am I, a cop?

I'd LOVE to know if you seriously think YCDT helped create some kind of "culture" at Nickelodeon, though. Not that would be a goldmine for research, and a real smack in the face of a proof.

plok said...

But oh why am I always a thread-killer? Don't you guys care?

Jason said...

Your post was too long, Plok. We of the "YCDTOT" generation can't process anything that wordy.

You should have spiced it up by saying "I don't know" somewhere in the middle. Green Slime Time!!!

sara d. reiss said...

I loved this show. I really did. And I recall it fondly. it had a ramshackle lameness that i really adored. And it always seemed like the kids were all having a really good time.

it was also the reason that Nickelodeon used slime as it's primary icon, and even now they still slime the host at the end of the Kids Choice awards. I think there's something to that, the goofiness, randomness and disgustingness of it tapped that deeply into what kids "like" that it's still around.

Jason said...

Yes, I am starting to have this recollection now. As a lad, I didn't -- or my family didn't -- get cable as early on as other people. I seem to recall that before I had cable, I heard friends talking about this show wherein people would get doused with green slime whenever they said "I don't know." It sounded like the best thing ever.

You're right, Sara, there does seem to be something primal about that. (See also that green ghost in "Ghostbusters" who -- when the movie was made into a cartoon for kids -- became a main character, with the name "Slimer." And also the "He-Man" toy line came out with the "Slime Pit" which was a trap in which you could put your He-Man Action Figures and make green slime slowly pour down onto their heads.)

Anyway, when I finally got cable, the show was kind of disappointing compared to what my friends described. As noted, I would just wait for the green slime moments; it was the only thing I really liked.

(And NewsRadio was awesome for incorporating it into one of their episodes.)