10/23/2012 08:08 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'You Can't Do That On Television': An Obsessive Chat

you cant do that on television

If you were an at least partially sentient child during the middle of the 1980s, You Can't Do That On Television became a staple of your daily routine. (Do not try to deny this!) If you are not aware of You Can't Do That on Television, well, first, I have zero idea why you are still reading this. But, if you don't, and you are, it was a Canadian-based children's sketch comedy show that, once it aired on Nickelodeon, became quite popular -- injecting fear into any child that watched the show to never, ever say "water" [ducks] or "I don't know" [ducks again]. Sadly, today, YCDTOTV is not on DVD and is in jeopardy of becoming a long-lost afterthought. Here, Matt Singer from Criticwire and I have a very obsessive chat about our love for You Can't Do That on Television.

Matt: What's the largest lake in Canada?
Mike: I don't know.
Matt: :::SLIME:::
Mike: I walked right into that one. I'll be honest, the thing that struck me the most from catching up on You Can't Do That on Television is learning that Moose turns 50 next year. I feel really old.
Matt: Well, way to start this off on a note of bleak despair.
Mike: I had quite the crush on Moose. Lisa was just too sassy. I used to think that the people on this show were the coolest people on Earth. Well, not Ross.
Matt: Everyone had a crush on Moose. Absolutely. This show was the height of coolness for a child of the '80s.
Mike: My mom was not a fan of the title of the show. She was wary of letting me watch. I think she thought it might be soft-core porn.
Matt: The show was not porn. But it was pretty subversive for a children's television show.
Mike: Green slime porn, maybe.
Matt: I mean, at least half the sketches are about how awful and stupid and cruel adults are.
Mike: There are recurring sketches that involve firing squads and dungeons.
Matt: The whole tone of the show was really sarcastic. It's kind of a punk rock TV show -- the kids are "in charge," they are the stars; the adults are supporting players. The jokes are, admittedly, pretty cheesy. But the attitude is really edgy.
Mike: I agree. I remember it as being edgy -- but there's a lot more slapstick than I remember.
Matt: Yeah, well it is a show for kids. There are lots of people pouring stuff on other people, and lots of puking jokes.
Mike: And a lot of mashing food into each others' faces. Which, once, in 6th grade I tried myself at lunch on a classmate. Do you know what I learned?
Matt: What's that?
Mike: Other kids do not react to that by laughing like they do on YCDTOTV. I could be easily influenced by television.
Matt: It's funny -- my friends and I used to play YCDTOT at lunch too. We'd pretend we were at Barth's anytime the cafeteria served hamburgers. The lunch ladies did not care for our faking puking.
Mike: Oh, good lord, that sounds like a terrible game.
Matt: We were 6, gimme a break.
Mike: I never understood why these kids kept going to Barth's. Wasn't there a Burger Chef or Rax nearby? (My attempt at referencing '80s fast food restaurants that are now defunct.)
Matt: You said earlier you thought this was the coolest thing ever. I went farther -- I wanted to be on the show. At that age, this was my career goal: be on this show. Sadly, I failed.
Mike: Well, you're not Canadian, for one thing.
Matt: I had no idea the show was Canadian at the time. It seemed like Nickelodeon's flagship series.
Mike: I probably just assumed these kids all lived in my town.
Matt: And I think in a sense it was. But it was produced independently and they just bought the rights.
Mike: I think we should make it clear that Nickelodeon then was a lot different than it is today. I remember watching YCDTOTV followed by the Star Trek animated series.
Matt: A LOT different. What's interesting is how huge an influence the show had on the network -- which adopted green slime as its signature image. And that it seems almost totally forgotten now.
Mike: I wanted to own some green slime. I remember Masters of the Universe sold slime to accompany a Hordak playset of some kind and I begged my mom to buy it for me. Sadly, it wasn't the same.
Matt: They still slime people on the Nickelodeon's annual awards, but I think the show that it came from is totally forgotten.
Mike: Well, not by people in our age range.
Matt: To me, this is one of the key television shows of my childhood. And rewatching it, and seeing how its whole attitude snarky it is, it feels like a very important show in terms of shaping my sense of humor. And it was ahead of its time in a lot of ways too. The whole show is a deconstruction of everything it's about.
Mike: They even had banned episodes. One on adoption and one on divorce.
Matt: Right. Every episode had a topic it riffed on. And they did some pretty mature episodes. There was one about smoking too.

Mike: And one about drugs -- only they used "pies in the face" instead of actual drugs.

Matt: It was a real envelope pusher. They did a whole episode on "Marketing." And the idea was the show was going to be cancelled if they couldn't find something from the show that could be turned into a product that could be sold to kids. This was in the early '80s, right as kids television became a place where every show was based on a toy line that could be sold to kids.

Mike: And they came up with the idea of selling water.
Matt: Exactly. Also, if we were on the show, you would have gotten water dumped on your head because you said water. And so would I, crap. Mike: And it would have been hilarious! Both of us sitting there, now wet.
Matt: Brilliant. You know how you know you're too old to watch YCDTOTV?
Mike: I don't know.
Matt: Okay, see I have a point, but first of all YOU WOULD BE COVERED IN SLIME NOW. Anyway. You start noticing how whenever someone gets wet or slimed it happens in cutaway close-up.
Mike: I noticed the same thing. Like, there's just a guy pouring it on them.
Matt: And if you listen to the audio, you can hear the slime or water splashing on the plastic sheeting they must have put down to protect the set. It did seem kind of mystical as a child. Now it's like, "Oh, they just got a ladder and a bucket."
Mike: That's the job you would have gotten. "Slime pourer." I assumed there were robots or a machine of some kind. Nope: Just a dude and a bucket.
Matt: It felt very unscripted and anarchic -- which was the point, and certainly enhanced that punk rock atmosphere. Like, holy crap, people are getting covered in gunk! It's on their clothes! Coming from a household with a mother who was really obsessed with cleanliness -- who used to clean up before the cleaning woman came over so the cleaning woman wouldn't be disappointed in how messy our house was -- that was an appealing idea.
Mike: I remember the first episode my mom saw -- she just happened to be passing through the living room while I was watching -- and it was a sketch at Barth's in which there was to be a roast of Big Bird. And then they wheel in a dead, cooked Big Bird. My mom seemed displeased by this. Were you ever upset by the cast changes?

Matt: I was just more confused by them. By the time I was watching in the mid-80s, there were already something like 70 episodes in the can. And they would air them totally at random (at least in my eyes). So, in one episode Christine -- a.k.a. Moose -- the host, would be like 15, and in the next she'd be like 20 with a totally different cast. It was sort of confusing. Mike: See, I went through this with Zoom reruns. Every season the cast would change. But, at least with Zoom, they changed the colors of their striped shirts. Moose and Lisa were basically the only two constants. After Moose left, I was less interested in the show. "Who are these people?!?!"
Matt: Alasdair was another favorite.
Mike: Justin was fine.
Matt: I also like the kid named Matthew because he had my name and his persona was kind of smart, and I was a nerd, so it was easy to identify with him. I seem to vaguely remember them calling him "Matthers" Which I tried to make my friends in school call me. That, uh, that didn't go over well.
Mike: OK, let's get this out of the way: Alanis Morissette. For me, she was a non-factor.
Matt: Isn't it ironic that she's the only reason anyone ever talks about this show now? (Thank you.) If you never watched the show, you oughta know she was barely on it. (Thank you.)
Mike: You should get slimed for that.
Matt: She was on it for like one season, I think.
Mike: Right. And it was after Lisa left. Moose may have had left, too. It was around the same time.
Matt: Now if Christine had made an album of breakup songs about Dave Coulier -- THAT would have been something.
Mike: Oh, you. (But I would totally listen to that.)
Matt: The other thing I appreciate about the show now that I didn't really appreciate back in the day: The awesomeness of Les Lye, who was the one male adult cast member, and who basically played every single male adult in every sketch.
Mike: I was thinking that, too. And, you know, that had to get old. I wonder what his relationship was with the cast. I assume it was good? Though, I feel missing from his repertoire of characters was "fit, clean adult."
Matt: Well, the show rarely called for that. All of his characters were variations on sleazeballs. Barth, Ross, the Firing Squad Guy, the Jailer, the Snoody Teacher. Do you ever catch yourself saying "IIiiiiIIIII heard dat!" like Barth?
Mike: No.
Matt: Oh, uh. Me neither. Yeah, no I don't ever do that. Not at all.
Mike: Because that would be weird.
Matt: Yeah, right? So weird! For an adult to do that! I mean he would have to be, like, such a huge loser!
Mike: OK, here's the thing: When I was watching, I was older than you were, which I find interesting. You said you were 6 years old. I was watching when I was closer to 11 or 12. But that's interesting that we both liked the show.
Matt: One of my earliest memories is when I was 4 years old in 1985, and I became enraged when my parents refused to let me watch YCDTOTV. Because Hurricane Gloria was about to hit the New York area and they wanted to watch the weather.
Mike: Jerks. How dare they be concerned about your safety.
Matt: Right?
Matt: When they said they were concerned about "water" coming in through the windows I poured water on their heads. They didn't think it was funny for some reason. All right, I might have made that part up.
Mike: My main takeaway when I was watching: Other than the Canadian accents, the kids on the show were a lot like the kids that I was going to school with -- more than any other show.
Matt: That's interesting. You saw it more as "These kids are like me." Whereas I, a few years younger, was like "I want to be LIKE these kids." So I shaped my life around its principles. To this day, I won't dare say the words "I don't know" aloud. Which has had some serious repercussions for me, because everyone thinks I'm a know-it-all. So the lesson is: don't watch YCDTOT because it will ruin your life.
Mike: Well, I moved to a new school in 6th grade and there was definitely a parallel between the kids on YCDTOTV and the popular kids at the new school that I was attending. Which means, I wanted to be like them, too, because I was new and had no friends.
Matt: What were the parallels?
Mike: Everyone had inside jokes -- "Moose" is an inside joke -- and seemed to have a close relationship with each other.
Matt: Did they initiate you by making you outsmart a firing squad?
Mike: If only. But there was something comforting about watching it that I remember. Having no friends at first (plus I am an only child), it was like these kids were inviting me in. (ALSO, I SWEAR I'M NOT A LOSER. Well, I won't swear.)
Mike: Anything else you want to add about You Can't Do That on Television?
Matt: Just that I was always disappointed I couldn't fit inside my locker like they did on the show. And I always wished my mom constantly wore rubber gloves.
Mike: I always wondered what a Barf burger tasted like. Oh, you know what we just did?
Matt: What?
Mike: I think we just did an Opposite Segment.
Matt: Ooh. Why is this show not on DVD, Blu-ray, streaming, anything?
Mike: Well, fortunately, it appears a lot of it IS on YouTube. Is Sesame Street on DVD? I know recent stuff is. But, the shows from the late '70s and the early '80s?
Matt: I'm not sure. Note I said I'm not sure, not -- you-know-what.
Mike: I noticed that. We should continue this meme throughout all future chats.
Matt: Agreed.
Matt Singer runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire. You can reach him directly on Twitter.

Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.