If you watch You Can't now -- and there's plenty of it on YouTube, as well as on two elaborate tribute sites, ycdtotv.com and Barth's Burgery -- it doesn't really hold up as great comedy. (The clips which follow are examples of beloved comedy, not of comic genius.) To me, and to many people in my age group, the show was a landmark. It was our first exposure to a style of anarchic sketch comedy we would later find in Monty Python and Saturday Night Live.
You Can't Do That On Television originated in Canada. Most of us in the States saw it on Nickelodeon. The whole enterprise lasted from 1978 to 1990.
The half-hour show consisted of short sketches, mostly in recurring locations and formats: Barth's restaurant (which served disgusting food; each sketch ended with one of the kids disparaging Barth's cuisine, and Barth saying, "Diiii heard that"), Locker Jokes (a variation on Laugh In's Joke Wall), Blip's Arcade, school, home, the doctor's office. Then there were the Firing Squad scenes, where one of the kids is about to be executed and has to talk his or her way out of it ("There goes one sneaky kid") -- and oddly, standing before a firing squad seemed to fit right in with the show's other themes of school, homework, dating, and family life. And then there were the "Opposite Sketches," in which everything was the opposite of its norm. Suddenly Barth's food was delectable, parents encouraged kids to stop doing their homework and watch more television, and the schoolteacher instructed his students to play video games. All of this would be heralded by some of the kids exclaiming in unison that "it's just the introduction to the Opposites."
Each episode began with a satirical announcement about a pre-empted program ("Mr. T Goes to a Tupperware Party will not be seen at this time, so that we may bring you the following..."), followed by a short sketch establishing the episode's theme (some of the more daring episode themes included "Divorce" and "Adoption"). Then came the unforgettable intro: A Dixieland-flavored rendition of the William Tell Overture plays over a distinctly Terry Gilliamesque animated sequence, set at the Children's Television Sausage Factory.
If you remember one thing about You Can't Do That On Television, it's the repeated use of two celebrated running gags. If a member of the cast said "I don't know," green slime showered down upon his or her head. If they said "water," they were showered with water. It didn't make a whole lot of sense -- if "water" got you watered, why didn't "slime" get you slimed? -- and looking at it now, I wonder why they chose "I don't know" as the trigger phrase for a sliming. Were they trying to discourage us from professing ignorance? Probably not, because although these events were discussed in somewhat fearful terms, the kids always seemed to love getting slimed and watered. In most cases, when a You Can't kid gets slimed, he or she looks up, gazing into the torrent of green gook as though it's a baptism. The popularity of You Can't, along with Ghostbusters, made green slime an iconic substance to people who were children in the Eighties. To encounter little plastic eggs full of green slime in a 25¢ vending machine was a spectacular treat.
The cast, over twelve years, was large and varied, but certain long-serving cast members remain closely identified with You Can't, and the same core group seems to live on in the hearts of those who watched it: Christine "Moose" McGlade, Lisa Ruddy, Alasdair Gillis, Doug Ptolemy, Vanessa Lindores. (See ycdtotv.com's Where Are They Now section to catch up with them.) All of the adult characters were played by Les Lye and Abby Hagyard. One of the kids, during the 1986 season, was Alanis Morissette. Even if she hadn't gone on to become a distinctive musical artist, her status as an icon of our generation was already assured.
Les Lye's signature role was Ross, the sleazy producer of the show-within-a-show. But each of his characters was funny and well-realized; he was like a comedy sampler. Barth the chef, the Teacher, and the vaguely Latin executioner were all inspired creations. Lye's Father character was a forerunner to Homer Simpson. I didn't know much about the Marx Brothers when I first discovered You Can't, but I knew that Lye's Doctor character was a variation on Groucho, and this -- along with the drawings of Mr. Kaputnik's doctor in Dave Berg's "The Lighter Side Of..." comics in Mad magazine -- was probably my first exposure to the Groucho image.
I stress again: By posting these clips, I don't mean to suggest that they belong in the pantheon with the work of the Modern Comic Heroes we worship here at the Comedy Palace. But when I was ten, this was an early indication of comedic romances to come, and it brings back a crucial moment in my development. Maybe yours too.