Canadian Television: You Can't Do That on Television (1980s)

Figure 1.--The Canadian television program, "You can't do that on television," often had the boys dress in balet outfits, dresses, diappers, sailor sits, and other outfits for comedic affect.

"You Can't Do That On Television" was a kid's answer to Monty Python. It was a saving grace for television at the time. This Canadian TV program produced in the 1980s was picked up by American cable networks, especially Nickolonian. Many episodes included clothing. Often skits were built around the boys being dresses in dresses, kiklts, sailor suits, Fauntleroy suits, diappers, and other outfits boys might find enbarassing. I think some of the skits were thought up by the boys themselves. Interestingly the skits involving the girls rarely touched upon clothing. Sometimes the boys appeared in tights and tu-tus. I'm not sure just why other than for comic relief.

Program Details

"You Can't Do That On Television" may well have been the best children's show ever produced. This Canadian TV program produced during the 1980s was picked up by American cable networks, especially Nickolonian. You Can't Do That On Television was kids making a program for other kids. They put kids into situations that were similar to kids at home, but blow them so far out of proportion that it became comical.

First season

CJOH television in Ottawa, Canada, on January 29, 1979, aired the first episode of a low-budget children's television series called You Can't Do That On Television. It was created by Roger Price, with the help of Geoffrey Darby. The show was initially aired live on Saturday mornings with musical guests, games, slap-stick humor and call-in segments as some of the its regular features. Broadcasting live gave the show unual energy. It starred a cast of unknown local child actors, including a very young Christine McGlade, who got the hosting job by "accident" after going to the audition to support a friend. The show also starred Les Lye from Uncle Willy and Floyd fame.

What Ever Turns You On

The shows first season was an unexpected success. After the first season, the show's creators produced a short-lived spin off of this show called, Whatever Turns You On, which was the same exact show as You Can't Do That On Television, only it was taped instead of broadcast live. It was shown during prime-time hours, and it featured Laugh-In veteran, Ruth Buzzi. The spin-off, unlike the local original, had horrible ratings and was canned after one season. Thanks to WTYO, however, some important inovations were introduces: the idea of having the show taped, having show topics. and opposite sketches were introduced.


"You Can't Do That On Television" was still doing okay on the local Canadian station--CJOH. It waas at this time that an up-and-coming children's network in the United States called Nickelodeon took interest in the show. Looking around for content to fill their schedue, Nickelodian during 1981 began airing the Canadian series once a week in a line up with several other Canadian-based tv programs. By this time, You Can't Do That On Television was slightly different from the way it began at CJOH. The live audience was replaced with the more infamous canned laughter, the musical guests and call-in segments were also gone. The show was no longer a variety show, but a 100 percent comedy show.

A hit

The show's ratings by 1984 had declined in Canada and was hardly watched. Nickelodeon, however, began airing the show five times a week and it became the network's highest-rated television program. In many ways, it was You Can't Do That on Television that put Nicklelodian on the map. Everyone had a favorite cast member at that time, whether it was Lisa Ruddy (1979-85) or Kevin Kubusheskie (1981-84), and everyone had seen the Technology episode (you know the episode with the little green and red boxes) at least five times.

Writing and producing the scripts

Creator and producer Roger Price explains how the scripts were written and changed during the production, "In the early days Geoffrey Darby and I wrote the scripts together. When he left after about three years, to go and work for Nickelodeon in New York, I wrote them alone for a while with contributions from some of the kids. Then I hired Adam Reid, who at 16 had grown too old to be on the show as an actor, to be my co-writer and we worked together. Usually he came about 8.00 pm when he had done his homework. We went to a Chinese to eat. General Tso's chicken was one of our favorites, and then we returned to the office and wrote for a couple of hours on back to back word processors until about midnight. We wrote about 60 minutes of material for each half hour show. The cast came in after school on weekdays and read through the scripts round a boardroom table. At this stage many alterations were made, mostly to the dialogue or performance business. About 15 to 20 minutes of what we had written was discarded as unfunny or unworkable, and suggestions by the cast or technicians for other sketches were worked up."

Green slime

Kids across America were making slime and water sounds with their mouths and sending in their entries for the Slime-In, a contest hosted by Nickelodeon that flew a lucky kid to the set of "You Can't Do That On Television" to be slimed (which was replicated by Canada's YTV later with their version being called the Slime Light Sweepstakes). Nickelodeon saw that it had a hit on its hands and quickly began associating the show into everything the network did. Nick also had a line of products released based on You Can't Do That On Television, including green slime shampoo and soap, a green blob substance called Green Slime and also a short-lived comic strip featured in the Cable Guide appropriately titled, You Can't Do That In Comics. The green slime that made the show famous was used in logos, promos, commercials and even a geyser to make Nickelodeon famous worldwide and is still a fixture of Nickelodeon today. In fact, while most of today's generation of Nickelodeon has never even seen "You Can't Do That On Television" (or can't remember it), Nickelodeon still uses the words, "I don't know" to slime celebrities at the Kid's Choice awards (while YCDTOTV gets no credit).

Double Dare

"You Can't Do That On Television" continued as Nick's number one tv show until Marc Summers began hosting another hit for Nick called Double Dare (which gave away Green Slime Shampoo and Soap as prizes) in 1986.

Cast members

The show lost its hosts in 1986: Christine McGlade (1979-86) and Alasdair Gillis (1982-86), who were the most popular cast members. This year was also the year that YCDTOTV had the future recording superstar Alanis Morissette in its cast who was just as unknown as all the other cast members at that time. Alanis isn't the only major success from the show, however. Just to name a few, Klea Scott, who went on to star in the Fox television series Millennium, was on the show from 1982-84. Christian Tessier from the 1989-90 season went on the appear in Are You Afraid of the Dark? and star in three seasons of The Tomorrow People (another Roger Price creation) as well as a role in the film, Demon Night. Rekha Shah, who was cast from 1986-89, played Janice on Nickelodeon's hit, Fifteen, and she also hosted TVO Kids.

End of an era

While the show always had most of the cast from previous seasons return to do the next season, 1987 marked the end of an era for You Can't Do That On Television. The season only consisted of five episodes, with Adoption being banned after one day of airing, and the kid cast was only nine strong after being 22 strong in 1986 . Also, Doug Ptolemy and Vanessa Lindores, who had been on the show since 1982, had grown too old along with Adam Reid (1984-87) and Matthew Godfrey (1986-87). The loss of those cast members would make the cast only five strong for the 1988 season with only two of those cast members being "popular."

Last seasons

There ended up not being a 1988 season, however, and when the show resumed production in 1989, Stephanie Chow (1984-1987) decided not to return to the show so that she could focus on her piano. This left only four cast members from the previous season, with Amyas Godfrey (1986-90) being the only one of the four that anyone could actually remember. Thus, a whole new cast was selected creating what most fans refer to as the "new episodes." The 1989 season spit out some very funny episodes, including a compilation video that Elektra video released called "The Worst of "You Can't Do That On Television". The episodes from this season were very enjoyable and very well written, but regardless of the quality of those episodes, the familiarity of the show's cast was gone, causing a lot of long-time viewers to quit watching. Although YTV stuck to a "Whatever Turns You On" (1979) to "You Can't Do That On Television" (1981-90) rotation, Nickelodeon (most of the show's source of money) aired mostly 1989-90 shows during the week with older episodes being shown on the weekend, dropping the shows ratings even more. The year 1990 marked the end of "You Can't Do That On Television"'s production with only five episodes being produced (also VERY good episodes). Three years later, the show was off the air for good, marking the end of whatvsome have called, the best kids show ever made.

Figure 2.--One of the most common old-fashioned outfits depicted was the sailor suit--usually white suits with short pants and white socks. They were generally depicted as sissy or little boy outfits.

Boys Clothing

Boys on "You Can't Do That on Television" appeared in a wide range of clothes and costumes. The cast of the show appear to have worn their own clothes on the show. I'm not sure if they were given any special instructions by the producers or just came for the shot however they wanted to dress. There does not appear to be any guidelines based on the way the different boys dressed--all a variety of casual styles. Of course there were costumes for the various skits. It was surprising in that the show was produced in Canada, the number of boys who wore short pants. They often wore the brief cut sport shorts popular in the 1980s. They were commonly worn with tube socks. Interestingly, occasionally boys wore grey, British style school shorts. While British boys were still wearing grey school shorts in the 1980s, I was suprised to see Canadian boys wearing them. The costumes for skits varied substantially. The most common traditional style was the sailor suit, usually white suits with short pants. One entire episode was devoted to likts. I don't remember many Fauntleroy suits or curls. I do not think that the boys ever wore knickers. Boys did appear in dressy short pants. There were also scenes at camp, usually with boys in khaki shorts. There were also a variety of more far fethced scenes involving diappers and dresses. One viewer reports that the producer used to costume the cast in sailor suits to try to clean them up instead of them looking like little hoodlums ... he often commented how much "smarter and cleaner they looked in their sailor suits." HBC can not confirm this.

Figure 3.--Notioce how these cast members apear in their normal casual clothes. (Compare this to the 1950s "Mickey Mouse Club". In several skits, the boys were magically switched from their own clothes into clothes that they found embarassing. Click on the image to see the outfits into which these cast members were switched.

Skits and Episodes Involving Clothes

Many episodes included clothing. Often skits were built around the boys being dressed in dresses, kilts, sailor suits, Fauntleroy suits, diappers, and other outfits boys might find embarassing. These skits always involved the boys. I don't remember skits involving the girls in outfits that they might find embarassing. I assume the prevalence of this comic device is a reflection of what children might find funny. I assume it was usually the boys involved because boy viwers would find it funny, but that girls viewers might not find it so amusing. Often the boys magically appeared in these outfits. Skits might have the boys wearing thesecoutfits as a matter if course. Sometimes the boys appeared in balet tights and tu-tus. I'm not sure just why other than for comic relief.


One of the writers was Robert A. Black, a college student. He was young enough that he could effectively relatete to the kids. The kids contributed to the ideas and the scrip writing. The kids, for the most part, have had no prior television experience and are basically just being themselves. Price welcomes input from the cast and encourates improvisation, though "it must always be within the scope of what the real person would say and do. It is much more like being yourself in an extraordinary situation."

Cast Memories

The director had trouble with one boy's mother because a rehersal conflicted with his Bar Mitvah lessons. In the end, they worked out a mutually convenient time and I came aboard for a trial episode. "Music" was the first show in which he appeared. Thinkog back, he says, "I think Roger got back at me for the whole thing by making me wear diapers in that first episode while playing the sitar!" The summer of 1985 was the season when "Dougie" became "Doug." We even rewrote all the scripts to change his name. I'm not quite sure what prompted the change--he was just that age and it was time. Or maybe it had to do with the fact that we were shooting the "Romance and Dating" episode and he was running around in that Cupid costume a lot. You know, trying to make up for the outfit or something. And speaking of the Cupid costume, at one point Doug was going to wear it over to the walk-up Dairy Queen that was across the street from the studio - but he decided not to at the last minute. In the chilly studio, standing on a plastic sheet, 12-year-old Dougie Ptolemy is wearing baggy shorts, stick-on styrofoam angel wings and a curly blond wig, and trying hard not to look up at the bucket a studio hand is dangling over his head.


Interestingly the skits involving the girls rarely touched upon clothing. The primary focus when they did was on age differences.


An HBC reader reports, "I remember that show. We had a high school age girl staying with us and You can't do that on television was one of her favorite television shows.

Viewer Comments

One reader remembers that as a boy, "Technically I wasn't allowed to watch this show because my parents were afraid that it would turn me into a smart aleck. However, like any kid would do, I watched it anyway and just made sure that they didn't find out. This entailed a lot of speedy channel changing on my part, mostly. I watched this show for years, and I remember that after awhile it did get kind of repetitive--it seemed like they brought in a fresh crop of kids every few years to tell the same old jokes. However, I really liked the opening theme and the meat grinder/sausage factory animation for some reason. -- Johnny

Another reader remembers, "This show was so cool! It's actually bizarre for me to see a Nickelodeon without this show in its programming, even though it's been off for years. So many quotes and memories from the show...the opposite sketches (and their Lisa?"), the arcade owner obsessed with quarters, the South American general and his firing squad ("Wait wait, stop the execution." ::sigh:: "What is it *this* time?"), Barthy (Barfy) burgers, detention (both the ones in a classroom and the ones with one of the kids shackled to the wall), and of course, trouble in the studio itself, both with Ross the station owner and with water and green slime falling (or, as in the case of the one where the communists were coming, red slime). They should definitely show a marathon of this show, or put it out on tape or DVD.

Appparently the program was also shown on Australian television, "I watched this show as a boy from 1979 onwards and was an avid watcher for about 3 years then of course I had outgrown this show. I now have fond memories of it because it was us kids being ourselves and really enjoying themselves. OK, it was a tad silly. So what it was kidcomedy big deal."



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Created: July 27, 2000
Last updated: 7:34 PM 9/16/2009