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Ten years later, it's still the kids' show parents hate

Originally from The Ottawa Citizen on February 4, 1989
By: Tony Atherton

Just before all hell breaks loose in Fatal Attraction, Michael Douglas's character snuggles in beside his daughter in front of the TV to watch an Ottawa high school student get sloshed with green slime.

It's a tender moment in the film, a foil for what's ahead, and You Can't Do That On Television, made in the studios of CJOH-TV, is an integral part of the distinctly '80s sense of well-being.

That's hard for Canadians to fathom. Most outside Ottawa know the show only peripherally; until this season, the last time it had Canada-wide exposure was 1982. Yet in 1986, 10,000 children flocked to the annual Easter Bunny garden party at the White House to get autographs from the show's stars: a well-cured Ottawa ham named Les Lye and a group of precocious Ottawa teens.

Ten years after it began, You Can't Do That On Television is a pop-culture icon, a TV show with moment; kids love it, parents hate it, careers and cable networks have been built upon it.

On Feb. 3, 1979, during a live, local low-budget production, a bucket of viscous, green gunk was slopped on the head of a grimacing moppet. The show has never looked back.

It now boasts production executives in New York, merchandising spinoffs from T-shirts to Green Slime Shampoo and hundreds of thousands of kids watching each day in the U.S., Australia, Britain and parts of Europe.

This year, for the first time, it also has a daily berth here at home, becoming within weeks of YTV's launch the highest-rated children's show on the cable network. This month, YTV will begin airing two episodes a day.

A new generation of YCDTOTV is in the wings. The U.S. children's network Nickelodeon has ordered 20 fresh episodes, the first produced in nearly two years. A new repertory cast of Ottawa kids was assembled last spring (the originals, now in their 20s, are a bit long in the tooth), and the series has been taping at CJOH since November.

The young faces have changed, but everything else remains the same: the assiduously seedy sets designed by John Galt (though Galt himself is now a high-definition TV trail-blazer with Sony Ltd.); the crew that labored under director Jeff Darby [sic] (though Darby is now a programming guru with Nickelodeon and MTV); and the infinitely expressive mug of Lye (second only to slime as the series's most-enduring symbol).

Also unchanged is the show's smart-ass smirk, an unflinching commitment to irreverence. Teachers are ogres on YCDTOTV, parents dim-witted, drunk and disreputable. Bodily functions are always good for a giggle in the rapid-fire sketches, along with fractured sight gags, bad puns and general absurdity.

The school-yard humor almost universally offends parents. ''A man came up to me the other day and said he wished fervently his kids wouldn't watch that show,'' says YTV's president Kevin Shea. ''It's a typical reaction.''

Just as typical, says Shea, is the steady stream of fan mail from eight- to 12-year-olds. The show was an instant hit in Ottawa 10 years ago, and last month, a survey by the Citizen's Kids' Page rated it second only to The Cosby Show among young local viewers.

''Fred Rogers (PBS's somnolent, twangy kiddy-show host) hates the show,'' admits YCDTOTV's soft-spoken creator, Roger Price. ''He doesn't realize we're saying the same thing _ I'm saying it to eight-year-olds and he's saying it to four-year-olds... I care about my viewers: I don't care what their parents may want them to be, I care about them for what they are...

''We hear a lot about respecting people's cultures. We should also respect the culture of eight-year-olds. The more we condemn it and the less they are secure in it, the less likely they are to move on.''

That's high-sounding rhetoric about a program that features a short-order cook named Barf and jokes about kids being shot by firing squads or chained in dungeons. It stands out like a sore thumb against the gentle, pre-school programs Canadian TV has become famous for _ and Canadian parents adore.

''Canadians are a pretty precious lot about their kids,'' says CJOH general manager Bryn Matthews. It's an attitude that has made it difficult for the show to find a spot with a Canadian network, he says.

''Too many TV shows are diminishing the self-respect of children, putting up good role models all the time who make the children feel inadequate,'' says Price.

Apparently professionals agree. In 1986, a USA Today survey of pediatricians and child psychologists named YCDTOTV one of the best shows for six- to 11-year-olds.

Price has had plenty of time to hone his opinions on children's TV. A one-time BBC documentary producer specializing in children's issues, he turned to producing for children with Britain's Thames TV in the '70s. The Tomorrow People, a science-fantasy program now seen on YTV, became an instant hit.

He followed that success with precursors of YCDTOTV, You Must Be Joking and You Can't Be Serious, which invited untrained London street kids into the studio to wreak havoc.

On a visit to Canada in the late '70s, he met Matthews, then executive producer at CJOH, and interested in new forms of children's TV. Matthews lured him to Ottawa and You Can't Do That On Television spent two seasons as a live, hour-long production.

CTV ran it for a couple of seasons, mostly on Saturday mornings, but briefly in prime-time after demanding that Laugh-In alumnus Ruth Buzzi be added to the mix. (Buzzi was soon dropped in favor of Ottawa actress Abby Hagyard, the only adult figure besides Lye).

But the show's big break came when Nickelodeon, three years old and struggling to find an identity, started carrying the show in January, 1982.

''It's one of the first shows that brought Nick its new image,'' says the cable network's Brown Johnson. ''Nickelodeon started out being goody-goody. It changed from being a channel that's good for kids to being a channel for kids. You Can't Do That On Television gave us the vocabulary we needed.''

It also gave the channel its senior vice-president of production. Jeff Darby [sic] was a neophyte producer-director not long out of Algonquin College when CJOH assigned him to YCDTOTV. He and Price hit it off immediately, and his enthusiasm soon impressed Nickelodeon.

When he left the show in 1984, Nickelodeon offered him a job. Now he's a programming star, one of the creator's of the channel's ground-breaking children's game show Double Dare, and perhaps the highest profile apostle of the gospel according to Roger Price.

Price was harder to lure away. Despite a lack of recognition here and offers from L.A., he was determined to stay in Ottawa, a city he loved. In 1983, he tried to create his own outlet. Price and CJOH cohort Rob Burton, inspired by what YCDTOTV had done for Nickelodeon, applied to start a Canadian children's channel.

The idea was underfinanced, but it sowed a seed. Burton became one of the driving forces behind YTV, and now serves as its program director. Price owns a small piece of the children's channel.

Price has returned to the new season of production intent on not getting too close to his young stars. He found it wrenching when he lost the last set to university, jobs and rampant hormones.

However, he hasn't said goodbye to all the old group. Kevin Kubesheski is a production assistant on the new series, and Adam Reid, 16, is Price's co-writer.

Christine McGlade, familiar to YCDTOTV fans as ''Moose,'' is now 25, and in her last year at Ontario Art College. She could be back to help Price on a new project he has in mind, something that could do for women what You Can't Do That on Television does for kids: meet the needs of an under-served minority.

How? Well in Britain he upset a lot of male TV critics with a sassy, short-lived series for Thames called Pauline's Quirks, a show Price describes as a ''female version of Benny Hill.''

''I'd like to use that again,'' he says.

Roger, are you sure we're ready for this?