Splitsider

Monday, March 26th, 2012

So You Think You Can't Do That on Television?

“As we grow more literate, it seems we mature more in our collecting, passing from the kid stuff of stamps and bubblegum cards and butterflies to the more adult items such as ‘deep meanings.’” — Ken Kesey

Ever since taking on the charge of being the biographer for the “golden age” of Nickelodeon, a few executives’ names continually crop up in my interviews with terms such as, “He/she gave me my start.” Along with Gerry Laybourne, Bob Mittenthal, Scott Webb, and Vanessa Coffey, there was Geoffrey Darby. Barely 25 at the time, Geoffrey Darby was one of two creators of You Can’t Do That on Television.

Whereas Darby’s co-creator Roger Price (at almost twice Darby’s age at the time) moved on after YCDTOT, Darby stayed on at Nick to help make a bevy of other shows and, more than anyone else perhaps, would also go on to make the network particularly… well, messy.

Particularly during its embryonic stage, Nickelodeon was, of course, chocked-full of toilet humor. But it was also as-ever infused with the “toilet sadness, toilet triumph, toilet a lot of things” recently espoused by janitor-cum-artist/filmmaker David Russo.

So, I’ll just come right out and say it: Geoffrey Darby invented green slime. Today — over 30 years later — he runs Martha Stewart TV. And if that’s not weird enough for you (perhaps the stories of Alfred Nobel and Joseph Pulitzer come readily to mind?), wait until you hear about his story of the show that first put Nickelodeon on the map.

How did you come to make YCDTOT?

It’s interesting and complicated. In Canada, where You Can’t Do That on Television started, we had to write a contract with the government telling them what we would do. And we had contractually agreed to do a children’s show. That was basically the genesis of this.

There was a gentleman named Roger Price who always wanted to work in Canada. He met the station manager of Ottawa, and he told Roger, “Why don’t you come work for me and see what happens?”

So Roger came over [from England where he had been working with Thames, responsible for everything from The Benny Hill Show to Mr. Bean]. I had just become a television director there [the Ottawa TV station]. I wanted to get out of the news I was directing, because I was getting bored.

We decided to do a “kids Saturday Night Live.” What we were consciously trying to do was come up with something that would be a full hour.

It had local bands, and contests, and it did very well. It really hit a nerve with the locals. This was how You Can’t Do That on Television first started in Ottawa in ’79.

How about that show title?

We were at a table reading with the kids, and we needed a name for the show. It was actually called The Unnamed Children’s Project up until then. We were throwing around ideas, and someone mentioned George Carlin’s bit about some of the words you can’t say on television.

We started playing from that idea. And from that came the title You Can’t Do That on Television. That’s where it came from.

Were you concerned the title would negatively affect the program’s marketability?

Remember, this was a one-hour local television show. So we weren’t really concerned about anything. We were concerned about making a television show that would be a lot of fun. And that would be “on the side of the child.”

It wouldn’t necessarily be anti-adult, but a pro-kid show.

That’s the same verbiage other Nick show creators I’ve spoken to have employed in describing their work, as well.

They were speaking the language that we [Price and Darby] brought to Nickelodeon. When we brought them You Can’t Do That on Television, that was the show’s mantra. It made Nickelodeon “on the side of the child.”

How did co-creator Roger Price, the Ottawa station, and you end up partnering with Nickelodeon?

The show had morphed into Whatever Turns You On — a prime time series on CTV, which is the national broadcast over there — which did not work out, because it shouldn’t have.

Subsequently from that, we went back and did another series of You Can’t Do That on Television for the local station. We then edited out all of the local portions and gave it to a syndicater who sold it to Nickelodeon.

We then continued producing shows for Nickelodeon and also for Canada, because – of course – once you sell to an American broadcaster, the Canadian broadcasters become interested. It must be good, right?

I was 24 at the time, and Roger was probably 49.

How did you integrate the laugh track into the program?

We created the laughs for the laugh track. Because nobody had an honest kids laugh track.

We showed each episode to about 200 kids and recorded all that laughter and put it into the “laugh machine” and then from there used that laugh track.

Those were real kids. We actually recorded specific laugh tracks for our show.

We were experimenting with what made a more enjoyable experience. You don’t need a laugh track, but it just proved to be a better show with the laugh track.

How did you find and work with the kids who acted on the show?

There were lots of kids who wanted to do the show, so it wasn’t that difficult.

They were cast through the local schools and “cattle calls.” And then people were chosen, then they were put into acting class, and then they were put on the show. But not everyone made it onto the show.

They all went to regular school and were in regular classes. They would come after school for the table readings and then would work on the weekends. They stayed regular, local kids, because we didn’t want them in a bubble. Because then they’re no longer kids, they’re “act-ores.” Which is never what was wanted.

Lisa Ruddy [chatty gal-pal/sidekick of longtime YCTOT host Moose/Christine] was late for a table reading one evening because she got a detention for talking in class. We took that and turned her into “Motormouth” Ruddy. We basically took what their real lives were and just amped it.

The kids got paid. They got paid a lot of money.

There was one diva parent and that kid was then fired. But, basically the parents let us be because we weren’t interfering with the kids’ lives.

Do you feel this naturalism of the kids helped to make the show especially unique?

I think the program itself was unique overall.

First of all, we were doing the show from a child-centric point of view versus another point of view, which is what adults think a kids show should be.

Table reads were very much part of what we saw was resonating with kids. It was very much a collaborative effort of the cast of not what was funny, but what wasn’t funny.

That’s why we didn’t have a lot of those props that normally would go with kids like puppets and some other things. This was 1981. It was really a very different show. It was live-action comedy for kids. And that had not been done for years.

Was there any influence, then, from earlier shows like Our Gang and The Bowery Boys?

Not really. No, I don’t think so.

We were influenced, obviously, by slapstick. We knew what kids laughed at, and slapstick was one of them. A lot of the situations were kid situations.

By making the adults the foils, there was the perception that the kids were in charge. But, if you actually examine the show, the reality is the adults won 80-percent of the time.

They were always winning against the kids, but it looked like the kids were in charge. It was very much “us versus them,” meaning “kids versus adults” and kids-centered. The kids didn’t win that much because kids don’t win.

The adults themselves were often cartoon characters, and the show was really a live-action cartoon, if you look at it that way.

I remember one show in particular, when we did something on fashion and the kids were wearing barrels, which is really something a cartoon would have done.

Were there any real-life counterparts for some of the adult characters such as Blip, Barth, and Ross?

Not really.

Les Lye [who played many of the adults on the show such as “Dad” and “Barth”] had this repertoire of characters. We made them up as we went along. The only one that might have come from somewhere was “the dad.” There was a character on television, Foster Brooks, who was always drunk. Now, “the dad” [on You Can’t Do That on Television] wasn’t drunk. But he was burping and a lot of other things.

The reason “the dad” was a senator was because we wanted to make him a politician. We thought that was funny. The kids didn’t care, but we thought that was funny.

The dad on You Can’t Do That on Television was supposed to be a senator?

Yeah, we made him a senator. “Senator Dad.” There’s a bunch of jokes in there about him being a senator.

He was a senator because that was the only position that was the same in both Canada and the United States. They don’t have presidents up there.

What was the button he always wore with the plane getting crossed-out on it?

There were a bunch of different buttons. It was nothing. None of those really meant that much. It was just whatever was lying around that day sometimes. It was very inventive. We were just doing things because it was funny at the time.

“The Amigos” from the firing squad [“Stop the execution!”] was just the [camera] crew. We were all just having a good time. I mean, we had a lot of work to do. But we did it in a very collaborative and fun way. We tried not to make it onerous for anybody.

Which is why at the end of each show during the credits, when it says who it was written by, it lists the writers… and “the cast and crew.” Because we wanted to give credit for what we made up on the set, which was a lot.

Speaking of showing a firing squad on a children’s show, did you ever feel then or do you ever look back on the episodes now and feel that maybe some things went a bit too far?

I think the “Adoption Show” went too far.

We ourselves didn’t understand what buttons were being pushed about an episode dealing with adoption. And that was our mistake.

None of the kids were adopted, we didn’t know anybody who had been adopted. That was really us just not being cognizant of the world of adoption.

And so that was a bad show. That was just not being respectful. I think it only ever aired once. Maybe.

A lot of the things we did we did for us. We wrote the shows really for us. Meaning the kids and us.

But what about, say, showing guns in a school and some of the scatological references that popped up on occasion?

It’s a cartoon. The violence was all cartoon violence, and I think that’s really important. And kids know the difference between cartoon violence and real violence. They really do. There are lots of studies about that.

Cartoons aren’t bad. It’s “good old conventional wisdom” trying to find some awful kind of thing going on to shield them [the kids]. They never got shot [in the firing squad sequences] anyway. We always cut before they got shot. So, I think that’s the way you have to look at everything here. It was cartoon violence.

The scatological elements were a lot of “11-year-old humor.” That’s all. It’s what they laugh at. If you have a group of kids who are pre-adolescent and you say the word “vomit,” they would all laugh. It’s a cheap laugh.

You know that’s what they’re going to laugh at, so you use it.

From where did the concept for the playfully eldritch title sequence — putting kids through a sausage factory — come?

It was a play on the Children’s Television Workshop [progenitors of Sesame Street, et al].

What we were saying was television is a sausage factory and just cranks stuff out. You put stuff in, it comes out the other end, and you never want to know what goes into it.

Was the animation style influenced by Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python work?

The opening was definitely influenced by him. In fact, it was very much a crib on some of the things he had done previously. Not the sausage factory, but the conveyor belt and hitting the head, and having it crack open.

That was very much the style of a lot of animation in 1979 and 80. It was very much the cutout Terry Gilliam style.

Were you guys otherwise influenced by Monty Python and similar shows from that era like Saturday Night?

Oh, definitely. By all of that. When you’re writing comedy, comedy goes in fads, and that was one of the fads of the time.

And also “blackout” comedy. I think we were more influenced when it came to blackout comedy by Laugh-In, than by Monty Python.

Blackout comedy is where you set up the joke, you give the punch line, and then you go to another scene. That’s bangity-bang-bang.

Time for the big one: How did you end up creating green slime?

Slime was an accident. Honestly, it was an accident.

We used to save stuff like pies and water until the end of the day so that we wouldn’t be waiting around with an expensive crew while we waited for the kid to get showered and cleaned up.

We were in the dungeon set and what happened was we had this joke, which was, “Whatever you do, kids, don’t pull on that chain.”

We went to the cafeteria and got them to give us a bucket of slop.

We said, “We want you to take all the stuff that’s left on plates over the whole day and put it in this bucket.” And then we were going to dump it on the kid so that it looked like if he pulled the chain, sewage would come out.

We didn’t get around to shooting the scene because you can’t go into overtime with children. It’s against the law. If you don’t get the scene, you don’t get the scene. We didn’t get it shot.

So we put the set up again the following week to shoot that one scene…

The prop man came to me – literally, this is a completely true story – and said, “There’s a problem.” The problem was that he didn’t get a new bucket of slop. He just kept the old one back stage. There was about eight to ten inches of green crud. Growing. It had grown on the top of this bucket of… stuff. There was mold.

So, we had to get the scene, right? We couldn’t get more slop, because we couldn’t! I said, “Dump… it… on… the… kid… anyway.”

And that’s how green slime was invented.

Wait, there was no concern about health issues here?!

No, not really. You [the kid] just needed to keep [his] mouth closed [literally, not figuratively] and go into a shower afterwards.

The first slime was real, then?

It was really evil. And, God, did it smell!

And the kid’s name who it was dumped on [Green Slime Victim #1!] was Tim Douglas [who also acted in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life]. And that’s actually how slime happened.

And it got such a positive response from the audience, that then we wrote a show with nothing but slime in it. [Geoffrey asked me not to tell anybody the ingredients of slime, but did confirm it was all edible and non-toxic.]

Jesus, that’s nuttiness squared. But, how did you incorporate the “I don’t know” gag as a trigger to the slime?

We needed a joke to get the slime dumped. We needed one where you could not – no matter what you did – answer the question right. And the joke was, “Name the largest lake in Canada.” Kids would know that, because this was when we were still on the local level.

“How many fish are in it?” You can’t know that answer, right? And so the kid would go, “I don’t know.” That’s all it was. We needed a cue word. And we needed a joke we could play again and again. That’s all that was. It was real simple.

What about the water gag [saying “water” in the YCDTOT universe meant you were drenched by a cascade of water from the heavens]?

That was actually early on. There were flying pies early on; and we got rid of those. Once slime came along, we got rid of the cream pies. Again, it was a live-action cartoon.

Why do you think the slime resonated so strongly, becoming thee icon for Nick?

Again, I think it’s something that adults don’t understand. These were “privileged” kids. When you have “regular” kids watching kids on television, you want to bring [the kids on television] down to earth.

We originally started with pies, and then we used the slime. That really is a leveler. It’s violent, but it’s not violence. It’s safe.

That’s why it resonated with kids. You’re pulling these people who are on pedestals down. Green slime was about trying to give a comeuppance to kids on TV so audiences at home wouldn’t feel so “jealous” of them, for lack of a better term.

They would see that lives of a kid on this show were not all wonderful. It was not all fame and fortune. They were neither of that in reality, because we wouldn’t allow it. Fortune, yes, but not fame.

It was a simple way of getting them out of the rarified air of being a “TV star.”

Is it true that kids who got dumped on with slime or water got paid extra?

That’s true. We just thought it was a way to reward them for the horror of having that done.

What did their parents think about this?

The parents didn’t really care one way or the other. Honestly. But the kids hated it. They hated getting slimed.

Someone once described it as “standing under the rear end of a cow when it raised its tail.”

Were you ever slimed?

No. I refused.

I have been pied. By Ruth Buzzi. When I came out of the control room, they arranged for me to get pied. And they recorded it. Of course.

But, I knew better than to get slimed.

From where did you get the idea for the “Opposite Sketches”?

“Opposite Sketches” were a way for us to poke fun at life and adults. And again put kids in control, which is something that doesn’t really happen that often.

It came from a sketch we had actually written in which it was “opposite.” It was, “Wouldn’t it be nice if life were actually like this?” Then we realized we should do a whole series of these because it was such an easy joke.

It was a nice comic crutch that enabled us to write three or four sketches in every show.

The “Locker Jokes,” on the other hand, were disasters. We hated writing the “Locker Jokes.” They were hard! And they were just language jokes.

Yeah, even the kids always seemed to be making fun of them during those sketches.

Well, right. They knew how much we hated them. And they didn’t like them either. Nobody liked them. But, they seemed to work.

If you watch the hundred-and-some episodes of the series, you discover there’s lots of times in which we tried to figure out ways not to do “Locker Jokes.”

How about the preempt cards at the beginning of each show?

We were watching an episode of a show whose name I don’t remember, and they came on with this joke, “The Waltons Eat Their Young will not be seen tonight.” And we thought it was just so funny, we couldn’t resist doing it.

It was plagiarized.

Did Alanis Morissette shine in any special way when she was on the show?

I think the best line that we used about her was that she was “13 going on 30.” She really knew what she wanted to be and do.

She was fine, but she wasn’t really anything outstanding. She was a good little actress, but she wasn’t anything special.

I’m a fan of hers, but I haven’t seen her in seven years, when she did a concert, and that was probably the last time I saw her. We had nice big hugs and chatted about things that had happened 15 years earlier.

The writing on YCDTOT occasionally indulged in some tongue-in-cheek jokes that seem to be bad on purpose. Was this intentional or is it just that our sensibilities have changed over the years?

I think both. I think some of it was “bad jokes.” They were just really bad jokes and we just had to get rid of them.

I think that a lot of that show was completely over the heads of the intended audience. Because we would write things for ourselves the same way Rocky and Bullwinkle had a lot of things in it in which, if you were a ten-year-old, you wouldn’t get the subtle humor.

There were kinds of levels of YCDTOT that kids never got and that adults did. If I can be so bold.

What were you trying to do with the show overall?

It was a different, real take on kids’ lives. We just wanted to have a lot of fun with conventions and really say, “Life’s pretty crappy.” The artistic thing was, “Let’s just have an awful good time on there.”

Artistically, it was trying to show the kids at home watching, “You think your life’s bad? Well, you didn’t have to write six or seven hundred pages out of a dictionary for detention.”

We took it to an absurd level to make kids feel that maybe their lives weren’t that bad.

You invented green slime and now you’re the general manager of Martha Stewart TV. How did that happen?

I think it’s strange constantly.

I think you have to take the intervening – good grief – 18 years [in which Darby also worked at the Weather Channel, Viacom Interactive, and invented whole other channels like Noggin].

I like being at the inventive cusp of things, and that’s what really excites me. Why I’m here [at MSLO] is it was an opportunity to be inventive.

Nickelodeon really was an invention factory. We invented a lot of things that really made a difference. From game shows to creator-driven animation.

We believed in the creator and now that’s sort of de rigueur in animation. But it certainly wasn’t back when we were doing animation properties. It was very much Transformers and products that were toy-based.

It was a very different world.

We didn’t do it just to be different. We did it because we believed in the creator as the driving force, and not market research.

Why is that important?

I think that when you deal with any property like this – for children and for adults – the great ones are those that came from somebody who really had a passion for and would fight for that story and those characters and not have them sort of bent by market research.

That’s why Nickelodeon never did anything like My Little Pony, which came out of market research. That doesn’t come out of some person having a passion to create these voices. That was a passion to create money.

When we look at what are the great things we all remember, it’s all because they’re passion projects. I think that floats right to the top every time.

I think Nickelodeon has not lost that. I hope.

What are your thoughts on Nickelodeon then and now?

It needs to be constantly stretching boundaries. And I think that was what the heyday of Nickelodeon was: It was a blank sheet. It’s so much easier when you have a blank sheet.

Now you have a game plan. Now you know sort of what works and you’ll go do those things, and I think that it’s harder to take big risks now than ever before. I also think it has become more Disney-esque.

And now Nick is chasing Disney into the tween world. I think that you shouldn’t be chasing anything except your audience. You shouldn’t be chasing your competition.

How do you feel about the resurgence of these early Nickelodeon shows?

I think that’s natural. I think that happens every generation. [People] go back and find what they grew up on and they fondly remember [those shows] and they watch them again.

And, actually, they find out usually that they were pretty lame, that they weren’t nearly as good as they originally thought they were!

You fondly remember these times. They may not have been a great time in your life, but you fondly remember it.

And this [Nickelodeon] was part of that time of your life and you want to relive that, because that’s the joy of nostalgia: You forget the bad stuff and just focus on the good.

Mathew Klickstein is the author of SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age, which is in stores everywhere and will tell you more about Nickelodeon than you probably should know.

  • Alan Lopez@twitter

    cool article, this show was definitely a staple growing up.

  • The Mysterious 'H'

    Probably my favorite of these articles so far. This show was a big influence on me and it's great to see it get its proper due.

    • ProfKlickberg

      @The Mysterious 'H' Thanks, guys, for reading. I'm delighted how this one turned out. I still think the "Pete & Pete" article is the best one thus far, but this one is definitely up there. If you get a chance, a fellow I've become friendly with made a documentary about YCDTOT called "You Can't Do That on Film." You can see the trailer online and he's coming out with it soon. Should be worth a looksy!

    • Hambulance

      @ProfKlickberg I just wanted to pop in and thank you for this series. I patiently await it every week and truly applaud your passion and devotion to early Nick. It just makes my little heart sing.

      Bravo, sir.

    • ProfKlickberg

      @Hambulance Wow, thanks, man (or, I hope but am probably doing so incorrectly, ma'am?). It's been a fun process, to be sure, but definitely exhausting and extremely time-consuming. Something that ain't easy with limited resources and time. But, hey, someone's gotta do it! And I thank you for your kind words and encouragement. It's one thing to write all of this shit, it's another to actually have people read (this time I'm not just hoping…?) and enjoy it! Best, MK

  • jessd6

    I hate to burst your bubble, Matthew, but books have already been written on early Nick: http://www.amazon.com/Nickelodeon-Nation-Politics-Economics-Americas/dp/0814736521/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1332894142&sr=1-1

    Though anything with slime is automatically more interesting, so you may have the edge.

    • ProfKlickberg

      @jessd6 Right, I know. Marc Summers' son brought that up in my last article. I'm actually friendly with the gal who edited that book and she's been very supportive of my project. Hers is actually a collection of academic essays written on the topic from various sources (including one of her own). It's excellent, so definitely give it a read! Mine would be a mainstream piece for a more general public consumption. But, thanks for reading and for the tip! Glad that bit in my bio has been so provocative! Woo!

  • Roni Weiss@twitter

    "The Waltons Eat Their Young will not be seen tonight" is from Season 3, Episode 6 of "Saturday Night Live".

    http://bit.ly/H2f4Qr

    • ProfKlickberg

      @Roni Weiss@twitter Ha! Cool, thanks! I'll let Geoff know. I was WONDERING where it came from when he brought it up!

  • Rachel@twitter

    My most vivid memory of You Can't Do That on Television from childhood was it made me afraid to get my teeth x-rayed for the first time at the dentist. There was a skit in an episode where a kid was in a dentist chair. He was going to have his teeth x-rayed and didn't want to. The adult pulled the switch and the kid wound up with a skull in place of his head. I'm sure it was cheesey more the scary, but at 4 or 5 skeletons scared the hell out of me. The fact that it was live action is probably why I took it more seriously than I would have if it was animated. I also bet to this day my mom doesn't realize why I held out and made a fuss about getting my teeth x-rayed.

    That anecdote aside, great article. The previous few didn't seem to be about the show so much as the creative people behind it. They were well written and interesting, but I do prefer the articles done thus far that cover more ground.

    • ProfKlickberg

      @Rachel@twitter Thanks, Rachel! Yeah, I've tried to keep each article a bit unique from one another. Don't know if I've succeeded in that, but it's been my intention. I also do, of course, want to keep SOME stuff exclusive to the book (!), so certainly not everything is in every article. (That would also be impossible time-wise; most of my interviews go as long as two hours with each person!) Glad you've been enjoying them, and keep reading! We DOUBLE DARE you to read next week's article! (Marc Summers, anyone?)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=3400266 Justin Berns

    What a great article. Have you taken the time to watch Gerry Laybourne's interview with the Paley Center? It's available online and worth your time to watch.

  • http://www.primeblog.us/2013/07/silver-lotto-system.html John Marciniak

    Don't understand if I've succeeded in that, but it's been my intention. I also do, of course, want to keep SOME stuff exclusive to your book, so certainly not everything is in every article. I patiently await it every week and truly applaud your passion and devotion to early Nick. silver lotto system