Slimed! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age looks at the cutting edge CJOH show and its effect on the U.S. network.
Imagine a TV show where kids are executed by South American firing squads, held captive in Nazi dungeons, fed rat burgers and forced to endure a drunken father’s not-so-sober wisdom.
Top that off with buckets of green slime dumped on their heads whenever they said, “I don’t know.”
You could never do that on TV now, but from 1979 to 1990, You Can’t Do That on Television, produced at Ottawa’s CJOH studios, became a worldwide hit that helped launch the youth-oriented Nickelodeon network in the U.S.
“It seemed wrong on so many levels even back then, didn’t it? It seemed like you were getting away with something,” remarks Adam Greydon Reid, who joined the cast in 1984.
The show, and the network it helped launch, is the subject of Matthew Klickstein’s book, Slimed! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age, released this week.
Klickstein, 32, was drawn to the show because of commonalities he shared with the cast. “They looked just like me and my friends. Some of them were fat and cross-eyed, had greasy hair. They were average kids and it really felt like it was being made by them,” he says.
But the show also carried an after-school reality check. “We were coming home from getting made fun of at school. The teachers were screwing with us and we get to watch kids literally get s— on.”
The brainchild of Roger Price, the sketch show echoed the SCTV-style goings-on at a TV station, with a Monty Python-inspired animated opening sequence and lampoons of 1980s pop culture like the politically incorrect Rambo Shoots the Ayatollah.
Only two adults appeared on the show, playing various characters: Abby Hagyard, who played the doting ’50s housewife antithetical to the take-charge sitcom mothers of the 1980s, and the late Les Lye.
“Les was an amazing comedian,” says Christine McGlade, who starred on the show from 1979 to 1986. “He was already a star and could have left anytime, and I’m sure he had no lack of offers, but he never did.”
In 1982, the fledgling American channel Nickelodeon became co-producers with CJOH. Reid says Nickelodeon stayed out of the way. “There was no pressure, no network execs telling us what to do. They never interfered because they knew what was magical about the show.”
Launched in 1977, Nickelodeon is now a global, billion-dollar network, but Klickstein says its philosophy and esthetic was inspired by Price and You Can’t Do That on Television. “It’s pretty astounding for this almost public-access show on this local Canadian channel to go global like it did.”
“I remember getting a residual cheque from Saudi Arabia,” says McGlade, who personally delivered the first episodes to Nickelodeon. “Roger thought it would be hilarious to send a 15-year-old kid on a plane with two giant two-inch tape cases because he had this gleeful idea that kids would be in charge and take over.”
But while the show was immediately successful in the U.S., its regional appeal did not broaden in Canada until YTV launched in 1988, which allowed the cast to live normal childhoods in Ottawa. “It might as well have been a paper route,” says Reid, still a familiar face on Canadian television. “None of my friends in Ottawa cared because they weren’t into the show. My wife hated it. Still hates it.”
While the show had its Reagan-era detractors — according to Reid, Mr. Rogers allegedly condemned the show in a letter to Price — it remains a cult favourite today. Conventions and cast reunions have taken place over the last decade. Despite no official DVD release, clips abound on YouTube.
Reid, who played Superman creator Joe Shuster in a 1990s Heritage Minute, says he is still recognized from the show. McGlade, who now produces digital content, says she receives five to 10 Facebook requests per day.
“Because of the Internet it’s almost as fresh in people’s minds as it was when it was on the air. I get messages from young kids who are discovering it from their parents.”
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on October 3, 2013.