Television

Did You Watch ‘You Can’t Do That on Television?’ Here’s Why You Should Have

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(Christine McGlade headshot for You Can’t Do That on Television, photo provided by Christine McGlade)

Once upon a time, long before the advent of the Internet, and well before we all carried cell phones, a group of unknown kids boarded a bus from school to a small Ottawa TV taping facility. There, on most days and even on weekends, the children – who had little to no acting experience – would read through kid-focused scripts and add their own improvisational flair. According to Christine McGlade, now 51, and back then the eldest of those funny-yet-mainly-untrained kids, there had not been the formal casting process (characteristic of today’s shows) for what would become You Can’t Do That On Television(YCDTOT). In an hour-long phone conversation, Christine keeps me riveted (her voice reminds me of the fascinating narrator of the Serial podcast, Sarah Koenig), chronicling life back then and how she feels YCDTOT changed television and was a sort of precursor for reality TV.

“Saying ‘we were plucked from the schoolyard’ is metaphorical,” says Christine, but she emphasizes that this is how it actually worked: “We went to the station where they put us alone in a studio in front of a camera and asked us questions. Then, they put us in drama classes taught by the amazing Carole Hay: If we didn’t cut it in drama class we never made it on air and Carole provided us with acting training that we would never have received as non-actors. She was amazing.”

Christine explains that, before “cable” even came into existence, the sketches were initially slated for a live local show: “Cable came in with Nickelodeon and many people had no idea what cable even was. We began doing our sketches in 1979, on the heels of Laugh In (which the show has been compared to: ‘Laugh In for kids’) and right as this new show Saturday Night Live was beginning.”

Christine McGlade would have the opportunity to work alongside Ruth Buzzi from Laugh In, yet she would grow up humbly, never considering herself to be a “TV Star.” In the age of Lohan and a certain Canadian kid (Bieber) that may retrospectively have been a blessing in disguise. Christine simply thought of herself back then as someone who had a job that she enjoyed. In fact, she would never actually stop working, going off to college during her final years of YCDTOT (when the show was already on Nickelodeon and quite popular), earning an art degree and working in entertainment before settling into the realm of digital media. She did manage to find time to have three children (two of whom are twins in their 20s, the other is 16) and is otherwise private about her family life.

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(Les Lye, Christine McGlade and Ruth Buzzi, photo provided by Christine McGlade)

Professionally, however, Christine is outspoken on her endeavors and it is quite clear that she has worn many hats in the business world. Most recently, she designed and is in the midst of launching an app that teaches kids about website coding.

It kind of makes me (but not her) sad to think that Christine doesn’t fully realize that “Moose” was watched and admired by so many children. (“Moose” was her nickname in school and the name of her character on the show that would go from Canadian TV to Nickelodeon in a few short years, becoming the most popular show on the network in 1984.)

Perhaps she was somewhat overshadowed by some of the regular ole major network shows of the time: Silver Spoons, Different Strokes, Facts of Life. But I have to say, I for one was watching Nickelodeon, a much more age appropriate television channel. I barely remember Tootie or Blaire (or even Rickie Schroeder’s character) as I remember the green slime that drenched Christine overhead when she deigned to admit the 3 little words: “I don’t know.”

Back then, Christine wasn’t treated in any out of the ordinary manner in school, nor was she recognized much (although she relates one bizarre story about Americans who came to Canada unannounced- actually, to her house – to meet her. It’s sort of a sweet fan story, yet creepy and stalkerish). My sister, middle brother and I remember watching “Moose” on You Can’t Do That On Television. The cast member we don’t remember as well is Alanis Morissette, the renowned singer who would have a role on the series before she furiously hit the airwaves as a famous woman scorned (if lyrics are testimony). Christine, however, made more of an impression on us in the 1980s. She was always willing to laugh at herself, to be the butt of the joke (in one episode, she discovers that her mother is paying off the other kids to be friends with her. In another, she is informed of a “raise,” much to the chagrin of the other kids in the cast — all, of course, part of the show). On the show, she was visibly caring and protective over the younger cast members. Also, time and again, she seemed really cool about being “slimed” as the inevitable response to not knowing something.

Green slime is now Nickelodeon’s emblem, logo and largely, its claim to fame. Those who never watched You Can’t Do That On Television would never realize how affected by it they actually were. For instance, The Amanda Show, which would air on Nickelodeon years later and star Amanda Bynes (this was probably when my youngest brother, now 31, too young when YCDTOT bonded us 3 older siblings, tuned in to Nickelodeon himself) was another example of kids taking over and running the show with their comedic chops. While Real World on MTV was the first program to showcase a group of unknowns in coerced cohabitation adjusting to the challenge of claustrophobic living, You Can’t Do That on Television was the first case of unknown kids working together and seamlessly adjusting to the challenge of doing so on camera. Creator and writer Roger Price, alongside director Geoffrey Darby, involved the cast members in the process so that they could make adult decisions towards shaping the final product. Due to this highly collaborative process, this was the first show, Christine relates, that was truly “produced by kids for kids.”

For Christine, who would become an innovator in digital media over in Canada, You Can’t Do That on Television is symbolic. Back when she was a child star who didn’t consider herself a child star (she was academic and unconcerned with comparisons, but she would probably consider, say, Jason Bateman, Drew Barrymore, Macauley Culkin, Malcolm Jamal Warner and Neil Patrick Harris to have been child stars), there was no Youtube, no Netflix or Amazon, and certainly no social media and video sharing. She was just a hard-working student who also made a show, and would move to Toronto at age 21 to attend arts school. She would go on to earn a BFA and end up directing and producing a lot of television as an adult.

“I still work in media,” she says happily, “I’m just behind the camera.” While much of Christine McGlade’s work in recent years has had educational focus for kids, the irony is not lost on her: “You Can’t Do That on Television was kind of anti-educational” she explains. “It’s funny because I’ve worked in educational media and one of my former cast mates grew up to be a teacher. But actually, Roger Price was a very rebellious anti-establishment man. His thought process was ‘If the kids took over the studio, all these fun, silly, hilarious things could happen.” It was this unconventional approach of Price’s, explains Christine, that she feels was a “cultural precursor to what we now know of as “reality TV.”

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(A “selfie” of Christine McGlade today)

In his book Slimed (2013), Matthew Klickstein explores all the shows on Nickelodeon that were worth revisiting. It is clear, according to Klickstein, that YCDTOT set the tone for the network. Christine calls it “that whole rebellion ethic” and adds “You involve the kids and it just flows. We were as close as it gets to the kids version of Laugh In and at first, no one thought it would ever fly! ‘Are you kidding?’ people thought, ‘channels above 13?!’ Back then (circa 1980), the association people made to ‘cable’ was “cheap,” a community kind of cheap that was not very credible.”

Today, Christine McGlade loves to hear from fans who have found her on Facebook, Twitter or through old clips on Youtube. She remembers all the other castmates fondly since she was somewhat of an older sister to them. I ask her about Alanis Morissette even though I’m quite sure this is a trite, tried and true move, but I justify it to myself, as a big Alanis fan, with: “Come on, You oughtta know!”

“Ah, she was a very talented singer and she was only on a couple of shows because she already had a singing career. ‘Moose’ was a little older than the other characters and there was some churn in the cast. Over the course of the show, there was a huge bank of kids. Some of them made it on air and others ended up being on even more. I stuck around almost for the entire run, from age 14-23, while most kids were there between age 10 and 13. Alanis was a true professional who I remember doing improv, and I remember her in the studio. Adam Reid was another kid who now acts and also directs. I also still see Abby (Hagyard, who played “mom”) and several of the other characters.”

Alasdair Gillis, one of the most popular boys on the show for his affability, who my siblings and I remember quite well, is now successfully working outside of entertainment in Ottawa and, according to Christine, is an “uber” professional in social services. She has met up with him in New York and had the opportunity to reunite with other former cast members there at the Slimed book launch party last year.

Unfortunately, relates Christine, an incredible colleague as well as friend and mentor, veteran “amazing comedian” Les Lye recently passed away.

My brother Elie Hirschman, 40, has an uncanny memory for YCDTOT. He can probably quote back certain parts that some of the cast members may have forgotten they even said. In back and forth discussions about the show and my interview with Christine, he reminds me: “Les Lye was the MAN. He was not just the dad, he was EVERY MALE ADULT PART. He was Barth, the producer, the announcer at the beginning, Blip the arcade guy, the jailer, the firing squad guy and Snake Eyes the bus driver.”

He adds: “Alanis who? Christine, Lisa (Ruddy), Alasdair, those were our buds…”

Christine is very thoughtful and nostalgic when talking about that time in her life. “We didn’t want to be famous,” she says, “That was never my goal or the goal of most of my colleagues back then.”

Christine’s current lifestyle reflects that “I never wanted to be famous” attitude. Now that she manages her own digital marketing business, she relishes the fact that working for herself allows more flexibility than beforehand. This is the type of settled feeling I pray to have at some point, and for Christine, who has notable accomplishments under her belt by age 51, it is well deserved.

She looks back on the YCDTOT time fondly: “It was all very quaint and local. We didn’t miss much school and I got all my schoolwork done. I guess this type of a scenario with such great balance (between school work and TV tapings) might not have been possible today.”

The hard part for Christine about not having wanted to be a famous child is that today, in the age of Facebook, she feels some weird responsibility to fans. It’s “weird” because, as she explains, she’s not an actor and didn’t really want to be one, but she did always want to be a writer and I guess that is what makes her feel compelled to write and blog, to answer questions, to share and tell her story. And as “weird” as a predicament as she sometimes feels she is in, she has reconciled it. She even asked me to provide her Twitter handle and a link to her blog below so that she can remain connected, so that she can respond. Moose made a connection to her fans and that connection was never really severed. The things is: There is Moose and then there is Christine. Moose wants her fans to know Christine. Christine today is a digital media expert, a sophisticated app developer, a woman who has spent time creating educational programs for kids. Drawing from her youth, she is also passionate about the non-educational world, a world that can be characterized as Chuck E. Cheese states in its corporate motto: “where a kid can be a kid.”

“There are a lot of good things that came out of going to work every day as a kid,” Christine reflects, “such as developing a great work ethic. Everybody worked very hard, which is something so unique to a group of kids. I’m thankful that we weren’t too famous because a side effect of fame is being recognized and when that happens, it can feel like a privacy invasion that never goes away. We were really protected from a lot of that.”

In a sad turn of events, she says, the old YCDTOT studio in Ottawa later burned down. Today, there remains its big empty lot and every once in a while, Christine will be in that area and drive by.

“There’s something sentimental and nostalgic about that lot,” she says.

Christine admits that she rarely gets recognized in Canada, but when she visits New York that changes. There was obviously a big fan base, fellow cable watchers like myself who eagerly awaited the ceremonious dumping of green slime on clean heads in the 1980s and then (when I was in college and no longer watching) into the 90s.

Reflecting on her life over three decades ago, Christine talks about how she’s glad she had no long-term plans for acting:

“I think that acting and modeling at a young age can be, for some, like putting all your eggs in the appearance basket. While good agents, directors and production are clued in to talent today, it can still become a problem when ‘cute’ doesn’t work anymore. Education and life experience are very important. I was fortunate that I was already an academic and already fairly bookish and academically inclined. Also, we’re all such helicopter parents today, but my own parents – parents of the 70s – were immigrants from Belfast. They opened the door, sent us out and then saw us again at dinner. When it came to the show, my family made it “my thing.” On the other hand however, my dad appeared on the show at one point and so did my sister and brother and we really had a lot of fun together! I guess one of the best things looking back, in terms of myself and the rest of the cast: We never made enough money to do significant damage. As far as I know, there were no typical tales of woe attached to the kids on the show like there are for some of today’s kid celebs

.”When it comes to young actors today, current reality TV shows, and to celebrities affected by their own fame, Christine McGlade is a breath of fresh air. I think about some current and former child stars who are reportedly getting into mischief, who allegedly have more money than they can manage, and who inevitably land into trouble with drugs and the law due to (also reportedly) improper management. I’m reminded of some old song lyrics. However, in my head, I sing them in the voice of Christine McGlade, who is a decade my senior and definitely the wiser: “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way? Kids, what’s the matter with kids these days?” (She wouldn’t necessarily sing that. Those are my words, not hers, but you get the gist.)

We don’t have to end here in our story about You Can’t Do That on Television. After all, that’s not what modern times dictate, so because we can, let’s begin:

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