Roundtable Review: You Can’t Do That On Television, “Bullying” and The Adventures of Pete & Pete, “The Call”

By Les Chappell, Andy Daglas, Anthony Strand, Whitney McIntosh, and Andrew Rabin

You Can’t Do That On Television
Season 3, Episode 7: “Bullying”
Original airdate: November 1, 1982

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Andy: First, let’s state the obvious: It’s hard to imagine a show with such low production values making it to air today, outside of maybe cable access. But the 1980s were a simpler time (especially in YCDTOTV’s native Canada, much of which, I believe, remained unexplored by humans as recently as 1987).

YCDTOTV grew out of a locally produced Ottawa program. It went national shortly after debuting in 1979, and was picked up by a fledgling kids-oriented cable channel in the US in 1981. “Bullying” is from 1982, when both the program and its new American home were as green as the slime that became a signature element of both.

Yet the ramshackle, “let’s put on a show even though we only have a production budget of like 40 loonies” vibe persisted throughout its run—or at least, that’s the vibe I remember from it. This is one of the earliest shows I can recall watching regularly. It’s fair to say it fostered an early appreciation of sketch comedy and corny jokes, and I parroted catchphrases like “sometimes it’s so easy I’m ashamed of myself” well into junior high.

It also solidified Nickelodeon as the go-to cable channel of my childhood. The aesthetic of a show made by and for kids helped set a template for the Nick original programming that followed in the late 1980s and 1990s. YCDTOTV is more juvenile than most, laden with gross-out humor and aggressively devoid of anything resembling educational value. It’s a dose of the mildest sort of adolescent rebellion.

Many of the most famous recurring sketches are represented in “Bullying”—the firing squad, detention, Barth’s wretch-inducing, health-code-obliterating burger joint. And these recurring bits all have a similar theme: kids are pretty dumb, but adults are downright incompetent—and good thing, too, because what they’re usually trying to do is punish kids for no discernible reason.

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Anthony: I have vague memories of watching You Can’t Do That on Television at my Grandma’s house*, but I recalled very little beyond the jokes being corny and people getting slimed.

*Until 1997when I was was 12—we didn’t get Nickelodeon, but my Grandma did, so getting to watch it was always one of the highlights of visiting her. That and blue pancakes.

Turns out my memories were accurate, because there really isn’t a lot more to the show. Host Christine McGlade isn’t kidding when she calls it “the show that beats you over the head with bad puns, sick jokes, and lousy acting!” But the fact that they go ahead and announce it up front gives it more charm than it would otherwise have. It plays like a bunch of kids just goofing around, putting on a show to amuse themselves. They seem like they’re having fun, and I enjoyed watching that.

The bullying theme could have been problematicthis episode is packed with jokes about kids (and adults) beating each other upbut all of the “violence” was too silly to be offensive. And honestly, I was surprised at how thoughtful some of the material was. The scene where a teacher assigns one kid to harass the bully reminded me of the recent online discussion about publicly shaming bullies, and whether that’s a form of bullying. These were not thoughts I expected to have when I sat down to watch You Can’t Do That on Television this morning.

So, good job, everyone!

Whitney: I never watched You Can’t Do That on Television, but I’m pretty sure it’s one of the most low budget children’s shows I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something, considering half the programs on Nick during the 90’s were relying on approximately $17 an episode (looking at you Gulla Gulla). The acting is obviously cheesy and pretty awful, but as Anthony points out the fact that they prepare you for this goes a long way towards forgiveness of terrible line readings and pretend bullying.

The part that really turned me off of every watching an episode of this again however was the way in which they organized each sketch. I applaud the cast and crew for attempting to utilize a different form of sketch comedy than many of the other sketch shows on the air at the time, but the way each sketch cuts in and out after only 30 seconds of screen time is disorienting and annoying. I wonder how much of it is due to the widely understood fact that kids can’t be filmed for long takes very often or if it was purely a creative decision but regardless, I found myself spacing out depending on which sketch was being given the brief spotlight and losing track of much of the humor and “plot” of each vignette.

The Canadian-ness of it all does make it a lot more amusing watching it at this age rather than as a kid, and I can definitely understand how funny the goofy humor was way back when. Christine and Alistair’s between-sketch skits made me crack up a few times and the goofiness of the burger joint bullying was different enough for me to appreciate what the cast was doing. Plus, not every kids show could pull off doing a comedy version of a “very special episode” and not water down the social issue at the center.

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Andrew R.: I’m sorry Whitney, but given that the going rate for a Binyah Binyah plush doll is $80, I’d say that costume alone was worth far more than the production of this episode of You Can’t Do That on Television. I also had never seen this show before, and after watching this, I have no desire to see it again. But yes, it seems self aware of its ineptitude, and I guess that is something.

Anthony says the subject matter could be problematic, and I will go a step further and say that it is. This would never air on Nickelodeon today. Bullying has become a mainstream issue the last few years, and it would be far more likely to be a subject on an episode of Nick News with Linda Ellerbee than an episode of a comedy show. I do wonder what an episode with a lighter subject would seem like, the idea of a sketch comedy show revolving around a central theme is somewhat interesting.

I will agree with Whitney that the brevity of the sketches did not work for me. I understand the appeal of minute-or-less sketches to attract a short attention span audience, but I imagine those children would become more confused when the action would return to one of those sketches later on. Of course, the fact that so many of these seem to be recurring sketches might have made this a bit easier. Part of me was hoping that, along with the uniqueness of the short sketches, the sketches would all be original, but these sketches seem to recur even more often than those on a show like Saturday Night Live or All That.

One last point of disappointment, and this is from Wikipedia. Allegedly, the actors who were slimed were paid more for that episode. My only hope is that Nickelodeon did not continue this tradition on other slime-heavy shows. The slime should be payment enough.

The Adventures of Pete & Pete
Season 3, Episode 3: “The Call”
Original airdate: September 18, 1994

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Anthony: Boy, Pete & Pete isn’t very similar to You Can’t Do That on Television, huh?

I loved Pete & Pete as a kid, and I have the two released seasons on DVD. Rewatching it as an adult, I’ve realized that it’s not only my favorite Nickelodeon show of all time, it’s one of my absolute favorite TV shows of the 1990s. It captured the feeling of being a kid (through Little Pete) and growing up (through Big Pete) better than just about any show I can think of, and it did it by exaggerating every single thing about that experience.

“The Call” is a perfect example. I grew up in a tiny town with a (now closed) potato processing plant in it. Every week during the summer, the plant caused the entire town to smell terrible. It often seemed like that was all anyone could focus on.

Here that’s taken a step further, as the phone is literally the first thing on everyone’s mind. This allows for a whole bunch of really entertaining responsesMailwoman McGinty’s mania, Ellen’s comforting calm at the call center, Carl’s fear-induced forcefield, Nona’s mocking of that forcefield, and so onbut it also serves to ratchet the tension to unbearable levels. This isn’t some endearing small-town quirk. It’s a merciless invader that controls everything about the town.

That sense of dread wouldn’t be possible without Pete & Pete’s other biggest assetits commitment to not caring about continuity. The characters and their relationships carryover, but every episode is essentially a standalone short film. It’s a little bit like Louie in that regard, now that I think about it. This episode is set in a version of Wellsville that’s been obsessed with a ringing phone for twenty-seven years. It’s a sound we never heard before or after, but that doesn’t matter. For this episode to work, it needs to be presented as a constant.

And it works really, really well, like an Orange Lazarus on a hot day. I’m especially fond of the way Joyce’s metal plate is used in this episode. For a silly gimmick, it was utilized surprisingly well throughout the series. Here, it’s mentioned early-on as the reason Joyce doesn’t like the sound of a ringing phone. But when that turns out to be a misdirect, it allows the ending to be much more powerful than it otherwise would have been.

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Whitney: I was really taken with how much heart this episode had. With Younger Pete participating in his own adventure to try and answer the phone, it lets Big Pete have a grown up moment not only with his mom but also with Ellen when he helps her save Mailwoman McGinty. As the episode goes on it shows Big Pete getting more opportunities to participate and understand adulthood. He reluctantly helps Ellen at the football field, but later on when he realizes it’s his mother who the call was always meant for he more readily steps up to the plate to convince her to stop the ringing.

The way the unending heat of summer was deployed here spells out all of the characters’ motivations more clearly. The heat is so oppressive that everyone can only really set out to accomplish one thing. Little Pete and his friends embody this the best with their seemingly endless walk to the phone, but the montage at the beginning showing how the heat pervades the entire town spells out just how awful and unmotivated everyone feels.

Like Anthony, I appreciate the way Pete & Pete is committed to not being committed. It’s one thing to have a show that doesn’t care about continuity, but another thing completely to embrace the creativity that allows from week to week. Here, the show uses it to tell a story about love, loss and holding on to the past that couldn’t be told in many other programs without automatically taking the show to a bit of a darker place. But for Pete & Pete, the next episode can press reset and go in any direction they please.

Les: We talked about You Can’t Do That On Television being dated, but a show focused on a phone booth? Now that’s retro.

To me, the most important thing about being a kid, and the most essential thing to try to hang onto in adulthood, is imagination. The ability to escape into your own worlds, to take the everyday occurrences and finding a way to make them something special, to find an adventure in places where there typically isn’t any. And for that reason, The Adventures of Pete & Pete has long been one of my favorite Nickelodeon showseven though I didn’t come to it until I was an adultbecause it’s one of the most imaginative things the network ever did. There’s a spark to the show of the extraordinary in ordinary life, an ability to push events into strangeness but always keeping it grounded in reality.

Take “The Call” for instance. It takes two relatively benign incidentsa freak heat wave and the urban legend of a ringing phoneand uses that to drive an entire town to insanity. Neighbors are treating their lawnmowers like cattle with lassos and brandings, shoes and tires are melting to the pavement, psychiatrists are wearing fishbowls on their heads and sporting harpoons, and there’s even horrifying hallucinations of an ice cream man in the center of a fire holocaust. There’s a goofiness to the way this town’s reacting to such benign events, but there’s also a sense of epic scope to how they can all be held in thrall by these events.

Big Pete is caught up in the action when Ellen asks him to pitch in at the Ringing Phone Crisis Hotline, and after saving Mailwoman McGinty from the rings his innate decency takes over and he decides he needs to save the town. Little Pete on the other hand is more about finding an adventure, arguing that answering the phone will save the summer and make them heroes, and he assembles his core team complete with all their special abilities. It’s a split that nicely encapsulates the age difference between the two: Big Pete has a sense of responsibility and connection to the community, while Little Pete is all about making an adventure of it.

The resolution of the storywhen it turns out that it was Hub the phone repairman who was calling, and he’d kept the phone ringing all this time waiting for the Petes’ mom to answer it as a sign of devotion. It’s a truly bittersweet ending to the story, since we know she’s not going to leave her husband, and the fact that the phone starts ringing again as an “eternal flame” is a moment that really sticks with you. Pete & Pete could be a very silly show, but was also a show with heart and an understanding of childhood sincerity, and “The Call” proves just how good it was at balancing the two.

Finally, we have to say a few words about Artie, “whose powers are limitless.” Artie is to me the personification of the show’s spirit and style, a character who could entirely be explained as Little Pete’s imaginary friend but continues to bleed over into the real world, able to perform great feats of strength and be wherever he needs to be. Toby Huss’s performance and appearance in this world means surreality is always part of the show, flexing and leaping and offering such lines as “Soon you will be as cheese, boy. Melty, melty, melty.” He is, quite simply, a delight.

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Andy: Les, I’d be lying if I said the line “Soon you will be as cheese boy,” didn’t factor prominently in my selecting this episode.

Pete & Pete is my favorite Nickelodeon show, and one of my favorite shows ever. It’s certainly the one from the Nick golden age that I’ve revisited the most often, by far. That’s because, unlike almost all of its contemporaries, Pete & Pete genuinely holds up as a quality program even divorced from nostalgia, for all the reasons you’ve articulated above. It’s so carefully, inventively constructed, with an eye that’s equally attuned to emotional honesty and to flights of fancy.

And yet, it’s also the show that exerts the strongest nostalgic pull on me, in part because it was exerting that pull on me the first time I watched it. At certain points in my childhood, I had a strange tendency to step back and recognizes the stretches that I would someday recall fondly. Pete & Pete always struck me as sharing that mentality. It has a wistful appreciation of childhood even at the same time it’s experiencing that childhood firsthand. That’s because it’s a show on the brink between maturity and immaturity, between Little Pete’s ardent determination to avoid adulthood and Big Pete’s halting efforts to attain it. “The Call” reflects both of those themes, along with showcasing the wonderfully weird world of Wellsville, sitcom suburbia as filtered through the lens of Jack Kirby.

Andrew R.: So I come to this episode from a slightly different place than most of you. I certainly watched occasional episodes of Pete & Pete when it aired, but I neither watched it regularly, nor was it one of my favorite Nickelodeon shows (those would be, among live-action scripted shows, Clarissa and Alex Mack. What can I say; I have a thing for cute blondes. We’re going to have some fun on September 30, boys and girls.). As a result of that, I had little knowledge of Wellsville or the show’s universe.

And yet I had no problem catching on and enjoying this episode. This is one scenario where a familiar guest star was especially helpful; I was confident Bebe Neuwirth was not a regular cast member, which Wikipedia helpfully confirmed, and therefore felt there was not some inside joke I was missing. I may have bought into the explanation about the mother’s plate a bit too easily, but overall I was able to enjoy the episode.

This makes me question what I like in television. I am a fan of many highly serialized shows, but the idea of a show where you can drop in and follow almost fully is appealing. I will be interested to see how much Nickelodeon’s other scripted, live-action shows follow this path.

3 Responses to “Roundtable Review: You Can’t Do That On Television, “Bullying” and The Adventures of Pete & Pete, “The Call””

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