In June of 1984, Nickelodeon saw its first major transition. Cy Schneider, the network’s original president retired. His successor would change Nickelodeon’s direction from parent approved to “kid” focused. Not “young people”-focused, not “child-focused” KID-focused. After all, we were the generation that was growing up with the famous “I’m a Toys R Us Kid” jingle.
Geraldine “Gerry” Laybourne took the reins as the network’s second president in 1984. The changes Laybourne made to the channel early in her tenure would take Nickelodeon from shows kids would actually choose to watch to full on appointment television. Adults had their water cooler shows and soon we would have our pencil sharpener/lunch line programs.
I had a transition of my own in June of 1984. I was only a month away from my sixth birthday and had just been promoted from my three state kindergarten experience. I would be in the first grade when school started again.
As mentioned in my previous article in this series, I was technically too old for Pinwheel and Today’s Special but I still saw both of them because my younger brother was still in their target demographic.
On the other hand, I was also too young for most of the shows Nickelodeon aired in the after school time slots. Shows like The Tomorrow People and Black Beauty didn’t really appeal to me at that time because I was too young to understand what was happening on them.
Let me put it this way, if USA was showing Wacky Races on their Cartoon Express block and Nickelodeon was showing some live action drama, I would pick USA every time. Everyone from local syndication channels to basic cable upped their game to provide programs and advertise products to appeal to us.
Most of the shows I remember watching on Nickelodeon from after dinner to just before bedtime were things like Kid’s Writes. On that show, an adult acting troupe acted out pieces written and submitted by kids between the ages of seven and thirteen. There was one woman and three men in the troupe. It was kind of like a G-Rated Whose Line is it Anyway with no in-studio audience.
You Can’t Do That on Television
You Can’t Do That on Television was wacky and absurd enough for us to find it entertaining. There were some jokes on the show that went way over my head because I was too young to understand what they were talking about most of the time.
Unfortunately, YCDTV’s humor could also be very mean-spirited at times. The show regularly featured sketches about kids chained up in a dungeon and standing in front of a firing squad. Don’t even start with whatever was going on at Barth’s Burgers. Laybourne defends the show with the explanation that the kids on the show always outsmart the adult characters.
The iconic slime that became such a staple of the network’s branding also had its origins in a YCDTV prop gone very wrong. There was a receptacle on the set and people were dumping all manner of food scraps into it. This receptacle (and its contents) were apparently forgotten over a brief production hiatus and when production resumed, the crew found the resulting concoction and opted to use it in the production of the current episode.
All a kid on the show would have to do to get the slime dumped on them would say the words “I don’t know.” The really smart kids learned to say “Water” pretty quickly afterwards to cue a cleansing shower to wash off the nasty concoction. A standard feature of the show would also involve kids tricking each other into saying the trigger words.
Even as a kid, one of my favorite characters on the show was Les Lyle’s red tartan clad teacher. I still love his line, “Where do they find them and why do they always send them to me?” My mom really liked this line too. I think parents who walked through while the show was on probably related to the adults on the show the way we did to the kids.
My favorite segment on the show was when they would do the opposite sketches but I also really liked the locker jokes. I was really disappointed when I got to high school and my locker was only half the size. Also, all of our lockers were the same muddy orange color. And not once do I remember the YCTDV kids ever mention having to memorize a combination to open those things.
There are quite a few stories that have since surfaced about the show that make me question the judgment of some of the adults involved in its production. In the book Slimed, Abby Hagyard, (the actress who played all of the adult female roles on the show) and Adam Reid, (one of the young male performers) both give their accounts of a sketch that made both of the performers uncomfortable.
In the sketch, Adam (who was going through puberty at the time) and his mother are standing out on the front porch of their house. Adam objects to several garments. He removes each of them and hands them to his mother until he’s standing in his underwear on the front porch. Adam announces he doesn’t have anything appropriate to wear so he can’t go to school. Then Adam goes inside, leaving his mother standing on the porch alone and confused.
Another recurring theme on the show involved sketches that punished the young male characters by making them wear dresses or skirts. Supposedly, this was because Roger Price, the British producer of the show, often experienced this type of punishment himself while he was growing up. Price also reportedly used this method of punishment off camera when there were reports of boys on the show bullying each other.
Again, I have to thank Pop Arena for their spectacular “Nick Knacks” series on You Tube. I’ve watched their YCDTV episode multiple times and it’s provided valuable background on the origins of the program as well as its spin-off which starred Max Casella.
Of course, YCDTV had their own future mainstream stars in future “Ironic” pop star Alanis Morrisette and Vik Sahay. Sahay had a regular role on Chuck in the early 2000’s as Lester, one of Chuck (Zachary Levi’s) fellow “Nerd Herders” at Buy More, the show’s fictional Best Buy counterpart.
In 1984, a British cartoon called Danger Mouse also joined Nickelodeon’s new line up. This cartoon probably had a hand in my later love for British culture. Danger Mouse was a little bit like a combination of Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Nick Fury. Not that I would have understood any of those references at the time.
Danger Mouse had an assistant named Penfold. Penfold was an anxiety prone bespectacled hamster in a blue suit. Whenever something upset Penfold, he would say “Crumbs!” The main villain of the series was Baron Greenback, a megalomaniacal frog/toad who was the Blofeld counterpart.
Danger Mouse was the last show of Nickelodeon’s broadcast day on weeknights. The cartoon usually aired just before Nickelodeon switched to the Arts & Entertainment channel. At my house, that meant it was bedtime.
June of 1984 also saw the addition of Nick Rocks, a block of music videos picked by kids who wrote to the network and requested their favorite videos.
There are three videos I specifically remember seeing during Nick Rocks: “Walk Like an Egyptian” by The Bangles, “I Can”t Wait” by Nu Shooz, and “Material Girl” by Madonna.
When the Marilyn Monroe Barbies came out while I was working at KMart in the late 1990’s, I picked the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes doll based on my memories of watching the “Material Girl” video where Madonna wears a replica of this dress in the fantasy segments of the video.
In the summer of 1984, Nickelodeon made some major strides in their transition from their “green vegetable” origins to their iconic future.
In the next installment, I’ll be looking at some of the changes in branding that led to the look and sound that defined the Nickelodeon of the mid 1980’s through 1990’s.