Combining quirky set design, colourful anarchy and gallons of raining green goop for nearly every episode of the ’80s show, You Can’t Do That on Television has been certified as a cult classic.
When CJOH Ottawa debuted the show nearly 45 years ago, it wasn’t a sure-fire success. But two years later in the hands of Nickelodeon, it would grow to become an international sensation.
During a youth programming presentation by scriptwriting student Anna-Lisa Karhinen, her professor, Rick Kaulbars, seized the opportunity to reconnect with Abby Hagyard, who played the mom from the show.
Having previously worked together on the renowned comic For Better or For Worse, Kaulbars, feeling nostalgic, invited Hagyard to speak to his class. To their delight, she agreed to the visit.
On Nov 16., the class gathered for a speech about the highs and lows of show business from entertainment royalty herself. Kaulbars introduced Hagyard affectionately as “one of the cherished bad pennies you’ll see when you’re working in the business.”
Roger Price cast Hagyard in 1982 alongside one other adult, Les Lye, to portray the hapless parents ruling the children’s lives on the show.
The primetime show defied television norms with slime blasts, pie slaps, viewer calls, skits and more, before producers cut their hour on the air in half.
The sole rule of the show: no overarching plot, just unrestrained chaos.
Since its introduction in Ottawa, “being slimed” became synonymous with Nickelodeon. Embracing the slime for nearly four decades, they feature it in their annual Kids’ Choice Awards. The beautiful relationship even merited a slime geyser at their Universal Studios location in Florida.
Officially launched in 1979, Nickelodeon had been producing shows that parents wanted, but they weren’t appealing to kids. Initially, they were a tiny cable network with two shows.
Their transition to a pay-per-view channel marked a turning point, and You Can’t Do That On Television is closely tied to their early success. It went on to be syndicated in 53 countries and it was the channel’s highest rated show at the time.
They were then sub-licensed to the U.S. Armed Forces, meaning every United States military base was subject to rambunctious fun twice a day for seven days a week. It aired on one of the two channels and, Hagyard explained, when the kids came home from overseas, they were “addicted to us.”
Hagyard is no stranger to the military life having lived a portable childhood. It started with her Air Force family routinely packing up and leaving to faraway places. She remembered coming home to moving boxes and suddenly her school play would need a replacement. Often moving meant a new school, culture or even different languages. Occasionally it meant people drove on the wrong side of the road.
“The interesting thing about being a military kid is it’s remarkably similar to show business, because you never have the faintest idea how long your series will last,” Hagyard said.
Embracing a nomadic lifestyle, she started out acting and modelling on Miami Beach. But, like any respected actor, her career had less glamorous moments of uncertainty.
Despite being a local celebrity, having dined with Pierre Trudeau, her only option for work at the time was a delivering balloons for eight bucks a gig. Renowned yet humble, she’ll never forget waiting in a closet at Tunney’s Pasture to surprise a man with balloons on his birthday, clad in clown-wear.
And then, fellow actor Christine McGlade mentioned a golden opportunity when she least expected it. Initially the idea of acting with kids instead of for them filled her with a sense of reluctance. But that was before hearing the salary.
“Suffer the children. Where do I sign?”
Hagyard traipsed into uncharted territory with her own costume and, shocker, she fit right in. The one part that made it easier was the show using all of the kid’s real names so it felt authentic.
“It was improv in the way they were invited to respond spontaneously. So, knowing that was the premise, we invited anybody that was interested all through Ottawa to submit a script,” she explained.
Featuring a new topic with each episode, the show served as a criticism of society and its impact on the lives of adolescence. Addressing a kid’s mundane existential issues, the notorious slime was a symbol for life spilling down on them.
Between taping after school and on weekends, Hagyard voice acted for various cartoons like The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin, Dennis the Menace and The Care Bears.
Ottawa’s own Alanis Morrisette was even a part of the cast in 1986, appearing on five episodes when she was in junior high school.
Due to licensing issues, less than half of the 144 total episodes are available in broadcast quality and there may never be a full release of the series, leaving fans to speculate about a reboot.
Hagyard’s latest project is Pivotry in Motion, a personal excellence mentorship program. At the end of the talk, she handed out posters and forms so students could volunteer to work with her in the future.
One scriptwriting student, Logan Indewey, felt it was the opportunity of a lifetime. “I was starstruck,” he said. “I didn’t know how decorated she was.”