Les Lye of 'You Can't Do That On Television' Dies At 84 : Monkey See The adult star of the Canadian kids' show You Can't Do That On Television — which gave Nickelodeon much of what remains its brand identity — passed away yesterday. We pause to appreciate him.
NPR logo Les Lye of 'You Can't Do That On Television' Dies At 84

Les Lye of 'You Can't Do That On Television' Dies At 84

If you grew up in the 1980s and had cable (or a friend with cable), then there's a good chance that you spent your afternoons with a Canadian actor whose name you almost certainly didn't know. But you knew Barth, and you knew El Capitano, and you knew Senator Lance Prevert, and you knew Ross Ewich.

In other words, you knew Les Lye, who died yesterday at the age of 84. Lye may have started out as the only cast member of You Can't Do That On Television whose age didn't start with a 1 (at least until Abby Hagyard was brought in to play the female characters), but he fit in perfectly. In a show ostensibly run by kids, adults were hypocritical, disgusting, tyrannical and just plain ineffective, and Lye jumped into his role with gusto.

It's not something just anyone would have gotten right.

A weird show, just the right approach, that young Canadian in the clip above, and more, after the jump...

You Can't Do That was, by just about any measure, a weird program. It was a sketch show about a sketch show, simultaneously corny as all get out (one recurring Laugh-In-inspired bit consisted solely of the cast popping out of school lockers two at a time to tell jokes that would make Borscht Belt comedians blanch) and postmodern, with countless shatterings of the fourth wall and self-referential jokes.

It was basically The Muppet Show with Canadian kids instead of hands wrapped in felt, and Lye was Gonzo, Sam The Eagle, Animal, Sweetums and Crazy Harry all in one. Even when he was the only adult present, he gave as good as he got. In a show where children were routinely brought up in front of a firing squad and characters could take a casual approach to cannibalism (as in the clip above, and yes, that's a very young Alanis Morissette), the resident grownup could have been responsible for making the proceedings slightly more respectable. Lye ran hard in the opposite direction, portraying adults as venal, untrustworthy martinets without a second thought.

Despite its impact (its habit of dumping green slime onto anybody who uttered the words "I don't know," in or out of a sketch, gave host network Nickelodeon its enduring trademark), You Can't Do That never got the same ironic generational cachet that Saved By The Bell has enjoyed over the years. Maybe that's because it was too self-aware and meta to pretend that anyone, even children, could ever take it entirely at face value. Maybe it suffered from being on cable when cable wasn't yet ubiquitous. Maybe it was just too Canadian.

Whatever the reason, thirtysomethings who grew up south of the 49th Parallel tend to save their nostalgia for Zack and Screech, rather than Alasdair and Moose. But Saved By The Bell was what adults thought kids thought about adults; You Can't Do That was what kids actually DID think about them. And by making sure that his young costars always looked better, smarter and funnier whenever he was on screen with them, Les Lye proved that he was, ironically, the one adult who was worthy of our trust.