Register Wednesday | June 26 | 2019

You CAN Do That On Television

Nickelodeon and SpongeBob Exploit the Unexpected

A while back, the Crazy Christian Brigade got its tits in a knot over SpongeBob SquarePants. They decided he was promoting godless homosexuality to the kiddies, making the absorbent little rascal the latest in a long line of children’s characters to be so accused—Bert, Ernie, Barney, and Tinky Winky, to name but a few. Apparently, this is what born-agains do with all the time they save by not fellating other men; clearly not time well spent.

But with SpongeBob, I think they’ve actually cottoned on to something. Not that I think SpongeBob’s gay (I’m pretty sure he’s unable to engage in sexual acts that don’t involve spores), and not that I wouldn’t totally support his lifestyle choice if he were, but watching the show as an adult I get the distinct feeling that a fast one is being pulled. I think it’s because the show is just so strange: the main character manages a fast-food restaurant whose specialty is higher on the food chain than he is, he’s shaped like a synthetic kitchen sponge, and he lives in a world guest-populated by people like Ernest Borgnine and Jim Jarmusch. My reaction to watching it is always to wonder what the hell I’m missing here.

You Can’t Do That On Television had kids telling jokes from lockers, slime dropping from the sky, and a Pythonesque opening reel featuring children going through a sausage grinder—it just didn’t make sense from an adult perspective. Consequently, it was put on the list of shows that I wasn’t really “allowed” to watch, but wasn’t explicitly prevented from watching, either.


This is the magic of Nickelodeon. Since I was wee, they’ve delivered really excellent kids’ programming that is unlike any other kids’ programming. Shows like You Can’t Do That On Television¸ The Adventures of Pete & Pete, Salute Your Shorts and Clarissa Explains It All were weird, man—really weird. You Can’t Do That On Television had kids telling jokes from lockers, slime dropping from the sky, and a Pythonesque opening reel featuring children going through a sausage grinder—it just didn’t make sense from an adult perspective. Consequently, it was put on the list of shows that I wasn’t really “allowed” to watch, but wasn’t explicitly prevented from watching, either. Nickelodeon’s shows excel at getting on such lists; they cultivate an elusive whiff of inappropriateness without actually being inappropriate in any way.

Pete & Pete is a perfect example. The show, for the uninitiated, featured Pete (Mike Maronna), a wiry teenaged redhead; and his brother, also named Pete (Danny Tamberelli), a chubby, dark-haired pre-adolescent kid with a giant semi-magical tattoo named Petunia on his forearm. Also populating Peteland were Artie, a sort-of superhero in a red union suit; their mother, whose metal skull plate picked up radio stations; Iggy Pop, and all sorts of completely surreal madness. Pete & Pete was weird in the way that you craved for things to be weird as a preteen. Oddity for oddity’s sake—something that made your parents go “What the hell?” Nick had a million of ’em—Ren & Stimpy, Double Dare, Keenan & Kel—all of which, to my prepubescent eye, were designed to exclude adults from the fun.

The problem with most children’s TV programming is that the adults who design it don’t know what kids want. People who have forgotten the experience of childhood think that kids are just stupid adults with short attention spans. From that point of view, the most entertaining possible children’s show is loud, colorful and quick-moving, with dumbed-down adult characters, thin plots and a few grown-up jokes thrown in for the parents. This formula yields Disney movies and Warner Bros. cartoons. Now don’t get me wrong—Aladdin and Bugs Bunny are pretty much okay, but those types of shows just never really held my attention. Kids, once they’re old enough to know what’s going on, love intricacy. They love to be able to get lost in the particulars of a show and to be transported to a place that doesn’t function like reality. Think about it: when you’re eight, there’s nothing else to do but get totally wrapped up in some kind of complicated fantasy world (which explains the enduring popularity of Dungeons & Dragons.) Most of all, they like to feel like they are being catered to. Nick always got that perfectly.

You haven’t seen celebrity pandering until you’ve seen Tom Cruise grimace under a load of slime. Nickelodeon never tried to tell us kids what we wanted: they let us decide.


Take the Kids’ Choice Awards. In elementary school, I thought these were absolutely brilliant. Kids voted for their favourite stars and movies and musicians, and the winners were forced to enter an arena (dictated by kids) to accept their awards. You haven’t seen celebrity pandering until you’ve seen Tom Cruise grimace under a load of slime. Nickelodeon never tried to tell us kids what we wanted: they let us decide. Looking back now, of course, I can assume that all of this stuff was as heavily focus-grouped and marketing-directed as anything, but back then it felt like total preteen-directed anarchy.

Now, when I think now about those shows I loved, I realize that there was a level of entertainment flying just over my head: I thought Pete’s tattoo was wicked awesome, but now I find what’s really hilarious about the show is that Pete & Pete’s creators managed to convince Steve Buscemi and Iggy Pop to star, and got Polaris to do the theme song. I found You Can’t Do That On Television screamingly inventive, but I’m sure if I re-watched it today I’d notice that a lot of the jokes were re-hashings of Python or Saturday Night Live. My parents, in this arena as in many others, are not nearly as clueless as I originally believed.

Coming back to SpongeBob, though, it is clear that there’s something to Nickelodeon’s programming that can only be picked up by child-sized antennae. I admit to being a little bemused by Mr. SquarePants himself, but I’m totally in love with the song the Flaming Lips did for the movie soundtrack. Does that make me a grown-up? Alas, I think it must.



Audrey Ference is a writer living in Brooklyn with a cat and a TV, among other things. She kind of doesn’t get what the big deal is about The OC. No offence.