Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Art(lessness) of the Title: You Can't Do That on Television

A shot-by-shot breakdown of the You Can't Do That on Television credits.

The wonderful website Art of the Title offers its readers elegant and thought-provoking articles that break down and analyze the title sequences from prominent films and TV series. It's a fascinating site, and you owe it to yourself to spend some quality time there. But I figured it would be a long, long time before Art of the Title ever got around to doing You Can't Do That on Television, the decidedly lowbrow, kid-oriented Canadian sketch comedy series that aired on Nickelodeon in the 1980s. If anyone was going to analyze the show's memorable title sequence, it would have to be me.

While the series itself seemed to take most of its cues from American shows like Saturday Night Live and Rowan & Martin's Laugh In, albeit with a greater emphasis on pre-adolescent "gross out" humor, the opening title sequence of YCDTOTV is directly inspired by Monty Python's Flying Circus. Terry Gilliam's "cutout" animation, produced by taking actual cutouts (often photographs) and moving them frame by frame, became emblematic of the British sketch comedy series.

Paradoxically, Gilliam's anarchic work gave the series a sense of form and organization. A Gilliam cartoon could link two seemingly unrelated bits together, and the longer cartoons served as bits in and of themselves. Monty Python's ever-evolving title sequence, set incongruously to Sousa's Liberty Bell March, wonderfully set the tone for each episode... even when it sometimes popped up at an unexpected time during a show.

Here's how the title sequence looked during Season 2. As you can see, it's a series of non-sequitir visual jokes, with a parade of bizarre humanoid characters being mangled, reassambled, and crushed in a variety of creative ways:



The effect is manic and violent, but utterly cheerful nonetheless. The abundant silliness on display here undermines the seriousness of the often-dour source photos and the militaristic pomposity of the music. In about half a minute, we have a neat summary of the show's basic philosophy of life and its approach to comedy.

The title sequence for YCDTOTV is about the same length as the Monty Python titles, but it's more linear and narrative in the way it's laid out. Before we go any further, let me at least show you the darned thing. There were a few versions of the titles over the years, but the following clip is pretty representative:



Right away, you should see many motifs taken directly from Monty Python: factories, assembly lines, people being disassembled and reassembled, comedic subversion of familiar classical music (in this case Rossini's William Tell Overture), God-like hands reaching into the frame, "perfect" blue skies, and people's heads cracking open. And as I said before, there is something like a linear narrative here.

The credits begin with an ominous-looking building rising up against a pop-art landscape. It is the ghoulishly-named Children's Television Sausage Factory, an obvious swipe at Sesame Street's Children's Television Workshop. The building has a giant meat grinder on its roof, which suggests that the television business is brutal and impersonal and only interested in cranking out thousands upon thousands of identical copies. Inside the factory, the heads and torsos of children emerge from chutes and are carried along conveyer belts. The fully-assembled children emerge from a giant spigot that pours them directly into a school bus. It is interesting to note that Terry Gilliam's title sequence for Monty Python's the Meaning of Life also features a machine that cranks out millions of identical copies of "ideal" nuclear families.

Up to this point, the YCDTOTV credits have been fairly dark. Even the music is a little unsettling. It sounds at first like a Soviet military march punctuated with pained shrieks. But once the factory-made children are on that school bus (another symbol of childhood oppression), the music turns into a Dixieland-style gallop and the mood completely changes. For the rest of the running time, the titles are all about youth taking over adult institutions and totally overpowering the grownups who try to stop them. The school bus takes the kids to a very grim-looking building simply designated TELEVISION NETWORK, but the youngsters are not cowed one bit. They emerge joyously and chaotically from the bus. The doorman, a grouchy-looking old white guy, holds up his hands to stop them.

It's significant that this is the point at which the POV switches from objective to subjective. We are seeing this from the kids' point of view and are asked to identify with them as they trample the terrified, wide-eyed guard. Once inside the studio, the kids have seemingly seized control of the cameras. (We see one roll by of its own accord.)

The credits end with the final triumph of youth over old age and authority. A serious-looking, unsmiling man looks directly into the camera -- directly at us, in fact. He may well be the same guy who was guarding the door a few seconds ago. But he has scarcely made his presence known when a giant hand -- a kid's hand -- reaches into the frame and stamps the title of the show directly on the man's face. Totally defeated, the adult authority figure literally cracks up, and his head splits open to reveal the next scene of the show.

"You can't do that on television," say the adults.

"Just watch us," the kids respond.

And with this simple yet eloquent title sequence, YCDTOTV may well have radicalized an entire generation. Is it overreaching to suggest that the protesters currently occupying Wall Street are people who grew up watching Nickelodeon...? Perhaps it was this humble sketch comedy show that convinced them that they, not the old-school elite, were the ones with real power.

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