How watching YTV in the '90s influenced an entire generation of artists to 'keep it weird'

YTV's strange and often surreal programming choices created a wave of cultural phenomena that was uniquely Canadian and the best kind of weird.

The channel created a wave of cultural phenomena that was uniquely Canadian and the best kind of weird

For '90s kids, these strange creatures and the strange channel they appeared on were our best friends. (YTV)

If you were born in the late '80s to early '90s, chances are high that you spent a considerable of time watching YTV. The Canadian television channel was launched in 1987 but hit its cultural heyday during the '90s with a slew of Canadian programming. Unlike American channels aimed at younger audiences, YTV created a uniquely Canadian cultural showcase that was weirder than anything else on television. If you're an artist from my generation, it's likely that you owe some of your artistic practice to YTV.

What made YTV so different? Using the slogan "Keep It Weird," YTV created programming blocks with "PJs" that made up their dedicated afterschool and weekend viewing. The most influential was "The Zone," an afterschool programming block that was hosted by a range of memorable people, including PJ "Phresh" Phil and Paul McGuire. Originally developed by YTV to skirt around children's advertising limitations which controlled the amount of advertising which could be shown in a hour time slot, The Zone was filled with weird inside jokes, oddball humour and quirky sidekicks like a talking Elvis bust, a hand in a toilet and a series of puppets called "Grogs."

Phil Guerrero was the very first host of The Zone and was on the show through the full decade. (YTV)

The nonlinear storytelling of YTV's programming blocks were combined with an unprecedented level of viewer participation. Hosts regularly read letters and interacted with kids across Canada. YTV and "The Zone" often felt a small world sheltered from the rest of society — a bizarre miniature portal that existed just for the '90s kids watching. The unscripted segments between shows often included some surprising personal conversations, including when host Paul McGuire directly talked to the camera about how he didn't believe in God anymore. This wasn't your typical kids' programming.

In the early days of the Internet, YTV's strange and often surreal programming choices created a wave of cultural phenomena. Uh Oh!, a slime-infused game show with a high gross-out factor, was popular, creating a burst of products and toys aimed at appealing to the icky obsession of viewers. There was The Hit List, a teen-friendly music video show that replayed MMMBop by Hanson on an endless loop. My personal favourite was Video and Arcade Top Ten, an instructional show where you watched other people play video games. All of these shows were uniquely Canadian, emerging into a cultural landscape that was so often dominated by American imports.

Joyously awaiting the slime. (YTV)

But YTV didn't exclusively focus on Canadian content. It exposed a generation of Canadian kids to dubbed Japanese anime, hosting shows like Pokémon, Sailor Moon, Gundam Wing and Dragon Ball Z. I still remember when YTV aired Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz, a full-length anime movie. My personal favourite was Mummies Alive!, a Canadian-American animated show that only ran for one season in 1997. I still use the catchphrase "By the strength of Ra!" to the confusion of everyone around me. And speaking of innovative programing that stays with you, YTV also aired ReBoot, an entirely Canadian show that was the first computer animated television series. ReBoot explored complex plot lines inside its computer generated world, often exploring notions of good vs. evil and redemption through long narrative storylines.

Many of YTV's other outstanding shows didn't exist anywhere else, like Are You Afraid of the Dark and Animorphs. There were also some shows that would never have aired on other networks and were only created in order to help YTV meet the mandatory Canadian content requirements for Canadian broadcasting. I'm talking about show like Radioactive, Student Bodies and Breaker High. (Many of us likely owe our Ryan Gosling crush on YTV's frequent replaying of Breaker High throughout our formative years.) The channel also aired pivotal moments in Canadian children's advertising, like the infamous "Don't you put it in your mouth" public service announcement.

Through all of its programming and content, YTV created a uniquely Canadian television world that was often low budget, unscripted and into everything weird. It's easy to connect the ongoing diversity and vibrancy of my generation's artistic output with the distinctiveness of YTV in the '90s. Our wide-ranging creative output has been indirectly nurtured by the complexity of YTV's programming. I see artists from my generation — regardless of discipline — use an expansive series of influences to define their artistic output, a practice that owes something to YTV's diverse programming slots. When I notice a writer like Joshua Whitehead reference Arika as an influence for his book full-metal indigiqueer, I think of how YTV was directly responsible for the first wave of anime into Canadian viewing audiences.

I also see the influence of YTV in the work of visual artists like Paul Hardy, whose abstract paintings reflect a DIY approach to visual representations, and in musical artists like Carly Rae Jepsen. Artists from my generation who grew up with YTV's indie low budget and quirky content are more likely to take risks, point a personal touch on their art and innovate between genres and mediums. My own work bears a relationship to YTV with the wide range of influences and sometimes contradictory texts that I bring into a conversation. It's obvious that watching Sailor Moon followed by a slime-filled game show would have some impact on your ability as an artist to juggle multiple mediums and genres.

The Canadian kids who saw this on their TV screens every day never let go of the message. (YTV)

While anyone outside of the small Canadian media bubble of the 90s wouldn't understand, their slogan "Keep It Weird" has become a key touchstone of my generation. We continue to "Keep It Weird" — a crucial contribution to the Canadian cultural landscape that we can blame squarely on YTV and its slime-covered logo.

About the Author

Gwen Benaway

Gwen Benaway is a trans woman of Anishinaabe and Métis descent. Her first collection of poetry, Ceremonies for the Dead, was published in 2013, her second collection of poetry, Passage, was released in 2016 from Kegedonce Press and her third collection of poetry, What I Want is Not What I Hope For, is forthcoming from Bookthug in 2018.In 2015, she was the recipient of the inaugural Speaker’s Award for a Young Author and in 2016 she received an Dayne Ogilvie Honour of Distinction for Emerging Queer Authors from the Writer’s Trust of Canada.

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