From PJ Phil's initial hostility towards Snit to launching the Backstreet Boys in Canada, we provide an oral history of 1990s YTV.
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You kids might have trouble understanding this, but back in my day, we didn’t have a lot of entertainment options. We might have had some Disney movies in those clamshell VHS boxes, and some of us were allowed to rent one video a week at Blockbuster, but we didn’t have Facebook or Twitter or YouTube or Netflix or Shomi or iTunes or Pirate Bay. There were some channels that had after-school programming, and of course you could see Fred Penner and Elmo on TVO and PBS, but there was only one channel that delivered youth-targeted content at all hours of the day. And if you wanted to see something on it, you had to watch it when it aired, or else there would be no guarantee you’d ever see that episode of Puttnam’s Prairie Emporium ever again.
If you were a kid growing up in Canada in the ’90s, you watched YTV.
This stone-cold fact unites my generation. We remember the daily programming blocks (The Zone, Brainwash, The Treehouse) and the PJs (program jockeys) who appeared between shows, including PJ Paul, PJ Aashna, PJ Katie, PJ Krista, PJ Todd, PJ Jenn, and of course, PJ “Phresh” Phil. We remember their puppet friends, including the Fuzzpaws, Snit, and the Grogs. We remember when Warren Grog hijacked the network, when Snit was launched into space, and when Phil and Paul got lost in pre-gentrification Liberty Village on “Dark Night.”
Of course we watched for the big, name-brand American shows—Rugrats, Power Rangers, etc.—but we also watched for the network’s in-house productions. There was The Hit List, the decade’s best source for music news, hosted by every ’90s Canadian child’s cool uncle, Tarzan Dan; PJ Katie’s Farm, Jennifer “PJ Katie” Racicot’s legendary one-woman plasticine puppet show; Video and Arcade Top 10, which offered kids the ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy of playing video games on TV; and Uh-Oh!, the game show that unleashed game show host Wink Yahoo upon an unsuspecting world.
Of course, YTV continues to this day, and all our PJs have long since moved on. The nostalgia cycle will continue, and future historians will come along to parse the eras of Sugar, Carlos, Suki, etc. This article is an attempt to chronicle a crucial decade of its existence, beginning shortly after its 1988 launch, from the perspective of some of its most beloved on-air personalities: a group of 20-somethings in a modest studio in a then-crappy part of Parkdale, who just happened to be watched every day by hundreds of thousands of kids across the country.
Phil Guerrero (PJ Phil): I was on channel 25 in a 30-channel universe thinking to myself, would anybody even watch channel 25? Do they even know the channels go up this high?
Atul N. Rao (puppeteer, Snit): At that time, in the late ’90s, there were a lot of latchkey kids with both parents working. We’ve been told by so many people that growing up, they watched us, without fail, every day for four or five years. We were their babysitter, they’ve told us. Now I’m teaching at Mohawk and I’ve been told that by my students: “You’re my babysitter.”
Krista Jackson (PJ Krista): You’d go to these events and have people coming up to you saying, “Hi! How are you?” and you’d think, “Do I know you?” And then you’d think, “no, I’ve never met them, but because you’re in their living room every day, they feel like they know you.” I was just talking to the kids out there, and it was a really intimate thing, I think, for people watching.
Marty Stelnick (puppeteer, the Fuzzpaws): The thing that was kind of magical about YTV at that time was: there was a lot of trust and freedom. That being said, we were being paid shit! Like, really. But I’ve had some jobs where I get paid tons, some jobs where I get paid awful, but I have no regrets about it from that particular job, because I had so much freedom.
Jennifer Racicot (PJ Katie): I grew up on TV. I was a kid—I was 20. My 20s, I was on television the whole time. It’s really remarkable to grow up with that crowd of people, I was so lucky—I was surrounded by so many creative people. Everything was new and nothing was screwed up yet.
Dawn of the PJs
Phil Guerrero: I remember being, I dunno, four years old and dancing around the room watching TV. I always thought: I’d like to do that.
Paul McGuire: I was at York University studying English and History. Didn’t really get what I wanted out of that school experience—it was just kind of like high school but worse. I just did a year, but I had a band with a bunch of guys from high school, and I didn’t want to leave Toronto because we had these vague ideas it was going to turn into something—and we were pretty good, we played around a little bit and we took it pretty seriously. That stopped me from even attempting to leave home and go away. As a result, I ended up going to York, which was kind of a commuter school.
Phil Guerrero: A really good friend of mine who’d been in television all his life, we were friends at private school when I was in eighth grade. His name was Russell Chong—did a show on Global called The Kangazoo Club, so he had this in his life, and it was something I always wanted to do, but I never pursued it. To be that young and into it, back then you had to have your parents taking you to auditions and getting you agents, and I didn’t have any of that. My mother was a nurse and my father was a schoolteacher.
But I did always want to do it, and this guy, he was done with television, didn’t want to do it anymore, but one of his last gigs he ever did was the first year of YTV—he was a co-host on a show called YTV Rocks. He got me an audition to be another co-host. I didn’t get it, but they said, “We liked you on tape, so maybe you could just do some reporting for us?” That’s really how it started: my last year of high school I did five news stories for YTV Rocks. I actually put them up on my YouTube—it’s the first bits of television I ever did. There are a couple of album reviews, school protests, what jeans people are wearing, what running shoes people are wearing—total ’90s stand-up pieces.
Paul McGuire: The way that you selected your courses at that time was through a phone line. So you had to call up and try to get through on a phone line, and all the courses that I wanted were already full, and it was taking forever on the phone, and I wasn’t that excited about going back anyway. I said, “Listen, I’m going to try out this acting thing”—which meant getting a job bartending downtown and getting an agent and trying out a couple of things.
I started working out pretty quickly. I got a couple of commercial parts, got a couple of small parts in TV shows, and then this show called Clips surfaced.
Phil Guerrero: I went away to university for a year in Montreal and wasn’t going to come back to university—really wasn’t my thing. When I came home that summer, right before I broke it to my parents that I wasn’t going to go back to school, YTV called up again. I auditioned for two things, didn’t get them—one was The Hit List, they gave that to Tarzan Dan, and the other was for a show called Street Noise, which was a really good, forward-thinking magazine show. But that got cancelled, and the exact same thing happened: they called me and said, “We’re trying this thing called PJs during the day, and we’re thinking of experimenting with it in the afternoon from three to six.” That was only three days a week, and I shared that with Gord Woolvert.
Jamie Shannon [puppeteer, the Grogs]: I made a bunch of puppets, and my partner Jason [Hopley] did as well. And then our friend Rob Stefaniak got a job as a PJ, so for the first little while, I went on to help him, to make his segments more funny and hilarious. YTV hired us pretty soon after—they said, “We’ll make you full time.” I made the Grogs to get myself through university, to do library shows. I did one library show before I got a job on television….
It’s funny, Jim Henson died in ’90, and I decided, “Oh, I’m going to make puppet troupes and see if I can make a career of it.” And then two years later, I was on YTV.
Aashna Patel: I started off more as a singer-dancer at Canada’s Wonderland, and I was hoping to pursue a music career. I ended up going to Ryerson and decided to study Radio and Television Arts, and after that it was television, mostly. I also had a music career in Canada for a while at the same time….
I was a singer and dancer and a dance captain for a couple of the shows that were [at Canada’s Wonderland]. There was one called Scooby’s School Days, and Brand New Beach, and Heart of Rock ‘n’ Roll. At one point I was playing Captain Caveman’s girlfriend (*laughs*). There were a lot of really fun shows that we did, but they were all live and anything could happen—all sorts of crazy things happened, so it really prepared me for live TV.
Krista Jackson: We had to audition. I was just out of theatre school and I got a call from my agent to go in for a PJ. For the audition, they said I had to do a craft or something to entertain kids, so I did these story cups. I had these callbacks, and I ended up actually not getting the gig. They gave it to a young fella, and he didn’t work out, so I got a call right out of the blue in January of ’94, and they said, “We loved you, you were our second choice, and we want to bring you in to do this job if you’d like to.”
Aashna Patel: They were looking for PJs. I went in for an audition, and we had to create a five-minute segment about anything, and it was for a really young, preschool audience, so I made a sock puppet that looked like myself. I ended up getting the job.
Jennifer Racicot: I was an actress. I wanted to do Broadway—I had no interest in television at all. And then I remember I was babysitting during my second year at Humber College—I was living in London babysitting as a summer job—and I see PJ Aashna come up on TV while I’m babysitting. I’m like, “Oh my god, I could totally do that!” Fast forward a year later, I got the audition, and I got the job, and I started working with them.
Paul McGuire: YTV called me to audition for a show called The Breakfast Zone, which was like the morning Regis and Kathie Lee for kids at the time. That’s when I started hosting full time in-house for a YTV production.
I wasn’t really ever called “PJ Paul,” even though everybody calls me “PJ Paul” if they recognize me today. I think they were trying to appeal to a slightly older audience at that point. The daytime on YTV was obviously for preschool kids. Before school and after school, they were targeting a slightly older kid—the tween—because it’s a different advertising demographic. So they kinda dropped the “PJ” for us, but it didn’t really matter, it was already done. In everybody’s minds, if you were a host on YTV, you were a PJ. Unless you were Tarzan Dan.
Tarzan Dan Freeman (host, The Hit List): I was already Tarzan Dan, because I had been on the radio in Calgary and Vancouver and then was on in Toronto for 15 years. While I was there, I auditioned along with a lot of other people for this gig at Rock‘n’Talk, which was a Laurie Hibberd show. I would go on along with guys like Joey Vendetta and do music reviews of the new albums that were released—he would do rock and I would do pop.
Paul McGuire: He was a bigger star than we were, because he’d been there for a while and he had a radio gig. He was on the radio and had a TV gig going at the same time, so we were kind of like, “Wow! What’s that like?” I think we used to make fun of him from time to time, because he was an adult and we weren’t, and he was like, “I’m Tarzan Dan, I am the man!” and we’re like, “Man, he’s still doing that shtick.” And then you start getting worried: “Are we still doing that shtick?”
Tarzan Dan Freeman: They held an audition for this new TV countdown show they were going to have called The Hit List, and I went along with lots and lots of other people. I just got lucky that that day, they were looking for somebody who was kind of goofy-looking, who probably people believed they could actually be friends with.
Paul McGuire: I’ve been doing [media] for 22 years now. There were a bunch of people doing it back then who aren’t doing it anymore. He’s one of the guys who’s still going.
Aashna Patel: It was very hands-on. That’s what I loved about being there: we did a variety of things and had a variety of roles. I wasn’t just a host: I was also a reporter, I was a producer, I was a writer, I was a director, I sat with the editors when they did linear editing. There were so many things that we did all at once, so it really prepared us for the industry.
Grogs, Fuzzpaws, and PJ Katie’s Farm
Phil Guerrero: The point of The Zone was just to fill time, really, because the CRTC said to YTV, “We’ll give you this license, but you can only show this many minutes of commercials to kids.” What happened was, they’d have these American shows that were set for longer commercials, so they had these minutes to fill. Maybe they didn’t think it at the time, but it was really brilliant: “We’ll put these guys on live, they’ll read mail, whatever, introduce the next show, and they can fill exactly the time we needed to fill.” If it was exactly 2:34 or whatever, we’d fill that time.
Jamie Shannon: It was a lucky growth, because the characters grew on air through improvisation. We would do those two/three-minute, thirty-second bits between each show, and the characters developed quite naturally….
Phil and Warren Grog had quite a run—they were stars. It was such a renaissance. It was just such a nice time, because the channel was starting out, and we were all young talent and young employees, and we were writing the book. We were creating it as it happened.
Aashna Patel: We were thrown into it, and I think that was the best way to do it. With live TV, anything can happen, but you have to be really on. You have to be able to improvise, and go with the flow, and give-and-take on the screen when you’re co-hosting. We got a lot of skills while being on-air on national TV.
Krista Jackson: You had to sort of have an inherent sense of timing. Greg would be in your ear from master control, counting you in and counting you down, but in terms of what four minutes felt like or what nine minutes felt like or what 50 seconds felt like—that you started to feel out.
Jamie Shannon: I’m a real big proponent of improvisation—I’d say that’s where great comedy comes from. I’ve always kept that up, and tried to work from outlines and developed scripts through improvisation. I’ve also developed personalities and puppets through: you find things, rather than really pre-planning with cognition. I find that found things have a lot more charm. I think things are just funnier. So Nanalan [Shannon and Jason Hopley’s later series], we just improvised that series pretty much, based on outlines.
Jennifer Racicot: Working with Krista and Aashna and the puppeteers, sometimes you’d get three or four of us in there, and it was amazing and so fun. You were just playing. I don’t know how to describe it. Nothing was ever cut and dry. It was, “Okay, you know what we’re going to do in this one?” I don’t even remember how we did it—I have no idea! We just went with it.
Jamie Shannon: Every half hour we’d be on air, so we’d have that 25 minutes to write jokes, write songs, come up with material. We didn’t often just jump out and totally improvise—there usually was some idea we were basing it on. We’d work with the PJ who was working on that shift.
Aashna Patel: I think the people they hired were all just big kids, and are probably still big kids, so it was good casting. We liked playing.
Marty Stelnick: The puppeteers who were there before me, the Grogs, we had gone to high school together. I was in film school and I’d had an idea for a kids’ TV show, so they helped me out with that. I pitched it to YTV, and they didn’t want to do the show, but they said I should work there, so it was kind of just talking my way into a new job with them.
My two friends got fired after I got hired—like, two weeks later—because of these contract disputes. I had never puppeteered in my life, but nobody knew. I was head of the department, but I’d never had a puppet on my hand before.
Jamie Shannon: We were getting offers from Disney and all these different [companies], so business kind of got us to move on. I think it would have been better if we’d stayed longer in the end—we were having such a good time, and didn’t realize we’d spend three years in development after that.
Marty Stelnick: I did all the Fuzzpaws, and they all had fairly different personalities. For some reason, I could just have Art by myself and go for about 20 minutes, but Foster? It was hard. He just didn’t improvise well. I think that his character just didn’t lend itself to that as well for some reason.
Jennifer Racicot: It’s funny, because it’s an extension of the person that you know is there. They get to do things that they normally wouldn’t do or wouldn’t say.
Marty Stelnick: There are some characters that worked with some PJs better, so for those PJs sometimes I would bring them on just because it would be more fun. I remember going out with PJ Katie and the fellow she was dating at the time, and we were out at a bar one night, and we were going to be on the next morning together, and he’s like, “Can you just not have J.B. on tomorrow with Jenny?” “Well, why?” “Because he goes on and insults her and makes fun of her, and she comes home and takes it out on me!”
Jennifer Racicot: They put me on camera for eight to 10 minutes at a time, live, by myself, the second week I was there. Like, I didn’t have puppets, I didn’t have somebody else with me, I didn’t even have a producer with me. Everybody was doing The Alley, this thing they were shooting on the weekends, so I was left with “Egghead,” my audio switcher guy in the booth, and the guy on camera, and me. I’m like, “Okay, I’ve got 10 minutes to fill—oh my God, what am I gonna do?” So I started playing.
Krista Jackson: When I left, she replaced me, because I actually left within a year. She started doing the farm. I came in to pinch-hit segments because she was really busy doing the farm show, so I started to kind of be the substitute PJ, which was great for me. And we became really, really, really close.
Jennifer Racicot: I also wanted to be able to give everybody a chance to be involved. No matter where you come from or how much money you have, you can play with anything and make it magical and make it real. That’s how the farm animals started, and I started making them talk and everybody started getting into it, and I started getting into it.
Phil Guerrero: She was this crazy actress. She was really cool, and we were all friends—all the on-air people hung out. She’s really talented, a really out-there performer. There’s a little bit of sass—a little bit of the insecure sass, but all performers are. If you look at PJ Katie’s Farm, that’s all her, all those ideas. It’s brilliant—she’s pulling from another universe to make that happen. She’s, like, reaching out into the planets to pull it down and bring it to the show. She could do it for hours.
Jennifer Racicot: My husband’s the same way. We have the exact same sense of humour. He kind of gets how I can play with little things and make them talk. I hope my son has it—I think he does. Like, we got a hedgehog—which we don’t have anymore, we gave it to my nephew—but we had this hedgehog for a couple of days, and I was like, “Oh my God, we have to do a show!” Every time it turns into a show….
Even when we made the show, I had some amazing people come up with ideas, but we didn’t have scriptwriters. They would just give me an idea—like, a beginning, middle, and end—and then they would put their quirky little ideas into it. But it wasn’t a script, it was just: “Okay, Percival goes to get a Popsicle and it turns out that it’s poison, and he’s covered in spots, and everybody laughs at him.”
Paul McGuire: A CGI version of PJ Katie’s Farm would have been sacrilege. I guess Mr. Dressup, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, all those shows, they were really successful, they could have thrown more pizzazz at them, but they kept it analog and tactile. That’s very important, because little kids play with that same plasticine.
Jennifer Racicot: It was really magical, I guess, because I was just in a really good place where I was free to be absolutely insane. I mean, really insane. I watch myself now, and I’m like, “Oh my God, there is no hesitation!”…And I was totally sober! That’s the thing—that’s just my brain! That’s terrifying.
Marty Stelnick: All of my training was for theatre, and we didn’t really focus anything on kids. I didn’t have any early childhood education experience, and I didn’t really think about it so much. We were conscious that we were talking to kids, but all of us hated the idea of that kind of overly cutesy, preschool thing. We had a name for it: on some of the shows, people would say, “Yeah, we don’t want that happy-fuckface thing.” We really hated that condescending, giant-smile, little-kid thing.
Phil Guerrero: I’d already been talking to the Grogs for years, and I was so frustrated talking to puppets. I was in my 20s and I was like, “I don’t want to talk to puppets anymore. I want to grow up.” I kinda wanted to be MuchMusic. So the Grogs left, and I was like, “Finally! Maybe I could do a talk show.” And they came to me and said, “We’ve got a great idea for The Zone: you’re going to have this puppet…” And I was like, “Oh my god, noooooo!”
Marty Stelnick: I was Snit for the first couple of months, and I just couldn’t do all those characters. They ended up bringing someone else in, but that character they put a lot of thought in. They had the advertising department create that character.
Atul N. Rao: This was probably the greatest job anyone could ever have in television. I’ve had many jobs—very high-paying jobs around the world—but nothing compares to what I did in those four years with Phil. All they would say is, “Okay, you have to do this promotion for Pizza Hut”—we always had some kind of a marketing thing we had to do—and then we had anywhere between two minutes and minutes to talk in 10 between all that. It’s hard to believe, because we were live.
Marty Stelnick: It’s a horrible puppet. Atul is amazing, and he did a great job and worked great with Phil, but as an actual puppet, he’s stuck to a wall. You can’t take him down and bring him places and have him at a show, he can’t move around the room.
Atul N. Rao: There were these dental teeth nailed to a wooden platform, and we had a camera pointed just at the teeth. The teeth were sent into a monitor; the monitor was Snit’s mouth. The monitor was covered in this plastic that looked like bubble gum, and then we got this motor from a model airplane to make the eyes turn—we used remote control on the other side of the room. I was in the same room as Phil, and then I would have a headset microphone which was plugged into a harmonizer to make my voice sound really high—that way I don’t have to strain my voice, because I’m doing it every day. I would operate the eyes, and puppeteer the teeth using my hands, and there was black cloth around it so you wouldn’t see my hands. There was also a keyboard if Snit did sound effects—applause, “Boing!”—things like that. I also had foot pedals for the hands, but I didn’t use those too often because sometimes Phil got hit by them.
Phil Guerrero: I remember the most evil thing I’d ever done on YTV, or even in my life, where I knew I was wrong and I was doing it anyway. I remember when they brought that Snit thing in——and God bless the guy who did it, Atul, we became very good friends eventually—I just hated this thing. I remember in between shows, when everybody was out of the studio, I took a screwdriver and took a screw out of one of the arms, so when he flipped it, it would fall off. Just evil, with a screwdriver: “I’ll teach you!”
Atul N. Rao: He was just a little non-responsive at first. He didn’t want to be too friendly with me because he was hoping this whole puppet thing was going to go away. I think what happened was, he realized that I’m not competing with him: I’m really trying to help him express himself even more. I’m more of a cheerleader, a guy who will laugh at your jokes, who will listen and comment and keep the conversation going.
Phil Guerrero: It became one of my best co-hosts. Like, really, Snit? That was a great era. And it’s only because we became friends.
Atul N. Rao: He spent an entire year, every spare moment he had, apologizing for how he behaved those first few weeks.
Phil Guerrero: I was always trying to break the fourth wall with this puppet. He would drive this Toyota, and I think the rear-view mirror fell off so he duct-taped it on his car. In the middle of the segment, I’d start talking about that, I was like, “I saw on your Toyota, you taped the mirror…where are you driving in, from Burlington?” He’d be like, “Uh…uh…” because his directive was supposed to be, “I’m Snit, I’m from space!”
Paul McGuire: Often in those Zone segments, there were sales initiatives we had to take care of: contest mentions, addresses we had to give out, relevant dates of where appearances were happening, sponsor mentions. He had to take care of those, because Snit couldn’t do it—Snit didn’t have hands. Well, he did, but they couldn’t hold anything. I think when he was on with me, he could be more of his actual self and be more of a goof, and just goof around. I could take care of being the straight man. I think he just went a little wild and made me laugh. To this day, we still hang out.
Visually it’s kind of interesting I suppose, because on my own, I’m just a tall, skinny white guy—that’s pretty boring. But you put us together, it becomes a little bit more interesting.
Phil Guerrero: We got along as friends, but then the chemistry on-air, it got a little bit competitive. Off-air it was fine, but then on-air, we were both on-air, right? I think the chemistry was always just me trying to frustrate him. And it worked: he was the consummate straight guy.
Paul McGuire: There was a bit of an implicit trust in the two of us that we wouldn’t just let it fall dead. We never really thought of it as a performance either, though. Even though I guess it was—we were “performing”—but we never thought about it as being as grand as that.
Jennifer Racicot: Paul was good too. Paul was a lot more of a mover and shaker than Phil. Phil is just a really good, solid guy. Paul’s more of a politician—a slickster. Like, I remember he pulled up in this car he got, and I said, “It looks like the car of a plastic surgeon.” He was all into the glitz, and Phil was never like that….
That’s not to take anything away from Paul. He was very professional, and fun at the same time. We were all really different, and had our individual strengths. I think that’s why it worked.
Phil Guerrero: I remember when he was hosting The Zone, he got the job of producing, and, stupid idiot that I am, I was like, “I’m not listening to you. ‘My producer’—what? I know what I’m doing!” Whenever he’d be on with me, my big thing was just to try to make him laugh hysterically to the point where he couldn’t even speak. He knew I was always trying to screw with him, and it became this funny cat-and-mouse.
Paul McGuire: We still hang out. He still makes me laugh as he did then. He’s still honestly kind of crazy, and non-sequiturs fly out of him all the time. He thinks in a very, very odd way. But he did it so well on TV with me, and it was always, like, with a nod to respecting the kids, I think.
Phil Guerrero: At one point, I actually remember thinking: I’m going to use words they may not understand. Maybe they’ll look them up, or at least they’ll understand the context that they’re used in.
I was kinda smart. I used to go to private school—I got kicked out of a good one, Upper Canada College—so I’d see the value in good vocabulary and finding the words to express yourself. I never talked down to them, because why? And it had many effects. I think when we did it that way we were like the big brother.
Paul McGuire: Our philosophy—even if I didn’t know it then, or even if I didn’t actually state it out loud—was: let’s just talk about life. We’ll let them know that we’re watching with them, but let’s just talk about stories that are happening.
I mean, I remember we talked about getting a speeding ticket one day. My boss afterwards, we talked a little bit about it, and she said, “Well, kids, they’re not driving.” I said, “No, but they want to drive. If you’re nine or eight and your big brother or sister is going to driving school, do you know how badly they want to be that person?” The fact that there were two guys on camera who were a little bit older than them, talking about things that were happening to them as if it was totally normal they’d be talking about that stuff with nine-year-olds.
Atul N. Rao: While a cartoon was playing, Phil and I are in conversation. We’re talking about stuff, and then our conversation would continue as if we’re talking in front of children: “We’re back in The Zone! Snit and I were just talking about when you’re Christmas shopping and you’re lining up behind all these people…” and then we would turn it into a routine.
Paul McGuire: My theory on it was: the programs the kids are watching are so highly scripted and so heavily vetted, and versions and versions and versions of scripts, and laugh tracks and sound effects and all of these things that go to entertaining kids and keeping them glued to the set, that there was no possible way we could compete with that with no budget and just the two of us, so don’t try. And also, the kids needed a bit of a break from that, in between being bombarded with commercials and special effects and sound effects and bright colours and all that.
Phil Guerrero: You guys knew who I was. You knew what music I listened to, what I liked, what I didn’t like, what I thought of Christmas shopping…you guys really got to know me. I didn’t get to know you guys at all, but you really knew who I was. God, over 10 years, me just talking, and I no script to go by and I’m just talking.
Tarzan Dan Freeman: When I did [The Hit List], it was one of those things where you could hear Blur and Smashing Pumpkins, and you could also hear the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys, and people still watched the show, and it had massive, massive numbers. The other side of it was, we didn’t have as many cable channels back then, or music-based television shows. We didn’t have social media, and email was just new, so it was where people went to find out about the newest songs or to see an interview and hear about music beyond radio….
For us to be there when the Spice Girls came up and became massive, and Backstreet and ‘N Sync and all those different groups, be it rock and pop and dance or whatever it was…the ’90s were great, because everything that came out was played. It wasn’t just a genre.
Scott Yaphe (Wink Yahoo, Uh-Oh!): The only thing I did draw upon was the cheesy game show host [archetype], and multiply it by a thousand. The energy—like, you gotta sell it like you love it, like it’s your baby—and also, I wanted to get the smarm into it. Also, I took the Herb-Tarlek-from-WKRP in Cincinnati wardrobe that they gave me and just kinda wore it—wore it on the inside, wore it on the outside. Smarmy, slimy, and over-the-top, and it just kinda developed. Somebody posted a lot of our old episodes online—albeit I’m sure they’re VHS copies with horrible quality on YouTube—but I’d love to see in the first episode how I performed it, as opposed to the sixth season, coming out of our 200th episode, how different I was. I certainly got more comfortable doing it.
Nicholas Picholas (host, Video and Arcade Top 10): Understand, this is before digital, so this was live-to-tape, don’t-screw-up. If you screw up, it costs money, and the guy who screws up more costs more money. I would laugh, because I would read so much script on the prompter: “Oh my god, what did I just say? Did you understand it?” “Yeah, we understood it.” “Okay, good!”
The funniest thing was, there was this phrase that came from the show called: “It’s letter time.” We would read a letter from a little dude that wrote in, and a lot of times that was a filler point of the show, where at that point they would know, okay, we’re light or we’re heavy on time, so we need this to be a minute and 20 seconds. Like, you are the guy who’s going to make this show time out well. So literally the guy says, “You’ve got a minute-and-a-half to fill,” and I look at this letter, and there are two lines to it! So I started singing this little song, “It’s letter time…” which turned into a little thing. Literally, I’ll be at the store and people will just yell out, “It’s letter time!” and I’m like, “Okay, all right…”
Scott Yaphe: Any actor will tell you this, but any character that you bring to the fore, you have to bring parts of yourself to it. My hyper over-the-topness that I can dial up sometimes, I dialed it up, but then I had to sustain it for four episodes straight: we recorded four episodes every day over a two-week stretch. Truly it was a marathon: it was just getting through it, saving my energy between takes, saving my energy at lunch break, and then when I got home—I was living with my girlfriend at the time and now I’m married to her, Jessica Holmes—I was telling her, “I can’t talk! I can’t talk, my voice is shot,” and I would have to write on a board to communicate with her just so I could save my voice.
Paul McGuire: Clips was a really, really bad game show—really, really cheap. Basically, they asked kids to look at video clips—whether they be movies or music videos—and then they would ask them questions about what they just saw. “What colour was the piano in the Elton John video?” Really, really simple stuff, but kids are kind of nervous, they’re up there, they’re on camera, their friends are watching them, so actually calming their nerves enough—“Oh my God, I just watched it, what colour was Elton John’s piano???” I think in the first couple of months we did, like, 100 episodes. It was super conveyor-belt television, just super fast.
The funny thing about that show was, I was reading all the questions as the main game show host on the teleprompter, and the kids were behind me, so they could see the teleprompter, and the questions were on it. So they’re reading ahead. So we had to tell them not to look at the teleprompter because it would make them look on camera as if they were psychic.
Nicholas Picholas: I didn’t know those inner-workings, I just know that Robert [Essery, the producer] made good money. It was product placement, from what I could see. The prizing people would pay to have the prizes advertised. I mean, Nintendo, I think, paid for part of the production along with YTV. If they didn’t, they sure should have, because we were Nintendo-exclusive for most of the seasons.
Tarzan Dan Freeman: I look back and I think there might have been some really terribly bad fashion choices in the first couple of years. I mean, it’s funny, because those are the only videos that are on YouTube, right? The really embarrassing, wow-did-I-really-wear-that, holy-crap-what-was-I-thinking kind of things.
Nicholas Picholas: We would come back from a new season and would be like, “Oh god, we forgot to get a red bonus ball!” Right before the show, there would be some production assistant spray-painting a Ping-Pong ball backstage getting it ready, and I was like, “Well, the smart kid is going to feel down there and feel for the one that doesn’t feel like the other ones.” We’d put this blindfold on them, and some of them I’d be like: “Kid, you’re cheating. Literally, I can see you looking down.” But it’s not my call—if they can’t see it on camera, keep rolling!
Paul McGuire: They didn’t have a lot of money for regular everyday things, but usually around special holidays they could find a sponsor for something. They would get a few more bucks together and do a Halloween night special. Goosebumps would usually release as a special episode of the show, Freaky Stories, Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Phil Guerrero: Dark Night was almost like a movie set: there was makeup and crew and lighting and outdoor stuff and generators.
Paul McGuire: Phil and I are trapped in YTV, and then we get some sort of cryptic message and we have to go follow it somewhere. So there would be a Scooby-Doo-level mystery to solve that would take the place of traditional Zone segments between the shows. We would pop in: “Okay, we were just watching Freaky Stories, coming up next there’s an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, but before you go, you have to make sure to go to whatever, get a proof of purchase of this, and send it to…” whatever our address in Paris, Ontario was, because this was before the Internet. There would be a running story line throughout the night, and things would gradually unravel in a typical Scooby-Doo episode-type fashion. And then at the end of it, there would be a big reveal where the bad guy was revealed, and we would figure out the mystery.
It was before it was called Liberty Village—that’s where we shot a lot. If we were shooting outside by Lamport Stadium or whatever, we had to make sure we didn’t get any people doing anything bad in the background—watch out for needles. It was pretty sketchy back then.
Tarzan Dan Freeman: To actually be the show that launched the Backstreet Boys in Canada was a pretty big deal. We were pretty blown away by it. Last year on stage, they actually stopped a concert in Calgary and thanked me. They said, “How many people know who Tarzan Dan is?” Crowd yells, and they’re like, “This man was the reason the Backstreet Boys are famous in Canada.”
Bloomers, Guests, and Filling Time
Krista Jackson: I remember being tired. I remember that you’d do a morning and then you’d have the afternoon off, or you’d do the afternoon and have the morning off, but sometimes you’d come home and say, “I have to take a 20-minute lie-down,” because of the adrenaline of it. You have to be “on.” Then you stop being on, and then you have to be “on” again.
Phil Guerrero: You would never see that anymore, not on broadcast television: just some guys going out there. Everything feels presented, or you’re being sold something, like a commercial, you know what I mean? Back when we did it, sometimes we were just talking for four minutes. A lot of times I didn’t know what I was going to say. I’ve told the story all the time: we’d be on a hard count of, like, “Six…five…four…” and I’d say to Snit, “What do you want to talk about?” and “Okay, we’re back!” and we’d just go. That’s a lot of talking in front of the camera if you think about what I did: Monday to Friday for 10 years, every day.
Paul McGuire: Necessity is the mother of invention. It was a little easier when we were live every day—though as budgets get shrunk, sometimes it’s easier to pre-tape stuff, and we had to do more and more of that as the years went by. If you’re live every day, there are things happening in the world—things you can call on. “Hey, the Academy Awards were on last night…”
Aashna Patel: We kind of went with what the audience wanted. If it was for a preschool audience, we definitely made crafts and did skits and sang songs and read their letters—they really, really liked that. If it was for an older audience—like a teen audience or a tween audience—then we’d really talk about more pop culture.
Phil Guerrero: I remember we would order pizza. We had a window into the lobby, and we’d order pizza and shoot through the window: “There’s our pizza guy!”
Atul N. Rao: YTV required us to take Second City improv all the time we were there, so we had to have very intensive improv training. A lot of the stuff came from improvisation, and then we would take notes and make sure we would have a consistency. Phil didn’t worry about [Snit’s] consistency—I was the one who really looked after that.
Phil Guerrero: Atul had a little four-blade fan on the front of Snit, and if he just pressed the button it would turn on, and we just came up with the idea: “Okay, we’re going to go into these People magazines; we’re going to cut out faces of celebrities; we’re going to stick them on each blade; you’re going to spin it; we’re going to call it ‘The Zone Celebrity Spin.’” I mean, that’s as far as we’d come with the idea, and we wouldn’t really know what we were going to do, y’know? “Okay, what are we doing? Celebrity Spin!” And we’d look at each other and laugh: “I dunno, maybe I’ll come up with what it is.”
Paul McGuire: Christina Aguilera came in about three weeks after Britney came in, and I think they were feuding at the time—whether it was manufactured or not, who knows? Christina came in and told us that Britney had had a boob job. Our offices, they looked like an H&R Block—Phil’s desk had toys in it, mine did too, but they were just grey cubicles, nothing that fancy. So there’s Christina Aguilera lounging on our crappy little desk outside the studio door, and she’s like, “Oh yeah, Britney? She showed up at some award show a couple weeks ago with a couple of new friends.”
Phil Guerrero: People I was nervous to meet? They were really good-looking girls. There was this band called All Saints, and that interview I was just like, “Ah, uh, er, anyways…”…I don’t get nervous interviewing stars, really. I mean, they’re just human beings. If you’re a fan of their work, yeah, but I did so much of it I was like, “Yeah, whatever.”
Paul McGuire: Metallica came in and talked to Phil. He loved that. Occasionally that stuff happens: you’ll get a publicist who thinks, “Well, James Hetfield has kids—maybe he’ll really appreciate going to a kids’ network and trying to expand their demo. Future Metallica fans!” I interviewed John Woo once. The movie Face/Off was coming out. “Kids, do you have the Criterion edition of Hard-Boiled?” But weeks sometimes would go by without guests and then, “You want to talk to John Woo?” “Hell yeah!”
Jennifer Racicot: I interviewed Margaret Atwood, which was horrific. So awful, oh my God. She was like, [*slow, solemn voice*] “This is my book…Priiiiincess Prunella and the Puuuurple Peeaaannnnut…” I’m like, “Awesome! Great! So, this is a book about—” She’s like, “Yeeeeeessss. Priiiinnnncesss…” I’m like, “Lady, this is a kids’ show!”…
Don’t get me wrong, I think Margaret Atwood is amazing. But talk about two different worlds coming together live at 8:00 a.m. I was so nervous, but I had a job to do. I had to keep 5-year-olds engaged.
Paul McGuire: I had Mel Lastman in. The mayor of Toronto. I was hosting by myself, and we had just designed a new set: I don’t know if you remember, but we had a toilet bowl on the wall with a TV in it. It was my idea, a bit of my commentary on television—it really was!
It was going to be our first day with the new set, and I’m like, “Y’know, wouldn’t it be cool if we got the mayor to come in and christen the set? I’m gonna call the mayor!”
And you know Mel Lastman: not exactly camera-shy. So he came by with a PR guy, I think he had a security guard, and he had a speech ready—he had a guy with cue cards. I had gone and ordered two fake, breakaway champagne bottles made out of sugar. Mel Lastman had the cards there, and I’m talking to the mayor—“Mr. Mayor, it’s an honour for you to be here”—and he had this whole thing, “Yeah, yeah, whatever, I’ve got my cue cards, and I’m gonna stick to my cue cards, I’m not riffing with you, kid. ‘Who does it better than YTV? Nooooooobody!’” He smashes the fake champagne bottle, and he’s like, “Thank you very much! Good luck, YTV!” and he leaves. He was there about 15 minutes, and I get all these people running into my office: “Was that the mayor? How’d you get him here?” I’m like, “I called!”
Krista Jackson: We’d have bloopers sometimes. We’d be talking before a segment started, and then the segment would start so there’d be things we were talking about that just went out on air. Every Christmas, there was a blooper reel at the Christmas party that the master control guys put together of all the PJ segments all year that were mistakes.
Jennifer Racicot: Going live, and then pre-taping, bouncing back and forth—that was terrifying. That’s where you get nailed. We’d come up on camera and I was like, “Heeeyyy! Hangin’ out with PJ Krista in the Treehouse,” and Krista was like, “Yeaaah,” and we made a mistake and I was like, “Oh God, she just got her period and she’s in a bad mood.” And they ran that. I was like, “Oh my god, my career is over! I hope nobody noticed!”
Atul N. Rao: There’s this one famous one that’s been talked about on the radio and everything where [Phil]’s talking about me, the puppeteer, and he says, “Snit, you could be in the front [of the car], and then you could have the guy in the back doing you.” He meant the puppeteer, me, but: oops! Luckily, he didn’t get called on it.
Aashna Patel: They were very strict about stuff that was said on-camera, so if you ended up cursing at any point in time, you’d probably be fired. And it happened a couple of times where a new PJ would come in, and I would help train the PJ, and live television isn’t for everyone, and people would just lose it. They would just completely say the wrong things.
I remember one time, one PJ came on, and the puppet Sorbet, he kept calling her “Sexy.” He must have said the word “Sexy” 20 to 30 times in two minutes, and I thought something just happened to him, and he was gone. I don’t think he meant it to be deliberate, but then he got stuck on the word and got nervous, and couldn’t get out of it.
Phil Guerrero: I had a near-perfect record. If I blundered some words, who cares? I was never that kind of host, if you noticed. But I think it was the year before I left, right near the end, I said “shit” live. I had to talk about some Winnipeg kids festival or something like that. I don’t know why I said it. I was like, “You might want to go over there, there’ll probably be a lot of cool shit over there. OKAY, and next…” I knew I said it, but the TV in me just kept going, but my brain was going, “HOLY crap, you said ‘shit’.”
Funny enough, we only got one complaint to the station, and I didn’t get fired, because what are you going to do? I went to my boss and I had to tell her: “I don’t know what happened! I don’t know why I said it!” It took, like, eight, nine years for it to happen*—that’s why I wasn’t in trouble.
Marty Stelnick: At one point, I did a thing with one of my characters, right around the time of the [Quebec] referendum. I did this whole thing—it was well-researched—where a character came on, Fez, he was crazy for cookies, and he came from this place, Pawville, where [the Fuzzpaws] are from, and he said, “It’s a problem, because you’ve got chocolate chip cookies—the best cookies in the world—but the chocolate chips are considering leaving. And the thing is, the chocolate chips are awesome, and the cookies are awesome, but I prefer it when they’re together, but y’know…”
I did this whole thing, and it actually ended up being a big deal. I was actually called in to the office. It had been brought to the CRTC and they had to go to court over it, and they had to decide whether YTV had a mandate to educate or whether it was purely for entertainment. It ended up not going anywhere—it died in court, basically, and nothing really ever came of it.
Paul McGuire: We were doing a segment for Groundhog Day once. Obviously there are two common results: Wiarton Willie sees his shadow, or Wiarton Willie doesn’t see his shadow. So I thought I was being Super Producer, very organized guy, when I shot two versions. I set it up with everybody in operations: “Here’s Tape A, here’s Tape B, pay attention to what happens on this day, and then insert.” The one we didn’t shoot, which we should have shot, was what we would talk about if Wiarton Willie died. They had to play one of the tapes or else there’d be dead air, so they put in “Wiarton Willie didn’t see his shadow,” and these kids are calling in…“Paul and Phil, you idiots! The groundhog’s dead!”
Atul N. Rao: It can’t happen now. I tried to recreate that in the U.S. Fox hired myself and a couple of friends to go down and do this for Fox Family Channel. It was very successful for a while, but the problem is, the United States is so litigious, the lawyers can’t stand having improv on TV.
Phil Guerrero: When people talk to me, I stop. It’s a responsibility. You have to. You don’t get into a club for free and not wait in line for nothing: you have a responsibility if people recognize you. You have to stop and be nice.
Krista Jackson: I remember the bussed-out tour. It was pretty insane, actually, because we’d all been on for quite a while, and we went across Canada, and you did start to feel what the impact was of all those hours in front of the kids. They really knew you, and they were really excited to see you.
Aashna Patel: We could not go anywhere without being recognized. We couldn’t go to the gas station, the grocery store, dinner with friends—nothing, nowhere. We really were big fish in a small pond. It’s very different now living in the States, because I definitely feel more like a small fish in a big pond. But I still do get recognized from being on YTV.
Tarzan Dan Freeman: Fame at one point was so huge I couldn’t understand it. The show was pulling Hockey Night in Canada-type numbers, and still to this day, I’ll walk on an airplane and somebody will go, “Tarzan Dan! You haven’t changed at all! You look exactly the same! What are you eating?” And I’m like, “No, dude, I’ve totally aged, trust me.”…
If somebody wrote me a letter, I would write a postcard back that said “Thank you for watching.” We’re talking thousands and thousands. I don’t even know what YTV must have spent on postcards, because they would do a series of postcards for every show, and every person that sent a letter got a postcard.
Atul N. Rao: We had a ton of fan mail. We got boxes and boxes and boxes of fan mail. We would try to answer them as best we could. Then the Internet came in and we started to get emails. Very few kids had email, but still we got hundreds of those every day.
Whenever I’d hang out with Phil, we couldn’t walk down the street without people yelling, “Phil! Phil! Phil!” And Phil would point to me: “That’s Snit, by the way!”
Aashna Patel: We inspired a lot of kids, and I know personally, a lot of women to get in the industry, and a lot of Indian women who wanted to become a television personality. You had to be really responsible about what you said on-camera, but also how you behaved off-camera.
Jennifer Racicot: You would [feel famous] when you’d see lines and lines of people waiting to get your autograph and you’re like, “Oh my God!” And not being able to go to the grocery store, I remember that—I couldn’t go to the grocery store, even at midnight. I’d be wearing my rubby-dubs, and I was a smoker at the time, and I was always terrified that some kid was going to see me smoking.
Paul McGuire: Did I feel famous? No. I don’t know if it’s just Canadian television, because I’ve never been famous or recognized anywhere else, but they have a way of keeping you relatively humble in this country.
Atul N. Rao: Occasionally there would be people who, if Phil said something mean to Snit, a kid would write in and complain. If Snit said something mean to Phil, they would write in and complain. And we would explain, “No, no, I didn’t mean anything mean. I don’t want to be mean to Phil,” and Phil would say, “No, no, I didn’t take it bad either. In fact, I’m gonna insult Snit now!” and Snit would say, “I like it! I like being insulted by Phil!”
Scott Yaphe: In children’s television, kids watch up. If we had 13 or 14-year-olds on the show, usually it’s the nine or 10-year-olds watching the show, or even younger. So sometimes we had some kids who were tough: they would have an “I’m too cool for school” attitude. They’re few and far between—I want to make that very clear, most of them were fantastic—but sometimes you had to deal with that. They would say, “Where did you get your stupid clothes?” or “You’re so skinny, man!” or “How much money do you make?”—whatever it is, but showing that they’re cool in front of their peers in the studio audience.
Paul McGuire: Most of the time, 90 per cent of the time, kids were amazing, and parents were amazing too. Parents would come up and say, “Thank you so much,” all that stuff. But I remember one time, Phil and I were walking into African Lion Safari, we were walking towards the entrance, and there was a bus full of kids for a school trip, and they saw us. The two of us walking together was a bit of a heat score. Phil by himself gets recognized far more than I do, but when we’re together, it heats up a little bit.
But we were walking towards the entrance of African Lion Safari and some kid hanging out the window: “Hey! Are you guys Paul and Phil?” I was like, “Yeah!” “You fuckin’ SUCK!” And at that point I was like, “Ah, ha ha, okay! Yeah, you got me!” and we kept walking, and Phil just started laughing his head off at me—like it was just me he was talking to. And then, of course, the guy turns around and high-fives everyone on the bus: “I just told Paul and Phil that they fuckin’ suck!”
Most of the time, like I said, people were very nice, but there was a while when you’d kinda keep your head down a bit. If we’d go shoot something at the CNE, we might attract a little bit of a crowd, but the thing is, if there are kids by themselves at the CNE, chances are they’re a little older. I was a skinny little weak, freckle-faced kid growing up—I was kind of used to being—not bullied, but a little bit picked-on. There’s something that just takes you back to the womb a little bit: “You fuckin’ suck!” “Oh yeah, that’s right, I do suck!”
Atul N. Rao: There were some obsessed fans that were really funny, but they turned out to be crazy, so we had to call the RCMP on them. They would kinda divide up Phil and Snit, writing bad things about Phil to Snit, and then sending hate notes to Phil. It’s like, “Uhh, that’s not what we’re about. We’re not out to kill each other—we’re friends.” That guy went off the deep end and the RCMP came in. I always thought that would be a great movie: “Hey, two guys are in kids’ TV and get stalked by a crazy!” It was a grown man. And there was more than one. I had people stalking me. As soon as anyone found out who Snit was, I got stalked.
Phil Guerrero: Today, I went to a Portuguese bakery—first time, never been there, got a sandwich with a buddy—and the owner freaked out. One guy noticed me—“Oh God! You’re the guy!”—went to the back, then the owner came out, and he gave me six free Portuguese tarts. “Give him six tarts on the house!” I’m like, “No, no, no, that’s okay.” He’s like, “No! You’re my childhood!”
And it’s funny, I’m walking away with these tarts, and I’m like, “Why do I get tarts?”
The Road to Snit Station
Phil Guerrero: It eventually became something where they figured out—especially as it became more and more corporate—“We can make money with these. It’s not a commercial, but we can have a ‘contest’ sponsored by Hasbro, right?” When you look at The Zone now, it feels that way, and it’s more character-driven, I think. That’s kind of why I left, too: they said they were going to go this more character way.
Jennifer Racicot: It started to get more oppressive. I don’t know how to describe it. They were trying to make it into a tighter ship, or the fun was squeezed out of it. I left, and I took a year and did some TV, and I came back and did The Zone, and I did two years of that. That’s when I was interviewing really big celebrities…and it was all changed. Everything was different. The innocence was gone, y’know? I dunno…it wasn’t as magical and soft and clean and gentle.
Tarzan Dan Freeman: If kids started watching [The Hit List] when they were 12 years old, and when I’m leaving they’re 19 years old, then all of a sudden they’re outside the demographic. What we noticed was, the demographic was aging. When I left, they took the show off the air for a couple of months, and they came with plastic furniture and a couple of female hosts, and it was really about young boy bands or Aaron Carter, that kind of thing—really pop, ear-candy type of music that was more geared towards the kids.
Paul McGuire: Phil had been there for 10 years. I was there for almost seven. You start to worry as you get into your later 20s, “Okay, I’ve been on kids’ TV for a while. I hope, at some point, that somebody will come along and pluck me away and give me some fancy job on a big show doing something.”
Tarzan Dan Freeman: Originally the show was going to be cancelled, because the show had run its course and had gone on for quite a while. What happened was, because I’d been there for seven-ish, eight years, and the demographic had changed, I think when they decided they were going to bring the show back in a different form, I was too old for the show. Because for me to go back and go “Here’s Aaron Carter!” after I’d just been playing Smashing Pumpkins and Blur and Collective Soul and Creed, and then to go, “Aaron Carter’s the best!”…y’know, we could still play Backstreet Boys, but I think what would have happened is, my credibility would have been somewhat crushed.
Atul N. Rao: I was hired to be an in-house executive producer at Fox, and I was going to move to L.A. We decided, “Let’s launch [Snit] into space as a big story line.” I pre-taped a whole bunch of segments of Snit in space, doing weather reports and all kinds of things, and he becomes a satellite. That would last a good half-a-year while I was gone. I thought maybe I would come back if I didn’t like L.A. and do Snit again. Then I stayed in L.A. for five years.
Phil Guerrero: I’d done it for so long, and when I felt like I couldn’t grow anymore, couldn’t learn any more, I had to go. I was still young—I was 30 years old—and I’d been doing the same thing every day for 10 years. When I’d get these other shows, like The Anti-Gravity Room, it was like, “Okay, cool,” that kept me engaged. But even after that, we stopped making Anti-Gravity Room and we did a show called Warp, which was pretty much The Anti-Gravity Room, and then we did a show called Gamerz, which was pretty much The Anti-Gravity Room.
Nicholas Picholas: I remember we had a lot of trouble just finding games that weren’t violent. All the hot games were pretty graphic. Those were games that were huge and we couldn’t touch them, because we were on YTV and you just can’t do that for kids. We would get stuck playing a lot of these games that were really very young-targeted.
Scott Yaphe: The show was very expensive. The Slime Tour was the most expensive part of it, for sure. YTV pretty much had enough shows in the bank—they had 204 episodes—that every group of kids that would grow into the show would be out of the show. So we could keep using the 204 shows, should they wish, because the kids would have grown out of it.
Jennifer Racicot: When I was still at YTV I got into a head-on collision car accident and had a catastrophic brain injury. I kept working, but I guess my work got crazier and crazier.
The brain injury was so bad… I was so comfortable being myself in front of the camera, and then all of a sudden, everything that I trusted and knew and understood and loved was gone. That part of my brain was chopped off and I was like, “Oh my God!” And then I was so unpredictable. I mean, I still made really interesting television, but it wasn’t good for children (laughs). I mean, I’d start tap-dancing or doing weird stuff.
Aashna Patel: Both my parents passed away, and I just felt like I needed to just make a drastic move. At the time I was working at YTV, I was also hosting a show on TV Guide Channel in Canada and doing CNN’s WorldBeat, all at the same time. My mom passed away, and I basically just quit everything, packed everything up, and just left and went to L.A. and didn’t even know where I was spending the night. I wanted to start over.
It was a hard thing to do, because I was doing really well on television at the time, and I knew I’d have to start all over again. But I think it was a good decision, mentally and emotionally.
Atul N. Rao: When the Snit-in-space thing stopped, they got flooded with so many letters saying, “We want Snit! Where’s Snit? Bring Snit back.” So they decided to do a thing called Snit Station. It wasn’t quite as successful because it was a different personality, and they made it more like this: “HI! I AM A ROBOT! I AM A ROBOT!”
The Zone was about being yourself, and Snit was me. That’s what Phil wanted. He didn’t want this robot character—that’s what he was resisting in the beginning. When it became a conversation between him and I, even though I’m in the form of this purple weird thing, then he accepted it wholeheartedly and it created this chemistry. The Snit that became Snit Station on the weekends was different. It was a robotic character who was kind of silly and skewed young—which was fine for what they were trying to do. My personal opinion was they should have just created a new character, but I think they wanted to capitalize on the Snit name, and I understand why they would do that.
It sounds egocentric, but I’m not saying, “Oh, I’m irreplaceable.” I don’t separate myself from Snit: I just go in there and talk about my Toyota. When I’m talking about my family, even though I might say “Mama Snit” or I’m talking about my sister “Snitella,” I’m talking about my sister.
Krista Jackson: I felt like I was always part of that family, but I wasn’t there for all of my early 20s. I was still doing my passion, which was theatre. It was a good balance.
There’s something about being able to just go. If I had to do an interview for a theatre show, or something had to be improvised, I would be able to just do it, because of that live training. And also, my sense of timing is really good because of it.
Aashna Patel: I still work in the entertainment industry. Right now I’m hosting and producing and writing travel and lifestyle shows. They air on a number of different airlines, like American Airlines, United, Jet Blue, and they also air on E! Entertainment and Travel Channel….
We got so comfortable interviewing celebrities at such a young age. When I do red carpets now, I’m so comfortable with live television, and I have so much experience with celebrities, so that when technical things are going wrong, I know how to recover.
Scott Yaphe: I’ve been, for the past 13, 14 years, very interested in New Age metaphysics. I’ve always, ever since I was a kid, had an interest in this stuff. I was introduced to a form of energy healing called Reiki over a decade ago, and the more I got involved with metaphysics and New Age stuff, it totally resonated with me, to the point where about two or three years ago I started a practice to see people for energy healing sessions and spiritual counselling. I have on office on Bloor West, and that’s my passion. I do voice work, but I’ve told my on-camera agent to pretty much take me off because it’s not my focus and it’s not passion.
Tarzan Dan Freeman: I recently was laid off—like everybody else in the country in media—so I’m just waiting. From everybody I’ve talked to, somebody bites and I have my next gig. I do photography—the photography side has been busy….
My wife was a professional ballerina at one time, so I have dance photography and I’ve been growing it from there. And I’ve had enough meetings that I expect there’ll be something [in radio].
Phil Guerrero: I really engaged in changing jobs, indulging these different interests of mine. I did all the things I wanted to do. I joined a band, I tried my hand at a fashion line, I did stand-up, I took a hip-hop dance class—in the end, I was taking them from Justin Timberlake’s choreographer, out in Hollywood. I just indulged.
I also did other things. I worked at American Apparel in downtown L.A., and I learned how to drive a forklift. Life to me became about experience, not about, “I need to make a ton of money being on TV.” I was like, “I get to learn how to drive a forklift and hang out with these Mexican gangsters! I get to be around that and I love it!” My life after, I kind of dabbled in everything—selfishly so, because people pay for that, your loved ones say, “What are you doing?” But I’m still trying to get as much out of life as I can.
Jennifer Racicot: I get this Facebook message a couple of Easters ago. It was like, “Hi, my name is Andrew, and I really loved PJ Katie’s Farm. I know I was a bit older than the audience, but I found you really inspiring, and I’m the talking dog guy.” I was like, “Wow, okay, cool,” and my niece is like, “Oh my god, wow, check this out—he’s the Talking Animals guy!” I was like, “What?” I had no idea what it was. She played me some of his videos and they’re hilarious, of course. We started to work together—he had hooked me up to work with National Geographic for a series to do some voice-overs that summer—and we started talking, and he’s from Halifax, and…I dunno, we’re married. He moved to Ontario.
Atul N. Rao: I didn’t realize it was a thing. To me, it was a job I did for a few years, then I went to L.A., and nobody knew Snit in L.A., of course. I lived there for five years, and then I was running a studio in India, and nobody knows Snit over there. Then I came back to Canada, and I remember one day I went into the Wheat Sheaf Tavern. I was supposed to meet some friends and they never showed up, and I’m sitting at a table with a bunch of people I don’t know, and they said to me, “Hey, so, what do you do?” I said, “Oh, I write cartoons.” “Oh, that’s cool.” I said, “Actually…how old are you?” They said, “25.” I said, “Did you ever watch The Zone with Phil and Snit?” “Oh yeah, I used to watch it all the time.” “Oh cool, I was Snit!” And the place went fucking crazy.
Paul McGuire: I played a reporter on a show called Man Seeking Woman. Casting directors cast me as a reporter sometimes—they know I am one, and they know I have a suit. So I’m there on set and Jay Baruchel walks by and says, “Hey, I’m Jay.” I say, “Hey, I’m Paul.” He says, “Oooohhh, I know—this is kind of a big deal for me,” and he proceeds to tell me, “I don’t know if you understand this, man, and I’m not just blowing smoke or anything and I hope this isn’t weird, but you were on in my fucking house every day, man. You guys kind of shaped a generation, and this is a real big deal, man, and I just want to thank you for it.” I told him I still hung out with Phil and he said, “You’re blowing my mind!”
Nicholas Picholas: There’s talk of bringing [Video and Arcade Top 10] back in some way. There’s the angle of, “Let’s bring it back for ’90s nostalgia,” and then there’s also, “Let’s just bring it back because it was a good format and did well.”
In my mind, I might want to play the old games with adults with new prizes. There’s something you want, and let’s play a game that you used to love. That’s one thought. There are a couple of different angles, and there have been many discussions from people that can make that happen.
Phil Guerrero: I was at this convention, and the actors from Black Christmas were there. They’re doing this panel about Black Christmas and telling their stories, and I think, “Oh my God, to them, it was just a four-day job in the ’70s, and they still have to deal with this.” And a lot of their conversation was just about trying to book acting gigs. They’re getting inundated with these really sophisticated questions about that movie, and y’know, it was probably just four days’ work for them. In as many days, they worked a Cottonelle commercial, soap opera, this movie, that movie. In my case, I did it for 10 years, so now I get it: if these three are talking about four days’ work they did in the ’70s, almost 40 years later, oh my god, I get it.
Marty Stelnick: It was my first thing. Archie Fuzzpaw—he’s got to be the worst puppet ever made, but he was my favourite. I loved doing him. When I teach people now, there’s something people need to keep in their minds: it’s not about the puppet. You can have a crappy puppet and you can make a great character. There are a ton of lessons I learned from those days.
I miss my brain from back then, in a way, because when you improvise for 45 minutes a day, every day for five years or whatever, it’s like a muscle. I was quick, I could do it—I could never do that now! If somebody asked me to improvise for a half-hour now, I would be freaked and terrified for a little while.
Aashna Patel: Being able to multitask at YTV—being able to put a real story together by being creative, writing, directing, editing, hosting, reporting, co-hosting—I feel that being able to multitask has really helped me in my career now. A lot of times here you’ll meet talent, and that’s all they can do: they’ll get their lines given to them, and then they read their lines. I feel like it’s been so much easier for me here because I’ve had so much production background.
Paul McGuire: When I was a kid in high school, I had David Letterman’s picture up in my locker—I kinda wanted his gig. And I guess I got relatively close. Not really in the same ballpark, but a gig on TV interviewing people. I’ve always been very happy about that.
Atul N. Rao: What you saw on The Zone was an extension of my friendship with Phil. As an improvisation host, Phil is—and I can say this with 30 years in the business—a genius. He is a genius at hosting—I have never seen anyone better than him. He’s a windup toy: if you put him in front of a camera, he can do anything. I think people appreciate him, but the Canadian television industry did not jump on Phil as much as they should have. It’s a shame.
Jennifer Racicot: It’s always flattering to be remembered—always. The universe was so kind to let me grow up on television in my 20s, live on camera, surrounded by wicked, wonderful people, doing things that I would never have been able to do anywhere else. We did things that just didn’t get done anywhere else.
It was such a magical, magical place.
This article incorrectly stated Walter Grog hijacked YTV. Obviously, it was Warren Grog. We deeply regret the error.
This article has been updated with additional context from Racicot in the sections where she speaks about Margaret Atwood and PJ Paul.