An Oral History of Street Cents: the Best Kids' Show Ever on Canadian TV
Street Cents spent 17 years on the air, but those early, weird years endeared the show to Canadian youth. Several of the show's architects and principal characters share what it was like at the time.
Teenagers are the demographic most susceptible to misleading advertising. It's not that all teenagers are dumb (although a lot of them are), but when you combine adolescent insecurity, peer pressure, and a lack of experience with regretful purchases of trendy, overpriced crap, you've got yourself an easy target for profit-hungry corporations selling everything from "Smurfs to acne products." At least, that's how it was in 1989, when John Nowlan, an executive producer of children and youth programming at CBC Halifax, created Street Cents: a show about consumer awareness for the people who needed it most.
Not long after creating the show, Nowlan dedicated himself to finding corporate sponsors to keep it free from advertising. Meanwhile, a group of young, talented writers, actors, and comedians took over. The show become a strange hybrid of journalism, sitcom and sketch comedy. There isn't much evidence of its existence on the internet, save for a short Wikipedia article and a few short clips that the CBC hasn't removed from YouTube yet, but for Canadians who grew up with the CBC in the early 90s, Street Cents is like a memory that may or may not be real. "Did that show really exist? Was that J-Roc from Trailer Park Boys? Were there pigs?"
But it's real, and not only did it launch the career of J-Roc (aka Jonathan Torrens, who also hosted Jonovision for the CBC), but also Mike Clattenburg, who started as a field producer on Street Cents before creating Trailer Park Boys and co-creating Black Jesus for Adult Swim. Street Cents was not only the proving ground for Halifax's most famous television export, but more importantly it was also a playground for a group of Halifax-based creatives to experiment, fool around, and make people laugh, all under the auspices of "youth programming."
The show lasted until 2006, adopting a less chaotic newsmagazine format by the end of its run, but most people remember it from its mid-90s episodes, where shitty consumer products were dubbed "Fit for the Pit" and thrown into a fiery manhole, and the three young hosts busted out parodies, impersonations, and sketches that were much funnier and more creative than anyone expected them to be. So we corralled a number of the people involved in that run of the show to give you an oral history of Street Cents.
John Nowlan (creator of Street Cents): I got the money to produce a pilot, then called Money Penny, named after the James Bond character. I thought that would be a cool name. As it turned out, we did some testing of names with kids after the pilot was hugely successful and kids didn't like it, they preferred the name Street Cents, the play on words. So we switched the title.
Jon Finkelstein (Senior Producer): John's always had all the angles on getting a lot done for very cheaply. It took that man to get Street Cents going, actually. CBC said no to his idea, and then he went out, spent time looking for people [sponsors] who would commit and basically told the CBC, "I can give you a half a million dollar cheque," so that was enough for them to say, 'Yes' to the show... We were able to raise almost a million dollars to produce a full season of Street Cents out of Halifax for the full network without commercials, which thrilled me.
Benita Ha (Host): I was surprised I was cast, you know, this Chinese kid with braces. Money Penny was great, I thought it was a great concept, and I was really happy to be on a show and of course my whole family was perched on chairs waiting for the first episode.
John Nowlan: Jonathan [Torrens] came on in one of our early shows in one of our early shows. We liked him, in a test he did for us, and we decided to bring him in not as a host, but as a tester, and we fed him nothing but fast food, hamburgers and french fries and milkshakes for a week or two and then got reports from him.
Jonathan Torrens (Host): I was 16. I auditioned three times and didn't get the job originally. The job went to a kid named Chris Lydon, who was kind of more the type they were looking for: kind of a skateboarder cool kid. I ate nothing but fast food for five days, which in retrospect, wasn't that much of a stretch. Like, that wasn't hard hitting journalism, that was just how I rolled, 'cause I was actually working at McDonald's at the time, and you could get a free lunch every shift you worked, so I would usually leave high school and go down and work an 11-2 lunchtime shift just to get a lunch anyway.
John Nowlan: You know, every kid's dream, or many kids' dream, is to eat nothing but fast food at our expense, so we bought him that, and so he gave us reports on how he felt day after day of a diet of nothing but fast foods—McDonald's, Burger King.
Jonathan Torrens: It was kind of a challenge because I worked at McDonald's, as I mentioned, and didn't want to sell my co-workers down the river.
John Nowlan: And he was fabulous, and he gave us really funny, witty reports about how he felt, and he got lethargic and lost brain power and muscle power and everything else over the weeks that he did it.
Jonathan Torrens: Long story short though, Chris didn't work out. He wasn't a good fit, or he didn't like the gig or something, so after my fast food week I became a regular host. I think the third or fourth episode in that season.
Mike Clattenburg (Field Producer and Studio Director): I admired [Jonathan's] talent early on. Long before I worked on the show, I was a real fan of Street Cents. We'd see each other around town. Then I get this gig working with him. It didn't take long for us to become pals, we made each other laugh constantly. But no matter what room you are in, Jono is still the funniest guy in the room.
Henry Sawyer-Foner (Studio Director): It was like a cast of four actors and a large pig. It was kind of strange. None of us really knew what we were doing and we all had to figure it out together. The show had a pretty broad palette, and we got to play around with a bunch of different realities and tones, and in a way I guess you could say it developed into a subgenre of its own. Like it wasn't high stakes, because it was a kids show, so we could take risks.
Many of us were from away, and so we'd hang out. We shared a sense of the absurd, I guess. We all enjoyed absurd comedy, and were big fans of SNL and maybe even Monty Python and shows like that, that influenced us.
Louise Moon (Writer): Whatever the popular show was, whether it was Beverly Hills 90210 or Party of Five or Dawson's Creek or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We would take one of those shows and then we would use it to answer one of the viewer's segments. So if it was "What's Your Beef," and it was about skateboards or something, we would have some sort of crisis in the world of Dawson's Creek.
Jonathan Torrens: Like if Party of Five was on and we were doing a thing about a five-man tent, then it would be "Party of Five-Man Tents" or whatever.
Louise Moon: Even comedy people, they would say, "Oh yeah, I love the parodies on that show." For me, that was the big thing. There was nobody in Canada doing the exact same thing that we were doing, the sort of SNL-style, In Living Color-style parodies of pop culture.
Fit for the pit
John Nowlan: The writers were fabulous. We had villainous characters and plots and at the same time we had a lot of product tests, and we weren't afraid to throw brand-name products into the pit. We had an expression: "fit for the pit." And every week there was a product that did not live up to its advertised hype, usually a brand-name product. And we were thrilled to be able to throw it into our make-believe pit with a loud explosion and a lot of fake smoke, so we had great fun with that.
Jonathan Torrens: I remember that the pit was just a 650-watt light with a red gel on it and a smoke machine. In the early going we probably only had one version of the prop that we were throwing in the pit, so if it landed on the light and got singed, that was it.
Mike Clattenburg: When you threw something in the Street Cents pit, the line was always, "[This product] is fit for the pit!" They'd throw the product in the pit: BOOM! It would explode in a huge flash of fire and smoke. We examined this product called Miracle Thaw, it was some ridiculous way to thaw meat on a piece of metal. Anyway, Jono and I changed the line to, "Go on wit ya, Miracle Thaw!" Then threw it in the pit. BOOM! It was so funny to us, but everyone else thought we were fucked. I only shot one take because the pyro was a big reset. I think I caught some shit for that. It went to air.
Jonathan Torrens: This was a show on the public broadcaster for kids on Saturday morning, so it was almost uncool. It's only with the benefit of hindsight that I can now be really proud of what we did.... But at the time, I guess because the audience was teenagers, they were like, "You're that guy on that show, that show sucks, dude," or, "Hey buddy, how's the Street Cents?" "Hey look, there's buddy off of Street Cents, that show is stupid!"
Benita Ha: We noticed our audience growing, and that was pretty cool. People would start to recognize us more. I think I remember we had a mall signing. We had to sign autographs at a mall in Ottawa. We thought, okay, maybe they'll be 50 people per mall or something like that and it turned out it was 500 hundred per mall. So that was a shocker.
I remember one girl, I saw her necklace. I was like, "That's a really nice necklace," and then she ended up giving it to me, and I was like "No!" She was like, "You said you like it!" And I'm like, "Yeah, but on you!" She's like, "No! Take it!" This is like a 10-year-old giving me her necklace.
Henry Sawyer-Foner: We went from nobody knew about the show to people starting to... the ratings started to pick up and we started to get nominated and winning awards and stuff like that, a little bit here and there.
Jonathan Torrens: It was also, for me, a really formative period in my life because Mike Clattenburg, who went on to create Trailer Park Boys, came on to Street Cents first as a field producer, where we became fast friends, and then as a studio director.
Mike had a cable show in Halifax called That Damn Cable Show and I was a fan of that show because he did sketches like "Truckers in Love" and if you watched it now, there were early indications of, tonally, what Trailer Park Boys would be. Like, two truckers standing in the produce section of a grocery store and one of them saying, "Aw, I found these flowers, you might as well have 'em." You could tell they were in love and trying to deny it.
Louise Moon: He had done his own cable show in Halifax and so he had a real sort of rock 'n' roll kind of vibe. So, at that time, it was like the transition between the 80s and the 90s. So the show went from sort of that kind of poppy fun kind of 80s big hair, shoulder pads era to the plaid shirt, Sloan, Thrush Hermit kind of vibe.
Mike Clattenburg: I remember Jono [Torrens] and I did a Beck/Sloan-ish grunge parody about organic produce.
Jon Finkelstein: We changed the show over time, and Mike was in charge of [post-production], which basically meant that he packaged the show. He oversaw, directed the packaging of the show. The overall look, the transitions, the bumpers, everything else like that.
Jonathan Torrens: So when Clattenburg started at Street Cents, he just turned that whole building, CBC Halifax on its ear, and suddenly he and I and Brian Heighton were making fake ads and shooting little music videos about people who weren't there. That was the, "Oh my God, I've found my people!" moment.
Mike Clattenburg: I was really into indie rock and rap videos then. I brought a music video sensibility to parts of the show, and as much new music as I could.
Jon Finkelstein: We had talks, Mike and I, and they were about how he wanted to stylistically change the studio parts of the show. There's always a little bit of creative tension when something's going well and then a new director comes in and wants to change stuff around. It takes a while to find that trust and balance to say, "Okay, you can do this, but let's not lose what everybody knows to be Street Cents."
Jonathan Torrens: He went to high school with the guys who play Ricky and Julian on Trailer Park Boys, and we were out drinking in Halifax one night with the guy who would play Julian years later, and Julian said, "Hey can you pass the ketchup, J-Roc." We always talked like J-Roc, Clattenburg and me, in the halls of Street Cents, because we both went to high school with those dudes, and that was just our dialect, man. Years later when he was doing Trailer Park, he said, "You should play J-Roc on the show," and I was happy to.
Jon Finkelstein: CBC execs were very supportive of us doing topics that really mattered to teens, because when you're doing a show for teenagers, 12 to 17, who like to watch adult programming, grown-up programming, you're only going to get them if you actually talk about the things you care about. So the show was quite edgy.
A kid didn't think [their school was] going far enough in their sex education, and thought condom machines should be in schools—and they are, in some schools—but they weren't in some schools, so we would look at that, and that was considered a consumer issue. So Street Cents talked about everything from underwear street tests, to acne cream, to sex.
John Nowlan: We weren't a drama. We were a consumer show. So anything with a consumer bent—and certainly shoplifting and condoms and other things have a consumer bent of interest to teenagers—so yeah, edginess is good, I think. As long as you're accurate and it reflects the interests of the key audience, which are young people.
Louise Moon: We tried to give a voice to our viewers and took their complaints seriously. A frequent beef we heard was that mall security guards treated teens unfairly. So a field producer came up with the "Mall Cops" sketch, a spoof of the reality show Cops, in which two overly-aggressive security guards hassled some teens trying to eat lunch in a food court. It had its own version of the Bad Boys theme song. "Mall cops, mall cops, doing what they please.... They got a walkie-talkie and a bunch of keys."
A Hangover Show
Henry Sawyer-Foner: It was pretty irreverent, especially for a Saturday morning kids show on CBC. As I said, for some reason, maybe it was because of Benita Ha, I don't know, but we got a lot of younger, teenaged, and 20-something males writing in all the time. I remember we were kind of chuffed by that.
Benita Ha: I think our biggest demographic were men between the ages of 17 and 25 or something like that, and our target age range is like 12 to 17 or something. I'm thinking it's probably because they came home from their hangovers and turned on the TV to what's on, and it's Street Cents.
Peter Moss (Creative Head of Children's and Family Programs at CBC): A hangover show only in that all of the home-based sections—the part that was actually shot in studio in Halifax as opposed to the fieldwork that was done right across the country—was very funny. Weirdly, ironically, haphazardly, chaotically funny.
Henry Sawyer-Foner: It was interesting, because our demographic was supposed to be tweens, but [because] the show was on a Saturday morning, a huge part of our demographic were 20-somethings as well who were too hungover to watch cartoons. A lot of people remember it pretty fondly just because, I guess, we were goofing around a lot.
Peter Moss: After CBC, I was for a time at YTV and Treehouse TV, and we ran Teletubbies. There were a lot of people stoned watching Teletubbies. It had a very weird demo, as well as a target audience. So who knows who was watching Street Cents. They're either doing drinking games—you know, every time he says this, let's down a pint—or you just sort of mellow out, smoke a joint, and watch. When I grew up I remember being stoned watching early episodes of Sesame Street. I used to love it when somebody would come to the camera and go "Near! This is near!" Later on I ended up working at Sesame Street, and it wasn't so funny.
Benita Ha: I remember a health [episode].... We're all doing our exercises and counting them off. Like, I'd be doing push ups, and I'm like, "23, 24..." and then Jamie's doing pull-ups and it's like, "one, two..." and then Jonathan was doing bicep curls and he's like, "68, 69." And then he paused for a second, smiled just a little bit of a smile, and then he goes, "70, 71..." You know what I mean—he said 69 with a pause. But it's so subtle that if you're a kid, you don't know, you're just like, "Oh, they're doing more exercises." But if you're a 22-year-old guy, you're like, "Did he just... No!" And you can't believe it because it's a kids' show.
Henry Sawyer-Foner: There weren't a lot of people breathing down our neck. We didn't get a lot of network notes, because we were out on the east coast, which was always an advantage. It was a big advantage for [This Hour Has] 22 Minutes, too. You're kind of out there in this netherworld.
Jon Finkelstein: Nobody paid attention to us, we were in the corner of the country.
Phyllis Platt (Network Program Director at the CBC): I don't think [their location] really had a huge impact, because they still needed to be in touch with the children's department in Toronto. There were always ongoing conversations and stuff about the shows.
Jon Finkelstein: I would say that the executives gave us a lot of editorial range. I think they trusted us to know what kids wanted to know, and didn't get in our way as far as telling us we had to sandpaper the edges off the show. And the ratings for the show were pretty good. That doesn't hurt.
John Nowlan: We needed money, and in those days shows aimed at young people, unlike pre-school, could have commercials, but I said I don't want Street Cents to have commercials. I felt it really important that it have the credibility of Consumer Reports magazine, which thrives because it doesn't have any advertising. I was actually able to get the Canadian Banker's Association to throw in several hundred thousand dollars in the initial season. Because one of their objectives was to teach everybody financial literacy, but particularly young people. To encourage them, obviously, to open bank accounts and know what compound interest means and things like that. So they came aboard for several hundred thousand dollars and I got the Bronfman Foundation and other groups like that—foundations that are interested in young people—to put in money.
Jon Finkelstein: He would bring me out so we could negotiate on what the limits were on how far we can go to promote their industries, and mostly we needed the independence, because it was CBC, and even though we were sort of an entertainment show, we felt like we had to be bound by their journalistic policies. So there wasn't really a conflict of interest, but it was just to say that, obviously, if the Royal Canadian Mint hadn't sponsored the show, we probably wouldn't be doing coin segments every week on loose change.
Peter Moss: Mostly what I did was try to make sure there was enough money so that he didn't need them. Because it was very different when sponsors had to be brought on. I think the more sponsors we brought on the less happy everybody was.
John Nowlan: I think [Peter is] wrong. We wanted the show to be about personal financial responsibility. I didn't want an individual bank because that would be a bit bias. But the Canadian Bankers Association has kind of the same goals. When I presented the show to them, they loved the idea of teaching young people financial literacy: how to open bank accounts and how to buy responsibly and how to use your money responsibly.
Jonathan Torrens: A show for kids brought to you by the Royal Canadian Mint? That's bananas!
Henry Sawyer-Foner: I remember we had to do a thing about the mint, the Canadian mint, on a regular basis, but those were field pieces, so it would be about coins, fairly benign, but it was sponsored by the mint. The banking stuff, yeah, I guess it probably was some sort of propaganda about that.
Louise Moon: It's funny, because we had this fictional company called Buy-Co, and Buy-Co acquired Street Cents to try raise its prestige in the corporate community. So, in a way, we were kind of making fun of ourselves, in that we have these corporate sponsors, but I don't think it ever compromised the integrity of the series. They were only sponsors who... they weren't, like, Mattel or anything that would have an impact on the kids.
Peter Moss: it's a hard thing to work out exactly how much cash was brought in versus what the true cost of it was. But my memory was that those things... It's usually the case that those last little bits that were brought in in sponsorship were the crucial dollars that were needed because the rent was already paid.
John Nowlan: We had a pig named Penny, and as the pig evolved, the pig became Nickel the Pig and then Moui, which I think is Vietnamese for dime, and so we went up the money scale with the name of the pig as the show evolved over the years. We thought it would be fun to have a pig on set to show the piggishness and the pork that a lot of corporations take from young people.
Henry Sawyer-Foner: We had to shoot quickly because it would squeal and shit as soon as it came on set. I remember once it got tangled up in some camera cables and it went berserk, squealing and kicking like a pig possessed. One of our veteran cameramen appeared on the monitor wielding this giant hunting knife, and I was just completely horrified as he moved towards it because I thought he was going to put it out of its misery, until he just kind of sliced the cables to let it free. So that was really incredible, it was like, "Oh my god! We're going to butcher a pig on TV on a kids' show!"
Jon Finkelstein: There was a lot of poop.
Benita Ha: The pig would start going to the washroom every single time we started rolling. It was like "In three, two, oh wait stop, it's happening!" It's like it knew. It knew when we were about to shoot. It would be fine for the rehearsals and then... boom.
Jonathan Torrens: Most of the fun in the early days I remember coming from where the pig would use the bathroom. In the second year there was a Vietnamese potbelly pig and we had a thing called the "cesspool" where people would guess how many times it used the bathroom during the day. Fortunately, in the third season they got a little tiny hedgehog so its logs were much easier to clean.
Mike Clattenburg: That pig was not a bad dude in my books, but he did shit himself a few times. That hedgehog was cute. I remember he rocked some unexpected pisses. We also had a silly robotic hedgehog for stunts and special effects. I loved it.
Jon Finkelstein: It was probably the best job I ever had. It's more than a feeling, it's also because of what we achieved. For a while it was nominated every year for an award. It didn't always win, but often won. I think it was the year I left it won an International Emmy, so I just missed that one.
Benita Ha: I remember there was one episode, we were so happy we got the Gemini that we put it in every single shot, but we never talked about it. It was just sitting there. Like, Jonathan would open the fridge and there's the Gemini. We totally ignored it, but it's just there for people who know. They were all walking through the set, and there was a Gemini sitting there again, just in the middle of the scene.
Jonathan Torrens: It's been a long time since I've thought about it, and I'm touched by the affection people seem to still have for it. It also, I guess, the one thing I would say is, it set the tone for everything I would go on to work on. Like, I lived in the United States, and they wanted to know if you're Ryan Seacrest or David Schwimmer. Like, are you a sitcom guy or are you a host, because you can't be both. Street Cents was proof that you can, and everything that I've gone on to do since then has been kind of a hybrid.
Benita Ha: I think it's great, too, as an Asian as well, just being one of those first Asian women—I should say girl—at the time, like, teenager, on national television. Now it's like you see them all the time, it's not a big deal. But I think back, 25 years ago, on CBC it was like, "Hey, that's pretty cool."
Jonathan Torrens: I knew it was time to leave when I did the "Why is there so much air in chip bags?" episode for the third time.
John Nowlan: It lasted 17 years, which is a pretty good run for a CBC show. A very good run. But there was really no reason to dump it other than CBC didn't have the money anymore and didn't want to bother doing as I did: to go out and raise the funds from foundations and corporations. As long as the pension plan is in good shape, I will tend to keep my mouth shut... for the most part.
Jon Finkelstein: I'd like to revive it. I don't know who would take it anymore in this country.
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