The latest in kids' products
You Can't Do That on Television Nickelodeon6-6:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; 10:30 a.m., 4 p.m. Sat.; 4 p.m. Sun.
It always amazes me that lots of parents I know refuse to let their children watch Pee-wee's Playhouse (the phrase I hear repeatedly is ''He's so creepy''), yet don't mind at all that their tykes' brains are being rotted by You Can't Do That on Television.
You Can't Do That features a mostly kid cast making smutty jokes in rapid-fire, blackout-sketch style. Here's a typical exchange from a recent edition:
''Gee, I really enjoyed those brownies you made.''
''You dope those weren't brownies, that was pig manure!''
You Can't Do That teems with excrement jokes and passing-gas jokes and nose-picking jokes; the few adults who pop up often portray parents who drink too much, slur their words, and fall down a lot.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not one of those bluenoses who think no one should make jokes about alcohol; W.C. Fields is the sort of guy I wish my kids watched more often. And I like a good bathroom joke as much as the next fellow, but the operative word here is ''good.'' The cast of You Can't Do That seems to think that merely by invoking a bowel movement, a great witticism has been made.
Created and written by grown-up humorist Roger Price and performed by a stock company of perfectly competent teens and pre-teens, You Can't Do That seems to think that the only humor kids like is bathroom humor, an attitude that is condescending.
There's a sense in which I want to like You Can't Do That, because it's so gleefully vulgar, so unlike all the pious, proscriptive junk that passes for children's programming these days.
But between the stupid jokes and the show's format a tired rip-off of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In and Monty Python's Flying Circus it's all just too depressing. Too, in fact, creepy.
While I'd never say that they shouldn't be allowed to do that on television, I wish they wouldn't. D-
Max's First Word By Rosemary Wells Dial, $3.50Ages 6 months to 2 years
Sturdy board books for babies are a dime a dozen, but I dare you to find more than a handful that delight the parent as much as the infant. The Max series is a perpetual winner: tough enough to survive a few good chewings, shiny as a lollipop, and funny even the 15th time around.
Max is the baby; Ruby is his toddler sister. Both are endearingly humanoid bunnies in droopy overalls. In this installment, Max's one word is ''BANG!'' Ruby, with mounting impatience, coaxes him to say other words. ''Say CUP,'' she says, handing him a cup. ''BANG!'' Max says.
Max has the last word, though. After a series of futile enticements, Ruby gives up and hands Max an apple. ''DELICIOUS!'' Max says.
There's more art than it may first appear in this winningly artless little book. Half the pleasure of board books is to share a baby's excited noticing, pointing, and naming what's in the pictures. Here, every page has a lot to notice: brightly colored backgrounds, clearly depicted familiar objects like brooms, chairs, and apples, and significant words in huge black letters.
Best of all, for read-aloud parents, is the wry portrayal of the relationship between two siblings no small feat in a book with only (count 'em) 58 words. A
MATILDA By Roald Dahl Puffin, $3.95, paperbackAges 8 to 12
April is Roald Dahl Month, according to his publisher. Figures we all know that T.S. Eliot said April is ''the cruelest month.'' And with the paperback debut of this hardback best-seller, Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach) confirms his stature as the Prince of the Poisonous Pen, master of malice, and Iago of revenge literature.
Matilda, a gentle, polite heroine, age 5, is a blooming genius. She has speed-read through the local library and she can multiply 14 times 19. Librarians and teachers swoon in adoration, but she doesn't impress her loathsome parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, or her ghastly headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. No matter; they'll soon get theirs. Matilda excels at planning subtle revenge, such as getting her father to Super Glue his hat to his head.
As usual, Dahl's characters are ciphers, sketched in to serve the plot (which is always the same: child's revenge on brutish adult) and incapable of real development. Dahl's narrative voice hectoring, lecturing leaves little room for his characters to do much but rant.
Dahl gets away with this because adults admire his Victorian schoolmaster tone (Children must be polite! Read! Be intellectual giants!), while children relish the high-pitched physical aggression. He's like the hearty, show-off uncle who pretends to love children but secretly loathes them an unsettling presence on the best-seller lists. D
McGee and Me! A Star in the Breaking Tyndale House Christian Video (708-668-8300) $19.95, 30 Min.Ages 7 to 12
McGee and Me! is one of a series of videos that teach the ''biblical values parents want their kids to learn.'' It opens with the protagonist reading a Bible verse about humility.
After 11-year-old Nicholas (Joseph Dammann) wins a chance to be a contestant on a TV game show, he develops a conceit that alienates everyone. His humiliation upon losing badly is his first step in understanding the difference between pride and vanity. McGee (an animated little fellow only Nicholas can see and hear) adds a bit of imaginative action but nothing in the way of plot or understanding.
No matter what your religious orientation, you and your child will likely find the message compelling. The cast's composition is noteworthy: The principal is black, the winning contestant a girl. And there's a throw-away line that made me laugh out loud. ''Are you sure you want to hang around with the ultimate idiot?'' Nicholas asks his sister after his defeat. ''I'm used to it,'' the 5-year-old affectionately replies. A
Rock & Read MCA Home Video (800-445-3800) $14.95, 29 min.Ages 2 to 7
Trying to teach kids how to read in a music video is certainly ambitious, and though this production won't be much of a success in that regard, it's clever and fun to watch.
Five songs (''Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,'' ''I'm a Little Teapot,'' ''The Alphabet Song,'' the ''Eensy, Weensy Spider,'' and ''Row, Row, Row Your Boat'') are arranged and sung by contemporary artists, while a group of kids aged 2 to 12 dress as members of a rock band and act out the performances.
Pauly Shore, acting like a surfer who has been hit by one too many waves, introduces each song (''C'mon, little dudes, focus on this one'') and gives a few key words (in ''Twinkle,'' two examples are ''world'' and ''star''). Then, as the song plays, the scene cuts from shots of the kids supposedly performing it, to 3-D graphics (by animation artist Bill Konersman), to the words flashing onscreen.
Now, if your 2-year-old listens to ''Twinkle, Twinkle. . .'' and calls out ''star!'' when the word flashes onscreen and you think she has read it (rather than remembered it from the song), call me I have a bridge to sell you.
OK, so your kid won't learn how to read by watching this. There are better ways (books, for example). But he or she will get to hear some irresistible arrangements of favorite nursery tunes. The tape is worth it just for those, especially De La Soul's unbeatable, funky ''I'm a Little Teapot.'' B+
Tales around the Hearth Heather Forest A Gentle Wind (518-436-0391) $8.95, cassetteAges 3 to 8
Heather Forest has a pretty, rich voice and a pretty, soft way with a guitar. Once or twice on Tales Around the Hearth, her talents and her material meet, such as in her rendition of the Swedish folktale about loving your mother, ''The Cap My Mother Made for Me.'' It's deeply felt and, after a long day, it could be moving.
But mostly these 11 song-stories will move you to yawn. They are either weak (''The Turnip,'' a bore about working together) or tedious (''Try Try Again,'' a Forest original about building a tower of blocks) or too long (I thought ''The Boy Who Cried Wolf'' would never get to the wolf part). It's tough to make an Aesop's fable dull, but Forest does it four times. Try, try again. C
THE CLASSICS SHELF
The Erie Canal Illustrated by Peter Spier Doubleday, $5.95, paperbackAges 4 to 8
''The Erie Canal'' is a particularly juicy song to illustrate in a picture book: It's filled with ringing place names, pleasing shifts in rhythm, rousing choruses, and the singer's rough-hewn affection for his mule, Sal (''a good old worker and a good old pal'').
And Peter Spier is the perfect artist to bring it all to life: His detailed panoramas bustle with affectionately observed barge families and townspeople, shops and factories, farmers in their fields, browsing animals, and, of course, the infinately fascinating canal traffic of the 19th century.
Spier's abundant visual imagination is captivating. These scenes of canal life in rain, snow, moonlight, or the blush of autumn color have the deep appeal of time travel. To peer into his pictures, noticing all the casual incidents like the kids who fish from rowboats, wave to the bargemen, or build snowmen on the ice is to feel you're getting a close-up of a vanished time.
A fine bonus: There's a pithy history of the canal at the end of the book (which is a new reissue of a 1970 hardback) and the lyrics and music of the song are printed in full. A+