Soap: A Funny and Controversial 1970s TV Show
Do You Remember the 1970s TV Show Soap?
Tuesday nights meant only one thing. Hurry up with your homework because Soap was on. Oh, how our teachers loved to give homework on Tuesdays!
I was in the 8th grade when the first episode aired. It was one of the few shows my whole family enjoyed. Even my Mom thought it was funny. She's a tough one when it comes to comedy.
I supposed we were drawn to the raunchy gags and the outrageous plot lines. We were completely oblivious that in parts of the country the show was being protested. All we knew was that it made us laugh until out eyes watered.
What made this show so special? After all, it isn't easy to do parody or spoof—especially as the basis of a TV show. I guess it had the right mix of great writing, great comedic acting, and ridiculous story lines. It poked fun at America while touching some of the hot issues of the day: homosexuality, cults, premarital sex, women's rights, mental illness, racism, and so forth. The fact that some of the stories were far fetched was part of the charm.
Season 1 and 2
Some Background Information about the Show
From 1977 to 1981 one of the funniest sitcoms ever to grace our television sets was produced. Soap was created by Susan Harris (director) and Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas (executive producers). This team is responsible for other sitcoms such as Benson, Empty Nest, and the Golden Girls.
Soap was a parody of all the day time soap operas. The series was based on the families of two sisters: Mary Campbell and Jessica Tate. Mary Campbell lived the life of the typical working class housewife who divided her time being bored with housework and keeping her sons and their stepfather from fighting. Jessica Tate married wealth and lived the life of the woman who had everything. While Mary had a good head on her shoulders, Jessica saw everything through rose colored glasses and was a bit dimwitted.
They were an eccentric lot, the Tates and the Campbells. Each season they became even more wacky as the writers put them through the wringer. You thought the writers stretched things on those daytime soap operas? Well, this show went beyond those limits and pushed them even further. It was wild, it was crazy, and it was hilarious.
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Were you a fan of Soap?
The Original Cast of Soap
There were several characters central to series. These were the regulars who made up the two families.
These were the Tate's:
- Chester-Robert Mandon
- Jessica-Katherine Helmond
- Eunice-Jennifer Salt
- Corrinne-Dianna Canova
- Billy-Jimmy Baio
And, these were the Campbell's
- Burt- Richard Mulligan
- Mary-Cathryn Damond
- Danny-Ted Wass
- Jodie-Billy Crystal
- Peter-Robert Urich
In addition to these family members, there was the General, the mentally unstable father of Jessica and Mary (Arthur Peterson Jr.), Benson, the sarcastic Butler (Robert Guillaume), Father Tim Flotsky, a troubled priest (Sal Viscuso), Chuck (Jay Johnstone) and his dummy, Bob, and others. There were many supporting actors who came and went. Some had recurring supporting roles, while others only appeared for a show or two.
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Some of My Favorite Scenes from the Series
When I think of Soap, I can't help but think of Danny's attempts to murder Burt. He failed many times. Danny wasn't the brightest the bulb in the box so his plans always went afoul.
On his final attempt at murder, he lures Burt on a fishing trip under the pretense of bonding. When Burt finds out that Danny has to murder him (I won't tell you why), he decides to make it easier for him by pretending to by the object in arcade shooting game.
There was always laughter when the General and his Doberman (it was stuffed) entered the scene. The General was a bit touched in the head and didn't realize that the dog wasn't real. I laughed every time he dragged that dog into the room.
And, who could forget the time General burst through the courthouse windows in a failed attempt to save Jessica from the Nazis? Well, he thought it was the Nazis, but then he still thought he was fighting World War II.
There was also this outrageously funny scene where Benson, the General, Chester, and Inspector Donahue (played by John Byner) tried to rescue Billy from the cult, The Sunnies. Watch the video below to see this scene.
Do You Remember This Hilarious Scene?
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Controversies Began Before the Show Aired
Nothing like this had been done for nighttime television and it causes many to fret. There were protests even before the show aired. Religious groups were particularly offended by the plot lines surrounding Father Flotsky and Jodie Dallas. The themes were deemed inappropriate for television by several organizations. Some advertisers jumped ship before the first episode aired.
By today's standards this show would seem mild. But, this was 1977. Although shows like Love American Style tested the boundaries on sexual themes, most sitcoms in 1977 barely admitted that married couples slept in the same bed let alone those who were unmarried. Not only was Soap criticized for sexual content, people were saw it as religiously offensive. Protest letters poured in.
The show turned out to be a huge success. So, perhaps the controversies helped it. At any rate, some people tuned in just to see what the hubbub was about.
Crystal Before He was a Movie Star
Gay Athletes: Still an Issue Today
Yes, Soap was a TV show, but the relationship between Jodie and the star quarterback negative reactions about the characters reflected the views of the days. Not many were comfortable entertaining the idea that their child was Gay, let alone there were Gay professional athletes.
It strikes me that today some are still fretting over this. When Michael Sams made his revelation before the NFL draft, not all the reactions were positive. Some were reminiscent of the views of 1977. It is sad to think that over 30 years after the sitcom aired America is still debating the possibility of Gay athletes--and some still aren't happy about it.
Billy Crystal's Character Fuels the Protests
Perhaps no character caused more rancor than Jodie Dallas, Mary's son. Before Saturday Night Live and City Slickers, Billy Crystal was a regular on Soap. Crystal's character, Jodie, was openly Gay. Not only that, he was in love with a football player. Jodie was going to have a sex change operation so they could be seen together in public.
His character was central to the series. The plot often centered around the other characters' reactions to his sexual preference. In the way that humor does, it reflected some of the conversations happening in households across America. Some characters poked fun at him, some refused to interact with him, and some like his brother, refused to believe that he was Gay. It was a slice of conflict in America with comedy thrown in on the side.
It may have been the first time that issues surrounding homosexuality were central to a sitcom's story line. Their was no innuendo and secret whispering. Jodie was Gay and that was that.
If you don't think this was a big deal, count how many openly Gay characters there have been on sitcoms from the last episode of Soap in 1981 to when Will and Grace first aired in 1998. I bet you won't need both hands to count them all. The only other Gay characters on a pre-1990s sitcom that I could think of were the couple on Barney Miller.
Chester Tate and Benson at Odds
Can't Get Enough?
85 Episodes in Four Seasons
Soap eventually ran out of story lines and humor. In 1981, ABC pulled the plug on the show short of its 5th season. Thus, they never did a series finale. Many of the story lines were left unfinished. If I'm not mistaken, Jessica was left in a boat on a river fighting a revolution in Central America.
Though that last season was a little flat, the show had provided many hours of entertainment. It was critically acclaimed and nominated for several Emmy Awards. In 1978, Robert Guillaume won as best supporting actor in a comedy series. In 1980, both Richard Mulligan and Cathryn Damond won for lead actor/actress in a comedy series.
It provided some of the best comedy that was ever on television. It still stands as the best parody or spoof TV comedy show. Watching today, we get a glimpse of some of the issues, prejudices, and controversies of that time—even as it is poking a stick at them.
© 2014 Melody Lassalle