Friday, August 18, 2006

Classic Comedy Lookback - Soap

Parody: a work that imitates another work in order to ridicule, ironically comment on, or poke affectionate fun at either the work itself, the subject of the work, or another subject.

They say that dying is easy; comedy is hard. If that's the case then I think that parody might well be the form of comedy that is hardest of all to pull off consistently. You do it right and you come up with a Blazing Saddles or a Young Frankenstein. Do it wrong and ... well can you say Men In Tights? (Although I confess to the following - I liked Men In Tights better than I liked Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.) I think it's probably easier to do parody in a one off situation as in a variety show. Wayne & Shuster and Carol Burnett were always pulling off great parodies - Carol Burnett's takes on Sunset Boulevard and Gone With The Wind are classics. I can't imagine how hard it must be to pull off a parody for 22 half hours a year for four years the way the writers and producers on Soap did. Of course parodying a style of program the way that Soap did with soap operas is probably easier to do than a specific show or concept. Of course that's not to say that things for Soap were easy.

Even before it began Soap was mired in far more controversy than it ever really deserved. In a June 1977 article in Newsweek called "99 and 44/100% Impure" (which unfortunately I haven't been able to find online) it was reported that the show would feature, among other things, a woman seducing a priest in a confessional, and a gay man who would undergo a sex change. Apparently the writer never actually saw the pilot for the show and either got the facts wrong or thoroughly misinterpret them by not seeing them in context. The net result was one of the most amazing alignment of forces against one TV show imaginable. It was probably the only cause that could bring the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Gay Task Force and the International Union of Gay Athletes together, with support from the National Council of Churches, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and the National Council of Catholic Bishops (although to be fair these groups asked their members to do something radical like actually watching the show first). ABC received nearly 32,000 letters of complaint before the show even premiered. Could it possibly have lived down to the expectations of the protesting groups? Well of course not.

Soap focussed on two families, the wealthy Taits and the middle class Campbells. They were linked because the matriarchs of the two families were sisters. Jessica Tait was an optimistic bubble brain while Mary Campbell was down to earth but perhaps a little frustrated. Jessica's husband Chester was a philanderer who couldn't keep his pants zipped but then it seemed as though no on in that family could, with the possible exception of "The Major" - Jessica's senile father who spent his days in his army uniform and addressed Chester as General. Supposedly frigid daughter Eunice was carrying on an affair with a married congressman, while the only thing holding youngest child Billy back was an inability in finding a girl willing to put out. In the first episode Jessica had sex with Peter, the new tennis pro. Shortly after she left her daughter Corrine came into his room and assertively said "Take of your clothes." As for Mary, her new husband Burt was apparently impotent (because unknown to her he killed her first husband); her eldest son from her first marriage, Danny, was an aspiring Mafia hitman - just like his late father - while her younger son Jody was gay and determined to have a sex change operation to be able to openly live with his lover, an NFL quarterback. Rounding it all up was the only apparently normal person in the whole cast, the Tait family's sarcastic butler Benson Dubois who hated Chester but was devoted (in a non-romantic way) to Jessica. Yes there was sex. Yes there was a homosexual planning to get a sex change operation. There was even a priest. But what the infamous article missed was a couple of things. Corinne's repeated efforts to seduce Father Tim occurred because she had been in love with the man since they were in school, it wasn't some effort to seduce a priest because he was a priest and thus the ultimate challenge. And the gay character was neither an effeminate stereotype or someone who was going to be "cured" by the end of the season as the Gay groups accused (although as the series went on the Jodie character was repeatedly attracted to women, to the point where I've often suspected that he was a closet bisexual) and probably was one of the better portrayals of a homosexual man in a comedy in this period or some later periods. More to the point the concepts and plot lines, while exaggerations, weren't that much different from the material being shown each day on real soap operas. After all, during the run of Soap Laura Webber Baldwin (on General Hospital) was raped, divorced her husband and married her rapist Luke Spencer, but of course to censors - then as now - that wasn't important because it wasn't on "prime time" even if it was on at a time when children and teenagers were likely to be watching.

Much of the credit for Soap has to go to series creator Susan Harris who wrote or co-wrote every episode of the show. The humour was quite sophisticated and betrayed an understanding of the underlying structure of soap operas as multi-levelled structures. Thus you had plot lines that ran the length of a season, like the murder of Peter Campbell, while others ran for most of the series, like Jodie's ongoing struggle to gain custody of his daughter and keep her. Still other plot lines were dealt with over a relatively short period of time. As a result the show not only had and maintained continuity - a must in any attempting to parody a form where continuity can stretch back ten or twenty years - but also had a depth in the story telling. Some story lines existed that initially seemed innocuous but grew in importance as the series progressed. There were other, less obvious nods to soap operas. While no characters went up stair and didn't come down for years, none of the three pregnancies on the show (Carol's, Corinne's or Mary's) actually lasted more than a few weeks, and while Jodie's daughter Wendy apparently doesn't age from the time she's introduced until the last episode where we see her, Jodie's half-brother Scottie - who was born after Wendy - is a year old by the end of the show. Jessica's son Billy turned 18 a mere seventeen episodes after he turned 15. While some may consider things like these as continuity errors they're the sort of things that happened all the time in soap operas.

And yet it wasn't just the writing that worked for Soap. Of necessity the show had a large cast, some of whom were regulars and others guest stars who appeared for extended periods of time. It was an excellent cast, a mix of young talent and veteran performers. Both Robert Mandan and Donnelly Rhodes had appeared in real soap operas, while Mandan, Katherine Helmon and Cathryn Damon had extensive Broadway experience. Mandan brought a perfect blustery quality to the role of Chester Tait, the supposedly smart patriarch of the Tait family who lorded his superiority over everyone else but wasn't nearly as smart as he imagined. Soap represented a breakthrough role for two members of the cast. Robert Guillaume, who had primarily been a Broadway actor with a few film and TV roles was able to make the role of the sarcastic Benson stand out so strongly that he not only won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy for the role in 1979 he was also given a spinoff series called Benson which ran seven seasons - three more than Soap - and earned him five more Emmy nominations including one win. Billy Crystal's portrayal of Jodie, which was done with considerable sensitivity and which highlighted a number of contentious issues including a gay man winning custody of his child, earned him notice even though it was his year on Saturday Night Live that was really the springboard for his success.

For my money however the biggest reason for watching Soap was the performance of Richard Mulligan as Bert Campbell. Mulligan was a TV veteran who had done drama as well as sitcoms, including the lead role in a short run show called The Hero and a supporting role in the Dianna Rigg comedy Dianna. However he may have been best known at the time that he appeared on Soap for playing General Custer in Little Big Man opposite Dustin Hoffman. His version of Custer is the gallant if somewhat pompous leader on the surface but under the surface is thoroughly and hilariously insane. While the strength of Soap was in the writing and the crafting of the story lines, Mulligan brought a tremendous physicality to the part of Bert that had something of the quality that he gave to Custer. You could never be sure that Bert was entirely sane even when he wasn't trying to appear insane. Mulligan was particularly good when reacting to others. Bert was a collection of physical tics that were waiting to be unleashed. It's astonishing to me that while Muligan was nominated twice and one once as Outstanding Lead Actor In A Comedy at the Emmys, he earned three nominations (including one win) and all of his three Golden Globe nominations (including on win in a tie with Judd Hirsch and Michale J. Fox) for the far more sedate and conventional role of Harry Weston in Empty Nest.

Soap was very much a product of its time. The show didn't play it safe but pushed the envelope of the acceptable which was what got the show into trouble in the first place but also what got it noticed. The show wasn't grounded in the sort of realism that you found in All In The Family or other shows of this period, which was sort of the point. The characters were for the most part caricatures - whether it was Jessica blithely sailing through the perils of her everyday life, Chester blustering and scheming to keep his latest infidelity from his wife, or Bert being Bert - and the situations they found themselves in often exaggerated as much as the characters. The show truly was a parody, and a brilliant one. Although cancelled prematurely (in my opinion) after four years I can't help but wonder how much longer the show could have maintained the quality it showed in its first three seasons in particular (the fourth season was something of a mess because of the SAG and AFTRA strike and some decisions by ABC which seem intended to kill the show). But it was fun while it lasted.

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