October 19, 2007
Soaps and Soap
For a very brief time in my life, about one week actually, I got hooked on daytime TV soap operas.
It happened in December of 1978. I had received a phone call that my father had died suddenly of a heart attack back in Sri Lanka. I was in graduate school in the US, far away from my family, and thus away from the kinds of support networks and rituals that help one get through such times of grief. I could not concentrate on my studies or reading or other things to distract my mind so turned for solace to watching TV all day, as so many do in such situations when seeking escapism through mindless activity.
In those pre-internet and early cable days, your TV choices were largely limited to just the three networks CBS, NBC, and ABC and during the day all three served up a diet of talk shows, game shows, and soap operas. Although I wasn't at all interested at first, quite soon I was quite absorbed in the various stories that made up the soaps. For those not familiar with the genre, these daytime soap operas involve multiple intersecting story lines involving quite a large cast of characters of usually middle class or rich people, with a few low-lifes thrown in to spice things up. The tales involve love, jealousy, intrigue, adultery, murder, larceny, backstabbing, lying, cheating, and other strong human characteristics.
These programs can be quite addictive and develop faithful followings as can be seen from the longevity of soaps like Days of Our Lives, All My Children, The Young and the Restless and As the World Turns, all of which have lasted over three decades.
Although I stopped watching after a week, these shows gave me a greater appreciation for the riotously funny weekly prime-time sitcom Soap, which was a parody of the daytime soaps, and ran for four seasons during the years 1977-1981.
The basic story of Soap was that of the intersecting lives of two families, the Tates and the Campbells, where the two mothers Jessica Tate and Mary Campbell were sisters. The best way to describe Soap is as daytime soap opera on steroids. Where the daytime soaps stories proceeded excruciatingly slowly, with long pregnant pauses in the dialogue, lengthy meaningful looks, and dragged-out plot developments, Soap went at break-neck speed with plot twists occurring in rapid-fire succession. All the standard complex plotlines of the daytime soaps were present and then made even more extreme in Soap by adding outlandish things like UFOs, alien abductions, demon-possessions, guerillas, gangsters, blackmail, kidnappings, exorcisms, brainwashing by a religious cult (led by the Reverend Sun whose followers were called "the Sunnies"!) and so on. Storylines that would be sufficient for a full season on the regular soaps were crammed into just a few episodes of Soap. This breathless pace was compressed into weekly half-hour programs, each episode beginning in classic soap style with a voice-over announcer saying what had happened in previous episodes, and ending with a dramatic cliff-hanger, followed by the announcer hyping up the suspense for the episodes to come.
What really made Soap one of the funniest TV programs was clever writing coupled with one of the best ensemble casts ever put together, easily triumphing over those of the more-heralded Seinfeld or Friends casts. Katherine Helmond as the ditzy Jessica (whom men found irresistible) and Cathryn Damon as Mary were the anchors that held the two families (and the show) together as increasingly bizarre things happened all around them. Some of the funniest scenes were when the two were sitting around a kitchen table, each trying to bring the other up-to-date on the latest bizarre happenings in their families and, in a perverse way, competing to top each other's stories.
Richard Mulligan as Bert Campbell (Mary's working class husband) was superb in his physical comedy, his body and face seemingly made of rubber, responding spasmodically to his nervous energy. Billy Crystal (a newcomer then) appeared as Jodie (Mary's son) in what may be the first portrayal of a gay person on TV that got laughs out of being gay while remaining a sympathetic character and avoiding becoming a caricature. Robert Guillaume as Benson, the sardonic back-talking butler for the rich Tates, was another actor who managed to take what might have become a stereotypical role (black servant of a rich white family) and infuse it with dignity and humor. In fact Crystal and Guillaume were perhaps the most sensible (or at least the least eccentric) of the entire Tate-Campbell menagerie.
Perhaps the most eccentric character was Bert's son Chuck who always went around with his ventriloquist dummy Bob. Chuck acted like Bob was a real person and would hold conversations with him while Bob would insult everyone and leer at women. The humor arose because other members of the family also sometimes ended up treating Bob as a real person and speak and argue and get angry with him, while not holding Chuck responsible for Bob's words. (It is an interesting thing to speculate as to what you would do if someone you knew acted like Chuck did. In order to spare his feelings, wouldn't you also treat his dummy like a real person, even if you felt ridiculous doing so?) In one such scene, Chuck plans to go out on a date leaving Bob behind but Bob harangues him until Chuck agrees to take him along. When they both finally leave, Mary asks Bert (who have both been watching this) whether they shouldn’t get professional help for Chuck, to which Bert replies, "Chuck doesn't need professional help, he should just learn to discipline Bob more."
The reason for these fond reminiscences is that I just discovered that these old programs are now available on DVD and I have been watching them again. There is always a danger in doing these kinds of trips down nostalgia lane because one's memories of old books, films and TV programs often make them seem better than they actually were. I was a little fearful that Soap would disappoint were but it passed the test handily. It is still laugh-out-loud funny.
The added bonus to watching on DVD is the absence of commercials. I also noticed how the opening and closing credits were more leisurely than they are now, allowing one to actually read the names of the actors and crew without distracting sidebar promos for other shows. The running time of each half-hour episode then was also 24 minutes and 30 seconds. I suspect that nowadays this has been reduced to allow for more commercial breaks.
There were other good TV comedies at that time, like M*A*S*H and Newhart, but I would not seek out DVDs of them the way I did with Soap.
Soap was a comedy classic and if you get the chance you should see it. And make sure you watch it in sequence.
POST SCRIPT: Class politics
Here's another provocative clip from the 1998 film Bulworth (strong language advisory).