The controversial Soap TV show was the talk of the town before it even aired (1970s & 1980s)

Classic TV sitcom Soap at ClickAmericana com

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Soap, an American sitcom that aired from 1977 to 1981, blended elements of soap operas with comedy to explore the lives of two sisters and their families. The series broke new ground by tackling controversial themes such as sexuality, race, and politics, while also providing a unique narrative structure that diverged from traditional sitcoms.
Years on air: 1977 to 1981
# of seasons: 4
# of episodes: 93


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  • Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond): A naive, lovable socialite who often finds herself embroiled in absurd situations.
  • Mary Campbell (Cathryn Damon): Jessica’s more practical sister, who is divorced from one man and married to another, both with peculiarities.
  • Chester Tate (Robert Mandan): Jessica’s unfaithful husband, a businessman with dubious ethics.
  • Burt Campbell (Richard Mulligan): Mary’s second husband, a construction contractor with a quirky demeanor.
  • Jodie Dallas (Billy Crystal): Mary’s openly gay son, one of the first recurring gay characters on American television.
  • Danny Dallas (Ted Wass): Mary’s other son, who gets involved in various harebrained schemes.
  • Corinne Tate (Diana Canova): Jessica and Chester’s promiscuous daughter.
  • Peter Campbell (Robert Urich): Burt’s tennis-pro son from a previous marriage.
  • Benson DuBois (Robert Guillaume): The Tate family’s sarcastic butler, who often provides comic relief.
  • Major (Arthur Peterson): Mary’s father, a senile man who thinks he’s still fighting in World War II.
  • Chuck Campbell (Jay Johnson): Burt’s ventriloquist son, whose puppet, Bob, has a life of its own.
  • Dutch Leitner (Donnelly Rhodes): An ex-gangster and later husband to Eunice.
  • Eunice Tate-Leitner (Jennifer Salt): Chester and Jessica’s other daughter, who eventually marries Dutch.
  • Clair (Kathryn Reynolds): Chester’s secretary and mistress.
  • El Puerco (Gregory Sierra): A revolutionary leader who becomes involved with Jessica.
  • Billy Tate (Jimmy Baio): The youngest of the Tate children, who matures over the course of the series.

Soap, a groundbreaking American sitcom, aired from 1977 to 1981, leaving an indelible impact on television and popular culture.

This series wasn’t your run-of-the-mill family comedy. Instead, it combined the intrigue of a soap opera with laugh-out-loud moments, challenging societal norms and redefining what could be done within the format of a 30-minute TV episode.

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The vintage Soap TV show: How it all began

This innovative show was created by Susan Harris and produced by Paul Junger Witt. The late ’70s television landscape, saturated with sitcoms and family dramas, was ready for a change. Soap offered a fresh blend of comedy and drama, borrowing elements from soap operas — hence the name.

What made the Soap TV show different from traditional sitcoms of its time was its unique storytelling approach. Most sitcoms opted for stand-alone episodes, but Soap presented a continuing narrative, much like a soap opera. In doing so, it attracted a dedicated following eager to know what would happen in the next episode.

The cast of Soap featured a range of characters, portrayed by skilled actors, each defying stereotype in their own way. From Robert Guillaume’s unforgettable Benson to Katherine Helmond’s fashion-forward Jessica Tate, these characters became icons in their own right. They were multi-dimensional, intriguing, and contributed significantly to the series’ success.

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Breaking taboos 

The Soap TV show didn’t shy away from taking risks. It tackled subjects that were often considered off-limits for network television, including sexuality, race, and politics. Episodes that covered these themes were sometimes met with controversy, but they opened the door for conversations that were long overdue.

Before Soap even hit the airwaves, it was already stirring the pot. Reports and rumors about its daring themes led to public outcry and protests, primarily from religious groups and concerned parent organizations who questioned its appropriateness for prime-time television. Despite not having seen a single episode, these groups feared the show would undermine traditional values with its boundary-pushing content.

The concerns were so widespread that some affiliates refused to air the series initially, citing the show’s potentially controversial nature. However, once the series premiered, it became evident that the sitcom had tapped into something special. Audiences tuned in, fascinated by the show’s unique blend of humor and drama.

Critics too had their reservations at first but warmed up to the series as it progressed. The Soap sitcom sustained respectable Nielsen ratings throughout its run, proving that it had found its niche.

The show was nominated for 17 Primetime Emmy Awards over its lifetime, winning four, including a Best Actor award for Robert Guillaume. This blend of controversy and accolades made Soap a show that couldn’t be ignored, giving it a distinctive place in television history.

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Legacy and spin-offs

The Soap TV show spun off another successful show, Benson, giving Robert Guillaume’s character his own platform. Soap‘s influence didn’t end when it went off the air; reruns continue to attract new viewers, and the show is available on DVD and various streaming platforms.

Soap challenged the status quo, daring to be different in a television era filled with predictable programming. Today, it remains an important cultural artifact that reshaped our understanding of what a sitcom can be.

Soap theme song & opening credits

The show’s theme song, composed by George Tipton, set a whimsical tone for the series, suggesting that while there may be dramatic moments, humor was never far away. This musical piece became synonymous with the series, emphasizing its distinct character.

YouTube video

‘Soap’ hangs by a thin line (1977)

The Bellingham Herald (Washington) Friday, September 9, 1977

There is a scene in the new ABC series “Soap” in which a mother walks into her bedroom to find her son wearing one of her dresses. For a split second, she is traumatized. Then, slowly, her expression changes. “Oh, you wear it with a belt,” she said, studying the effect. “I think I like it better that way.”

The total incongruity of her reactions, that unexpected quick reversal, makes the scene hilariously funny. And so it goes, taking one after another facet of the human scene and deftly, unapologetically, making fun of it.

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Liking “Soap” automatically makes me a member of a minority group. The majority of television critics who watched the first two episodes here called it obscene and went on to wonder if ABC’s programmer, Fred Silverman, had taken leave of his senses. No doubt the viewer reaction will be equally mixed when the series shows at 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays on ABC.

That’s as it should be. “Soap” ventures into a new concept of humor, and it won’t be for everyone. The line between laughter and revulsion is often thin.

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Susan Harris, the creator of the series, fielded questions during a press conference following the screenings, along with the two female leads — Katherine Helmond and Cathryn Damon. Most of the questions revolved around an immediate comparison between “Soap” and Norman Lear’s “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” ”

‘Mary Hartman’ is a satire; ‘Soap’ is not,” Harris said. “‘Mary Hartman’ tends to be heavy. We’re a comedy, an exaggeration of life.” Watching “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” may have had an influence on her decision to try a series in serial form, but there is no comparison between the two, she said.

The stories revolve around the less prosperous side of town. In the opening episodes, we’re introduced to the two families including Jessica’s husband, who plays around; Mary’s sons, one gay and one with underworld connections; and a tennis pro who has an affair going with both Jessica and her daughter, Corrinne.

A tyrannical butler seems to have no base in reality, but Harris said character motivations will be developed in future episodes.

“This show barely puts a dent in daily life,” Helmond said. “Our humor keeps us from going bonkers.”

“The show is sophisticated,” Harris said. “It’s primarily for an adult audience but my 10-year-old happens to love it.”

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“Sophisticated has come to mean risque,” Helmond said. “To me, it means people who can take a situation and see it as it really is.” “We’re not poking fun at anybody,” Damon said. “I’ve just come out of some heavy plays and I couldn’t wait to get some laughs.”

Both Helmond and Damon are known for their stage roles. Harris has written for “Maude” and “All in the Family.” She created and wrote last year’s short-lived but excellent comedy series “Fay.” Harris said she has story projections for five years. The episodes will not be self-contained and there will be a recap of about one minute each week to catch the viewer up to date.

Seldom has there been so much criticism directed at a show so early in the game, at least some of it triggered by an article in Newsweek magazine. “I think it’s absurd to speculate, to protest before people have a chance to see it,” Harris said. “I read the ‘Newsweek’ piece and canceled my subscription.”

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Soap TV show & the Newsweek controversy

In the weeks leading up to the premiere of Soap, Newsweek published an article offering a preview of the controversial topics the series planned to explore, such as sexuality, infidelity, and family discord, questioning whether American audiences were prepared for such a brazen approach to storytelling on prime-time television.

The article struck a nerve, to say the least. Religious organizations and conservative parent groups, already wary of the buzz surrounding the show, seized upon the Newsweek piece as evidence that the Soap TV show would be detrimental to American morals and values.

The article not only fueled organized protests but also led to letter-writing campaigns aimed at network executives and sponsors. Several local TV affiliates, under pressure from these groups, decided not to carry the show when it initially aired, citing its contentious subject matter as incompatible with their viewing audience.

The Newsweek controversy wasn’t just a flash in the pan; it became an ongoing point of reference throughout the show’s first season. The article left an enduring mark on the public conversation around Soap, with critics and defenders alike frequently citing the Newsweek piece in subsequent debates over the show’s cultural impact.

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. “Soap” was one of those shows that everyone talked about but not that many people watched. Everyone knew about Billy Crystal’s gay character, mostly because this was a time when people were just starting to talk about homosexuality openly. Of course, most of the controversies surrounding the show seem pretty mild today.

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