SOAP

U.S. Serial Comedy

Soap was conceived by Susan Harris as a satire on the daytime soap operas. The show combined the serialized narrative of that genre with aspects of another U.S. television staple, the situation comedy, and was programmed in weekly, half-hour episodes. Harris, Paul Witt and Tony Thomas had formed the Witt/Thomas/Harris company in 1976 and Soap was their first successful pitch to a network. They received a good response from Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner at ABC and Fred Silverman placed an order for the series. Casting began in November 1976 at which point director Jay Sandrich became involved. The producers and director created an ensemble of actors, several of whom had had considerable success on Broadway. They produced a one-hour pilot by combining two half hour scripts and developed a "bible" for the show that outlined the continuing comical saga of two families, the Tates and the Campbells, through several potential years of their stories.

In the Spring of 1977 Newsweek reviewed the new TV season and characterized Soap as a sex farce that would include, among other things, the seduction of a Catholic priest in a confessional. The writer of the piece had never seen the pilot and his story was completely in error. However, that did not deter a massive protest by Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist representatives condemning the show. Later the National Council of Churches entered the lists against Soap. Refusing to listen to reason, the religious lobby sought to generate a boycott of companies that sponsored Soap. In the summer, when the producers quite properly denied requests by church groups to have the pilot sent to them for viewing, the religious groups insisted they were denied opportunity to see an episode. That was simply not true. Soap was in production in late July in Hollywood and each week any person walking through the lobby of the Sheraton-Universal Hotel could have secured tickets for the taping. The tapings were always open to the public and any priest or preacher could have easily gone to the studio stage for that purpose.

This combination of irresponsible journalism and misguided moral outrage by men of the cloth resulted in a dearth of sponsors. The campaign, led by ecclesiastical executives, sought to define and enforce a national morality by the use of prior censorship. It almost worked. Costs for advertising spots in the time slot for Soap were heavily discounted in order to achieve full sponsorship for the premiere on 13 September 1977. Only the commitment to the series by Fred Silverman prevented its demise. Some ABC affiliates were picketed and a few decided not to air it. Other stations moved it from 9:30 P.M. to a late night time slot. A United Press International story for 14 September reported a survey of persons who had watched the first episode of Soap carried out by University of Richmond (Virginia, U.S.) professors and their students. They discovered that 74% of viewers found Soap inoffensive, 26% were offended, and half of those offended said they were planning to watch it the next week. The day after the premiere Jay Sandrich, who had directed most of the Mary Tyler Moore Show episodes stated, "If people will stay with us, they will find the show will grow." Still, producer Paul Witt believes the show never fully recovered from the witch-hunting mentality that claimed banner headlines across the country.

In spite of these difficulties, all three of the producers recall the "joy of doing it." It was their first hit, and arguably one of the most creative efforts by network television before or after. The scripts and acting were calculated to make audiences laugh--not snicker--at themselves. Indeed, in its own peculiar way it addressed family values. In one of the more dramatic moments in the series, for example, Jessica Tate, with her entire family surrounding her, confronted the threat of evil, personified by an unseen demon, and commanded the menacing presence to be gone. She invoked the family as a solid unit of love and informed the demon, "You have come to the wrong house!"

Perhaps Soap was not quite the pace setting show one might have hoped for since nothing quite like it has been seen since. In content it had some characteristics of another pioneer effort, Norman Lear's Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. But the differences between the two were greater than the similarities and each set a tone for what might be done with television, given freedom, imagination and talent. Soap was a ratings success on ABC and a hit in England and Japan. In spite of the concerted attacks it was the 13th most popular network program for 1977-78. Eight is Enough was rated 12th. Soap ended, however, under suspicion that resistance from ad agencies may have caused ABC to cancel at that point. The series may still be seen in syndication in various communities and for several years has been available on home video.

-Robert S. Alley

CAST

Chester Tate ..........................................Robert Mandan
Jessica Tate ....................................Katherine Helmond
Corrine Tate (1977-1980) ...........................Diana Canova
Eunice Tate ...............................................Jennifer Salt
Billy Tate.................................................... Jimmy Baio
Benson (1977-1979) ............................Robert Guillaume
The Major .............................................Arthur Peterson
Mary Dallas Campbell ............................Cathryn Damon
Burt Campbell .....................................Richard Mulligan
Jodie Dallas ...............................................Billy Crystal
Danny Dallas .................................................Ted Wass
The Godfather (1977-1978) ....................Richard Libertini
Claire (1977-1978) ..............................Kathryn Reynolds
Peter Campbell (1977)................................ Robert Urich
Chuck/Bob Campbell................................. Jay Johnson
Dennis Phillips (1978) ................................Bob Seagren
Father Timothy Flotsky (1978-1979)............. Sal Viscuso
Carol David (1978-1981) .......................Rebecca Balding
Elaine Lefkowitz (1978-1979)...................... Dinah Manoff
Dutch (1978-1981)................................Donnelly Rhodes
Sally (1978-1979) ...........................Caroline McWilliams
Detective Donahue (1978-1980)..................... John Byner
Alice (1979)..............................................Randee Heller
Mrs. David (1979-1981)............................... Peggy Hope
Millie (1979) .........................................Candace Azzara
Leslie Walker (1979-1981) ...................Marla Pennington
Polly Dawson (1979-1981) ..........................Lynne Moody
Saunders (1980-1981)....................... Roscoe Lee Brown
Dr. Alan Posner (1980-1981)......................... Allan Miller
Attorney E. Ronald Mallu (1978-1981) .......Eugene Roche
Carlos "El Puerco" Valdez (1980-1981)..... Gregory Sierra
Maggie Chandler (1980-1981)............... Barbara Rhoades
Gwen (1980-1981).................................... Jesse Welles

PRODUCERS Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas, Susan Harris, J.D. Lobue, Dick Clair, Jenna McMahon

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 83 30-Minute Episodes 10 60-Minute Episodes

ABC
September 1977-March 1978             Tuesday 9:30-10:00
September 1978-March 1979            Thursday 9:30-10:00
September 1979-March 1980            Thursday 9:30-10:00
October 1980-January 1981          Wednesday 9:30-10:00
March 1981-April 1981                     Monday 10:00-11:00

 

See also Advocacy Groups; Harris, Susan; Sexual Orientation and Television; Silverman, Fred; Thomas, Tony; Witt, Paul Junger