40-year flashback: ABC's campy 'Soap' drew controversy, and made Billy Crystal a star

The shocking Roots miniseries opened the year, and an All in the Family Christmas episode questioning the existence of God ended it. But what had TV in the biggest lather in 1977 was Soap, a new ABC comedy that cropped up in between.

Forty years ago this summer, the adult parody of daytime dramas, set to debut in September, had TV watchdogs threatening to wash out the network’s proverbial mouth. Propelled by an erroneous report about its content, talk of the new show bubbled up early and led to protests and boycott threats that made it front-page news from June to September, alongside Son of Sam, Reggie Jackson and Elvis.

Described simply as “the story of two sisters, Jessica Tate and Mary Campbell” (Katherine Helmond and Cathryn Damon), the serialized Soap was what newly top-rated  ABC hoped would take it from ratings champ, courtesy of cartoonish hits Happy Days and Welcome Back Kotter, to drawing-room comedy sophisticate. The laughs were mined not just from the married sisters’ large and dysfunctional families, on opposite sides of the income divide, but from the lampooning of every shopworn staple of the daytime-soap genre, short of the organ-music sting. Soap’s pilot episode featured story threads of homosexuality, gender-reassignment, patricide, racism, and multiple affairs, including a mother and daughter unwittingly sharing the same tennis-pro lover (assignations that likely marked the first time “boff” was heard in primetime).

If the realistic All in the Family had begun to push the envelope of prime-time convention six years earlier, the satirical Soap appeared ready to tear and toss it. But when the first two episodes were screened by affiliates in the spring, jaws dropped over its raunchy content. A June Newsweek article that referred to it as a “sex farce” and implied it featured a scene of a priest being seduced in a confessional (it didn’t) took the concern out of the boardroom and onto Main Street. Parent and religious groups organized letter-writing campaigns.

Affiliate protests and advertiser boycotts were announced. For good measure, the National Gay Task Force and a group called the International Union of Gay Athletes weighed in with their own concerns about the show’s gay twentysomething character Jodie (Billy Crystal) whose lover was a pro-football player.

Network censors also took issue with the show’s content, leading to frequent producer battles. A leaked internal report, famously known as “the Soap memo,” was reprinted in its entirety in the Los Angeles Times on June 27, nearly three months before the series’ premiere. (“The substitution of Oreos for the traditional [Communion] wafer is unacceptable.”)

Not helping: The summer of 1977 marked the phasing out of the short-lived (and much-maligned) Family Hour, which the FCC had mandated in 1975 to establish “safe haven” time slots for viewers. All bets related to prime-time content now seemed off.

By the comedy’s Sept. 13 premiere, aired with a warning, ABC had cut its advertising rates for the show and 18 affiliates had washed their hands, saying no primetime Soap. (It ran in their late-night hours.)

But the scandal, and the coverage, paid off. Helped by a stellar lead-in (a one-hour Happy Days, followed by the second-season premiere of Three’s Company, launched earlier that year), Soap opened as a hit. And stayed one.

The watchdog concern continued – future topics would include rape, impotence, cult brainwashing, student-teacher sex, and an exorcism – but network and affiliate nervousness eased. Early mixed reviews, which seemed to conflate the content with the controversy, grew to admiring praise. ABC had its respected adult hit.

Soap was created by Susan Harris, who five seasons earlier had written the scandalous abortion episode of Maude. She wrote or co-wrote every episode of Soap‘s first — and  best — season. (Distraught yet admiring mother to gay son caught wearing one of her dresses: “Oh, you wear it belted!”). The rare 1970s series with a female showrunner – Harris, along with husband Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas — Soap ran four seasons and  85 episodes.  It won Emmys for Damon and her TV husband Richard Mulligan, and made stars of Crystal and stage-vet Robert Guillaume as malcontent butler Benson DuBois, who also won an Emmy and went on to star in a hit spinoff. 

An often-discussed film version to tie up loose ends never materialized. But Soap lived on. In 2013 it was named by the Writers Guild of America as one of TV’s 101 best written TV series.

 

usatoday.com