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Soap Billy Crystal

Is That Billy?

10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Classic Sitcom Soap

Catch back-to-back episodes of Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions

Few shows in television history have been as groundbreaking, innovative, controversial, and downright funny as Soap. Airing for four seasons on ABC from 1977 to 1981, the show generated laugh riots — and nearly a few actual riots. But what caused the reactions? How did the show cope? And what was its ultimate legacy? These questions — and many others — will be answered in this list of some things you didn’t know about the classic sitcom Soap, now airing Saturday mornings on IFC.

1. It was almost cancelled before it even aired.

Leaks about the show’s frank handling of controversial subjects such as homosexuality, as well as lies and misinformation about the show being “saturated with sex,” caused religious groups to mount a campaign to keep it off the air. In the end, ABC had to drop the fee for sponsoring the show from $75,000 per spot to just $40,000. But all the fuss generated publicity. The premiere won its time slot with a 39% share and the show ranked in at #13 for its first season in 1977-78.


2. ABC “dropped the Soap” abruptly at the fourth season cliffhanger.

Series creator Susan Harris and ABC had originally agreed that the show would run five seasons, and Harris developed a plot outline for the entire run. But the effect of the protests on sponsors finally caused the network to kill the show at the end of Season Four — right when Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) is apparently shot by a firing squad. All of the carefully developed plotlines were left hanging. Though Jessica did manage to briefly come back to “haunt” ABC. (See below.)


3. Billy Crystal’s character concerned gay rights groups as well as conservatives.

Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions

Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions

Jodie Dallas (Billy Crystal) was one of the first recurring gay characters on an American sitcom. (He was not THE first — that honor goes to a short-lived show called The Corner Bar that aired on ABC in 1972.) The Jodie character had religious groups up in arms, but gay groups also expressed concern. They were worried that the character perpetuated stereotypes, such as his desire to have a sex change. After meetings with several gay rights organizations, the plotline for Jodie’s sex change was toned down. And thus began TV’s long road to Transparent and I Am Cait.


4. We never learned Benson’s last name until he got his own series.

One of the most enduring characters from Soap was the independent and sharp-tongued butler Benson, ably played by Robert Guillaume. His full name — Benson DuBois — was never revealed until the first season of his own show, Benson. Though a spin-off, Benson was more of a classic sitcom format (Benson served as head of household affairs for a Governor and his wacky staff) than the over-the-top soap opera parody of Soap. The character of Benson was also enduring in the literal sense — his show lasted seven seasons versus the four for Soap.


5. The “ghost” of Jessica Tate later visited Benson.

After Soap was abruptly cancelled with all sorts of cliffhangers left hanging, the network at least partially connected one of those dangling plotlines for viewers. In a touching guest appearance on Benson in 1983, an apparition of Jessica Tate appears to Benson to tell her old friend what became of her. (As befitting Soap, she was actually in a coma in South America.) In a nice touch, at the end of the scene we hear the strains of the Soap theme song.


6. Series creator Susan Harris gave us Rose, Blanche, Dorothy and Sophia.

Soap creator Susan Harris is behind some of the greatest sitcoms of all time, having written and produced for shows like Maude, All in the Family and The Partridge Family. But her most enduring creation is perhaps those feisty Floridians The Golden Girls, a show that Harris created in 1985 that ran for seven seasons and produced the spin-offs Empty Nest, Nurses and The Golden Palace. During the first season of Soap, Harris also appeared briefly in two episodes as a hooker named Babette.


7. It was the first show to carry a “viewer discretion” advisory.

Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions

Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions

Thanks to the controversies over its supposedly raunchy content, Soap carried a warning disclaimer for its entire first season. When the show premiered at 9:30P on September 13th, 1977, it carried the first “viewer discretion” warning ever for a U.S. television series. In both a screen display and spoken announcement, the audience was warned by announcer Rod Roddy (of The Price Is Right fame) that the show explored adult themes and that the now-familiar “viewer discretion” is advised.


8. Three of the actors were actual former soap opera stars.

Soap wasn’t strictly a soap opera parody, but three cast members had starred on actual sudsers. Arthur H. Peterson, Jr., who was The Major on Soap, was a veteran of the old radio version of The Guiding Light way back in 1937. He later starred in the TV version of General Hospital. Robert Mandan, who played Chester Tate, had been on Search for Tomorrow from 1965 to 1970. And Donnelly Rhodes, who played Dutch Leitner on Soap, starred as Phillip Chancellor II on The Young and the Restless in 1974 and 1975.


9. “Father Flotsky” took his name from a classic Lenny Bruce bit.

One of the characters that especially enraged Catholic groups was Father Timothy Flotsky (Sal Viscuso), who leaves the priesthood to marry Corrine Tate (Diana Canova), only to leave her after fathering a child with her who turns out to be possessed by a demon. Angry religious conservatives would probably be even more annoyed to learn that the name “Father Flotsky” was taken from a classic and highly irreverent bit by legendary comedian Lenny Bruce.


10. “The Major” actually fought under General Patton.

The character who was played most strictly for laughs on Soap was probably The Major, who was the father of the two sisters whose families the show revolves around. Unfortunately he suffered from dementia and thought he was still fighting World War II. As it turns out, actor Arthur H. Peterson, Jr. actually served in the war. He left a thriving career in radio in 1944 to volunteer and ended up fighting in Europe in the Third Army — under General George S.Patton, no less.

New to Soap? Get up to speed with the video below.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

via GIPHY

IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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