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.
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.
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.