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Old 10-15-2018, 10:46 PM   #1
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TV Susan Harris Looks Back on "Soap"

Harris launched two shows in 1977. The first was a CBS rom-com called "Loves Me, Loves Me Not", starring The Partridge Family’s Susan Dey as a schoolteacher who falls for a reporter (Kip Gilman). “It was basically ‘See Dick. See Jane. See Dick and Jane fall in love,’” says Harris of the short-lived series. Six months later, she bounced back with her first hit:

The absurdist serial comedy Soap followed two sisters, Jessica Tate (played by Katherine Helmond) and Mary Campbell (Cathryn Damon), and their ridiculous families. In between all the high-concept hilarity — which ranged from murder mysteries and love triangles to alien abductions and demonic possession — Soap told groundbreaking stories about sexuality, interracial relationships, mental illness, religion, and more.

A then-unknown Billy Crystal played Mary’s gay son Jodie, whose sexuality was treated with humanity as well as humor.

I wanted to do a series where you weren’t confined to a beginning, middle, and an end in 23 minutes. And that really was the appeal. We would change the storyboard around, we could shift things, kill people, bring them back. If it didn’t work out, [the character] was gone, or if we had only scheduled this person for two episodes, they could become regulars. There was a lot to play around with. And that was my favorite show.

We pitched it, I think, to [then ABC entertainment president] Freddy Silverman. I wrote a bible [a guide to the show and characters] — I don’t even think I have a copy anymore — and that really sold it, because everybody had a profile. It was a very funny bible; it was about half an inch thick, and they loved it.

A lot of [the cast] were from theater. We had to cast Mary, I think, three or four times before it worked out. Jessica we had from the get-go, once we met Katherine and she read. And Richard Mulligan was just gold. You didn’t even have to write for him — one of his looks was enough. [Billy Crystal] tells this story about when he met Paul.

Paul had been given two tarantulas by the casting women. Billy went into Paul’s office, and I think he didn’t have any intention of taking the part — this is what he says — but when he saw Paul feeding crickets to the tarantulas, he said, “Fine, I’ll do it.

I didn’t have a writers’ room. I always hated the writers’ room. For me, writing was much more of a personal experience, and I didn’t want to sit around a table with people throwing jokes around. I think I went to one writers’ room and cried.

On "Soap", I wrote the first year and a half by myself. Writers’ rooms now, what are they, like, 15 people? We tried a few people. It just didn’t work out. So I would rewrite them. My son and I lived in a little rental in Sherman Oaks, no pool. I said to my son at the time, “Listen, Mom’s got a choice here.” I said, “I can work really hard, which means I’m not going to see you as much, and we can get a pool. Or I can stay home and not work so hard, but then I think we can’t get a pool.” He said, “Go for the pool.” And we got the pool!

After a year and a half, we found Stu Silver, and that was a really good fit, so Stu started writing, which eased the burden. But it was exhausting.

Due to its boundary-pushing content — including a romance between Jessica’s daughter Corinne (Diana Canova) and a Catholic priest (Sal Viscuso) — Soap began making headlines before the first episode aired.

A screed against the sitcom written by Newsweek’s Harry F. Waters blasted the pilot for being “saturated with sex” — a dubious characterization, even by 1977 standards — and got religious groups all in a lather, which helped earn ABC’s new comedy plenty of pre-premiere press.

[He said] there was sex with a priest in a church — which never happened, by the way — and he stirred up a lot of controversy about the show. When the show went on the air, people had expectations that simply weren’t met.

They thought, “There’s nothing wrong with this.” But it did very well.

The protests may not have derailed the show (it ranked No. 13 in the ratings for the 1977–78 season and ultimately earned three Emmy nominations for Outstanding Comedy Series), but "Soap" was a nonstop source of stress for ABC, causing the network to lose sponsors and giving the standards and practices department agita.

We got memos [from the network] all the time. What we did on a weekly basis was, I would put things in the script that were completely unacceptable. I can’t remember what they were, but things that I didn’t care about that I could use [for] bargaining for things I really did want in the script.

And they were very lenient. Al Schneider was at [ABC] standards and practices — we made his job much harder, but he gave us a lot of room, as did Freddy. We were pretty much allowed to do anything, and we were really ahead of the time. Now if you read something about, you know, “We’re finally able to do this gay character” — [Soap] did it way before.

I think our only advertiser was Vlasic pickles and a car company, Alfa Romeo. That was it. To this day I only get Vlasic pickles. It was a very expensive show to produce, and after giving us four years [the network] just couldn’t afford it anymore, and we understood. Otherwise it could have run for years.
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