March 1st, 2012
05:33 PM ET
A woman and her daughter sleeping with a tennis pro who turns out to be a long-lost relative? A man afraid to tell his family he's gay? A woman who falls in love with her priest? Now throw a ventriloquist into the mix. Sound familiar? Well, except for the ventriloquist part, it sounds a lot like a TV soap opera.
But it's not a soap. It's "Soap."
Aaron Berman's new book, "Soap: The Inside Story of the Sitcom that Broke all the Rules," takes readers back to the ABC sitcom's beginnings - where it was plagued with controversy even before it premiered in 1977 - as well as the show's just-as-dramatic conclusion in 1981, a sudden cancellation that left "Soap's" star facing certain death by firing squad.
"Soap" was ahead of its time, and in a lot of ways it's really amazing that it was on television at all. It's particularly incredible that it ran during the era it did.
"This was a time when absolutely every ideal that Americans held dear was falling apart," Berman told CNN. "The nation had just suffered its first real military defeat in living memory, gays had begun to come out of the closet, the president had been forced into resignation, black people had given up waiting for society to give them the respect they deserved, and the FBI and CIA had, through the Church Committee hearings, been revealed to be a great deal more sinister than many had previously suspected."
With all of that happening, "the more conservative elements in the country were desperately trying to maintain the Norman Rockwell image they had of their society on television," Berman said.
Organized protests began even before the "Soap" pilot aired, due to a Newsweek article entitled "99 and 44/100% Impure," which called it "saturated with sex," and "with a harder core than any sitcom has ever dared."
Berman, who interviewed over 30 members of the cast and crew, including Katherine Helmond ("Jessica Tate") and Robert Guillaume (whose character "Benson" was spun-off in a sitcom of the same name), told CNN that one of his goals in writing the book was to depict “precisely how crazy things were at the time 'Soap' was made, and by extension, how crazy it was that a dedicated minority picketed outside ABC, organized letter-writing campaigns, and otherwise protested the show."
Virtually every page of his text "has some element - either an image or a short margin note - describing something that was going on in the world the same day a given episode aired," Berman said. There was "the Iranian hostage crisis, Jonestown, aircraft hijackings and terrorist attacks, the assassination of Harvey Milk, illegal FBI surveillance and smear campaigns against members of antiwar groups and the like. And then this one little show written by a single mother (creator Susan Harris) who got into the business after she looked at what was on TV, said 'I can write better than this,' and did."
Billy Crystal, who got his start on "Soap," played the character of Jodie Dallas, who was the first regular homosexual character on American television. Berman said that previous attempts to feature a gay character were a TV movie and a rarely recurring character on "Barney Miller."
"The beauty of Jodie is that his ‘gayness’ doesn’t define him - he is a compassionate, loving human being, which makes him that much easier to relate to than a figure designed to push a political agenda," Berman said of the character. "Jodie is still embraced by both gay and straight fans today, and Susan Harris still hears from people who thank her for that character."
Berman also shared a few behind-the-scenes tidbits with CNN:
Berman stated on his blog devoted to the book's progress that "while 'Soap' is mostly remembered today for its daring humor, many forget that it also managed to address life's challenges and absurdities with great sympathy for what it is to be human," and that despite "screwball scenes and suggestive material, it also possessed a gentleness and humanity that enabled its characters to tackle subjects seldom discussed on the airwaves."
For example, there's "Burt's impotence and his brush with mental illness after the murder of his son; Jodie's anguish in a world that told him his sexual orientation made him unworthy of love; [and] the loneliness that drove Jessica to cheat on her philandering spouse...this was not some torrid burlesque for its own sake, but the perils and heartaches of which life is made."
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