‘Soap’ Book: Status Update

Just a note to let you know where we are in the process of this four-year stroll down memory lane — which has become something of a mad dash these last few months.

Rewriting Key Chapter

Of all the pages in this book, the one chapter that’s proved the most problematic to nail down just right is the one about all the controversy and resulting protests that greeted Soap three months before its debut. Those events were the culmination of many in the nation’s history — the rise of pressure groups and the Moral Majority, networks testing the waters after a disastrous period of self-censorship, etc. The hard part has been working out the timeline of what exactly happened when, and how one event affected the next. I’m happy to say that I’ll be finishing up the rewriting of that chapter today, and that will end the writing of this book. Huzzah!

Review Process

To ensure as fair and accurate an account as possible, I’ve begun to send large chunks of the book to the people I’ve interviewed. The first one went out June 16 to creator/writer/producer Susan Harris. Yesterday morning, to director JD Lobue. These “chunks” are made of up of any parts of the book in which the interviewee is either discussed or quoted. To give you some idea of the size of these files, Susan Harris’ comes to more 13,000 words alone! (Yes, this is going to be a pretty hefty volume.)

Though this step surely contravenes the old rules of journalism — on a news story, for example, it’s anathema to let a source read the finished article before publication — I long ago made the decision that this is the way to go for books of this nature.

As a practical matter, when writing about events of more than 30 years ago, it helps to bring up any contradictions in people’s memories this way. If somebody remembered Harris tearing up the script for episode 2.17 because it just wasn’t working, for example, this gives her the opportunity to say “No, that was the script for 2.12, and I tore it up because we lost two of the actors that were meant to be in that episode.” In other words, this process helps me to better triangulate where the truth lies concerning events so far in the past.

But frankly the main reason I do things this way is because so many people have given so freely of their time for this project, it seems only good manners to let them see what their parts of the book are going to look like before it goes to press. My industry has gained a pretty bad reputation over the years for misquoting people or getting key facts wrong. Anybody who’s spent any time writing for a newspaper or magazine understands that a certain amount of that comes from sources trying to backpedal after they get into trouble for something they said, but a lot of those misquotes come down to errors made by reporters trying to meet increasingly tighter deadlines. If this were a book about a news event, political or corporate misdeeds, or anything of that nature, my approach would be grossly inappropriate. (Imagine how far Woodward and Bernstein would’ve gotten breaking the Watergate scandal doing things this way.) But at the end of the day, for me this is simply one project among many — I have immersed myself in the world of Soap for four years and will then move on to something else. For the people interviewed, this book is (an admittedly small) part of their cultural legacy.

That said, I will share with you a key paragraph from the cover letter I send out with these “review copies”:

If something in these pages seems either factually incorrect or there’s just something in there that will keep you up at night, please tell me what it is via email at your earliest convenience. My hope is that together we can find the right wording that both stays true to the events and preserves your peace of mind. At the end of the day, this is about your legacy, not my ego.

Now What?

Next, Pamela will be laying out the text as a proper book, continuing to design its look, and placing photos over the next few weeks. I will go through and edit the text, hopefully making it sound less like it was written by wild-eyed fellow trying to make good on a four-year-old promise.

That’s about it. As always, thank you for hanging in there and seeing this quest through to this stage.

-Aaron

‘Soap': Fan Memories 1

Part of the fun of putting this book together has been getting to hear how different people discovered Soap, and what it meant to them at the time. From the beginning I’ve encouraged you all to share those stories with me, some of which will end up in the book. However, I also wanted to share some of those with you here. (I would also ask those of you who shared your stories via the Facebook page‘s discussion thread to do so again here, because the last Facebook redesign seems to have gobbled them all up. Sigh.) If you haven’t done so already, please click the “What’s YOUR Story” button at the top of this blog and, well, share your story there. I think I’m also going to bring some of the stories already there to the front of this blog soon, too. In the meantime, many thanks for your continued interest :-)

Jeff Krueger’s Soap Memories

“Before the start of the fourth season, TV Guide published a profile of Susan Harris that really stayed with me. {Read it here: p.1, 2, 3, 4} I mean literally. I kept it all these years. I think that was the first time a behind-the-scenes storyteller caught my attention… The third season finale had blown me away and I even taped a microphone to the TV and recorded the audio of it on the summer rerun. The syndicated reruns later cut the hour long episodes to hell so that uncut audio version remained a treasure for 15 years until the VHS version from Columbia House. And I was itching to see what happened next. (To make matters worse, the fourth season got delayed.)

So TV Guide had this profile of Susan Harris, the writer of this incredible show, and they treated her like an artist. She didn’t disappoint as an obsessed creator. It talked about her struggles juggling single parenthood with trailblazing as a female TV writer, and her preoccupation with mortality, which had just been on full view in Season 3 courtesy of Burt and Jessica. And it talked about how she put her own interests into the show and elevated it above the usual TV fare. The article gave me an interest in creative expression and wanting to create my own stories and characters. (After an episode of “Soap” ended I remember often thinking if I was the writer, I wouldn’t have to wait until next week to find out what happens.) To this day I’m more interested in who is the “voice” behind something. I’ve learned to appreciate the creators who push the boundaries because they seemingly have to. That’s why they stand out, though not to everyone’s taste. I can see a connection between Susan and favorites like Oliver Stone, David Lynch, even Charles Schulz the cartoonist. (At the time of “Soap” I wanted to be a cartoonist and have my own comic strip.) And I can point to that TV Guide article as the start of my love of personal storytelling in popular art.

But the incredible end to the third season also marked the end of “Soap’s” salad days. Everything just seemed to go wrong for the fourth season. It started late because of the actor’s strike, I believe. I remember the actors couldn’t show up at the Emmys the year both Richard Mulligan and Cathryn Damon won, damn it. (I recall he later dedicated his “Empty Nest” Emmy to “Skipper” Damon.) The only one to accept an Emmy was Powers Boothe for playing Jim Jones and I remember seeing Richard Mulligan on the news the next day criticizing him.
Anyway, the season started late. ABC took it out of the solid two hour Tuesday/Thursday comedy blocks it had been in for three years and put it on Wednesday, and later on Mondays at 10 pm as an hour-long show. And the quality seemed to go down. Now I see it more as a shift in tone. The other seasons seem more balanced. Season 4 kind of hangs out on the extremes between silly and dark comedy. It pulls the rug out from under the core relationships of the show: Jessica and Chester (divorced), Burt and Mary (struggling), and even the bedrock of Jessica and Mary wasn’t safe. I’ve come to appreciate Season 4, but at the time it seemed off, though still funny and moving. The “curse” on the family talked about in Season 1 seemed to be catching up with the Tates and the Campbells. For me the quintessential Season 4 scene is when Burt visits his boyhood pastor looking for some hope and not finding it. The show wasn’t meant to end the way it did, but as it stands one could assume the season is a rocket ride toward some key characters eating lead. Even the music seems more dramatic. Maybe I’m seeing what isn’t there but the season has an ominous quality to me, and it’s kind of weird to think of a sitcom that way. There’s a finality, a summing up, in the scene where Jessica talks to God. Maybe not what was intended but it’s the closest “Soap” got to closure.
And with that, “Soap” was over. I remember reading somewhere that a show needed five seasons for syndicated reruns. So I assumed I’d never see “Soap” again. Such a good show, the cancellation seemed like a crime. And then a year later, Fall 1982, there was an ad in TV Guide that it was going to be shown again. Groovy! And then a couple months later I got my first VCR. You mean I can tape stuff and watch it when I want? It was the beginning of “time shifting” and the crazy viewing world we have today. OK, for some reason they are repeating “Soap” but it’s not going to be around forever and now I have the ability to tape it and archive it before it’s gone forever. Little did I know “Soap” would be alive and well 30 years later, but it seemed iffy at the time so I taped them all eventually — the fourth season proved elusive for a while.
  
It’s taken for granted in these days of instant access but being able to tape something and watch it anytime was unique and cool. I have a close family and we were anchored by our own “two sisters”: my mom and my aunt. The family loved “Soap.” I could kind of relate to it as the young “Billy” of the family, wondering about the “secret lives” of my own cousins. One of my fondest “Soap” memories was, I think, Christmas Eve 1982 doing a mini-“Soap” marathon as the family was slowly arriving. We watched some episodes of “Soap” and had a blast. It was the episodes of Elaine’s kidnapping and death and Jodie’s (almost) marriage. Very much story lines about family banding together and, in retrospect, perfect.
Anyway, it was great to have “Soap” archived on VHS in the ’80s. Meanwhile, some from “Soap” were doing really well. Billy Crystal became a star, Katherine Helmond starred in the popular “Who’s the Boss,” and Witt/Thomas/Harris became a powerhouse production company with “Golden Girls” and “Empty Nest,” which, of course, also brought Richard Mulligan and Dinah Manoff back together. “Soap” did well but it seemed underrated to me. It was great to see the alumni so popular and respected. Susan Harris even tried to bring back the “Soap” style with “Hail to the Chief” (1985) and “Good and Evil” (1991). I remember a TV Guide review of a Susan Harris show (probably “Golden Girls”) calling her a “national treasure.”
And “Soap” even seemed to be following me personally (no, I’m not paranoid!). I was working at Disneyland when “Golden Girls” hit, produced by Disney’s Touchstone company. Susan Harris and I were working for the same company! And one of my teachers in college was “Beautiful Barry” Haworth, unit manager on “Soap” (because you can’t let those units get out of hand). He seemed proud of having worked on the show and mentioned it on occasion. One of the assignments was to create a sitcom, so of course he also brought up Susan Harris’ writing. Considering what a “Soap” fan I was (and am), I can’t believe I never pressed him for “Soap” stories. But sometimes he’d wear his official “Soap” jacket and I’d look at it with awe.
The ’80s was a very “Soap” decade for me and I couldn’t ask for a better way to cap it off than with the “Soap” reunion in early 1990 put on by the Museum of Broadcasting. My mom and my aunt, the “two sisters,” went as well as a college friend from Sweden who was a big “Soap” fan and claimed to have learned English watching it. It was great to see so many “Soap” fans in one place, clapping in time to the theme music and treating a TV writer like the star of the show.  People hadn’t forgotten.
Flash forward 20 years (yikes!). The original versions of “Soap” is on DVD, mostly uncut. My aunt died in 2010. I had given her the complete set of DVDs. She loved the show. When my cousin, her son, came out from St. Louis for the memorial I gave him the DVDs because he’s a fan, too. “Soap” was about family and it’s become part of family memories. And a new chapter begins (literally) with the first book about “Soap.” A very important endeavor to get those memories down at this late date. Hopefully my memories will help.

Susan Harris: Hall of Fame Induction Speech


It had been a good two years at least since I had the opportunity to speak with Soap writer/creator Susan Harris last, and of course I had racked up a few more questions since then. Graciously she made herself available by phone this morning to tackle those as well.

While researching those questions, I discovered video of Susan’s Hall of Fame induction speech from the event back in January. Enjoy!

Soap 1.3: ‘Burt, just think of me as a person’

On Jan. 24, I started rewatching Soap from the very first episode as I begin to flesh out the episode guide portion of Soap! The Inside Story… I thought I would share some of the key moments of the series with everyone along the way.

This is from last night’s session: Season 1, episode 3 (1.3). Mary’s just asked Burt why he can’t accept Jodie for who he is.

Jodie: Burt, just think of me as a person, that’s all. That’s all I am. I’m a person sitting here. Burt, look at me. I’m a person…[Burt looks at him]….who happens to like men.

Mary: Burt!

Burt: No, wait a minute. I don’t know. It’s hard, this gay business. I’m not used to it. I mean all my life, I was never around them. When I was growing up, gay meant happy. I mean it’s just hard to get used to it. And life was a lot easier then. I mean maybe when you guys were still in the closet, maybe it was not easy on you, but it was a hell of a lot easier on us. I mean it used to be you’d walk down the street and a guy would smile at you, you’d smile back. Today you smile back and you either get arrested or invited dancing. So it takes getting used to. It’s hard getting used to a guy who likes guys and not girls. And now you’re going to get a sex change operation and be a girl. Now I’ve got to get used to a guy who’s now a girl who likes guys and not girls who used to be a guy who liked guys and not girls! But…I’ll try. From now on, I’ll try to look at ya as a person.

Jodie: And I’ll try to look at you the same way.

Though the character of Jodie Dallas would go through many extreme phases before becoming a three-dimensional representation of a gay man, Susan Harris’ intention to show him as exactly that was there from the very beginning.

As she told me: “I still get thanked for that character by gay people. I think it was the first time there was a homosexual on television who was portrayed as a human being. I would say out of all the characters, that was the one that had the most impact on people for that very reason.”

Congratulations to Susan Harris

In honor of Susan Harris’ induction into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame last night, I can think of no better tribute than what Katherine Helmond told me for the book a couple years back.

“I want to say that Susan Harris was an exceptional writer. As an actor I was able to play a wide range of parts and emotions. As a writer, she was able to write a wide range of emotions, and she had an excellent sense of humor, but saw also the problems of life that can suddenly overwhelm you and that you have to deal with.” 

Susan Harris Interview Transcribed

This process definitely has its odd side.

For those new to this project, I started conducting interviews for the Soap book back in April 2008, shortly before starting work on The Gilmore Girls Companion. That last book, which went to the publisher a week ago, ballooned into a 40-interview, 480-page monster, and promptly took over my life.

Now that the Gilmore book is finished, I can finally get back to Soap, which means transcribing interviews that took place more than two years ago. It’s sort of like Christmas morning as I’m rediscovering all of these bits and pieces of information that I was told — and forgot — over the intervening years.

Yesterday I transcribed my talk with Soap creator Susan Harris, who was very gracious, though she was the first to admit that she’d forgotten quite a bit about the show. There was something particularly entertaining, for both of us I think, about the way I would mention a plot point and she would marvel at it as if somebody else had put this show together. Billy’s teacher tried to kill him?! Danny was Chester’s son?! (Apologies for the spoiler-sensitive, but it’s been a good 30 years at least, really.)