Mixing Comedy & Soap: A History of the Serialized Situation Comedy
By Doug Prinzivalli
As one of the producers of the hit web series PRETTY - a parody hybrid of reality TV and soaps - I thought it would be a fun idea to take a brief look at the long history of the serialized situation comedy. The idea of mixing comedy with soap elements is not a new one - in fact it started over 60 years ago.
THE FIRST HUNDRED YEARS (CBS 1950-52) was a mildly humorous daily soap about newlyweds who are gifted with a bat-infested Victorian mansion. Sounds pretty wacky to me. After less than two years, it was replaced by something called THE GUIDING LIGHT.
THE EGG & I (CBS 1951-52) Based on a book by Betty MacDonald and the 1947 film (starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray) that followed, this show followed the misadventures of city folk who move to the country to run a chicken farm. The popular characters of Ma & Pa Kettle originated here. This 15-minute daily failed to catch on, but undoubtably later inspired the successful 1960s CBS sitcom GREEN ACRES.
WORLD OF MR. SWEENEY (NBC 1954-55) Spun off from THE KATE SMITH HOUR, this show began airing three nights a week at 7:30PM before settling in as an afternoon series. Set in Mapleton, this series featured veteran comic actor Charles Ruggles along with Helen Wagner, before she moved on to Oakdale on AS THE WORLD TURNS.
AS THE STOMACH TURNS (CBS 1960s-1970s) A riotous sketch that appeared frequently on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW (1967-78). While the plotlines were not continious, characters and themes were recurring— and always quite entertaining. Guest stars such as Bernadette Peters, Paul Lynde, Petula Clark and Cher helped moved plotlines along over the years. Carol also did another occasional soap spoof, TERMINAL HOSPITAL.
LOVE OF CHAIR (PBS 1971-72) A recurring sketch on the childrens' educational series THE ELECTRIC COMPANY, this odd segment featured background organ music in the style of classic soap operas, and featuring the continuing drama of a boy and his love for a certain chair.
MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN (Syndicated 1976-77) Norman Lear's classic late-night soap satire that made an overnight sensation of star Louise Lasser, but unfortunately led to her exhaustion and eventual departure from the series after 325 episodes. The show took advantage of it's late time slot and explored many taboo subjects never explored on the daytime shows it was spoofing. Also featuring an excellent cast of supporting players including Greg Mullavey, Dody Goodman, Debralee Scott, Mary Kay Place, Dabney Coleman, Marian Mercer and Martin Mull.
ALL THAT GLITTERS (Syndicated 1977) A second late-night soap by Lear. This one was set in an alternate reality where women ran the world and men were secretaries and sex objects. Lois Nettleton, Anita Gillette, Linda Gray (playing a transexual), Eileen Brennan and Gary Sandy were among the cast members of this short-lived effort. I'd loved to see this on DVD one day.
FOREVER FERNWOOD (Syndicated 1977-78) Picking up where MARY HARTMAN left off, new cast members Shelley Fabares, Richard Hatch, Joe Penny, Renee Taylor, Orson Bean and Tab Hunter (as Mary Hartman's surgically-enhanced dad) tried to fill the void, but the show limped along without the riveting Louise Lasser and sadly died after only a few months on the air.
SOAP (ABC 1977-81) Susan Harris' controversial and hysterical saga of two families: the Tates and the Campbells. The show made stars out of many cast members, including Katherine Helmond, Cathryn Damon, Robert Mandan, Richard Mulligan, Diana Canova, Robert Guillaume, Billy Crystal, Ted Wass and Dinah Manoff. SOAP was a Top 30 hit during it's first three seasons, before ABC started moving it around. Thankfully you can relived the entire series on DVD.
HIGHCLIFFE MANOR (NBC 1979) It's SOAP meets THE ADDAMS FAMILY in this short-lived gothic send-up. Shelley Fabares and Audrey Landers were along for the brief ride.
THE DAYS OF THE WEEK (NBC 1980s) SCTV created this absolutely brilliant soap-opera parody which stretched through two seasons of the weekly late-night sketch comedy series in the early '80s. Featuring characters with flamboyantly soapy names like Violet McKay, Dr. William Wainright, Clay Collins, May Madlock, Zach Harrington and Mojo the maid! I would love if this was released all on one DVD.
FILTHY RICH (CBS 1982-83) Delta Burke and Dixie Carter starred in this prime-time soap send-up before being cast as sisters in DESIGNING WOMEN. The plotline dealt with unscrupulous family members vying for the fortune of their late patriach. The wonderful Ann Wedgeworth and Nedra Volz had supporting roles.
LIFE AND TIMES OF EDDIE ROBERTS (L.A.T.E.R.) (Syndicated 1980) Another attempt to capture a late-night audience with a nightly serial. Didn't last.
NUMBER 96 (NBC 1980-81) A sanitized version of the naughty Australian hit came to the states amongst much hype. Launched over three nights, and settling in on Fridays opposite DALLAS, this hour-long effort didn't stand a chance. Among the cast: game show and FRIDAY THE 13TH legend Betsy Palmer, MARY HARTMAN's Greg Mullavey and SOAP refugee Randee Heller.
FRESNO (CBS 1986) Carol Burnett now took a turn at tackling prime-time soaps in this uproarious miniseries set in the glamourous world of raisins! Dabney Coleman, Gregory Harrison (who never wore a shirt), Teri Garr and ANOTHER WORLD's Charles Keating lend support in this unusual network offering. Why isn't this on DVD yet?
DAYS AND NIGHTS OF MOLLY DODD (NBC 1987-88, LIFETIME 1989-91) The wonderful Blair Brown starred in this continuing dramedy about a Manhattan divorcee searching for happiness in New York City. After 2 short runs on NBC, Lifetime picked up the show for three more bittersweet seasons. Sadly, not on DVD either.
GRAND (NBC 1990) An overlooked gem, this comedy of manners told the story of three intertwined families living in the small town of Grand, PA. Pamela Reed, Bonnie Hunt, Michael McKean and Sara Rue were among the likable cast. Ranking #15 in the Top 20 for it's first season, I guess the CHEERS lead-in wasn't enough to save it.
GROSSE POINT (WB 2000-2001) Life behind-the-scenes of the prime-time soap GROSSE POINT, created by Darren Star.
Well, there you have it. I'm sure I may have missed a few. Some people think SUNSET BEACH and PASSIONS were more spoofs than actual soaps - but I tried only look at shows that were positioned as comedies. If you enjoy a few laughs with your soaps, I hope you will check out my web series PRETTY at prettytheseries.com.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Also check out Doug's fantastic pop culture blog at dougsploitation.blogspot.com.