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Top 5 shows that laughed at (and with) classic soap operas

For the second summer in a row, IFC has debuted, with grand fanfare—including multiple ads and billboards in major markets like New York City—a miniseries “event” along the lines of 1980s classic TV fare The Winds of War, The Thorn Birds, Lace, and the combined Sidney Sheldon/Judith Krantz oeuvre.

The difference is, those shows played it straight, while IFC is going for (deliberate) laughs.

Online now is The Spoils Before Dying. Last summer it was The Spoils of Babylon.

Both mock typical miniseries and soap-opera conventions such as dramatic rags-to-riches backstories, overly complicated (slipping into incestuous) family trees, corporate (and sexual) shenanigans, secret pasts that Could Destroy Everything™, star-crossed lovers, innocents accused of murder, cliffhangers, far-flung location shoots, and over-the-top wardrobes.

In other words, all the good stuff.

The Babylon sagas aren’t the first to have some fun with soap operas’ classic tropes. But they’re hardly the best. (For some reason, both series felt the need to employ the sight gag of really large brandy glasses. We get it. Those are some very large brandy glasses you’ve got there. But if that’s the best you can do when it comes to getting laughs, it suggests that maybe you don’t trust your material.)

Here, instead, are five shows that managed to bring both the soap and the humor:

Santa Barbara (1984–1993)

Unlike Passions, which also had a short (for a soap opera) run on NBC, Santa Barbara didn’t default into pure camp such as living dolls, characters talking to themselves at the tops of their lungs, and severed penises that are then reattached—backward (HOW would that work, exactly?). This one actually employed clever dialogue and interesting situations.

As Lane Davies, who played Mason on the show, told me for my book, Soap Opera 451: A Time Capsule of Daytime Drama’s Greatest Moments:

I think what made Santa Barbara different was the irreverent sense of humor involved. We respected the nature of the work, but we had fun with it—a lot of fun. I always felt that sort of set us apart from the rest of the pack at the time, and probably still does today. Mason, in particular, personified that irreverence. This was the guy that changed his stepmother’s pregnancy test so that she would sleep with him in order to insure her child have the same rare blood type Mason shared with his father. I can remember standing in the shower during that scene, changing the pregnancy test—that is to say, holding a vial of Linda Gibbony’s (Gina), well, you know, while reciting a running commentary on the procedure. Not exactly “To be or not to be,” but it was a whole lot of fun.

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976–1977)

Not quite ready for primetime, this Norman Lear (All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons)–produced, syndicated soap-opera spoof had aspirations beyond just making people laugh. Like other Lear shows, it wanted to make them think, and to serve up larger points about modern-day alienation and the swiftly changing social fabric of American life. (You know, exactly the same thing they say today. Isn’t it amazing how every single generation thinks it has discovered modern-day alienation and the swiftly changing social fabric of American life?) One of the writers, Anne Marcus, had also written for General Hospital, Search for Tomorrow and Days of Our Lives, and would go on to pen primetime sudsers Falcon Crest and Knots Landing.

Fresno (1986)

Apparently discontent with merely having appeared in the classic As the Stomach Turns segment of The Carol Burnett Show, the comedienne led the cast of Fresno, a miniseries about the trials, tribulations, and bitter infighting of California’s most powerful raisin family. Despite Burnett’s presence, viewers were so confused about what exactly Fresno was supposed to be that, upon rerun, CBS added a laugh track. In addition to a perennially shirtless Gregory Harrison, soap fans should also get a kick out of spotting Charles Keating (Carl, Another World) and Tammy Lauren (Maggie, The Young and the Restless) in supporting roles—as well as a young Bill Paxton and Michael Richards in bit parts.

Misguiding Light (2008)

Unique in that it’s the only soap-opera spoof on this list actually produced by the soap it’s spoofing, Misguiding Light was a web series created to commemorate Guiding Light‘s 65th anniversary. In it, wannabe soap writer Floyd Boyd is bopped on the head and wakes up in the town of Springfield, interacting with GL characters played by then-current GL actors. Watch it here.

Soap (1977–1981)

The title made it clear exactly what this primetime sitcom was supposed to be making fun of. But unlike every show mentioned above, Soap managed to do something no other satire had up to that point—it made you care about the characters. Sure, they were ridiculous and exaggerated and buffoonish. But the ridiculously talented case, led by Katherine Helmond, Cathryn Damon, Richard Mulligan, Robert Mandan, and Billy Crystal, as well as superb writing that could go from tears of laughter to tears of sympathy at a moment’s notice, made you root for them in a way the folks of Fresno and Babylon never even considered trying.

In that sense, Soap, the satire, got closer to the real essence of daytime drama—and why viewers love it—than anyone else. Yes, the situations are extreme, but the characters’ reactions to them are real, and they’re the ones audiences watch for.

That’s the differences between laughing at, and laughing with, a soap opera. Or with any show, really.

What’s your favorite soap-opera comedy moment?

TV Families | EW.com
Mark Harris
February 23, 1990 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Bradys are back, with a passel of 90’s hassles. Do they represent the typical American Family? Did they ever? Who does? Stare and compare!

Kind Of Family
TheBradyBunch 1969-74: Blended
The Bradys 1990-: Enormous
Married…With Children 1987-: Postnuclear
Thirtysomething 1987-: Extended
The Flintstones 1960-66: Modern Stone Age

Family Pet
The Brady Bunch: Tiger
The Bradys: Alice
Married…With Children: Buck
Thirtysomething: Grendel
The Flintstones: Dino

Typical Guest Star
The Brady Bunch: Davey Jones
The Bradys: There’s no room
Married…With Children: Sam Kinison
Thirtysomething: Carly Simon
The Flintstones: Ann Margrock

Expression Of Joy
The Brady Bunch: Groovy!
The Bradys: Ritual hugging
Married…With Children: ”Oh, great.”
Thirtysomething: ”Of course I’m happy for you. Really. But what about me? Why does it always have to be about you?
The Flintstones: ”Yabba-dabba doo

Expression Of Rage

The Brady Bunch: ”Hmmm…”
The Bradys: ”If you back away from something you really want, then you’re a quitter!” (the angriest any Brady has ever been)
Married…With Children: ”Aaagh, God, take me from this miserable life!”
Thirtysomething: ”I’m not angry, OK?”
The Flintstones: ”Willllmaaaa!”

Typical Problem
The Brady Bunch: Marcia and her rival both want to be the prom queen.
The Bradys: Bobby gets paralyzed.
Married…With Children: Al doesn’t buy his family Christmas presents.
Thirtysomething: Nancy gets cancer.
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney are staying out too late.

Typical Solution
The Brady Bunch: The prom committee decides to have two queens.
The Bradys: Bobby gets married.
Married…With Children: They hate him.
Thirtysomething: If only we knew…
The Flintstones: Wilma and Betty decide to follow them.

House Style
The Brady Bunch: Conservative but mod, circa ’69
The Bradys: Conservative but mod, circa ’90
Married…With Children: Roach motel
Thirtysomething: Enviable
The Flintstones: Suburban cave

Clothing Style
The Brady Bunch: Early Osmonds
The Bradys: Made in the USA
Married…With Children: Flammable fabrics
Thirtysomething: Eclectic earth tones; nice ties
The Flintstones: One-piece

Most Annoying Character
The Brady Bunch: Alice’s cousin Emma, the substitute housekeeper (too strict)
The Bradys: Marcia’s husband, Wally (chronically unemployable)
Married…With Children: Steve (supercilious)
Thirtysomething: Ellyn (goes through Hope’s drawers, babbles, changes hairstyle every other week, generally mistreats her friends)
The Flintstones: Mr. Slate (bossy)

Attitude Toward Sex
The Brady Bunch: Never heard of it
The Bradys: Omigod — even Cindy does it!
Married…With Children: Peg: Yes. Al: No.
Thirtysomething: They didn’t get all those kids by accident.
The Flintstones: Prehistoric

How Spouses Fight
The Brady Bunch: They don’t.
The Bradys: Infrequently, but it happens
Married…With Children: Tooth and nail
Thirtysomething: They stop talking
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney go bowling while Wilma and Betty max out their charge cards.

How Kids Get Into Trouble
The Brady Bunch: Greg takes a puff of a cigarette.
The Bradys: Carol’s grandson steals her business cards and sticks them in the spokes of Bobby’s wheelchair.
Married…With Children: By committing felonies
Thirtysomething: Ethan plays with a forbidden toy rocket.
The Flintstones: They don’t.

How They’re Punished

The Brady Bunch: ”It’s not what you did, honey — it’s that you couldn’t come to us.”
The Bradys ”Next time, ask.”
Married…With Children: By the authorities
Thirtysomething: It blows up in his face.
The Flintstones: They’re not.

What Family Does For Fun
The Brady Bunch: Takes special three-part vacations to Hawaii and the Grand Canyon
The Bradys: Has flashbacks
Married…With Children: Exchanges insults
Thirtysomething: Talks
The Flintstones: Attends showings of The Monster at the Bedrock Drive-In

Unsolved Mysteries
The Brady Bunch: How exactly did Carol’s first husband and Mike’s first wife die?
The Bradys: What’s with Marcia’s new face and Bobby’s blonde hair
Married…With Children: What kind of hair spray does Peg use?
Thirtysomething: Why did Nancy take Elliot back? What do Gary and Susanna see in each other?
The Flintstones: How does Barney’s shirt stay on if he has no shoulders? Where do Fred and Wilma plug in their TV?

Worst Behavior
The Brady Bunch: The Brady children once made Alice feel under-appreciated.

The Bradys: Marcia’s son Mickey watches Bobby’s car-crash tape for fun.
Married…With Children: The Bundy’s kill their neighbor’s dog.
Thirtysomething: Elliot has an affair and talks about it.
The Flintstones: Characters don’t wear under-clothes.

Best Reason To Watch
The Brady Bunch: This is what life should be.
The Bradys: They’re all grown-ups now!
Married…With Children: Terry Rakolta hates it.
Thirtysomething (Tie) This is your life. This isn’t your life.
The Flintstones: This is what life might have been.

Best Reason Not To Watch
The Brady Bunch: Blurred vision from rerun overdoses.
The Bradys: You’re all grown-ups now.
Married…With Children: She has a point.
Thirtysomething: After a while, you think it’s real.
The Flintstones: The Simpsons

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