Funny Women: Susan Harris
I just finished watching all four seasons of the 1970s situation comedy, Soap. Soap was groundbreaking for its time. It was the first prime time television show with an openly, practicing gay character, bravely played by Billy Crystal. It was also the first show of its format, a serialized half hour comedy. Half hour comedies in America are usually situational comedies with plot lines that begin and end in one half hour. Your viewing of previous episodes is not required in order to get subsequent episodes. Soap, however, was written in soap opera format as a soap opera parody.
The show is great. It’s very, very funny. It includes the requisite soap opera plots of adultery, murder, kidnapping, mother and daughter sleeping with the same man, secret adoptions, questionable paternity, the presumed dead spouse, and star-crossed lovers. There are also alien abductions, a newborn baby’s demon possession, a few trips to the insane asylum, a mob boss, and an elderly character who thinks America is still fighting World War II.
Soap was written by a woman named Susan Harris. She was also an executive producer of the series. She came up with the concept and took it to a couple of TV producers, one of which was her future husband, Paul Junger Witt. Paul Junger Witt had partnered with Tony Thomas (son of Danny Thomas, brother of Marlo) and produced the infamous tearjerker TV movie, Brian’s Song. Together with Harris, they formed Witt Thomas HarrisProductions and produced Soap over its four year run.
Harris was a spec scriptwriter who had written the most controversial episode of Norman Lear’s Maude which tackled the issue of abortion. She was originally hired by Garry Marshall to write for Love American Style. She later became a staff writer for two Norman Lear sitcoms: All In the Family and Maude. That success gave her enough clout to suggest her own show next time around.
Soap was wildly successful. It spawned another successful series, Benson, with Robert Guillaume. In the eighties, Harris penned another popular series, the most famous of all her creations, Golden Girls. It, in turn, spawned the successful spinoff of Empty Nest. Harris’s shows tended to use a lot of the same actors in different parts. Kraus from Benson was portrayed by the same woman who played Ingrid, Corinne’s biological mother on Soap.
Richard Mulligan and Dinah Manoff had both played recurring characters on Soap, and they later played father and daughter on the Golden Girls spinoff Empty Nest. As a side note, when Richard Mulligan won an Emmy for his performance on Empty Nest almost a full decade after Soap went off the air, he publicly thanked his on-screen wife from Soap, the lovely Cathryn Damon. Cathryn Damon had by then passed away from cancer.
In 1988, Susan Harris largely retired from television, saying that she was burned out after the pace of writing every episode of Soap left her longing to spend more time with her family. Susan suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome, which she wrote into Golden Girls as a plotline affecting Bea Arthur’s character of Dorothy. This also, undoubtedly, led to her retirement from television writing.
In 2005, Harris accepted the Paddy Chayefsky Award from the Writers Guild of America. Winning an award named after the guy who wrote the, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” speech from Network! Not bad for an unemployed single mother who was watching television one day and decided that she could write better than that.