Whenever you talk groundbreaking LGBT roles in television, it doesn’t take long for Billy Crystal and his performance as Jodie Dallas on the ABC sitcom “Soap” (1977-1981) to come up in the conversation.
And while Crystal’s upcoming series “The Comedians” isn’t gay-centric since Crystal and actor Josh Gad play fictionalized versions of themselves, the topic of “Soap” arose at yesterday’s panel for the new FX comedy held at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Pasadena.
During “The Comedians” panel, a reporter asked Crystal about the difficulty in playing the role on “Soap” in 1977 and his opinion on what’s happened on television since that time. Crystal replied that there is some television that he just doesn’t want to see, saying ‘Ah, that’s too much for me.’ And while Crystal didn’t name any current shows, this reporter couldn’t help but think about the gay sex that is a regular part of ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder” as well as the more hetero series “Girls,” which regularly has nudity and sexual situations that leave little to the imagination.
Here’s how Crystal responded to the question in the panel:
Well, it was very difficult at the time, because basically I had the shovel. Jodie was really the first recurring character, starring character, whatever you want to call it, on network television. It was a different time. It was 1977. So, yeah, it was awkward and it was tough. I remember playing scenes with my boyfriend, Bob Seagren, who, in real life, was an Olympic gold medalist…yeah, it was awkward, and then over the years, you’d see other different characters and so on and so forth. And I’ve seen some stuff recently on TV in different kinds of shows where the language or the explicit sex is really—you know, sometimes I get it, and sometimes I have—I just feel like, “Ah, that’s too much for me.”…sometimes it’s just pushed a little too far for my tastes and I’m not going to get into which ones they are.
I have to say ‘we,’ because Susan Harris wrote [Jodie], and Paul Witt and Tony Thomas and Jay Sandrich and an amazing cast of that show supported me and let me play those scenes, helped me play those scenes with some sort of courage, in a front of a live audience. See, I did it in front of a live audience and there were times where I would say to Bob [Seagren, who played Jodie’s lover, Dennis], “I love you,” and the audience would laugh nervously, because, you know, it’s a long time ago, and I’d feel this anger. I wanted to stop the tape and go, “What is your problem?” because it made you sort of very self‑conscious about what we were trying to do then. And now it’s just I see it and I just hope people don’t abuse it and shove it in our face—well, that sounds terrible [some laughter from the crowd]—to the point of it just feels like an everyday kind of thing.”
After the panel, I talked to some colleagues, both gay, about Crystal’s words and I was asked if I was offended about the “shove it in our face” comment or if the implication of what he doesn’t like was directed at gay sex in particular. I expressed that I thought it was more a bad choice of words than anything else. But that short conversation made me wonder about how Crystal and Gad felt about comedy in today’s ultra-politically correct climate where, due to the accessibility of social media, anyone can be offended by a myriad things and have a platform ready for them to express their thoughts, positive or negative, to the world.
I had previously arranged time to talk with Crystal and Gad after the panel since I wanted to ask about the show as well as more about Crystal’s experience on “Soap.” Here’s a portion of that conversation (the rest will run closer to the April 9th premiere of “The Comedians”):
Billy, when people were asking you about “Soap” during the panel, you said something about “shove it in your face” and a few people asked me afterwards if I was offended by what you said. I’m curious about comedy and how you approach that today.
Billy Crystal: First of all, I don’t understand why there would be anything offensive that I said. When it gets too far either visually…now, that world exists because it does for the hetero world, it exists, and I don’t want to see that either. But when I feel it’s a cause, when I feel it’s “You’re going to like my lifestyle,” no matter what it is, I’m going to have a problem and there were a couple of shows I went “I couldn’t watch that with somebody else.” That’s fine. If whoever writes it or produces it…totally get it. It’s all about personal taste.
It made me think that people really can take things differently.
Josh Gad: I literally took it as explicitness for the sake of explicitness in any…we discuss it in the nude controversies about “Girls.”
BC: I didn’t want to see that either.
JG: Is that scene going too far? It’s literally personal preference and does the story dictate that that has to be done?
BC: We live in a very scary time in many ways. You can’t say this, you can’t say that, you can’t offend this group, that group. People come up to you and ask if you were offended. I don’t understand that. I understand it why everyone is watching out for the other person. That’s offensive to me.
Bringing it back around to the [new] show and comedy in general, you do have to think about those things where you might reference a gay person, a black person and somebody can take offense to that.
BC: We have an episode about that.
JG: The show is very meta in that none of these things escapes us. For instance, if I may, Billy for years did Sammy Davis Jr. at a time when everybody embraced it as “this is an unbelievable character, this is an unbelievable tribute to an amazing comedian.” Nobody ever made the distinction that he was playing a character who was African-American but then he reintroduced the character on the Oscars and you got…
BC: …got a little bit of a s*** storm!
JG: But it’s so interesting because in the age of social media, everybody is looking for controversy and so we embrace that on the show. When there is a hot button topic and now we do live in this PC age where you’re have to always be looking over your shoulder at what you say especially as a comedian, it gives us an opportunity to explore those themes that have affected us personally. If we’ve stepped in s***, as Billy said, we have this amazing platform to create a story around that and to show how these two comedians have to deal with that situation.
BC: In an episode you’ll see, Josh is up for a Scorsese role [in a film]. We put a scene that was originally in the pilot where I haven’t had a movie role or any offers in a year in the story because I had a faux pas at the Improv, a club, where I do this piece and somebody takes offense to something I say and you see it. It’s shot on an iPhone and I basically get into a fist fight with a member of the audience. I made a call to the Museum of Tolerance. It’s a Jewish joke that somebody takes offense to. I do a piece about reality shows in the stand-up and I said “the best one would have been ‘The Rosenbergs'” and I do Julius and Ethel Rosenberg bickering “Did you sell the planes?” And a guy with a yarmulke gets mad at me in the scene and I go after him and we end up in a fight. But it had a point to it that everyone’s too touchy, everyone has an iPhone, everyone has a thing, we’re in “The Truman Show.” It’s just a weird time to be funny, obviously.
Being in a room full of reporters, some of whom asked me what I thought of what you said. I thought you were just expressing an opinion…
BC: I expressed an opinion as a viewer as somebody who had a little bit of proprietary interest on two levels. One, as someone who is a heterosexual man but stood up for the gay community back in 1977. It wasn’t perfect when we started, that wasn’t my doing, we then kept writing and writing and making him a real person in the truest sense of the word and that his gayness was just a part of who he was and people loved that character and it was well earned by the time we wrapped.
So I was looking at it as that going hmmmm….I feel a little that in this particular instance, I don’t think it was doing the gay community a service, in my opinion because it was just too much for me. There’s no controversy. I didn’t call up the showrunner and go “what the f*** are you doing?’ I didn’t write a nasty post or tweet. I stayed out of it and maybe I shouldn’t have said anything today. And then as a parent and grandparent and a father, I have responsibilities to other people to what you watch.
You brought up “Girls” and I’ll say about “Girls” that it definitely goes there and maybe I’m not offended by it but I don’t know that I want to see that.
BC: Maybe you don’t want to see that but what was worse? That or “Peter Pan”?! Come on!
JG: [laughs] No comment.
BC: [in Captain Hook voice] “Who’s the slimiest slime in the world?!”
Here’s a scene from a 1978 episode of ‘Soap’ where Jessica (Katherine Helmond) tells Jodie (Crystal) talk about homosexuality.
At the time you took the job on “Soap,” was that something you weren’t sure you should do because of what it was at the time?
BC: Yes, it was that but it was not…once I met with Susan [Harris], who wrote the first 68 episodes alone and Jay Sandrich was, at the time, the best comedy director coming off “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and Paul Witt and Tony Thomas and the caliber of the rest of the cast, my dilemma wasn’t about that Jodie was gay but my dilemma was about should I stop doing the pursuit of my stand-up because this show, we did 26 episodes [a year] and that’s going to take up most of my time. And the thought was well you can always go back and do stuff and I did do that but I didn’t have any hesitation then but looking back and not because of what the character was but I would’ve passed on it in order to pursue the stand-up and I got back to it a couple years later, once we got cancelled, at full force. But I did a special during that time and then I had my own variety show at NBC in 1980. But I loved where we could take the character, I loved what we were doing, I loved the chance of it, I loved the risk of it, I loved that nobody had done it before
Obviously we still talk about it, the character and the show.
“The Comedians” premieres April 9th following “Louie” on FX.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.