Do you ever know you should go to sleep, but you can’t, because you can’t stop thinking of 1982’s bizarre Steve Gutenberg vehicle, No Soap, Radio?

Oh, okay, I’m sorry, it’s just me? I’m the only one here up at night thinking about No Soap, Radio? Y’all are going to pretend you don’t find it completely mystifying?

I’m not even kidding, I spent like an hour thinking about it last night before I could fall asleep.

Okay, see, in 1982, not long after the runaway success of their movie Airplane! the comedy writing trio of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker brought their signature brand of sight gags and slapstick humor to Television.

Their show Police Squad brought back Airplane! co-star Leslie Nielsen as Lt. Frank Drebbin, in a series that parodied the police procedurals of the 70s. Later on the show would be the inspiration for the successful Naked Gun series of films in which Nielsen played the same character he did in Police Squad!

Bet some of you never knew The Naked Gun was based on a TV show, huh? I certainly didn’t when I was a kid.

That’s because Police Squad! bombed and bombed hard. ABC cancelled it after four episodes, and only six episodes were ever produced. One of the creators, I forget which, said that the network’s reasoning was that you had to watch it to get it, meaning that since much of the humor was sight gags contrasting with the deadpan delivery of cop drama cliches. If you just listen to it while you do the dishes or fold your laundry, you miss a lot of the humor.

Anyway, with Police Squad out, the network needed a mid-season replacement. Thus, No Soap, Radio.

No Soap, Radio is a bizarre attempt to take Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers and sort of squish them together into one American show starring Steve Gutenberg.

Really, the Fawlty Towers comparison is mostly because the show takes place in a run-down hotel run by a hapless guy who has to deal with all sorts of weird guests and eccentric employees. Gutenberg plays the owner of the hotel, and they don’t really try to make him much like Basil Fawlty, since he’s not John Cleese, he’s Steve Gutenberg, so the character is more of a put upon but genial everyman than the kind of dickish Basil Fawlty.

But my gosh does No Soap, Radio want to be Monty Python with every fiber of its being.

Actually that’s one kind of interesting thing about No Soap, Radio, it belongs to a sparsely populated offshoot of the sketch comedy evolutionary tree, it’s one of those shows where it’s definitely a sketch comedy show, but there’s also a group of main characters and ongoing plots. The premise isn’t so much a framing story as it is that, for a while the camera will follow the story of Steve Gutenberg’s hotel for a while, but then the camera will slowly lose track of them, deciding instead to focus on, say, a TV show in the background or something happening in a hotel room. The only other show I can think of off the top of my head that is structured like that is Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher’s show Snuff Box.

Anyway, as for the Monty Python connection, No Soap, Radio desperately wants to be Monty Python. The most obvious similarity is the transitions between sketches, where the end of one sketch will turn out to be a television advertisement that the characters in the next sketch are watching, but there’s also a more indefinable vibe. For example,

I really like the premise of that couple of sketches, but also, there’s something about the way the doctor delivers his speech before jumping out the window that just seems like the kind of gag that the Pythons would have done, and staged, shot and delivered pretty similarly to how they would have approached it. I don’t know it’s hard to put it into words.

It kind of reminds me of The Orville, in that it’s a show that really really wants to be a different show, but not in a cynical rip-off way, more in a “The creators love that other show a whole lot and since they weren’t able to work on it they did the next best thing.”

Anyway, if Police Squad is a cult classic, No Soap, Radio is whatever the step beneath a cult classic is. The people who remember it remember it fondly, but boy there aren’t many people who remember it.

It’s kind of understandable, from what I’ve watched I’d call it an okay show, but it’s let down a little bit by the delivery. A lot of the comedy is delivered in a kind of broad, cheesey, over the top 70s style that hasn’t aged as well as the performances of the Pythons, and I think most of the premises are good, but sometimes it feels like they don’t build up that much, but instead kind of peter out, like this sketch about a job applicant trying to dance around the fact that the guy interviewing him is just a disembodied head:

It’s a good premise, but it feels like there should be more laugh lines, or that it should build to some kind of big twist, but it never quite gets there.

So, the big question for me is:

How in God’s name did this happen?

Going into the IMDb rabbit hole, I was expecting to find people who eventually went on to create some better known cult classic. There has to have been an auteur or a group of people with a vision behind this, no American television executive in 1982 was going, “You know what’s popular with the kids today? Monty Python! I want a Monty Python for my network!” They can’t possibly have been saying that, can they?

So someone or a few someones on staff just had to be huge fucking dorks who just really, really loved Monty Python and somehow convinced some exec to greenlight their baby, but I’m really not sure who. The crew seems to have been composed mostly of TV journeymen, people who toiled in the mines writing for late night talk shows, producing Bob Hope specials and directing made for tv movies you’ve never heard of.

The credits don’t really have a “created by” section, there’s just the writers, directors and producers.

The second question is, how on earth did this get chosen as the mid-season replacement for Police Squad! after they cancelled it for not being accessible enough to the average viewer?

That’s like saying, “Hmm, I’ve been booking Frank Zappa every night in my club, but the customers say he’s too weird, I better replace him with someone more accessible, like Captain Beefheart.”

How did this end up replacing Police Squad! when it’s probably the only network show in 1982 that was less accessable to the average viewer? It’s literally named after the punchline to a deliberately obtuse joke designed to confuse people and make them uncomfortable! And how did it replace Police Squad! when the audience overlap was 100%? Every single person who would like No Soap, Radio would also love Police Squad!

What was happening?

Anyway, that’s what I was thinking about last night.


#interesting #the more you know

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