Near-death experiences as depicted on television are usually serious affairs, with beckoning white lights and comforting welcomes by previously deceased relatives. But on today's episode of the NBC soap opera "Santa Barbara," in which gunshot victim Mason Capwell (actor Lane Davies) unexpectedly finds himself in heaven, he is greeted by none other than Joan Crawford, now toiling as God's receptionist--and who is played here by the show's cross-dresser character Bunny, in full drag.
God's office looks remarkably like that of a network executive's, with television wall monitors and a copy of Celestial Variety. Indeed, heaven turns out to be the GBC network--20 owned-and-operated clouds, 250 affiliates, a peacock-like logo with halo and a three-note chimed theme song. God Himself, tall and dapper in white suit and hat, briskly tells Mason that his untimely demise was due to fallen popularity--that is, low ratings--but tries to comfort him that his fate could have been a lot worse.
"Worse than death?" asks an incredulous Mason.
Replies God--played by real-life NBC daytime program vice president Brian Frons--"You could have been sent to cable."
Clearly, times have changed for daytime soap operas.
Once awash in melodramatic tales of illicit sex, unrequited love, murder, kidnaping and other assorted doom and gloom, the shows have added increasing doses of humor to their story lines. The plot staples may remain, but most soaps now regularly offer the same kind of tongue-in-cheek material once seen on the popular prime-time series "Soap," which was itself a parody of the genre.
In recent years, daytime characters have become locked in gorilla cages and trapped in muddy pig pens; they've appeared on "Wheel of Fortune" with Pat and Vanna, and they've staged a wedding for a pregnant pet dog, complete with bridal gown. Shows have spoofed films ranging from the beloved "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Casablanca" to "The Bride of Frankenstein," plus television's own "Life-styles of the Rich and Famous," with a guest appearance by Robin Leach.
And while "Santa Barbara's" Bunny may be daytime's first bona fide cross-dresser, other shows make comical use of drag disguises. On NBC's "Another World," for instance, the character Cass once dressed up as his girlfriend's aunt so he could keep an eye on her.
Why this proliferation of daytime drollery?
"Because a couple of characters did it and the people of America embraced it. They identified with it," says actress Linda Dano, "Another World's" flamboyant Felicia Gallant, whose numerous capers have included being trapped in the aforementioned gorilla cage and landing in a vat of wine after blowing up a restaurant.
"Lots and lots of people in America are funny," she says. "If you're in a sea of strife, with work problems and the kids driving you crazy, you need to laugh. So if you're going to mirror life, as the soaps do, you have to have humor."
Comedy also provides an emotional balance, according to "Guiding Light" head writer Pam Long, whose staff includes two former writers for Bob Hope.
"I never say, 'This is going to be a ha-ha day,' " she explains. "But if we see that a day is one of heavy, heavy emotion, where you know you've got scenes that will make viewers cry, we say, 'What can we do across town to make things lighter?' "
The early days of soap humor may be traced to 1965, when Agnes Nixon, who would later come to be considered daytime's grande dame for her creation of "One Life to Live" and "All My Children," was asked by Procter & Gamble to take over its then-floundering "Another World."
"Up till then, television thought you had to be heavy," Nixon recalls. "But I brought humor to the show, with characters like Lahoma Vane, whose biggest claim to fame was that she had been Miss Black-Eyed Pea of 1960, and Danny Fargo, who was a baddie but was so outrageous people couldn't wait to see what he'd do next.
"Nowadays," she adds, "we even dare to end an act with humor, which we wouldn't have done 20 years ago, because it doesn't have 'stay-tuned' suspense. But if ('All My Children's') Palmer Courtland suddenly gets his comeuppance, and it's at the end of an act and it's humorous, we do it. Humor makes a show three-dimensional and gives characters more appeal."
Numerous characters have long brought comic touches to their roles, but the first genuine daytime "kook" is generally regarded to be "All My Children's" Opal Gardner, as played by Dorothy Lyman from 1981 to 1983. Loud and brassy, bedecked in spandex pants and oversized, mismatched jewelry, Opal was given to fantasies that reduced the wealthy, pompous Phoebe Tyler Wallingford to maid status; Lyman won an Emmy for her portrayal.
A worthy successor in daytime ditziness is the character of Calliope Jones Bradford on NBC's "Days of Our Lives," played by Arleen Sorkin. Initially hired only for a few days, Sorkin has parlayed her antic flair to a five-year run, four Soap Opera Digest awards for best comic actress, and her own soap-opera spinoff, which probably will premiere later this year.
A somewhat eccentric fashion designer whose dress code was patterned after rock singer Cyndi Lauper, Calliope has become noted for her outlandishly themed hats, which depict everything from tennis matches to the Statue of Liberty. Sorkin sees her character as a means of bringing honesty to a show that by its nature depends on plot misunderstandings and duplicities.
"Calliope cuts through to reality," Sorkin says. "When she fought with her husband Eugene, it was about his picking his toes in bed, not over whether or not he should do espionage work."
If Opal and Calliope were trend-setting individuals, then the show that as a whole has broken new ground is "Santa Barbara." It debuted in 1984 and last year won the Emmy for outstanding daytime drama series. Much of its comedy came from the villainous duo of Gina DeMott Capwell (Robin Mattson) and Keith Timmons (Justin Deas), who spent a lot of time literally slinging mud, spoofing films and generally making a mockery of the traditional soap romantic couple, before Deas took off last year for greener prime-time pastures.
Mattson, whose character was conceived as a Joan Collins-type villain until she and Deas clicked, won this year's Soap Opera Digest award as best comic actress. She now plays opposite Joe Marinelli's Bunny, a heterosexual gangster who initially donned women's clothing to hide from the mob and discovered he liked wearing dresses and panty hose.
"Santa Barbara's" humor can best be described as irreverent, according to executive producer Jill Farren Phelps.
"I don't know that we set out to be funny, but I think we just all are, across the board--writers, producers and actors. I don't revere the art form of soap opera, so I'm not afraid to be different, to take chances," she says.
Neither is Marinelli. As he waited in his Joan Crawford garb to tape the scenes for today's episode, the actor was asked whether the "Santa Barbara" writers, in their quest for humor, had ever come up with anything so outrageous that he refused to play it.
"No," the one-time Olympic wrestling hopeful responded, as if the answer were obvious. "Look at me."