Barney Gerber

For me the most memorable role of Harold Gould, the prolific character actor who died a few days ago, was his four-episode arc on Soap as Barney Gerber, an elderly hospital patient who befriends Jodie (Billy Crystal), who’s in the hospital to get a sex change. One of the episodes ended with a massive monologue delivered by Gould, who is trying to cheer Jodie up after his football-player boyfriend dumps him to enter into a sham marriage with a woman. The scene gets some extra tension because Jodie has just swallowed a lot of pills in an attempt to commit suicide, and Barney doesn’t realize it. The script was written by series creator Susan Harris, who wrote or co-wrote all the episodes, and did most of the first season without even a co-writer. Like many Soap actors, Gould also wound up guesting on Harris’s The Golden Girls.

The monologue itself is in a style that is familiar to viewers of Broadway plays, particularly the ’70s Broadway plays of Neil Simon (who was a god to other TV writers hoping to escape TV and write plays). Great art it’s not, but it’s got everything an actor wants to sink his teeth into: tons pathos; uplift; the occasional joke; lots of places for sighs and pauses, and lots of description of things that we don’t actually see, allowing the actor to paint a picture for us. (That, by the way, is why “show, don’t tell” is a silly rule if it’s taken literally: sometimes the most effective moments, comedically and dramatically, come from telling rather than showing, like Kramer telling the story of how he foiled the bus hijacking.) Out of context a Neil Simon/Larry Gelbart type of turn like this can seem excessive, but in the context of regular viewing of Soap it’s an extremely strong scene; one of the first really big emotional moments in the series, with several others to follow, and it’s a very effective moment in context, because you’re at once touched by the speech and in suspense about what’s going to happen to Jodie.

It’s the kind of moment that you could find with some regularity on sitcoms in the ’70s and ’80s, since sitcoms were more likely to include big helpings of drama and to be openly influenced by theatre, rather than trying to disguise their theatrical roots. (The apotheosis of this style, and probably the best example, is “A, My Name Is Alex” from Family Ties, done literally like a stage play on a darkened set.) I have quite a lot of affection for this style, despite the “very special episode” designation, because it’s something you really can’t see anywhere else in TV: a big dramatic moment in the context of what is otherwise clearly a comedy creates the kind of big contrasts of tone and style that I like. A show like Nurse Jackie can have the dramatic moments because we’re never really sure — and to be fair, we don’t really care — whether it’s a comedy or not, but doing it on a show that genuinely is a comedy, complete with an audience that releases its tension by laughing at the occasional joke, makes for a very intriguing mix.

The downside, and why this type of show died out, is that the infusion of drama into a comedy can be heavy-handed and, perhaps worse, magnify any flaw in the writing. The average “very special” moment on a comedy could be transferred to a drama without seeming like it was poorly written; doing it in between jokes, however, can make the audience restless and angry, and make pathos seem like bathos. (That’s also true of serious moments in a lot of Neil Simon plays.) So while “very special episodes” got made fun of, their dramatic writing often isn’t any worse than dramas and is sometimes better; it can just feel worse because it’s out of place. Also, this doesn’t apply to a show like Soap, which spaced its serious moments out so that you never knew exactly when they were coming, but some shows always had a serious speech toward the end — coughNightCourtcough — destroying the surprise value and just making them seem predictable and painful. But I’m still quite happy to see a sitcom surprise us by going serious when we don’t expect it; it’s every bit as legitimate as a drama giving us some unexpected comedy.

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