Soaps have always been ridiculous, over the top, convoluted and deliberately scandalous— that has been constant in their history and it's something which has made them so deliciously entertaining. The only thing that's really changed is the mores they engage with and the degree to which they push the envelope. The melodramatic roots of the genre are comprised of a strange medley of things, from sentimental romance novels, detective fiction and the child's morality tales of nineteenth century pulp fiction and vaudeville to the evangelical spirit of early radio. Almost from the very beginning, with their shameless mixture of the holy and profane, the soaps set themselves up for parody. The strange mix of blatant advertising, melodrama and overt preaching which were the mainstays of the genre when it was still on radio were parodied by Spike Jones when he recorded 'None But The Lonely Heart (A Soaperetta)' in the 1940s as a fairly deliberate mockery of GL. The early radio days of the Light and similar series would later be ridiculed in the 1990 film Tune in Tomorrow, starring Keanu Reeves and Peter Falk as scriptwriters for an early radio soap.
It wasn't until the shift to television that the parodies really started to hit their stride though. As soaps became less about preaching and more about lascivious stories lines or 'sex and suffering in the afternoon' as Time magazine put it, comedians began to take notice. It wasn't only the comedians either. Even more interestingly, the heyday of mock-soaps was simultaneous with soaps at their most popular and there was more than a little blurring of the lines between them as veteran soap writers and actors crossed over to make light of their own genre. Carol Burnett seemed to start things off in the 1970's when she unleashed As the Stomach Turns on her eponymous show. Eileen Fulton (ATWT) claimed to have come up with the title and concept. The plots in the ongoing skit focussed on demonic possession (before it became popular on real soaps), SORAS (Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome) and illegitimate births. More significantly, it dramatically mocked the use of organ music still common at the time and the frequent, unintentionally hilarious, mistakes which were known to happen when soaps were still being broadcast live and largely unrehearsed.
Soaps sometimes get a bad rap for being tawdry when they try to be topical, but it was precisely this quality which became so attractive to a new generation of comedy producers. In the soaps, they found the perfect subversive genre. Innovative sitcom producer Norman Lear (All in the Family, The Jeffersons) saw precisely this when he decided to take on daytime conventions and created Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-1977). Even the title was an inside joke since Lear said it seemed like everyone on soaps repeats their dialogue at least once per episode (he must have been watching NBC). It was written by sitcom scriptwriter Gail Parent (Mary Tyler Moore) and real life soap writer Ann Marcus (Search for Tomorrow) and focussed on neurotic housewife Mary Hartman (Louise Lasser), her husband and their perverse friends and neighbors. While Lear kept the show stocked with all of the common cliches of daytime, he pushed them to the point of ridicule five nights a week with no laugh track, making the networks nervous enough about the content to keep it on the late night line up.
The seventies also saw the appearance of the longer lasting and even more controversial sitcom Soap The show only ran once a week but it lasted for four years (1977-1981) and featured the talents of former real life soap actors Donnelly Rhodes (Y&R) and Robert Mandan (Search for Tomorrow), as well as sitcom stars Katherine Helmond, Robert Guillame, Billy Crystal and Richard Mulligan. Like Mary Hartman, Soap also brutally parodied the most conventional aspects of the genre, particularly the use of ludicrous cliffhangers, and pushed the boundaries even further when it came to content. The show was so controversial it almost didn't make it to air thanks to its heavy focus on amnesia, incest, murder, kidnapping, alien abduction and homosexuality (it was basically like a fast paced version of Passions with a laugh track).