WKRP in Cincinnati- That Other 70's Show
Comedies of the 1960's for the most part were silly, innocent, and safe. The world of Leave it to Beaver, Gilligan's Island, and The Beverly Hillbillies rarely delved into controversial topics. In the 1970's, that all began to change. Maybe it was Vietnam, or Watergate, or an awakening to a more complicated world, but comedies of the 1970's tackled tough topics with humor and honesty. Comedies like All in the Family and M*A*S*H broke new ground for milking laughs out of prejudice and war, and a little known sitcom called WKRP in Cincinnati used a dysfunctional rock radio station to do the same.
When most people think about WKRP, they think of the famous "Turkey's Away" episode that comes up every Thanksgiving. The station in a bizarre promotion drops live turkeys onto a Cincinnati parking lot from a helicopter, with hilarious mayhem resulting. There are no actual turkeys seen in the famous episode, which makes the tragedy of dying turkeys an off-camera joke, and the station manager's immortal line "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly." will live forever in comedy history.
There was a lot more to WKRP than the turkey episode, as I discovered during a recent 4-season binge. The show went from 1978 to 1982, getting decent ratings the entire time but failing to land a stable time slot or loyal enough viewers. Today it is hard to find on broadcast or streaming television, but the entire series is on DVD.
WKRP was an ensemble show, not revolving around any one big star. The two semi-breakout stars were Howard Hesseman, who went on to modest success in other sitcoms, and Loni Anderson, the blonde bombshell who became a sex symbol in the 80's while marrying Burt Reynolds. Neither star ever recreated their WKRP success, and the rest of the great cast fell into even more obscurity.
The premise of the show was that they were a low-rated radio station in Cincinnati with a goofy but lovable staff that genuinely cared about each other. The station is led by Arthur Carlson, AKA "The Big Guy", an out-of-his league manager who is only there because his mother owned the station. The real decision maker is program director Andy Travis, played by Gary Sandy, who is the sane central character around who all the craziness revolves. The true drivers of the comedy are the bow-tied and nerdy news director Les Nessman (who for some reason wore bandages on different parts of his body in most episodes) and the smarmy advertising guy Herb Tarleck (a married lecher who hits on every woman in the show). Nessman and Tarleck are the butt of many of the jokes, but each cast member eventually gets a chance to shine. The two disc jockeys, (how the heck can a station have only two disc jockeys?) Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap are rarely on the air for some reason, but their rock and roll sensibilities remind us that this show is about a radio station.
In the midst of this talented cast were some powerful episodes that made a splash unlike anything the 1960's ever produced. My favorites were:
- In Concert- a raw look at the aftermath of the disastrous Who concert in Cincinnati that killed 11 people due to poor crowd control.
- Clean Up Radio Everywhere- A take on the very real attempts at the time of Christian groups to censor much of rock and roll, using a John Lennon song to make its powerful point.
- An Explosive Affair- when a terrorist bomb threat almost blows up the station.
- Who is Gordon Sims?- where disc jockey Venus Flytrap reveals that he is a deserter from the Vietnam War who changed his identity.
- Les on a Ledge- News director Les Nessman is accused of being a homosexual and banned from a locker room, leading to a suicidal moment 14 stories up.
- Pills- the station unwittingly signs an ad contract with a shady company selling diet pills that are basically speed, and the great lengths they go to expose the company and get out of it.
- The Union- radio employees in Cincinnati talk about unionizing, and the cast picks sides and handles the whole thing admirably.
- Up and Down the Dial- the series finale (though the cast didn't know it at the time) when mother Carlson decides to convert from rock and roll to an all news format. There is a delicious twist at the very end where Howard Hesseman's character, Johnny Fever, basically blackmails her into changing her mind.
These shows take on some tough issues one week, and then get silly with Herb in a fish costume or flying turkeys the next. It's a delicate balance between comedy and tragedy, but when done right it works and you feel like there's been some growth there. Gilligan's characters never evolved or learned anything, but we get to see the crew of WKRP at their funniest and most poignant, making them more relatable and human.
There are two women at the station that cause a debate among male watchers, not unlike the Ginger and Mary Anne debate of Gilligan's Island. Loni Anderson (who is a natural brunette) plays sexy receptionist Jennifer, wearing tight dresses and an impossible hair style, and she plays it sexy but smart for all four seasons, teasing all of the boys who work there but never dating them. The other woman, played by the equally attractive actress Jan Smithers, is dressed conservatively, wears glasses, and portrayed as slightly nerdy and awkward. Bailey Quarters, as she is oddly named, is the girl next door type while Jennifer is the bombshell type, and the contrast between them shows how hair, clothing and makeup can play such a large part of a female character's identity.
I got to visit an actual radio station in 2015 and sit in with a morning show, and it was nothing like WKRP at all. These guys were professional but also funny and entertaining. Radio today uses computers and algorithms to guide their song choices, but back in the 70's things were a little more loose. I rarely listen to radio anymore, which is a topic for another blog entry, but at its peak from 1940 to 1990, radio was a formative, creative medium where music, news, and personalities gave people a reliable presence in their busy lives.
WKRP was created by Hugh Wilson, a radio executive who moved over to television, and his influence helped keep the show relevant and topical. The show was cancelled before its time, but it lived on and became popular in syndication, even though it never reached the magic number of 100 episodes. There was a short-lived sequel The New WKRP in Cincinnati, that ran for two season in 1991-93 with part of the original cast. This show is even harder to find and not on DVD that I can tell, but I'd be curious to see if it succeeded where most sequels failed. The show was perfect for its time- the serious seventies- when comedy and tragedy were often mixed together. I recommend checking it out if you can.