10 episodes of screwball hilarity and social commentary from WKRP In Cincinnati

10 episodes of screwball hilarity and social commentary from WKRP In Cincinnati

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

In the 1970s, MTM Enterprises, the legendary studio run by Mary Tyler Moore and then-husband Grant Tinker (the latter of whom would go on to preside over NBC’s early-’80s golden age), was synonymous with quality television. Starting with Moore’s eponymous sitcom, the studio had a remarkable run of beloved, critically lauded hits including The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere. By comparison, WKRP In Cincinnati was the black sheep of the MTM family, a mixed ratings success, plagued by network interference, and bounced from one time slot to another by CBS. (By its final season, several of the cast members admitted they didn’t know when the show actually aired.) But despite falling short of the 100 episodes usually required for syndication, the show became a bona fide hit in its second run, outperforming all of MTM’s other shows in syndication, even ones that had topped the ratings the first time around.

What was the secret of WKRP’s lasting appeal? Like Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart, the show was a workplace comedy with clever writing and a cast of memorable characters. Unlike those shows, WKRP wasn’t built around a star. While the show was originally intended as a vehicle for up-and-coming soap actor Gary Sandy, Sandy quickly became just another member of the ensemble, as his character, program director Andy Travis, became the hole at the center of the show—a likable but somewhat bland straight man to the outsized personalities around him. As a result, WKRP became one of TV’s great hangout shows. Instead of following Moore or Newhart through their home and work life, the less-focused WKRP let viewers feel they were simply part of the gang at the Midwest’s most dysfunctional radio station.

Series creator Hugh Wilson and head writer Bill Dial had both worked in radio, and drew on specific events and former co-workers when writing the show. Breakout star Howard Hesseman (frenetic morning man Dr. Johnny Fever) had done a stint as a DJ before being cast on the show. The early episodes focused on the business of running a radio station, interviewing bands and doing remote broadcasts, with high jinks sure to follow. Many of the early stories—including the infamous “Turkeys Away”—were based on actual events. (In real life, the turkeys were thrown from the back of a truck, not a helicopter.)

But after eight episodes in a tough time slot, the low-rated show was taken off the air for retooling. Wilson and Dial decided their show was good, and refused to change anything. The two claim they turned in some already-written scripts, and told the network it was a new direction for the show, and continued on as they were. But there were two important changes. First, CBS gave the show a plum time slot, following M*A*S*H. Second, the show added one set—a bullpen, where the station’s staff could sit at their desks and interact. And while the show’s creators insisted they didn’t need to change the show, the writers started moving away from strictly radio-based storylines, and started to build stories around the characters and use serious material as a foundation for the show’s comedy. As TV in general was moving away from the issue-oriented sitcoms of the ’70s, WKRP did a surprising amount of drama for what could be a very silly show. Tweaking the formula worked, as the show became a critical success, and started making its mark on the culture—Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass” was a hit in large part because Johnny Fever played it on WKRP. The band’s label even gave the show a gold record, which can be seen hanging up in the station in later seasons.

The ensemble was set up around rock ’n’ roll’s time-honored source of conflict: the generation gap. Representing the old guard was paranoid reactionary newscaster Les Nessman (Richard Sanders), sleazy salesman Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner), flirty receptionist Jennifer (Loni Anderson), and befuddled boss Arthur “The Big Guy” Carlson (Gordon Jump), who were content when WKRP was a failing easy-listening station. When new program director Travis (Sandy) changes the format to rock ’n’ roll in the pilot episode, he rallies hipper staff members like ’60s holdover Fever (Hesseman), laid-back evening DJ Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), and wide-eyed assistant Bailey (Jan Smithers). While the squares hold more power and seniority at the station, the show stacks the deck against them, as Nessman, Tarlek, and Carlson are uniformly, hilariously, awful at their jobs. (Nessman’s news reports are always a highlight, whether he’s ignoring world events for a juicy pig-related story, or pronouncing the name of a tiny dog breed as “Chi-hoo-ah-hoo-ah.”) However, while the premise could have set up an All In the Family-type culture clash every week, the show went more in the direction of The Office, embracing the flawed humanity of even its least competent characters.

The show also succeeded at creating memorable characters by setting up and then knocking down some of TV’s favorite stereotypes. One running joke was that buxom Jennifer was the station’s highest-paid employee, “for obvious reasons,” wink wink, nudge nudge, but the show was quick to reveal that she was in fact the brains of the operation, keeping the station running smoothly while keeping the boss distracted and out of everyone’s hair. Shy assistant Bailey isn’t taken seriously by her older, male co-workers until she eventually proves herself a better newscaster than Les, and better at promoting the station than Herb. The two women were essentially the Joan Harris and Peggy Olson of their day—each taking different roads to earn respect in a male-dominated, Scotch-free office. As the show’s only non-white cast member (which in 1978 was one more than nearly any other sitcom had), Tim Reid worried from the start that he’d be stuck with a “token black guy” role. In the early going, it does seem like Venus mainly exists to show up his white co-workers as either painfully unhip or (mildly) racist buffoons. But Reid pushed the writers to give him a stronger character, and wrote three Venus-centered episodes himself, giving his character and the show more depth in the process.

While WKRP was a success in syndication, the show has all but disappeared in recent years. (The less said about 1991’s The New WKRP In Cincinnati, the better.) The same music that was a strong part of the show’s appeal has prevented any comprehensive home video release (though one is reportedly in the works, courtesy of Shout! Factory), as too many of the songs used on the show are now prohibitively expensive. (Wilson sprung for several Beatles songs in the show’s original run, a pricey proposition then, but a nearly unthinkable one now). For a season-one DVD release, Wilson personally hand-picked replacement tracks for the original music—some similar songs from the era, some generic filler music. In some cases, scenes featuring unavailable music are truncated, and replaced by previously unaired deleted scenes, and in some cases lines spoken over music were re-recorded. The strategy has mixed results at best—several episodes include references to songs that the viewer can no longer hear—but it was the only way for the show to see any kind of legal release. Alongside the DVD, season one is also available on Hulu and Amazon, but subsequent seasons haven’t been released and may never be, although nearly every episode can be seen on YouTube and other sites.

Here are 10 episodes that span WKRP’s surprising range from comedy to drama and back.

“Pilot” (season one, episode one): The characters are sharp from the first minute, and the episode manages to be joke-heavy while still explaining the premise, both that Travis is the calm center among a bunch of lunatics, and that he’s changing the station’s format from easy listening to rock ’n’ roll over the Big Guy’s objections. The scene in which disinterested morning man Johnny creates his manic Johnny Fever persona over the course of one mic break is a terrific bit of acting that immediately established Hesseman as the show’s breakout star. Venus only shows up in the final minutes, but the episode closes on his show, setting up the station’s weirdly schizophrenic format of frenetic Johnny in the morning, mellow Venus at night, and forever unseen and rarely mentioned DJs all afternoon.

“Turkeys Away” (season one, episode seven): The show’s most famous episode builds slowly, as it’s demonstrated how Jennifer runs the station’s affairs while shielding Carlson from any actual responsibility. But as, one by one, the staff ignores or avoids the Big Guy, he asserts himself with a secret promotion that ends in hilarious disaster. It was Richard Sanders (who wrote for the show on top of playing Nessman) who suggested that Les’ on-the-scene report mimic the Hindenberg disaster. To get authentic reactions from the staff back at the station, they shot Sanders on an adjacent set, so the others are hearing his report as it happens. One thing that makes the episode work so well is that the whole incident takes place in the audience’s imagination—you never see a single turkey. We hear Les’ report of the turkeys “hitting the ground like bags of wet cement,” and then cut to Les back at the station, retelling the ugly aftermath, setting up Carlson for one of the most memorable lines in television history: “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”

“The Contest Nobody Could Win” (season one, episode 11): When Johnny accidentally offers $5,000 (a large sum of money in 1978, about $18,000 today) as a contest prize instead of $50, the station goes haywire. Venus’ plan to rig the contest by making listeners identify six songs by a half-second snippet of each one backfires when the second caller rattles off all six titles. Carlson threatens to fire Fever and Travis both, and Herb, seeing an opportunity to get the station’s counterculture element out of the way, makes a rousing, delusional speech to Les about “the dungarees versus the suits,” hoping that for once his fellow suits would end up on top. Naturally, Herb and Les screw things up by giving the contest money to a con man, Johnny sees through the ruse, saves the day, and the dungarees are back on top.

“Who Is Gordon Sims?” (season one, episode 18): Twenty-eight years before Dick Whitman, there was Gordon Sims. When Venus refuses to have his picture taken for an ad, Travis keeps pushing until he gets the truth—Venus (a.k.a. Sims) deserted during Vietnam and has been living under assumed names ever since. The episode balances the serious A-story with assorted silliness—Carlson accidentally inflating a rubber raft in his office, and then trying to stay nonchalant as staff members come in and out. But once Venus has to confess to the Big Guy, the normally buffoonish boss turns serious. A veteran of the Marines himself, he pushes Venus to fess up, trusting that the Army will treat him fairly. They do in the end, only after a powerful speech where Venus recounts what it was that pushed him too far. Reid had been pushing for better storylines for Venus, and the show delivered.

“Fish Story” (season one, episode 21): The network asked Hugh Wilson for more slapstick, more jokes, and to basically dumb down the show. So he polled the cast on what the worst clichés in comedy were, trying to write an intentionally bad episode to spite the network. It backfired—the episode is overloaded with classic bits, including Herb wearing a fish suit, feuding with rival WPIG’s mascot, and eventually trying to crawl under a men’s room door while in the costume; and Johnny and Venus getting drunk on-air and having their reflexes tested by a cop, who’s exasperated to learn that Fever’s reflexes actually get better the more drinks he has. Wilson went on record as hating the episode, but he was the only one.

“In Concert” (season two, episode 19): The episode starts with typical WKRP fare: Johnny flirting with Bailey, Carlson looking ridiculous, and the gang excited by a concert the station is promoting. But things take a sharp turn at the midpoint, when a shellshocked staff returns from that show, where 11 kids had been killed. The episode was based on a real-life incident at a Who concert in Cincinnati earlier that year, where general admission seating led to a mob scene in which 11 concertgoers were trampled to death. The shift in tone is devastatingly effective, as the second half plays to near-silence from the studio audience, and the usually silly characters turn deadly serious, as they discuss the aftermath of the show. WKRP had had its share of dramatic moments, but this was the only time the show stepped away from comedy completely, and the result is one of the series’ strongest episodes.

“Clean Up Radio Everywhere” (season three, episode 22): After WKRP was among a list of shows publicly criticized by Jerry Falwell, the show struck back, casting Falwell lookalike Richard Paul (who would later play Rev. Falwell in The People Vs. Larry Flynt), as a moral crusader who takes the station to task for its playlist. Travis naturally defends the station’s content, even as advertisers flee in the face of a threatened boycott. But it’s Carlson—an uptight conservative who had disapproved of rock ’n’ roll since season one—who finds the moral courage to stand up for the station’s freedom of expression.

“An Explosive Affair, Part 2” (season four, episode two): The show’s final season opens with the beginning of the series’ only extended story arc, in which terrorists threaten to bomb the station. Part one is mostly setup, as the staff reacts to the bomb threat, and Johnny, broadcasting remotely from the transmitter, smashes a phone in frustration after his bookie puts him on hold. But the second part is all payoff, combining drama and loopy comedy, as Travis tries to suss out the location of the explosives, while an increasingly manic Fever becomes convinced that Ma Bell’s secret police force is after him, unaware that he’s practically sitting on a ticking time bomb.

“Up And Down the Dial” (season four, episode 22): The ratings come in, and for the first time, WKRP is a hit. The station is No. 6 in the ratings, with Johnny rating No. 1 with the younger demographic. (“Look what I’m doing with teenaged boys!”) But the crew’s celebrations are interrupted by Mama Carlson, who arrives with a consultant, and a determination to switch the station to an all-news format. The staff is less than enthusiastic about becoming newsreaders, and Mr. Carlson is appalled that his mother would undercut his long-awaited success. Fever saves the day, confronting Mama when he realizes that the station is designed to lose money as a tax write-off, and she’s been setting up her son to fail. When Johnny threatens to tell the Big Guy, Mrs. Carlson drops the all-news format. While this wasn’t intended to be the last episode, the show was canceled after the fourth season, and it ended up being a fitting cap to the series, ending with Mama Carlson telling her son she believes in him, and that WKRP is going to stay just the way it is.

After a brief commercial break, get into some deep cuts from the WKRP library:  “Johnny Comes Back” (season one, episode 14); “Preacher” (season one, episode 22); “Carlson For President” (season two, episode six); “Mike Fright” (season two, episode seven); “Sparky” (season two, episode 12); “A Family Affair” (season two, episode 14); “Venus Rising” (season two, episode 23); “Venus And The Man” (season three, episode 12); “Changes” (season four, episode 13); “I’ll Take Romance” (season four, episode 15)

Next time: Gwen Ihnat thinks of just one more thing and tackles 10 episodes of Columbo.

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