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WKRP In Cincinnati, “Mike Fright”   

Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

In 1977, Van Morrison released A Period Of Transition, his first album in nearly three years. In the time since Morrison’s excellent but mild-selling Veedon Fleece, radio had begun to welcome artists who bore his influence, from the mellow Boz Scaggs to the fervent Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger. Morrison’s “comeback” albums (including 1978’s Wavelength and 1979’s Into The Music) sold reasonably well, but didn’t produce any hits as big as “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Domino,” or “Wild Night,” and some critics grumbled that Morrison was ranging too far into the realm of easy listening. Nevertheless, there remained a mystique about Morrison, born of the way other musicians talked about him, and the way he moved in and out of the spotlight, seemingly on his own terms. Morrison didn’t get much radio play, but his name still had meaning.

The sitcom WKRP In Cincinnati borrows some of that meaning in the second-season episode “Mike Fright,” which originally aired on November 12, 1979, a couple of months after Into The Music was released. An Into The Music promotional poster is prominently displayed on the door of WKRP’s broadcast booth, behind disc jockey Dr. Johnny Fever (played by Howard Hesseman). As Johnny leans into a microphone, there’s Morrison right behind him, singing into his mike with his eyes closed, transported, as has always been his wont. 

WKRP In Cincinnati was set in a low-power, 16th-place AM station, run by sweet, ineffectual Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump) for his cold, wealthy mother. Dr. Johnny Fever was one of the beaten-down staffers kept on board when new program director Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) arrived in the pilot episode to change the station’s format from soporific “music of your life” to youth-oriented rock ’n’ roll. For four years on CBS, WKRP explored the contrast between fading freaks and the squares in charge of them, and spun expert farce out of a culture in transition, and the peculiar anxieties and inferiority complexes unique to a major metropolis in the middle of nowhere.

On the show, Andy allowed his DJs to program their own sets. Hence Fever’s eclectic selections in “Mike Fright,” which include Bob Dylan’s quasi-gospel rocker “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Martha And The Vandellas’ surging Motown classic “Nowhere To Run,” Sly And The Family Stone’s sinewy 1979 single “Remember Who You Are,” and “Who Listens To The Radio?” by Melbourne power-pop act The Sports. This is like a critic’s dream of what pop radio should be—a mix of old and new, black and white—and isn’t reflective of what an actual Cincinnati AM station would’ve been spinning in ’79. In a 1981 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Hesseman was quoted as saying, “Every time I meet people working in radio, I’m a little embarrassed. It’s all pre-programmed, rigidly formatted stuff. Time and time again, when I talk to jocks, they say how jealous they are of the freedom we have on WKRP. I sometimes have to explain to them that it’s not a real radio station.”

Like the Van Morrison poster on the door, though, the songs on WKRP sent a coded message to the people watching at home. Outside of The Monkees and scattered variety and comedy shows, television pre-WKRP had been stubbornly un-hip when it came to rock ’n’ roll—relying on generic “groovy music” whenever a teenager switched on the radio, and tending to make fun of rock bands and rock fans as moronic. WKRP was ostensibly a workplace comedy, following a cast of kooks just trying make it through another day at the office, and as such, it could’ve easily have taken place at an insurance company. But because show creator Hugh Wilson integrated the milieu of rock ’n’ roll into the plots and the background, WKRP found an audience among people who appreciated seeing their world depicted not just matter-of-factly, but with curatorial expertise. (Even Hesseman’s presence lent the show credibility, given that the actor had been one of the stars of the late-’60s hippie comedy troupe The Committee.)

The songs in “Mike Fright” fit the episode’s plot, which is about what happens when Johnny Fever realizes his listeners are actually paying attention to what he says. (“Who Listens To The Radio?” indeed.) When Johnny casually mentions over the air that Cincinnati might be motivated to end its garbage strike if citizens were to dump trash on the steps of city hall, hundreds of riled-up locals begin doing just that. Suddenly, Johnny is aware that he’s responsible for what he says, and as a result, he freezes (“Nowhere To Run”). Convinced his career is over, Johnny flees to a local bar, until Andy drags him back to the station to get him to apologize, to save WKRP from a massive lawsuit and/or FCC fine (“Gotta Serve Somebody”). At first, Johnny hesitates, but then he’s prompted to recall his own “don’t think, just do it” approach to radio (“Remember Who You Are”), and settles back into a groove, ending by suggesting that Cincinnatians take their garbage to the mayor’s lawn instead.

There are no subplots per se in “Mike Fright,” though there are plenty of asides and fleeting gags. Oily adman Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) is excited because he’s on the verge of landing the account for Merchant Of Venice Pawn Shops, provided that WKRP agrees to play the national anthem after every commercial—which it can’t do, lest listeners think the station is signing off for the day. News jock Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) is enjoying having a big story to report, breathlessly breaking into Johnny’s broadcast to update listeners on the “garbage holocaust.” And Johnny and late-night DJ Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid) are killing time by gambling. After Johnny leaves the station, he takes another bar patron up on his offer to play pinball for “two bits,” getting Venus to stake him for what is, in fact, a $25 bet. (The clueless Venus ups the bet to “four bits,” not realizing he’s wagering $50 on Johnny’s behalf.) None of this is essential to the main story, but it emerges organically from the setting of the radio station, which tends to be a comfortable home for burnouts.

I know this because I grew up around the radio business. My father spun for an Atlanta rock station in the early ’70s, then a Top 40 station in Arkansas, and a country station in Kansas. He also announced NASCAR races, called semipro baseball games, and did a long stint as a news jockey. He briefly had his own regionally syndicated bluegrass show, with a chance to take it national, but instead gave up radio altogether to go to seminary and became an Episcopal priest—a different kind of communicator. Still, up until my mid-teens, I spent many afternoons and evenings in tiny buildings off dirt roads, occupying myself by reading news items and sports scores as they came across the wire—back in the days when tickers would print the news on paper rolls, to be ripped off, marked up, and stacked in the jocks’ in-trays.

A large part of the appeal of WKRP In Cincinnati for me then was that it was so familiar. The WKRP DJs didn’t wear headphones, but the show got pretty much everything else right. I had been in that reception area, that wood-paneled office, that bullpen; I’d dispensed water into conical paper cups and brought them to my dad as he worked in a tiny booth with padded walls, surrounded by whatever posters the record labels sent that week. I knew the people: their deadpan wit, their rumpled clothes, their scratchy faces, their stench of smoke and coffee, and their pride in being described as “weird.” Even now, when I hear the WKRP theme song—which often flows out of the cold open, like a radio cue—it’s a journey into my actual childhood, not just my misspent TV-watching youth.

Canadian critic Jaime Weinman didn’t share my firsthand experience of the world WKRP In Cincinnati depicts. Weinman first caught the show in syndication in the late ’90s, drawn to it by the presence of Hesseman, whom he knew from the later sitcom Head Of The Class. But I called Weinman anyway to ask about WKRP, because he’s something of an expert on the show. (At least he knows enough to have penned an entire WKRP “Information Page” back in the early days of web design.) I wondered if he’d been drawn to WKRP because it seemed exotic in some way, but he assured me, “If you grow up in Canada, at an early age you get used to the idea that all the entertainment you like is from another country where people kind of talk and look a lot like the people in your country.” (Besides, he added, “A lot of the people you like in American shows are Canadian anyway.”) He did perceive the show differently than I did, though. As a kid, watching in first-run, I was drawn to WKRP because it seemed hip and smart. For Weinman, watching in syndication, the show was appealing because it lacked a sophisticated veneer. As he explained to me, unlike other products of MTM Enterprises, WKRP was shot on video instead of film, and had been originally developed to satisfy CBS’ demands for a more youth-friendly, even somewhat-vulgar sitcom.

CBS had its greatest ratings success with WKRP when it aired the show after M*A*S*H and before Lou Grant, creating a block of “quality” television. But CBS didn’t really want another older-skewing “quality” show, so the network bumped WKRP into the family hour, chasing a younger demographic, then moved it around the schedule seemingly every few weeks, before canceling the show at the end of its fourth season. Unexpectedly, WKRP became a bigger hit in syndication than any previous MTM show—perhaps because the best timeslot for it has always been late-night. MTM was surprised; the company was never especially proud of the show, and Weinman even found a quote from Mary Tyler Moore herself saying, “Let me put it this way: I wouldn’t watch it.” But to Weinman, who was already familiar with MTM’s more polished Bob Newhart Show/Mary Tyler Moore Show/Tony Randall Show kind of sitcom, Wilson’s willingness to indulge CBS’ demands for more craziness distinguished WKRP. “I actually think that tension is one of the things that makes the show interesting,” he says. And WKRP ultimately turned out to be far more substantive than the young Weinman had expected, which gave it the feeling of being “a special discovery” for him.

What Weinman says about WKRP’s style is evident in “Mike Fright.” The episode has its nutty elements, such as Mr. Carlson’s diminutive lawyer, Elgar Neece (played by Christian Seaborn), and the fumbly Mr. Carlson himself, who keeps asking Jennifer if he can be anywhere besides in his office, dealing with Johnny’s garbage. But there are some terrific bits of subtle humor in “Mike Fright” as well, such as Venus humming the Rocky theme to pump up Johnny, only to be greeted by Les reading a news report: “Local Fighter Nearly Beaten To Death.” There are some typically quirky bits of WKRP-style joke-construction, too: Johnny fantasizing about quitting radio to work in a photo booth; Andy trying to give an inspiring speech and tripping up when he asks Johnny to visualize a “rainy, parched” beach; Venus forgetting all about the crisis back at the station as he nervously asks Johnny how good he is at pinball. These aren’t “gags,” per se; they’re amusing in-the-moment comments, delivered with crack timing by skilled actors. (And as much as modern sitcom-watchers decry the oft-misnamed and misunderstood “laugh track,” there’s a real sense of immediacy in the way the WKRP actors work the crowd, modifying their line readings to accommodate the reaction of their live audience.)

WKRP tended to develop its characters by establishing them as “types,” then subverting them. Venus Flytrap, for example, initially comes across as a flashy “soul brother,” but the show quickly establishes that he’s actually a sensitive, philosophical, well-read gentleman who served in Vietnam. Les and Herb are equal parts cocky, incompetent, and insecure in ways that complement each other. Mr. Carlson is caught between his pride, his laziness, and his fear of his domineering mother.

As for the women? An entire generation of male TV fans may have had their ideals of womanhood shaped by Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson), a curvy bombshell who’s the real brains of the operation, and Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers), a bookish, withdrawn gal slightly embarrassed by her own beauty. Weinman describes the two characters as two different “answers to the post-feminist question,” as conceived by the show’s male writers. WKRP wasn’t serialized, exactly, but it did follow how the station’s fortunes improved from year to year, and Jennifer—like a happier version of Mad Men’s Joan, Weinman notes—steered WKRP’s image as much as Andy did. There’s a running joke in this episode that everyone wants Jennifer around, for “no reason” (other than that she’s gorgeous, of course). But she’s no bimbo. Meanwhile, Bailey was frequently positioned as a love interest for Johnny, but the writers rarely followed through on that, which effectively prevented the character from becoming just another woman on TV whose only function was to make men happy.

One of the other reasons I asked Jaime Weinman to talk WKRP with me was because I knew he had access to the uncut versions of the show, which he recorded off Canadian TV. Only the first season of WKRP has been released on DVD, with almost all of the original music replaced, because licensing the songs would’ve been prohibitively expensive. As a result, outraged fans shunned the DVD set, and rights-holder 20th Century Fox hasn’t released any more seasons, likely considering the lack of interest in the season-one set as an indicator that it wouldn’t be worth it to release the next three (or to go back and pony up for the songs). A butchered WKRP on DVD is better than nothing, but it is undeniably butchered. As noted above, the songs are integral to “Mike Fright,” both in subtle thematic ways and as a way of establishing WKRP’s rock ’n’ roll bona fides.

I also let Weinman pick the episode for me to cover, and he went with “Mike Fright” because, he explains, “The kind of episode I like the best is a very simply structured episode that starts with a problem, takes the problem to each character and has them discuss it from different points of view, and then resolves the problem in a funny way. It’s an example of the show using a very classic-’70s MTM structure, in a very assured way, but with crazier gags and a broader palette.” Weinman describes “Mike Fright” as being an example of sitcom writers working squarely within the universe of their show, imagining what would happen if Johnny Fever suddenly cared what people thought, then restoring everything to normal before the closing credits.

Because while there’s never any doubt that Johnny will eventually get back to work, Hesseman still has to sell the character’s fear. Johnny relates to Venus the cautionary tale of Ed “Movie Down” Town, who froze on the air once and then was out of the business for six years, before coming back as a disco DJ in a Far Rockaway nightclub. For Johnny, born John Caravella, who’s been all over the country and has been called everything from Johnny Midnight to Johnny Sunshine, the prospect of being exiled to Nowheresville is all too likely. And for WKRP’s rock-loving audience, the prospect of disco is so vile that that the crowd bursts into applause when Johnny trashes it.

Johnny’s anti-disco rant is yet another signal to a certain segment of WKRP viewers that the show is on their side. And aptly enough, “Mike Fright” deals directly with the messages people transmit—openly and covertly—as well as how they’re received. The episode is also about paralyzing self-consciousness, which is something that affects people both in and out of the mass media. It gets to those who have to speak in public, and wind up talking too fast to be understood, or stammering painfully at the start of a sentence, or—the worst feeling of all—having all of their breath rush out of their bodies, such that they’re practically gasping for air. And self-consciousness affects those who express opinions for a living, and then crouch defensively, awaiting the response. Many people in the media—including fictional Dr. Johnny Fever—have mixed feelings about what the gig requires. They think of it as both a calling and a grind, this wanting to be heard while at the same time hoping nobody’s really listening. “One stupid thing you say can ruin your life,” is how Weinman put it to me. And that’s enough to make media personalities believe they’d be happier cleaning windows, or working in a one-hour photo booth.

Which brings us back to Van Morrison, that mystical gnome who roamed through the ’70s, singing songs about restless spirits, the allure of America, and the binding power of broadcasting. On record and in concert, Morrison seemed to be following Johnny Fever’s “don’t think, just do it” approach, trying not to get in the way of whatever divine force was whispering in his ear and telling him what to sing. Our nation’s disc jockeys moved from town to town, up and down the dial, while Morrison was hearing the voice of America calling on his wavelength, telling him to tune in his radio. National anthems, bar lingo, sociopolitical statements—there are so many messages and signals out there, in the air and on the walls, and yet the messengers can only loosely control how they’re interpreted.

Next time on A Very Special Episode: Miami Vice, “No Exit”