WKRP celebrates Thanksgiving by tossing turkeys out of a helicopter

WKRP celebrates Thanksgiving by tossing turkeys out of a helicopter

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. This month: Thanksgiving.

WKRP In Cincinnati, “Turkeys Away" (season one, episode seven; originally aired 10/30/1978)

In which a Thanksgiving-themed promotion goes terribly awry...

Sonia Saraiya: This TV Roundtable series has turned into an opportunity for me to watch a lot of shows I never would have otherwise. “Turkeys Away” was our Readers’ Choice winner by a huge margin, but I’d never seen the episode, and only vaguely heard of the show. Sitcoms from the ’70s are hard for me—the format seems so dated, somehow even more than black-and-white films or Victorian novels. It’s not just multi-cam, it’s really multi-cam, with that slow, mushy editing that characterizes television made on a budget. It’s only recently that television has become easy to edit cheaply and well, and turn around fast—and because it was so hard to make a show feel taut and real, there’s a whole species of sitcoms that don’t even attempt verisimilitude. WKRP In Cincinnati is one of them. There’s a story, and some things are going to happen, but the show feels more like a comedy bit with frills, or a stage play where the actors take turns winking broadly at the audience. It’s great when it’s done well, but the problem is often it’s not done well at all.

“Turkeys Away” feels like a 22-minute-long inside joke, like a retelling of an old joke that everyone else has heard a thousand times. Everyone knows when to laugh, and the characters are so familiar they’ve achieved a certain cartoonish quality—they’re exaggerated, well-worn caricatures playing a part in a story.

Typically, I can’t stand this type of thing. I like my art to feel real and relevant, and if it doesn’t, I want it to be making a point. (Yes, I am Debbie Downer.) But WKRP In Cincinnati is so charming that I can’t help but like it, even though it’s also kind of tragic. This episode made me laugh a lot, but it also made feel a little sad about some of the show’s subtext—the increasing irrelevance of middle age; the still-declining medium of radio; the perpetual state of Ohio. (Seriously: What is Ohio?) As bumbling as Mr. Carlson (Gordon Jump) is, his inability to find a purpose for himself is sort of awful; and Les’ news nerdery is even sadder when you realize it’s for a format that few of his peers pay attention to. It’s a comedy that knows its roots are in tragedy, and that makes it especially powerful.

And like a Greek tragedy, all the drama happens offscreen. In the episode’s climactic moment, where Carlson’s dramatic idea for a promotional giveaway of live turkeys goes terribly south, we just watch Les’ face, as he’s narrating the news for his listeners. Turkeys fall from the sky, jettisoned from a helicopter hovering over a supermarket parking lot; no one knew that they couldn’t fly. It’s odd to see a television show be so restrained with its visuals—on a lesser show, it would be due to budgeting concerns or mere laziness. But for WKRP In Cincinnati, it feels like the hidden drama is part of the joke. Les’ listeners (all five of them) are just as blind to the drama as we are, and because WKRP is about the joke, not the spectacle, the real action is happening on Les’ face, as he watches the turkeys hit the pavement.

Brandon Nowalk: On the one hand, I know where Sonia’s coming from. Part of what makes WKRP In Cincinnati feel like a trip further back in time than a black-and-white movie is that it was shot on videotape in the ’70s. Tape bleeds and smears—hence that split-second bluish aura that follows station manager Mr. Carlson as he wanders around the station, trying to find a way to get involved with the new rock ’n’ roll crew. Tape has a way of feeling ephemeral. Black-and-white film, even on ’50s and ’60s television, is far richer, and the visual stylists behind the camera were capable of some serious image-making, even on low-concept sitcoms like WKRP (e.g. The Andy Griffith Show). As Sonia mentions, the color multi-camera format of the ’70s owes a lot more visually to stage plays, but with the benefit of close-ups like the one that reveals Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) faking being asleep to avoid Mr. Carlson.

But I have to push back against some of the reluctance to embrace these programs—because what’s more taut and real than a stage play? Rope performed 20 feet in front of you is positively alive. As for slow editing, All In The Family is particularly electric in spite of (or because of) its long scenes. The banter is fast but rhythmic, a dance among all four characters, and in the middle of a Bunker family feud, there’s no end in sight to rescue you from the tension. Personally I wouldn’t call verisimilitude a virtue. I’d call it a default. More power to anything that breaks away and forges its own style. As for the broad winking problem, is there a worse offender than single-camera mockumentaries like The Office?

I don’t mean to pile on you, Sonia, because I know you weren’t talking about “Turkeys Away” so much as a general feeling about lackluster television. I just want to stand up for an easily maligned period of American TV and explain part of what I find so fascinating about it. It’s not like people need more reasons to stick with what they know at the expense of what came before.

On that note, it’s no wonder “Turkeys Away” is WKRP’s most famous episode, making all-time lists like TV Guide’s top 100 episodes and, more relevantly to me, the Extra Hot Great canon. It’s the seventh episode of the series, airing in October of ’78. It has a simple premise—Mr. Carlson trying to help out—that ties into the general plotting of the early going—Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) shifting the unprofitable station’s direction to young rock ’n’ roll. Everything that happens ties into that one story, and it leads to that incredible set piece.

Only, can you call that a set piece? What’s amazing about the climactic turkey drop—aside from being based on a true story, as an oral history by our own Stephen Bowie reveals—is that it’s told in reflection as Les (Richard Sanders) reports on the promotion, whatever it is, from the field. We’re watching him as he spots, way off in the distance, behind the camera, dark shapes dropping from the helicopter, then points out the lack of parachutes, then realizes with a horrified expression that Mr. Carlson is dropping live turkeys from a helicopter. That’s his big secret plan to promote the station. “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly” is the iconic punchline, but for my money, “The turkeys are hitting the ground like bags of wet cement” is the standout—creative and gruesome and downright hilarious. The whole gag happens offscreen, including the turkeys apparently organizing a counterattack, but vivid lines like that and Sanders’ shell-shocked delivery, not to mention the way he’s hugging the wall, make it come alive. Videotape, schmideotape. The big scene plays only in our imaginations.

Pilot Viruet: Like Sonia, I had never seen a single episode of WKRP In Cincinnati. I’m not at all familiar with the show aside from seeing it mentioned in passing here and there. I also have a similar relationship with ’70s sitcoms. I love watching older sitcoms, particularly from the late ’80s and ’90s, but for the most part I have a whole pop-culture gap for shows earlier than that (and this goes doubly so for CBS for some reason, a network full of programs that I’ve largely ignored until the 2000s). It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why—I suppose it’s a mix of the stage-play resemblance and of the VHS quality—but mostly I just feel disconnected from that era. It seems very foreign and ancient to me (there is no denying that I’m spoiled by today’s programs) and whenever I think of older TV shows, it’s hard to picture anything but The Brady Bunch kids singing about sunny days. So I had no idea what to expect going into this show though I figured a) it must be about a radio station, which meant b) I would not like it as much as NewsRadio.

WKRP In Cincinnati probably isn’t a show for me—I started groaning during the opening theme song—but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Because it’s a sitcom episode about Thanksgiving, I was expecting something much hokier, maybe an ending where the makeshift radio family gathers around a large dinner and everyone learns new things about each other and themselves. Instead the episode went in a completely different direction; it didn’t just take a left turn, but it drove off the road and left a bunch of dead turkeys in its wake.

“Turkeys Away” is a slow burner. To be honest, I kept losing focus during the first half of the episode. I didn’t exactly find it boring but it wasn’t uproariously funny enough to hold my attention. It was easy enough to pick up on most of the main characters’ traits—I quickly understood what the deal was with Carlson as he aimlessly wandered around the station unable to help anyone—but there is also a whole backstory and a laundry list of idiosyncrasies that I’m not privy to. I imagine that I would have liked this episode a lot more, especially the first half, had I watched the few that came before it. That said, “Turkeys Away” really got me during the final act.

The idea of turkeys being thrown out of a helicopter and plummeting to their deaths under the guise of a radio promotion is so absurd (which is why it’s so disturbing that it’s based on a true story) and so anti-Thanksgiving. It is, despite my earlier worries about disliking WKRP, my favorite kind of humor: morbid and fucked-up. It’s true that horror is often better when the action is offscreen but “Turkeys Away” really proved that point for comedy as well. Of course, actually watching turkeys smash to the ground like “bags of wet cement” would be a lot more disgusting than humorous. But it’s so much better to watch the action through Les’ expressions, his slow realization about what’s happening, and his determination to keep reporting even as panic and horror is apparent on his face. I love the reactions back at the station as well, a mixture of disbelief and weird acceptance that, yep, Carlson really screwed this one up. That entire scene could have easily been the end of the story but I love that they take it further: fielding stories from the Humane Society (“A lot of turkeys don’t make it through Thanksgiving”), Mr. Carlson’s destroyed suit, Les’ trauma during the aftermath when the crowd (and turkeys!) turn on him—another scene that works better unseen because of his delivery. And, of course, that line Brandon mentioned: “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly” had me laughing as hard as any current sitcom on television.

David Sims: So yeah, add my name to the list of people who never saw an episode of WKRP In Cincinnati before this. NewsRadio is basically my favorite show, so why would I watch another sitcom about radio production? Still, I’d always heard about “Turkeys Away,” one of those seminal ’70s sitcom episodes that would always make those TV Guide lists. The hype to a TV dork like me was major, but like Pilot said, this one’s a real slow-burner. 

There’s no way a script like this would be allowed on network TV today. It features 10 minutes of build-up just centered around the fact that Arthur Carlson is incompetent and has nothing to do in the office. That joke can be established in 30 seconds, but the episode has some fun with it, and even though I can be pretty ADD about my television, I didn’t have a problem with it. It was helpful, as a total newbie, to meet every character through Carlson and their reaction to him. (Also: I am paid to write about TV, but I am ashamed to admit that when I saw Tim Reid as Venus Flytrap, I yelped, “Tim Reid was in this!?” I love Tim Reid. Please don’t fire me, Todd.)

I think the reason this episode is so well remembered is twofold: Jennifer’s terrifying straight blonde hair and Herb’s eye-melting plaid suit/knotless tie combo. Just kidding. It’s the fucked-upness of the finale, where turkeys rain death over the city of Cincinnati, and the way it’s presented to us. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (a show from the same era that I love to death) would not pull a stunt like this. It’d have everyone around a table, learning lessons, being happy, like Pilot said. That’s a necessary service and there always has to be shows like that on TV. 

But it’s obvious that in the late ’70s, WKRP was as close as you got to a weird, darker take on the network sitcom. The way the big reveal (the turkey drop) is hidden from us until the very end, and then unleashed before we have time to contemplate how horrifying it is? Brilliant. The way we hear about it just through Les’ quivering voice, letting our imagination do the dirty work? Perfect. 

“As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly” is a line I sadly already knew (it’s attained immortal status in TV history)—the kind of punchline that’s been copied for generations since. I was immediately reminded of Jeffrey Tambor holding his head in his hands in the Arrested Development pilot and saying “I have the worst fucking attorneys.” I totally sympathize with Sonia’s complaint that it’s downright awful to watch a cruddy-quality sitcom from the 1970s, since the footage seems so grainy and the filmmaking so stagnant. But that’s when you realize how universally funny a sitcom can be, even 35-odd years later.

SS: Reviewing this episode is really about looking at the anatomy of this final scene. Brandon, I looked at Bowie’s oral history that you linked to, and wow, I did not link Les’ narration of the turkeys to the Hindenberg disaster until just now. But wow. Talk about dark. It’s only in reading that—and David, in reading your response—that I see the big draw of WKRP In Cincinnati. It was a dark comedy—in an era where television (as far as I can tell) was mostly about holding hands. Which is funny, because it looks so innocent.

So, does anyone have any thoughts about how sitcoms in the ’70s were trying to process double-digit inflation, the Vietnam War, and urban crime through slow-burning, macabre jokes that don’t make it to the screen? I don’t know if I have a grand thesis statement, but I think it’s interesting how we latch onto darkly funny comedies to tell us how life really is. I’ve been watching Wrong Mans on Hulu and reading about Black Mirror in David’s reviews, and both have made me think about how I react to vicious comedy. It’s hilarious, but it hurts. At the core of comedy that really lands, for me, is a lot of pain. Take Veep, for example, which is one of the funniest shows on TV in my opinion. It’s so cynical about politics. It makes me depressed about our government. But I adore it. Pointing out the comedy in the tragedy helps me process it, I think.

DS: WKRP is dark as well because it’s a weird cry for help from Arthur, who feels incompetent and ignored at the station. No matter how justified the staff is in shutting him out (I mean, he is the kind of guy who’ll toss turkeys out of a helicopter onto a major American city), I like that there’s clear character motivation for that insane decision. And yes, I love that observation in the oral history, that Les’ shrieks are almost like an embedded war journalist or someone reporting on a disaster, describing carnage we can only imagine unfolding before his eyes.

Again, I don’t know if this could air on TV today. Not because of the content, but because of the show’s utter restraint and commitment to that restraint. WKRP is being wacky without winking at the camera too hard or letting us know we're in a crazy sitcom universe. It feels real, and one reason for that is perhaps that this is based on a real incident that is really just too bonkers to contemplate. I love tragic comedy, but I especially love it when it’s not rubbing your face in the tragedy, and the real power of it more just creeps up on you. 

PV: What’s strange is that I picked up on the Hindenburg disaster connection (“Oh, the humanity!”) but just accepted it as a funny reference instead of thinking it was particularly dark. That’s definitely telling; I’m so accustomed to how often television shows make fun of anything bleak (and with quick turnaround) that this didn’t strike me as anything special until I took into account the era WKRP In Cincinnati aired. Since I’m not too familiar with the shows that were on the air the same time WKRP was, I have no idea if this humor was outside the norm—but I did appreciate it, especially because it completely subverted all of my expectations.

Actually, I do think an episode like “Turkeys Away” could air today. I find the dark humor very familiar to many of the shows on now. It was only the first half of the episode that felt odd—I watched the episode for the first time in between catching up with current sitcoms and was jarred by the difference in pacing. But the big stunt at the end is the basic approach that many shows take: Find something cynical or screwed-up and write a bunch of jokes about it. The turkey stunt is a disturbing scene, sure, but it’s not far off from what’s on television how. The biggest difference would be in the approach. 1978 was content to show the action through Les; 2013 wouldn’t be able to have that sort of restraint. 

BN: I like how everyone’s mentioned the slow build. There’s only one plot in this episode, and the comedy, typical of MTM Enterprises, comes from the characters and performances more often than the plot—especially in the first act when everybody’s arriving at work for the day. In fact, nobody knows what the plot is, which gets some great jokes. I also love when DJ Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid) comes to Travis with another Mr. Carlson problem: “What’s gotten into him? He used to be scared to death of me, and I thought that was a good relationship.”

David, Pilot, I completely agree about the restraint. It reminds me of how Arrested Development would lean on the bleep instead of the actual curse word because it’s funnier. I don’t know too much about late ’70s sitcoms in particular, but what I do know (largely kick-started by Todd’s primer on the subject a few years ago) has plenty of darkness: Taxi, a WKRP-style group of misfits at their fallback job; Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a near-Lynchian soap-opera satire; M*A*S*H, which tapped into the darkness as it went along. Not to mention All In The Family, which lasted until 1979 and even then is probably what you’re looking for, Sonia, in processing the issues of the day through uncomfortable jokes. All of these shows cultivate very different styles, from M*A*S*H’s single-camera laugh-light tragicomedy to Mary Hartman’s stylized, yellowish, multi-camera alienation. The general feeling of these shows is less macabre than “Turkeys Away,” but it’s in the neighborhood.

SS: But no one has a name as cool as DJ Venus Flytrap. And no one ever will.