Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re beginning our coverage on the best episodes from WKRP In Cincinnati (1978-1982, CBS), an underrated ensemble comedy with fun scripts and a marvelous cast. I’m pleased to announce that all four seasons have been released on DVD, and although the set by Shout! is only about 80% musically pure, the edits are unnoticeable to casual fans, and therefore not a major deterrent from seeking out the retail release.
A new program director joins a Cincinnati radio station and changes its schedule from easy listening to rock and roll. WKRP In Cincinnati stars GARY SANDY as Andy Travis, GORDON JUMP as Arthur Carlson, LONI ANDERSON as Jennifer Marlowe, RICHARD SANDERS as Les Nessman, FRANK BONNER as Herb Tarlek, JAN SMITHERS as Bailey Quarters, TIM REID as Venus Flytrap, and HOWARD HESSEMAN as Dr. Johnny Fever.
WKRP In Cincinnati, long considered the “step child” of MTM (it was produced by the esteemed company and created by Hugh Wilson, fresh off the short-lived The Tony Randall Show), has always been misrepresented. In its initial run, CBS was the most guilty party, for despite Wilson’s declaration that the show was tailored for adults and deserved to be seen in a post-9:00 time slot, the network believed that series’ rock and roll slant geared it towards a younger audience, and scheduled it in the unofficial “Family Viewing Hour” of 8:00. (But, how young were they thinking? Because 20-somethings weren’t part of the FVH.) Naturally, Wilson was right, and after an unsuccessful run of eight episodes at 8:00 on Mondays, the show was indefinitely pulled. Fortunately, with a little help from Grant Tinker, the show was brought back in January of ’79 in a much more suitable 9:30 slot, where it followed M*A*S*H. It was a ratings hit — popular among audiences and, surprisingly, critics. I say surprisingly because the series, which for a long time was MTM’s most popularly syndicated series, has earned a reputation for being goofy and insubstantial, especially in comparison to other MTM hits of the ’70s. But this description is underserved; it’s more like MTM’s brand than most realize.
Not only is the series geared around an ensemble of co-workers (who, like the folks of WJM, eventually become family), but the humor comes from our growing understanding of the characters and their relationships. Thus, I find it incorrect to view WKRP as qualitatively inferior. Rather, I think what separates this series from Moore’s and Newhart’s is that it seems to be more of its time. That is, given the music (and securing all those rights is what held up the DVD release), the wardrobe, and even the stories, WKRP is unequivocally a product of ’78-’82. Of course, I believe every series is reflective of its era, and that enhances its enjoyment (for me, anyway), but WKRP, with a premise centered around the country’s music and its culture, seems even more locked into the time in which it was made. Yet the humor, like all great character driven shows, transcends any era. But interestingly, unlike MTM’s prior modus operandi, Wilson occasionally imbues the show with the topicality that Norman Lear first introduced to the medium. And like Lear’s work, the show’s tone is more prone to extremes: big laughs, big relevance. This is a departure from the more subtle humor of the company’s earlier hits, and serves, in my mind, as the biggest delineation between WKRP and its MTM predecessors. But, again, this also is a response to the differences between television in the early ’70s and television in the late ’70s, where bigger seemed to be better.
As a result of this style of comedy, WKRP In Cincinnati, more than any other series we’ve covered here on Sitcom Tuesdays, seems to have a cult following, particularly among males (another departure from MTM’s usual fare). However, I do not consider myself among this hardcore fandom. In fact, I do not consider myself a hardcore fan of any sitcom (except maybe I Love Lucy), because I do not want my appreciation of a series to cloud my ability to be critical about its strengths and weaknesses. In other words, I’m a hardcore fan of the sitcom genre, not of any show in particular. That’s why I’m able to “tell it like it is” (or how I see it). To wit: although the next WKRP season is more consistent, due to the character development and our accompanying familiarity, Season One has the highest volume of classic installments, and as such, may be the show’s best year — even with the scheduling strife. So, for new fans, I recommend beginning with today’s post. As usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 1: “Pilot” (Aired: 09/18/78)
New program director Andy Travis changes the station’s format to rock and roll.
Written by Hugh Wilson | Directed by Jay Sandrich
Jay Sandrich directs the inaugural episode of WKRP, giving the show his blessing and an extra boost of credibility. The story features the arrival of Andy and his decision to switch the station to rock and roll, the inciting incident that sparks several of the shows in this initial season and will maintain as a narrative undercurrent for the duration of the series. While this is not among the show’s funniest outings — as pilots go, it’s fairly strong, introducing every character with a soon-to-be appreciated consistency. The best moment, hands down, is the creation of the Dr. Johnny Fever persona. In this one scene, Hesseman sets his character up as the show’s mascot.
02) Episode 3: “Les On A Ledge” (Aired: 10/02/78)
Les is barred from a locker room by a coach who believes him to be gay.
Written by Hugh Wilson | Directed by Asaad Kelada
Les is the subject of this installment, the first “regular” (non-pilot) episode of the series, in which the newsman is barred from a locker room due to his presumed homosexuality. It’s original, funny, and topical. Yet despite the script’s solid foundation and the strong performance of the always dependable Sanders, the gimmicky plot twist of Les going out on the ledge is a hinderance to the comedy. (Attempted suicide is rarely amusing, especially the overdone ledge bit.) One must overlook that beat and appreciate the outing’s overwhelming strengths — chief of which is the interaction between Herb and Johnny regarding “Mr.” Jennifer Marlowe.
03) Episode 7: “Turkeys Away” (Aired: 10/30/78)
Mr. Carlson’s Thanksgiving promotional idea goes awry.
Written by Bill Dial | Directed by Michael Zinberg
Ah, the infamous “turkey drop” episode! An absolute classic, we even featured this offering in a 2013 post as one of the finest Thanksgiving themed sitcom installments ever. But it’s more than a clever and brilliantly original holiday show; “Turkeys Away” is an indelible moment of rip-roaring, laugh-till-you’re-blue-in-the-face comedy. While the performances are all at the anticipated levels of quality, major credit must be given to writer Bill Dial, whose script not only utilizes one of the most shockingly unique, and utterly unforgettable premises ever seen on ’70s television, but also maintains a superior level of humor. As God as my witness, this is the show’s most famous episode, and I must go along with the crowd: it’s also the show’s best.
04) Episode 10: “A Date With Jennifer” (Aired: 01/22/79)
Les wins an award, gets a hairpiece, and asks Jennifer for a date.
Written by Richard Sanders & Michael Fairman | Directed by Asaad Kelada
With this installment, produced after the first 13 and broadcast second in 1979, the series begins allowing its stars to take on more creative behind-the-scenes positions, as Sanders is credited with helping craft the script. Not surprisingly (and you’ll notice this with most of the actor-written shows), it’s centered around his character, who’s already proven himself as a guaranteed source of comedy. And frankly, this one of the best Les shows, allowing much of the humor to come from his interactions with the others, particularly Herb and Jennifer. Also, the sight gag of Les is the wig is unbeatable, and we get our first introduction of Les’ taped-off office. Classic!
05) Episode 12: “Tornado” (Aired: 02/05/79)
The station panics when the city is hit with a tornado.
Written by Blake Hunter | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Employing another story that I find to be a bit of a sitcom contrivance — the big storm that traps characters together — this nevertheless is an excellent ensemble-oriented installment that features a lot of memorable gags and laughs. Although the beat of Andy being knocked out by the wind that crashes through the office window is way too melodramatic for logical tastes, the script more than makes up for its shortcomings with a wonderful recurring bit involving a mix-up with a spanish translator and a group of Japanese businessmen. It’s very funny! So although some of the drama falls flat (for me), the comedy delivers, and that’s what matters most.
06) Episode 14: “Johnny Comes Back” (Aired: 02/26/79)
Johnny’s replacement is taking payola to support his cocaine habit.
Written by Blake Hunter | Directed by Asaad Kelada
A conclusion to the prior episode, which saw Johnny leaving WKRP to take a better job in L.A., this installment has the doctor returning to Cincinnati and finding his spot taken by Philip Charles MacKenzie as a shameless coke addict who’s been accepting payola in exchange for his substance of choice. The scene he shares with Johnny, who catches him with the evidence, is a hoot, as is Mr. Carlson’s belief that the white stuff is foot powder (and his horror when he realizes otherwise). But in addition to being among the year’s funniest, this one also gains points for its incorporation of drug usage, which is a believable story for this time and setting.
07) Episode 15: “Never Leave Me, Lucille” (Aired: 03/05/79)
Jennifer tries to unite the feuding Tarleks.
Written by Bill Dial | Directed by Asaad Kelada
For the first time, Herb is the focal point of an episode, as the story involves his separation from Lucille (Edie McClurg — in her second appearance). It’s an ordinary sitcom story, and we pretty much know that it’s going to end 25 minutes later with their reconciliation, but Dial’s script supports the premise with some nice laughs, rooted in these unique characters. The beat of Herb going to live with Johnny is funny enough, but the most worthy stuff probably occurs between Lucille and Jennifer, who desperately hopes to reunite Herb with his wife (so that she can avoid more of his advances). Enjoyable, if not spectacular, episode.
08) Episode 17: “A Commercial Break” (Aired: 03/26/79)
The station produces and airs commercials for a funeral parlor chain.
Written by Richard Sanders & Michael Fairman | Directed by Rod Daniel
Yet another offering that I would consider among the year’s — heck, even the entire series’ — most comedically bountiful, this wonderfully written installment has the station producing and broadcasting an upbeat jingle, sung by several members of the ensemble (naturally), for a chain of funeral parlors. The contrast between joviality and morosity is a natural source of comedy, and this script milks it beautifully. In addition to the song itself, one of the best moments is Jennifer and Bailey’s respective auditions for the commercial, Shockingly, this episode was written in under a week when Wilson needed a script at the last minute. You’d never know!
09) Episode 19: “I Do, I Do… For Now” (Aired: 04/23/79)
Jennifer pretends to be married to Johnny when an old beau comes to town.
Written by Tom Chehak | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Famed folk musician Hoyt Axton guest stars in this episode as a West Virginian beau of Jennifer’s, who, for really the first time, is the subject of the episode. Our favorite receptionist is one of the most consistently rendered and best written characters of the ensemble, and Anderson is always a delight; thus, this episode is already on a slightly higher dimension. The beat of Johnny pretending to be Jennifer’s husband is another ordinary sitcom story, but Johnny’s reaction, and the others’ reactions, make the gag worthwhile. Also, this is the first time we get to hear Jennifer’s iconic “Fly Me To The Moon” doorbell. Fun, easily likable installment.
10) Episode 21: “Fish Story” (Aired: 05/28/79)
Johnny and Venus take an alcohol test on-air, and Herb dresses up as WKRP’s new mascot.
Written by Raoul Plager (Hugh Wilson) | Directed by Asaad Kelada
There are uproarious laughs in this notorious outing, which was produced among the first 13 but held due to Wilson’s embarrassment. CBS had told him to inject more broad comedy into the series (again, in their mistaken belief that WKRP was an 8:00 show), and he reluctantly complied, ultimately under an alias. However, in this case, CBS was right, as the slapstick of Herb, as a carp, and the WPIG pig (Lee Bergere) getting into a fight in a bathroom is so ridiculously absurd, it’s hysterical. Meanwhile, the story of Johnny and Venus getting drunk on the air (and their varying reactions) is a freshly rendered classic, and Jennifer’s interactions with the smarmy painter are hilarious. Probably the second best episode of the entire series.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Pilot (II),” in which a group of old people protest the station’s music switch, “Bailey’s Show,” in which Bailey’s first opportunity to produce a program goes unspectacularly, and “Goodbye, Johnny,” in which the staff tries to convince Johnny not to leave and a take a better job.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of WKRP In Cincinnati goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the second season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!