Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re continuing 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.
The staff of an underdog rock and roll radio station in Cincinnati tries to stay afloat and improve their standing. 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.
Although not without a few lemons, the second season of WKRP In Cincinnati is probably the most consistent of the lot, with established characterizations that are delightfully probed through fresh and funny stories. Season Two sees the series in a peak of popularity, no doubt made difficult by the network’s interference. After months of being successful in the post-M*A*S*H timeslot at 9:30 on Mondays, CBS decided to make room for Wayne Rogers in House Calls (1979-1982, CBS), moving WKRP back to 8:00, where it had initially failed, but they assumed, would now work due to the established audience. Unfortunately, the time switch was not not beneficial to the series, which historically ALWAYS did better in a later time. Yet this has no bearing on the show’s creativity, which picks up from last season with great ease. Also, after the popularity of “Who Is Gordon Sims?” (an unfunny installment that isn’t a favorite of mine) the series slowly begins doing more hot-button stories, the most notable of which is “The Concert,” about the real-life events surrounding a tragedy at a December 1979 concert of The Who in Cincinnati. These purposeful episodes don’t do a great job of balancing humor with the objective, but their existence does seem to allow the series to command more respect, as the “hip” comedy is allowed to also be significant, and thus, culturally worthy. Yet, for me, as always, comedy is paramount, and 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 Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) As always, one-hour episodes, regardless of how they aired originally, are treated as two separate installments.
01) Episode 28: “Carlson For President” (Aired: 11/05/79)
Carlson runs for city council but tries to throw the election.
Written by Jim Paddock | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Despite some flaws in maintaining the characters’ voices, this spec script has some big and worthy laughs. Most impressive is its decision to subvert the old sitcom plot of a character running for political office (Carlson, here) by making the story about an accidental reveal of information that threatens to damage the opponent, but may not be ethically commendable. Feeling guilty, Carlson then hopes to throw the election. (It’s a moderately unique way of not having this story recur; usually the character would try hard and lose anyway). The debate sequence is an easy highlight, in which Jump does some of his finest comedic work of the series.
02) Episode 29: “Mike Fright” (Aired: 11/12/79)
Johnny’s listeners follow his instruction to dump their garbage at City Hall.
Written by Dan Guntzelman | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Dr. Johnny Fever gets a taste of just how impactful his words, as an on-air personality, are when he half-jokingly tells his listeners to protest a city wide garbage strike by going down to City Hall and dumping their trash on the front steps. While that’s the comedic crux of the episode, the story continues, not as jokingly, when Johnny has difficulty facing the microphone now knowing the responsibility that he has as a broadcaster. But the script, the first by Dan Guntzelman (who stays around for the rest of the series’ run), works and keeps every character humorous and sensical. The installment may be a bit overrated among fandom, but it’s nevertheless enjoyable.
03) Episode 31: “Baby, If You’ve Ever Wondered” (Aired: 12/03/79)
Although the station’s ratings have improved, Andy is dissatisfied.
Written by Bill Dial | Directed by Rod Daniel
This is probably the most narratively important episode of the entire second season, for it extends (and gives resolution to) the core premise established in the pilot. WKRP has gone up from being #16 in the Cincinnati market (of 18) to #14, and for the most part, everyone’s numbers have seen an improvement. But this isn’t good enough for Andy, whose track record at past stations has always been better. Realizing that he doesn’t have the heart to fire the people that need to be fired in order to really see an improvement, Andy embraces WKRP and the series cements him as a bonafide member of the ensemble, no longer an outsider.
04) Episode 33: “Jennifer’s Home For Christmas” (Aired: 12/17/79)
Jennifer’s friends fear that she’ll be alone for Christmas.
Written by Dan Guntzelman & Steve Marshall | Directed by Rod Daniel
As regular readers know, holiday episodes usually have to try harder to earn my favor, for I am not charmed by a script just because it ties into an enjoyable celebration. However, holiday shows generally work when the story gives opportunity for all regular characters to be in the same place at the same time. This is one of the strengths of this one, which climaxes at Jennifer’s when all of her friends decide to come over, each with a tree (except Herb, who brings mistletoe). The laughs are character driven, and the sentimentally is not schmaltzy or repelling. Comedy is the script’s most prominent feature, and it’s grand. Perfect for any time of the year.
05) Episode 35: “God Talks To Johnny” (Aired: 12/31/79)
Johnny is convinced that God spoke directly to him.
Written by Hugh Wilson | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Wilson’s first script for the season following the humorless “Baseball,” this one is a WKRP In Cincinnati classic, employing Johnny’s quirks in a seemingly very ’70s (it’s the last installment to officially air in the decade) premise that has him hearing the voice of God. What does God say when he talks to people? Well, among other things, God tells Johnny to seek knowledge and become a golf pro. See, it’s the nuances that make stories memorable and help yield great comedy, and this installment is no exception. It’s one of those offerings that, while not emblematic of a pinnacle of big laughs, is well written, logically illogical, and unforgettable. An absolute favorite.
06) Episode 36: “A Family Affair” (Aired: 01/07/80)
Andy’s sister goes out on a date with Venus.
Written by Tim Reid | Directed by Rod Daniel
Episodes centered around Venus, most of which are written by Tim Reid himself, tend to be hit or miss, because more often than with any other character, they try to be socially relevant (that means not enough comedy). This is the big exception, for although a facet of the story is the possibility of Andy having trouble with his sister going out with Venus due to a subconscious racial prejudice, the script is never treated with a heavy hand. Instead, we’re given a couple of very funny bits, including Andy’s “samurai negro” DJ impression, and a barroom brawl that occurs in a uniquely structured and plotted second act. Much better than you’d except it to be.
07) Episode 38: “Put Up Or Shut Up” (Aired: 01/21/80)
Jennifer accepts a date with Herb to curb his advances.
Written by Blake Hunter, Steve Marshall, & Steven Kampmann | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Fans of Jennifer and Herb will appreciate this episode, for it gives a bit of resolution to the unrequited flirtation between the two. Per Bailey’s advice, Jennifer decides to take Herb up on his offer for a date, anticipating him to be a big bluffer. Not surprisingly, this is exactly what happens, giving way to nice understanding between the two and a more complexly shared relationship. Of course, this installment doesn’t really put the recurring beat to bed, for it will pop up several times before the series ends, particularly in the final season (like in the otherwise middling “Fire”). Great comedy; dependent entirely on established relationships.
08) Episode 43: “Filthy Pictures (I)” (Aired: 03/03/80)
A photographer takes photos of Jennifer while she’s changing.
Story by Hugh Wilson | Teleplay by Dan Guntzelman & Steve Marshall | Directed by Rod Daniel
The first half of an episode that originally aired on CBS in a one-hour block, this risqué story has a sleazy photographer snapping pictures of Jennifer through a one-way window as she’s changing. When the men figure out what’s happened, they decide to sneak into the office and steal the pictures themselves. It’s farcical and bit illogical, but these characters are dynamite, especially together, and because the laughs are there, it’s forgivable. Another amusing beat from the installment is Andy’s embarrassment at having to pose with Jennifer as “beefcake” to her cheesecake, and Bailey’s accompanying taunts. This first half hour is better than the second.
09) Episode 44: “Filthy Pictures (II)” (Aired: 03/03/80)
The boys try to steal back Jennifer’s pictures.
Story by Hugh Wilson | Teleplay by Dan Guntzelman & Steve Marshall | Directed by Rod Daniel
Part II sees the gang concocting several more ways to retrieve back the photos. When Jennifer is unsuccessful at using her “charms”, Herb steps up to the plate and, believing the photographer (George Wyner) to be gay (which yields more amusing stuff from Andy), tries to seduce the sleazeball himself. As you might expect, this is the funniest part of the episode. The final plan, and the climax of the show, has Johnny and Bailey involving the photographer in an elaborate ruse that ultimately doesn’t work as well as I wish it would. However, because of the strong set-up, the very jokey script, and the bit involving a homosexual Herb, Part II is equally worthwhile.
10) Episode 46: “Most Improved Station” (Aired: 03/31/80)
The staff has problems when the station loses a broadcasting award, while Johnny wins one.
Written by Richard Sanders & Michael Fairman | Directed by Rod Daniel
Season Two comes to a conclusion in this ensemble oriented installment that finds the staff at odds after they fail to win a broadcasting award for best improved station. Compounding matters is the fact that Johnny did win an award (beating out Les). The fights, like all sitcom fights, are a bit cartoonish, but it’s another excuse to get everyone in the same room, and that always delivers. Every character gets moments to individually shine, and their epiphanies are worthwhile. Also: it’s wonderful, but par for the metaphorical course, that Jennifer is the voice of reason, bringing everyone back down to earth. Solid end to a very solid year.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Bad Risk,” in which Herb sells Les an insurance policy just before the latter has an accident with his motor scooter, “Bailey’s Big Break,” a very funny installment that nevertheless doesn’t completely work due to the unlikable and inconsistent characterizations of several characters, particularly Les (yet it almost made today’s list), and “In Concert,” a famous, but not very humorous, episode that deals with the aftermath of the 1979 tragedy at a concert of The Who in Cincinnati (if comedy is not as integral for you, this is certainly one to watch).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of WKRP In Cincinnati goes to…..
“God Talks To Johnny”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the second season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!