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.
WKRP‘s way of coping with the 1980 Actors Strike, which settled in October and pushed almost every series’ premiere back to November, was shooting a rapid succession of single camera non-audience shows, which they could get in the metaphorical can quickly. These scripts take place largely on different sets and feature opportunities for new stories and fresh modes of storytelling. However, despite the initial novelty, most of these offerings simply aren’t strong enough to be held in the same esteem as the finest shows of seasons past, especially since they don’t adhere to the series’ established style. Once production made up for lost time, they returned to the regular multi-camera format, but the quality doesn’t improve. In fact, maybe it gets worse — for almost all of the scripts in the last half of the season are bogged down with an undercurrent of discontent and a seemingly vain attempt to repeat the same socially relevant preaching that worked last season in “In Concert.” Yet this isn’t a horrendous collection of episodes; the shows simply don’t have enough laughs, especially in comparison to the truly hysterical stuff from the other years (including Season Four). Fortunately, the quality will be back to normal next week. In the meantime, 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 Three. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) As always, one-hour episodes, regardless of how they aired originally, are treated as two separate installments.
01) Episode 49: “Real Families” (Aired: 11/15/80)
A reality show follows Herb and his family around.
Written by Peter Torokvei | Directed by Rod Daniel
One of the aforementioned single camera episodes, this one does so consciously, constructing the format around a fictional reality show (which is co-hosted by guest star Peter Marshall) that’s following Herb and his family, warts and all. As regular readers know, I have a habit of not liking shows that deviate from the core concept in favor of a gimmick, or some gratuitous hook, but the truth is that installments such as these allow the creative team to be more creative; variety is the spice of life, right? And because we get to explore Herb’s character in a fresh, more nuanced manner, I appreciate “Real Families.” Best bit: everyone reciting the speech Herb’s prepared. Plenty of genuine laughs here — a rarity this year.
02) Episode 51: “Hotel Oceanview” (Aired: 11/29/80)
Andy, Mr. Carlson, and Herb head to Dayton to win an ad account.
Written by Steven Kampmann | Directed by Rod Daniel
An infamous installment, this particular script was adapted from a sketch that writer Steven Kampmann first used on SCTV, in which Shelley Long played a woman who used to be a man. Putting Herb on the receiving end of this gender surprise is a natural source of comedy and the final product certainly delivers. Hilarious. Less enthusiasm is awarded to the goofy potential murder plot, despite an appearance by the always kooky Larry Hankin, for the laughs are cheap and easy. Also, Joyce Brothers appears in the end as the much-discussed Vicky Von Vickie, whose jean account the station hopes to secure. Largely set outside of the station, this one suffers from not well utilizing all the characters.
03) Episode 52: “A Mile In My Shoes” (Aired: 12/06/80)
Herb is on jury duty, so Andy takes on his job, and Venus takes over Andy’s.
Written by Dan Guntzelman | Directed by Rod Daniel
Among the benefits of being a long running show is the ability to do episodes where the principal source of comedy comes from a purposeful subversion of expectations. This episode puts that principal into play in its premise, which has Andy covering for Herb and Venus covering for Andy, while the ostentatiously dressed salesman is on a jury (and doing the old Twelve Angry Men bit that a lot of sitcoms adapted). Much of the humor in this outing comes from Andy’s attempts to be Herb, and the way in which he’s suckered by a good ol’ boy client whose late with his payments. Another delicious gag occurs at the very end, when Les tries to take Venus’ place . . . How’s that for a mental image?
04) Episode 53: “Bah, Humbug” (Aired: 12/20/80)
Three ghosts visit Carlson in a dream to convince him to give the staff a bonus.
Written by Lissa Levin | Directed by Rod Daniel
Ah, the series resorts to another sitcom rip-off: A Christmas Carol. Again, I generally have little patience for this kind of formulaic writing, but like some of the installments above (and maybe even more than those above), this one has a lot of things going for it — principally the chance to look at the radio station’s past, which features Jump and Sanders along with great character actors like Parley Baer and the utterly charming Merie Earle, one of those old lady character actresses who didn’t get her TV start until she was close to 70. (You may remember her from a hilarious recurring stint on Bob Newhart.) So, despite the obvious design, the script is smart, the casting is smarter, and as holiday outings go, it’s enjoyable.
05) Episode 54: “Baby, It’s Cold Inside” (Aired: 01/03/81)
Mother Carlson visits the station and gets tipsy.
Written by Blake Hunter | Directed by Rod Daniel
Former Broadway starlet Carol Bruce gets the whole episode thrown to her character, Mother Carlson, who will be seen with more regularity in the final season. There’s plenty of humor in the old pro’s drunk act, especially when she ensnares Jennifer, who, under the influence of alcohol herself, acts like a bimbo (for the only non-fake time in this series). There’s not a lot of story here, and although one kind of wishes there was something more concrete on which to focus our attention, the freedom is refreshing. And not surprisingly, the script gives the diva a chance to break into a Gershwin song; it’s half explained — she’s drunk, right? It’s not an excellent one, but nevertheless, one of this year’s best.
06) Episode 55: “The Painting” (Aired: 01/10/81)
Herb hopes to make some money off a painting he bought at an auction.
Written by Steven Kampmann | Directed by Rod Daniel
Following all of the expensively produced episodes from the first part of the season, the series begins presenting stories, like the one directly above, that take place entirely in the station and with only the core cast. That’s particularly apparent in this good-but-not-great installment that once again explores Herb, one of the more frequently used members of the ensemble. It makes today’s list because the script has the appropriate number of laughs (although it sags a bit in the middle), all of the characters behave within the parameters of their established characterizations — which isn’t as easy a requirement as it seems, and, frankly, the year’s competition makes this one look better. Good for Herb or Bailey fans.
07) Episode 57: “Frog Story” (Aired: 01/24/81)
Herb panics when he accidentally paints his daughter’s frog pink.
Written by Bob Dolman | Directed by Rod Daniel
Surprisingly, this spec script, written by a future SCTV writer, is the best of the season (even despite that scene with the kid) because there’s a consistency within the episode: the humor flows throughout. Furthermore, as with some of the other installments mentioned above, it’s appreciated, especially around this time in the series’ run, that all members of the ensemble act “in character”, behaving with the individual logics that the show has established for them. Herb, once again, is the center of this black humor episode that sees him accidentally killing his daughter’s frog by spray painting it pink. With a quirky premise, a fine simple structure, and well earned laughs, this is a very underrated offering — and although it’s not a “Turkeys Away” (or even a “God Talks To Johnny”) — it’s this year’s strongest.
08) Episode 60: “Dr. Fever And Mr. Tide (II)” (Aired: 02/07/81)
Rip Tide starts to take over Johnny’s life.
Written by Steve Marshall | Directed by Rod Daniel
This episode aired second in its original one-hour CBS block. In the first half, Johnny signs on to do a music/dance TV show, but is surprised to learn that he has to play disco instead of rock and roll. Instead of compromising the principles of Dr. Johnny Fever, he decides to create an alter ego for the show, “Rip Tide” (which truthfully seems like a simple way for Marshall to be able to give this episode its parodic title). The second half of the show concerns Johnny’s inner struggle when he becomes more and more like Rip Tide. It’s a gaudy premise, but Hesseman is always a treat to watch (even in some of his character’s awful stories). Part II is much funnier than the all-story Part I, and that’s why it’s here.
09) Episode 65: “A Simple Little Wedding” (Aired: 03/21/81)
Mr. Carlson and his wife decide to renew their marriage vows.
Written by Blake Hunter | Directed by Nicholas Stamos
As mentioned in my introduction for the season, the final string of Season Three episodes are collectively very dark. This installment is a welcome exception, centering its story around Carlson and his wife’s plans to renew their marriage vows. Because they eloped the last time, Mother Carlson guilts them into allowing her to throw their wedding. Bruce is always a laugh getter, especially when paired, for the first time, with veteran character actor Ian Wolfe as Hirsh, the butler, who certainly leaves his comedic mark. There aren’t a lot of guffaws induced from the script (set mostly out of the station), but the respective lightheartedness is appreciated, and it’s nice to see more of these periphery characters.
10) Episode 68: “Clean Up Radio Everywhere” (Aired: 04/11/81)
An evangelist threatens a station boycott unless WKRP agrees not to play certain songs.
Written by Max Tash and Hugh Wilson | Directed by Linda Day
Of all the shows this season in which there’s an objective that pushes the comedy into a secondary position, this is the only installment that works in a way that all WKRP episodes should. This is because, like last year’s “In Concert,” this is a story that feels appropriate for this series (unlike, say, alcoholism and gun rights — which form the basis of two unnecessarily semi-comedic scripts this season). Do I wish there were more laughs here? Absolutely. But to the episode’s credit, it never stops feeling like a comedy, and there are only a few moments where the drama seems unearned (mostly from Andy’s self-righteous moralizing against those who are self-righteous). Otherwise, it’s a memorable, well-done offering.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Ask Jennifer,” in which Jennifer becomes an advice talk show host (which starts funny and goes downhill by the end), “I Am Woman,” in which Bailey leads a crusade to keep their building from being torn down (again, starts good, and then declines), and “Venus And The Man” [a.k.a. “Venus Flytrap Explains The Atom”], a topical Emmy-winning episode about Venus lecturing a black teenage gang member about not quitting school, which seems like it would be too preachy but ACTUALLY has an appropriate number of laughs (especially in a great Les bit). In fact, this is the offering that came closest to making today’s list.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of WKRP In Cincinnati goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the final season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!