"As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly."
Turkeys are a (mostly) flightless bird, and time flies like the wind. But 24 minutes of truly inspired TV comedy is an ageless wonder, the eternal sunshine of the mirthful mind. And so it is with great respect and appreciation that we pay tribute here to the 30th anniversary of one of the finest half hours in the history of television.
"Turkeys Away," the legendary "oh the humanity" seventh episode of the first season of "WKRP in Cincinnati," bowed on Oct. 30, 1978, at 8 p.m. on CBS. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, Debby Boone was atop the pop charts and I was officially allowed to stay up until 8:30 on Monday nights to enjoy what had quickly become one of my family's favorite shows of the 1978-79 season.
No kidding, to this day if I close my eyes and concentrate I can still feel scratchy yellow shag carpet under my feet, I can see the rainbow-colored horizontal hold jumping around until the Zenith warmed up and I can hear the howls of laughter that filled our den on the night this episode first aired.
For the uninitiated, please, take 24 minutes and spin this episode, courtesy of Hulu.com. And then pick up this post after the jump for a visit with "WKRP" creator Hugh Wilson, who I tracked down in Charlottesville, Va.
Hugh Wilson created "WKRP in Cincinnati," a workplace comedy about the staff at a third-rate radio station that makes a format switch from easy-listening to rock 'n' roll, based on his memories of hanging out with disc jockeys and other radio biz types during his days as a advertising copywriter in Atlanta.
"I used to drink with a guy named Skinny Bobby Harper, who was the big DJ at the main rock station in Atlanta, and I think ('WKRP's') Johnny Fever was all about him," Wilson said in a phone interview a few weeks back. "He was one of those guys who had to be up at 5 (a.m.) and he was always still trying to close the bars. And the (station) sales rep that I would see at the agency was a really interesting character, and when I was trying to create a show I thought I could probably make these guys very funny."
He was right. Thirty years on, "WKRP" holds up as a classic sitcom, in every sense, right from the pilot. It ought to be assigned viewing for any one who's thinking about writing a comedy pilot script this winter.
Wilson left Atlanta for Hollywood on the early side of the mid-1970s with help from a standup comedy duo that he'd befriended years before, Jay Tarses and Tom Patchett, who were eventually signed by Bernie Brillstein (r.i.p.) and segued into TV writing gigs. Tarses and Patchett were working at MTM Prods. on "The Bob Newhart Show" when the duo and Brillstein helped Wilson relocate to the TV biz and get a kind of apprenticeship on the MTM lot.
Like so many people in the biz, Wilson gushes about the wonderfully nurturing atmosphere for writers at MTM in the 1970s, and he can't say enough about the wise and gracious leadership of Grant Tinker.
"I really had a lucky break when I went to MTM. Grant allowed me to wander around some. I was able to watch Tarses and Patchett work. I was also able to watch Allan Burns and Jim Brooks. Watching them doing 'Mary Tyler Moore' -- I'd sit way up in the empty seats watching rehearsals. That was like graduate work for me."
Wilson worked on "Bob Newhart" and then moved with Tarses and Patchett to "The Tony Randall Show." After the Randall show ended, Wilson pitched Tinker his idea for the radio station workplace comedy.
Tinker got it immediately. "He was such a remarkable guy. I really didn't know what kind of cocoon I was in at (MTM's) Radford studio until I got out and started marking movies" in the 1980s, Wilson recalls.CBS was the first and only place that Tinker and Wilson pitched the show, to Bob Daly.
"He was one of the good guys too," Wilson says of Daly. "In those days a lot of the guys who worked at CBS had worked in radio. So they all went 'Oh great.' ... It wasn't, as I understand (pitching shows) now a job and a half just to get yourself heard. It all just fell into my lap thanks to Grant Tinker."
The development and casting process went smoothly, as Wilson recalls. The network gently told him to cast Gary Sandy as earnest program director Andy Travis. (Sandy was supposed to be "the star" but from day one it was an ensemble effort with great chemistry, and to Sandy's credit he didn't kick up a fuss, Wilson says.)
But everyone else in the case was Wilson's call. Gordon Jump, the hapless Mr. Carlson, was someone Wilson had admired on ABC's "Soap." Howard Hesseman was someone Wilson remembered having seen in action with San Francisco-based comedy troupe the Committee. He was the one he had in mind for the well-traveled Johnny Fever from the start.
Wilson recalls with a chuckle how Hesseman agreed to do the pilot but refused to sign a contract. CBS balked at first but eventually let go for the pilot.
"He said he wasn't 'sure'...(A network) sure wouldn't do that today," Wilson notes.
The others -- Loni Anderson (Jennifer Marlowe), Richard Sanders (Les Nessman), Tim Reid (Venus Flytrap), Jan Smithers (Bailey Quarters) and Frank Bonner (Herb Tarlek) -- came in the old-fashioned way, through a talent of a good casting director.
The show in its first year was shot on a stage on the KTLA-TV lot in Hollywood. Most of the other MTM shows were done on film at the company's HQ on the Radford lot in Studio City. But "WKRP" by definition was to have plenty of contempo music in it, to add to the authenticity. It cost a fortune for the music rights on a film show, "but in those days if you used videotape, you paid like a quarter. So we switched to videotape."
This of course brings up a heartbreaking issue for "WKRP" nuts. The homevid and now web-streamed episodes of the show use generic, just-this-side-of-Muzak music in the spots where the Who, the Rolling Stones, Kiss, the Sex Pistols -- even the coolest of the cool, Captain Beefheart -- are supposed to ring out. In some cases, it really screws up the comedy because a specific lyric or riff should be punctuating a joke or a moment.
Alas, it boils down to an issue of royalties and the fact that it would be cost-prohibitive for 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (News Corp. now owns the MTM library) to pay the freight for using the original tunes. Sad as it is, I've found the strength to get over the disappointment and enjoy the show even with the crummy music. When "WKRP" segs popped up on Hulu's initial menu, I fell in love all over again, and I spent a lot of time watching favorite segs when I should've been working.
Wilson can't quite get there. "I saw a couple (episodes) a while back that had been cut (for more commercials) and the music was gone. I just turned it off," he says. He does have copies of the original Beta tapes in his garage somewhere ("buried under all the furniture"), and he hopes his grandchildren will be able to enjoy them in all their original glory some day.
There was very little discord on the "WKRP" set, as Wilson recalls. He and his staff (puny by today's standards) usually kept decent hours, as comedy writers go.
"We had little bumps but it was a really friendly atmosphere. We'd shoot the show and be out of there by 9 p.m. And then you'd hear that 'Laverne & Shirley' was shooting until 2 in the morning, with everybody drawing knives...We took our cue from Tinker. He's a real gentleman. You don't behave poorly around him. He was very careful about trying to treat everybody right -- particularly writers," Wilson says.
With the perspective of hindsight, however, Wilson admits to being something of a control freak. Every episode went through his hands.
"I was like a mother bear with her cub," Wilson says. "I think I was a bit of tyrant. I had to write every line."
A continuing source of irritation was the constant time slot switches the show endured -- 12 moves in a four-season run. (I do think it's cool that a spiritual multi-camera succeessor to "WKRP," "The Big Bang Theory," now airs in its original time slot on the Eye.) "WKRP" was never a big hit, but Wilson says he always felt appreciated for the quality of the work by the network and MTM.
After "WKRP" ended in 1982, Wilson wrote a few movies ("Police Academy," "Stroker Ace") and then in 1987 he delivered to CBS a critical darling, "Frank's Place," that starred "WKRP" trouper Reid. In 1989 he followed with "The Famous Teddy Z."
With his experiences on both of those shows, Wilson knew for sure he wasn't working in Grant Tinker's Camelot any more.
More movies followed, but by 1992 Wilson and his wife decided to move back to their native South. He bought a farm in the middle of nowhere in Virginia at first, but now lives on a 12-acre plot in Charlottesville. And he teaches a course on screenwriting at the U. of Virginia.
"They wouldn't have me as a student but they'll have me as a teacher," Wilson observes. "The kids all come in and tell me, 'I don't know who you are but my parents do.'"