That Championship Season — WKRP in Cincinnati, Season One

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In the pilot episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) arrives for his first day of work as program director for a Midwestern AM radio station with a poster tube in hand. The station plays musty, middle of the road music recorded decades earlier, but that’s about to change. As he’s setting up his office, Andy unfurls a big glossy picture of the band Kiss, in full, resplendent makeup, tacking it up in his otherwise staid workplace. With a simple visual gag, the animating premise of the sitcom is solidly established. Like a lot of the comedy of the nineteen-seventies (WKRP in Cincinnati premiered in CBS in the fall of 1978) and -eighties, this show was going to be about a culture clash between the culturally stagnant ruling class and the brash, youthful upstarts, rattling windows and sensibilities with music that’s just so darn loud.

WKRP in Cincinnati is the quintessential example of a workplace sitcom, developing its stories entirely from the interpersonal entanglements and quirky skirmishes between people who punch in at the same place every day. Unlike many of the examples of the form, where the work being done in largely incidental, WKRP in Cincinnati had an uncommon devotion to mining stories from the travails that naturally came with operating a scrappy broadcast outlet in a modestly sized media market. Within the first few episodes, the series built episodes around a punk band showing up for an in-studio interview, a live promotional remote gone awry, and the launch of a public affairs show that turns disastrous when the guest proves to be unhinged (he’s a child psychologist who maintains that children are, judged by adult standards, all clinically insane). While certain element and side stories were familiar, these largely weren’t plots that could be repurposed for other shows. A radio transmitter was required, even as an unseen prop.

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Created by Hugh Wilson, the series displayed a clear devotion on the creative end with getting the details right. (Well, except for the persistent absence of headphones while character were on the air, but some concessions to the preferred visuals for television are forgivable.) That dedication manifested in showing — and exploiting — the broad range of professions contained within a radio station, from DJs to news readers, sales people to general office personnel. Wilson could rely on almost stereotypical archetypes to develop an easy versatility in the array of characters: burned out DJ Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman), smooth-talking overnight jock Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), unctuous, loudly dressed salesman Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner), nerdy, intense newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders), and eager, sincere new hire Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers), largely charged with handling station paperwork, but aspiring to put her journalism degree to use. The divergent personalities made complete sense given the positional roles the filled in the station, allowing suitable dramatic clashes without straining contrivances.

The strength of the ensemble was so formidable that when Wilson actively tried to write a bad episode, it boomeranged on him, becoming one of the funniest half-hours the show delivered. The network, perpetually underwhelmed with the simple verisimilitude Wilson preferred in constructing the show, badgered the producer to come up with wackier high jinks and insert more physical comedy in the show. Late in the first season, Wilson resentfully relented, writing a deliberately frantic episode he detested (and opting for a pseudonym in the credits to further signal to executives his disgruntlement over the whole affair). Entitled “Fish Story,” the episode includes characters deliberately acting in opposition to their usual personalities (in context to dupe a newspaper reporter, but partially for Wilson to mock network notes), a feud between foolishly costumed station mascots, and Johnny and Venus having very different reactions to an on-air demonstration of diminished capabilities when consuming alcohol. Wilson’s attempt to mock cheap sitcom conventions instead escalates to wondrous farce, mostly because the preceding twenty episodes had established such a firm foundation that spinning wildly away from the series norm held a giddy fun. The yo-yo’s plummet is satisfying because of the assurance that it will snap back to its proper place.

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The episode most emblematic of the program’s strengths — and, by conventional wisdom, that all by itself designates the first season of WKRP as its strongest — hinges on a publicity stunt. In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, the station’s general manager, Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump), decides he will take the lead on a promotional event meant to giveaway free turkeys to the citizens of Cincinnati. The gruesome turn of events that follows, all off-camera and reported with breathless horror by on-the-scene reporter Nessman (in a truly magnificent comic performance by Sanders), is truly inspired comedy, further underlined by the lovely understatement of Mr. Carlson’s shell-shocked confession “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”

wkrp turkeys

On a more personal level, WKRP in Cincinnati taught this impressionable kid that a radio station was a cool place to hang out, full of infinite possibilities and people who were devilishly delightful to spend time around. I’m grateful that, many years later, I was able to prove that theory true (as long as the station sat on the noncommercial end of the dial, in my experience). WKRP in Cincinnati can’t be held wholly responsible for all the time I’ve spent in broadcast studios over the years, nor are its hands completely clean. And any time I and my shifting band of cohorts scrambled to solve a problem created by an on-air slip-up, I thought of Johnny, Venus, and Bailey editing together a set of cruelly brief music snippets in the episode “The Contest Nobody Could Win.” Through all my ins and outs in radio, WKRP in Cincinnati was always a touchstone.

The original entry for WKRP in Cincinnati in the fall preview issue of TV Guide listed off the characters and added “all of whom are on the flip side.” As any music fan knows, sometimes the flip side is where the real treasure lies.

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire SlayerSeason Five
CheersSeason Five
The SopranosSeason One
St. ElsewhereSeason Four
Veronica MarsSeason One
The OfficeSeason Two
The Ben Stiller ShowSeason One
Gilmore GirlsSeason Three
SeinfeldSeason Four
JustifiedSeason Two
Parks and RecreationSeason Three
LouieSeason Two
TogethernessSeason One
BraindeadSeason One
CommunitySeason Two
Agent CarterSeason Two
The LeftoversSeason Three
TremeSeason One
How I Met Your MotherSeason Two
FireflySeason One
Raising HopeSeason Three
Jessica Jones, Season One