Appellate Judge James A. Caravella—er, Stewart—is tired of packing and unpacking, moving from town to town, up and down the Web browser...
"We used to make money around here, you know. Of course, that was back in the day when music was music, men were men, and fish were fish. Now I don't know what the hell's going on…"—Arthur Carlson
Remember when Bob wasn't even a good enough name for a disc jockey, let alone an entire station format? Remember when local stations had a roster of DJs in the studio instead of using syndicated formats? Remember when you could spin a record on your turntable and albums always came in a non-digital form you could hold in your hand? Remember the local stereo shops of the pre-Circuit City era? Remember those hoofbeats and the thrilling sounds of "The William Tell Overture?"
WKRP In Cincinnati may not be about that kind of old-time radio, but the 1978-1982 sitcom that pays tribute to the broken-down dreamers at your local radio station does have a certain nostalgic air. The turntables and equipment at WKRP, for example, was out-of-date when the show premiered, and even the smallest radio station has gone digital by now. The series centers around the money-losing radio station run by Arthur Carlson (Maytag repairman Gordon Jump)—when his mother lets him. When the station gets a new program director, it's goodbye "beautiful music," hello rock 'n' roll. Or, if you're Carlson, goodbye peace and quiet, hello noise and strife. It was a modest success on CBS, at least when it ran as a companion to M.A.S.H., but it earned its place in viewers' hearts through years of reruns.
Facts of the Case
WKRP In Cincinnati: The Complete First Season includes all 22 episodes from 1978-79. A couple of these episodes look like syndication cuts, while others ran slightly short, suggesting smaller cuts.
If you remember that old-time rock 'n' roll they used to play on WKRP, you might be disappointed by the substitutions and cuts throughout the three-disc set, something that's been talked about a lot (with dread) as the DVD release drew near. According to Jaime J. Weinman's fan site, linked at right, the music gradually disappeared over years of syndication due to the cost of keeping rights. I'll have to concur with Weinman's conclusion: "They certainly could have done a better job of replacing the songs they couldn't pay for, but it was inevitable that some of the songs would be gone due to rising costs."
You'd need to have taped the shows at several points in your life to know exactly what's missing, but you'll notice that the station plays a lot of instrumental music—and even worse, a few episodes run short. Weinman has a list of songs missing during the last syndication round, if you want to check it out. At the least, the songs sung by characters seem to have been preserved; it looks like a few songs survived here and there otherwise.
What might be more surprising in the first few episodes is seeing your favorite characters as one-note oddballs—the lecher, the buxom blonde, the paranoid nerd, the waffler, the washed-up stoner, and the clotheshorse—in a sitcom centering around hotshot radio station fixer Andy Travis (Gary Sandy, Another World). Herb, Jennifer, Les, Arthur, Johnny, and Venus will start to form into full-fledged characters and take over Andy's sitcom quickly enough, though.
There are plenty of laughs, including the famous turkey catastrophe and Johnny's demonstration of the hazards of drinking and driving. Baby, if you've ever wondered whatever became of WKRP In Cincinnati, here's WKRP In Cincinnati: The Complete First Season. Complete, that is, except for some cuts.
While there's plenty of well-written dialogue from the start, the first half-hour gives viewers only one tantalizing hint of what's to come: Howard Hesseman's transformation from bored Johnny Caravella to the energetic Dr. Johnny Fever. As Caravella, Johnny's nodding off on the job, covering with a lazy drawl as he forgets the song title, fumbles with the ad cassette, and even forgets his own radio name with a lazy drawl. His sudden amplification of energy as Fever shows that the washed-up DJ has a new lease on life. If you hadn't seen the show's strong ensemble at work over four seasons over and over again in reruns, you might think Hesseman's about to stage a coup himself. This scene, producer Hugh Wilson notes in the commentary, was largely Hesseman's ad-libbing invention.
Gary Sandy isn't bad. He's got good chemistry with his fellow actors, especially Gordon Jump as the disengaged station manager who's becoming more proactive under Andy Travis's influence. However, you've seen WKRP as it first appears before, populated by one-note characters and wacky guest actors: the protesters who storm the lobby objecting to the new format, the cranks who vie for a slot on Bailey's public-access show, the huckster stereo store manager, or troublemaking rock stars Scum of the Earth. Sound like a therapy session on The Bob Newhart Show? But Sandy doesn't quite have the comic control of a Bob Newhart, so this version of WKRP might well have disappeared into the scrap heap of comic history as an also-ran…if not for the turkeys.
You may be wondering: Is the turkey episode on there? Yeah, it is. This, of course, is the one which wraps up with Les Nessman doing a remote from a shopping center as turkeys fall to their deaths from a helicopter and a riot begins. Who could forget Richard Sanders's hilarious breaking-news broadcast, which Loni Anderson noted in commentary was based on recordings of Hindenburg disaster coverage? Arthur Carlson, who cooked up this turkey of a station promotion, has the famous final word, though: "As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly."
There's more to this episode than that famous finale, though. The story finds Arthur Carlson feeling like he's been sidelined at his own station. Encouraged by Herb and Les, who are also feeling left out, the Big Guy decides to create his spectacular promotion. Even with all the turkeys dropping, Gordon Jump's suddenly bringing Arthur Carlson alive as a sympathetic character, a man who's trying to find his way in a changing world.
If you check the original air dates on the DVD case, you'll note that "Turkeys Away" was what would likely have been the penultimate episode of a short run. Getting this one in before bowing out might well have saved the show. Even more interesting, this one wasn't focused on Gary Sandy, instead shining the spotlight on Gordon Jump and Richard Sanders. This presents a valuable lesson for television creative people: Go on hiatus after a fantastic episode that shows where your series could go, and you might just get a chance to come back and go there. Don't try to force the show back with an unresolved cliffhanger, just leave 'em laughing. When the series came back in January, they did a recap episode with a long clip from "Turkeys Away."
The focus on Arthur Carlson also spotlights a theme that runs throughout WKRP: broken dreams. When the focus shifts off the hotshot Andy, you're seeing people who aimed for the stars like he does, but fell short: Arthur Carlson wants to make a profit and please his mother, Les Nessman wants to be the next Edward R. Murrow, Herb Tarlek wants the fast life of a top salesman. Even Johnny and Venus aimed for the big-time and ended up at WKRP, the 16th-rated station in an 18-station market. Bailey Quarters, the recent grad, is trying to work up the confidence to try for the goals her colleagues have given up on. The similar Bob Newhart puts its focus on a successful psychologist whose friends, while goofy, are relatively comfortable. WKRP draws its laughs from our feelings of failure, our dashed hopes, and our thoughts about what might have been.
It does so gently, too. If someone tried to do that story about Arthur Carlson today, with television's youthful focus, the station manager would have come across as an unsympathetic buffoon. Over four years of its original airing and numerous syndicated runs, viewers got to know this group of life's also-rans as full-fledged people, even if Johnny doesn't know what city he's in and Les's main aim in life is to have walls around his desk.
When the show comes back, the Big Guy hasn't fired Andy Travis, but the supporting cast is getting more airplay and more depth. Even as the situations get wilder, as Les dons a toupee to remake his image for "A Date With Jennifer," Johnny and Venus cook up "The Contest Nobody Could Win," and the Big Guy and Les team up to cover the "Tornado," in short succession. These episodes develop the characters, showing us Jennifer's sympathetic mother hen nature, Les's loneliness and insecurity, Venus's quick (and unorthodox) thinking, and Arthur Carlson's leadership ability.
The show also goes deeper for a few character studies as Dr. Fever faces a career turning point in "Goodbye Johnny" and has to make a responsible decision in "I Want to Keep My Baby," Herb's ready to say "Never Leave Me Lucille" to his wife as he gets a surprise taste of bachelor life, and everyone's asking "Who is Gordon Sims?" when Venus faces his Vietnam War desertion.
The other ones you'll probably remember most here are "Hoodlum Rock," which finds Andy, Johnny, and Venus in a fight with band Scum of the Earth; "A Commercial Break," in which Herb gets fired for bringing in a huge account—and rehired for losing it; and "Fish Story," which finds Herb, as the WKRP Carp, in a battle with the WPIG pig while Johnny and Venus take a sobriety test. Like "Turkeys Away," "Fish Story" builds to an unforgettable capper. Except for "Love Returns" and "I Do, I Do…For Now," which aren't horrible but could run on a lot of sitcoms with the names changed, and the clip show "Mama's Review," each episode this season has at least one comic bit that'll stick with you as "Classic WKRP."
The other aspect of WKRP you might like is the way it parodies radio commercials and other patter. Ads abound for products like "Red Wigglers, the Cadillac of worms" and Wiesenheidel beer ("look for the smiling face of the Archduke Ferdinand on every bottle"), with "A Commercial Break" essentially an entire episode of jokes about a cemetery sponsor ("Ferryman, Ferryman, he's the man with the plot, the man with the plan"). Les Nessman's newscasts especially poke fun at broadcast pomposity. When he breaks into Johnny's show, delivers a long speech about how important his bulletin is, then says, "Today in Cincinnati, it is snowing," you'll probably see your local TV weather team there.
As for the actual videotape, there's some flaring in this transfer and a few badly-lit scenes that I think must have been done that way originally. The sound's mono, which isn't thrilling, but isn't problematic, either.
Loni Anderson and Frank Bonner join Hugh Wilson on the commentary tracks for a couple of episodes. They do acknowledge the controversy over music rights, and Anderson jokes about watching a badly-cut WKRP episode in syndication. They also do a little bit of reminiscing. One amusing featurette, "The 'Fish Story' Story," tells how Wilson saw "Fish Story" as a turkey of an episode, only to have it rank up there with "Turkeys Away" with viewers and, equally importantly, the nervous CBS brass. There's also a short segment, "Do My Eyes Say Yes?" devoted to Loni Anderson's role as Jennifer Marlowe.
Despite the musical manipulations, one thing is preserved: WKRP's classic intro, with a radio tuning before landing on the theme song that introduces the premise of the show about radio journeymen. It's—gasp—a whole minute long (after the first eight episodes, they shorten it a little bit, though). There's something else that's lost to the passage of time, since you're more likely to see a "previously on…" rather than a theme song on your favorite show.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It would be nice if the music license holders, after seeing this set with its missing musical moments, met Fox halfway so that the original CBS masters could be used on future WKRP sets without sending the cost into the stratosphere. Just remember that Les Nessman never got his walls, and that was a much more likely proposition.
I'll also admit to a certain disillusionment, since I always thought Les Nessman's turkey broadcast was based on coverage of the London blitz, not the Hindenberg disaster.
This first box set of WKRP In Cincinnati has some flaws, both in its original execution and in the changes to it, but the show's return is good news. This season shows the series finding its unlikely groove by balancing wacky happenings with likeable, flawed characters.
I would suggest that Fox consider a restored broadcast run, similar to what Paramount's doing with Star Trek. That would please purists, generate the revenue needed to make an upgrade pay off, and introduce WKRP in Cincinnati to a new generation.
WKRP In Cincinnati is not guilty. Those cuts may leave you with an empty feeling, fellow babies, but there's still good news to be yours if you decide to buy. So long for now.
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• "A 'Fish Story' Story"
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