Friday, February 29, 2008
41. WKRP in Cincinnati
Comedic law #1: Ensemble casts usually make the best comedies. I'm not sure why this is true, though it probably has something to do with the fact that if you don't like one character, if you wait a few minutes he'll be off the screen and another one will come along. Sort of the Chinese Buffet way of thinking: I don't like egg rolls, but I like the General Gau's chicken. And one of the best orders of General Gaus—I mean ensemble casts—was featured on the great “WKRP in Cincinnati”.
To my knowledge, none of the cast members were big stars before the show took CBS' airwaves in the late 1970s. Most played bit roles in television or movies and were known as character actors. That's why the show was so great, it wasn't built around a star or was a vehicle for one particular person—an aside: the show “Friends” was initial a vehicle for Courtney Cox and that's why a majority of the first season revolves around her character Monica, who may be the least interesting character of the six. If “Friends” stayed in this format, who knows if it would have been a monster hit in the ratings.
With “WKRP” the stories and the plots were the stars, and they were mostly character driven. Much like another MTM ensemble show (“The White Shadow”), to enjoy “WKRP” was to enjoy the characters. In other words, the hook of the show, a group of radio workers, isn't what made it beloved. It was the heart within these people. Yes, Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hessman) was a burn out who had nothing in common with slick sales man Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) or Les Nessman (Richard Sanders), but it was apparent that the cast cared for each other and that showed on the screen.
Every member of the cast worked very well with all of the other members, but there were certain pairings that were terrific and the writers often went to the well with these duos: Fever and Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), Mr. Carlson (Gordon Jump) and Andy Travis (Gary Sandy), Tarlek and Nessman. Even the woman, who seemed as if they had nothing in common; smarter-than-she-appears secretary Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson) and industry new comer Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers) had a great deal of chemistry. In each pairing, the latter was usually the straight guy, while the other character played off of him/her. This wasn't gospel and sometimes it changed up, however.
The Jennifer/Bailey debate among young men who grew up watching the show in syndication is that generation's version of the Ginger/Mary Ann debate from “Gilligan's Island”. While Jennifer was a knockout in every sense, there was something “sneaky hot” about Bailey that a lot of guys found intriguing. It was almost if Jennifer was the sure thing (good looking, brains, rich) but Bailey had something under the surface that could be better than Jennifer. The girl you picked probably had more to say about picker, than anything: did you lean towards the favorite or were you a champion of the under dog?
As stated before, while the acting was top notch, the plots were the engine that made this show run. Perhaps one of the greatest episodes in television history is when the station came up with the idea of a Thanksgiving turkey giveaway. Instead of simply going to a store or food shelter and handing out turkeys, the group decided to have station manager Mr. Carlson go up into a helicopter and drop turkeys to the people on the ground. The thought was that when the birds were released, the turkeys would fly down and land softly in the arms of the people. One problem: turkeys can't fly.
Instead of seeing the turkeys fall to earth, we are then shown program director Travis sitting in Carlson's office listening to the radio as the promotion that will put them on the map is underway. As he is listening to Nessman's description of the events (reminiscent of Herbert Morrison's description of the Hindenburg disaster), Travis realizes (too late) that turkeys can't fly. This led to one of the great lines in television history from Carlson, “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!”
And the fact that the director left the scene of turkeys bombing down on Cincinnatians to the imagination of the audience makes the scene that much more funny.
Not all episodes were that slapstick-y, there was another episode when the gang had to play a softball game against their rival station and the only one who was excited about it was baseball fan, Nessman. The problem was he stunk at the game partly due to his mother's constant harping of him having to practice the violin while the other kids played ball. With the station clinging to a one-run lead, the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the ninth, Nessman is stuck in deep right field. Suddenly the viewer hears the crack of the bat and it's obvious that the ball is coming his way. As the ball is coming, Nessman is day dreaming of his mother's shrill tone imploring him to practice. Suddenly he notices the ball, puts his glove up and ... the show ends.
While the nerdy guy making the decisive play in a baseball game isn't new territory, the juxtaposition of Nessman's enthusiasm coupled with the reason for him being so bad was a different way of telling the story. That is another reason why the show worked well. It never really broke a lot of new ground in the way it was filmed and most of the plots and characters could be consider either cliché or done already, but the writers often took different routes to those “places”.
And no show about a radio station would be complete without some music, and “WKRP” had a fine lineup of the day's biggest artists. The problem is, due to licensing money, you can't hear them any more. According to Wikipedia, when the show went into syndication the original music from artists like the Rolling Stones, KISS and the Doors were too expensive to pay, so they would have a band record generic rock and replace the well-known songs. These generic replacements followed the episodes to DVD and while there may be some loss, it is mostly incidental.
While not the first ensemble comedy, “WKRP in Cincinnati” showed that America can support a show with a lot of characters and smart plots. A direct influence on another off-beat, ensemble comedy about the radio business, “Newsradio”, “WKRP” was also responsible for a number of unique characters bringing the biggest laughs.