Created by Hugh Wilson, WKRP in Cincinnati remains a cult favorite more than thirty five years after its 1978 network debut, due in large part to sharp writing, a perfect cast, and smart comedy. Besides, if you’re anything like me and thought being a DJ would be a cool job, the crew at WKRP made it seem crazy, but a whole lot of fun. Hugh Wilson based the series on his experiences working in advertising sales at Top 40 radio station WQXI (AM) in Atlanta. It’s no wonder than that disc Jockeys felt it was the first show to portray life at a radio station realistically.
WKRP has long been the lowest rated radio station in Cincinnati. It’s no wonder really, since the format is the kind of “easy listening” elevator music favored by those living at the local nursing home, and station manager Arthur “The Big Guy” Carlson (Gordon Jump) us far more interested in fishing than his job. WKRP is owned by “The Big Guy’s” mother, so he just tries to avoid her wrath. Enter new program director Andy Travis (Gary Sandy). Fresh from New Mexico (cowboy hat and all), he must deal with John Caravella (Howard Hesseman) a burned out morning DJ whose career in Los Angeles was ruined when he said “booger” on the air. The news director Les Nessman (Richard Sanders), is more concerned with providing crop reports and hog futures than the important news of the day. The only sales guy is Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner), a slickster who would try (and fail) to sell ice to an Eskimo, when not hitting on the station’s receptionist Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson). Though she won’t type or make coffee, it quickly becomes apparent that she isn’t just a pretty face, but one of WKRP’s smartest employees. Shy Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers) does a lot of paperwork, but dreams of producing. Determined to give WKRP an immediate shot in the arm, Andy immediately changes the station format to rock music. As if he’s woken up from a coma, Caravella transforms himself into Dr. Johnny Fever. Cool and crazy bundled into one; Johnny Fever was to become Howard Hesseman’s signature role. In another move, Andy brings in evening DJ Venus Flytrap from (Tim Reid) from New Orleans. A smooth, soulful dude, he has an air of mystery about him.
“Les on a Ledge” is an early example of the kind of bite WKRP could bring to its comedy. Les is mortified when he’s banned from the locker room after a baseball player comes to believe he’s gay. The same episode has a running included a running-gag plotline that referred to Jennifer as the most successful sex change operation in history. This ‘revelation” messes with Herb’s head in the worst way. “Fish Story” has Herb dressing up as a carp, the WKRP mascot, and getting into a fight with the WPIG pig. Not to be outdone, Johnny and Venus end up getting drunk on the air during an alcohol test. Though this episode is much lighter than most during the first season, it’s absolutely hilarious. However, no single episode sticks in the consciousness quite like the first season’s Turkeys Away,” a.k.a. the one where Les’ remote broadcast of a station-sponsored Thanksgiving PR stunt goes tragically awry. TV Guide readers voted “Turkeys Away” one of television’s funniest-ever episodes. “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”
As funny as WKRP in Cincinnati the writers and producers seemed determined to tackle serious issues amongst the laughs. In “Patter of Little Feet,” “The Big Guy” and his wife consider abortion. Inspired by the 1979 deaths of 11 people before a concert for The Who in Cincinnati, “In Concert” aired just two months after the tragedy. WKRP “promoted” the concert and everyone shares their thoughts on the event. Some feel more responsible than others, but each has a moment to share their grief. It’s still moving after all these years. In one of Frank Bonner’s more nuanced performances, “Out to Lunch,” finds Herb’s three-martini lunches with clients are moving him toward alcoholism.
The fourth and final season of WKRP starts with a bang. Terrorists want to blow up the station for no good reason. The longtime struggles with Mama Carlson reach a new level when she hires “The Consultant” to do Andy’s job. During the fourth season, WKRP in Cincinnati moved around the network schedule so much that even the cast joked they didn’t know when the show was on. As a result, it came as no surprise when the show was canceled. Even so, the series had what felt like a fitting send off. In Up and Down the Dial,” the new come in WKRP is #6 in the market. Dr. Johnny Fever is the highest rated morning show. This should be great news, but Mama Carlson isn’t happy. She wants a format change that anticipates the future of AM radio. To the end, WKRP in Cincinnati stayed rooted in reality; the fact is, you’re only as good as your next day’s audience share, and AM stations were switching to all talk and news.
WKRP in Cincinnati succeeds because it stayed within the realm of reality throughout its run. Whether being serious or going for the laugh, the writers avoided the utterly ridiculous. It’s wonderful to see Less Nessman pull on his curly wig to Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded” while getting dressed up for “A Date with Jennifer” to accept the coveted Silver Sow Award. A loveable nerd like Les would do that!
The 88-episodes of WKRP in Cincinnati are spread over 13 discs with three discs for each season and a separate disc for the extras, all of which are presented in full frame video. Shot on videotape, some artifacts are evident throughout. There is also occasional ghosting, but no edge enhancement is evident.
The audio is Dolby Digital mono. The mix provides a satisfactory balance between dialogue, and the music played on the air. The episodes are Closed Captioned.
Similar to The Wonder Years, the biggest obstacle in bringing WKRP in Cincinnati to DVD has been issues over music rights. Shout! has managed to acquire many of the original music cues from the original broadcasts. While there are some generic ones, the packaging does say “we have done our best to include every scene uncut and to license as much original music as possible.” Personally, I think Shout! did yeoman’s work to acquire what they did, and where that wasn’t possible, the replacements make sense.
The following extras are included:
- Baby, If You’ve Ever Wondered: A WKRP in Cincinnati Reunion (44:12) A recent cast reunion held in 2014 at the Paley Center with Hugh Wilson, Loni Anderson, Howard Hesseman, Tim Reid, and Jan Smithers They discuss about how they came to be cast on the show, their thoughts on their characters and the series’ influence through the years. I’m a real fan of these Paley Center reunions. It’s nice to see these folks after all these years.
- A Look Back at WKRP in Cincinnati with Gary Sandy (25:05) Sandy gets to share his thoughts on the series and the cast, since he missed out on the Paley Center reunion.
- Do My Eyes Say Yes (6:27) Loni Anderson discusses Jennifer effect on the character’s, and Frank Bonner discusses how easy it was to flirt with her.
- A Fish Story (3:42) takes a look at the reasons “A Fish Story” was written, and subsequent audience reaction.