'WKRP in Cincinnati' - the Television Series Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'WKRP in Cincinnati' - the Television Series

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Baby you and me
Were never meant to be
Just maybe think of me
Once in a while
I'm at WKRP in Cincinnati.

- from the opening theme song to WKRP in Cincinnati

Perhaps the best-known radio station in Cincinnati, Ohio, WKRP is not, in fact, a real station at all. WKRP in Cincinnati is the name of a situation comedy that ran on US television from September 1978 until September 1982. Featuring memorable characters - and they were indeed 'characters' - and snappy writing, the show's many fans were saddened when it left the airwaves. Nowadays it lives on, more or less, in syndication1. The show played clips of the rock songs of the era. When it moved to syndication, rather than securing rights to play the music, which would have cost a fair amount, the producers replaced the music with generic 'rock music' and hired extras to dub in the missing dialogue. The process loses something in translation.

Although the programme was filmed outside Cincinnati, the opening shots featured glimpses of the Cincinnati skyline, and the plot made reference to various Cincinnati landmarks and personalities from the era. For example, one episode centres around a character being banned from Riverfront Stadium, which at that time was home to the Cincinnati Reds and Cincinnati Bengals sports teams2. Occasionally the characters would refer to 'Mayor Springer', referring to Jerry Springer who was indeed Mayor of the city at the time3.

The Cast of Characters

The Regulars

  • Arthur 'Big Guy' Carlson, General Manager. Played by Gordon Jump. Bumbling and ineffective, he has the job because his mother owns the station.

  • Andy Travis, Programme Director. Played by Gary Sandy. An island of sanity (usually) amidst all the craziness.

  • Johnny 'Dr Johnny Fever' Caravella, Morning Disc Jockey. Played by Howard Hesseman. An 'independent spirit', often short on money, thanks to paying alimony to his ex-wife. Could he borrow some? If not, could he borrow some food?

  • Gordon 'Venus Flytrap' Sims, Night Time Disc Jockey. Played by Tim Reid. Ultra-cool, edgy counter-culture type, known for his flashy wardrobe. Has a secret.

  • Bailey Quarters, Traffic and Continuity Director. Played by Jan Smithers. Generally quiet and unassuming, she's good at her job and aspires to airtime.

  • Jennifer Marlowe, Receptionist. Played by Loni Anderson. A smart and sexy blonde, she keeps the station running while fending off would-be suitors.

  • Les Nessman, News Director. Played by Richard Sanders. A fussy, nerdy little fellow in bow-tie and glasses, he views himself as 'a kinda macho sort of guy'. More interested delivering the farm report than in national and international news.

  • Herb Tarlek, Sales Manager. Played by Frank Bonner. Socially inept, he views himself as quite the ladies' man. Though married, he is always making passes at Jennifer. Not very good at his job, either.

Other Recurring Characters

  • Lillian 'Mama' Carlson, owner of the station. Played by Sylvia Sidney in the pilot episode and by Carol Bruce thereafter. Controls the money.

  • Lucille Tarlek, Herb's long-suffering wife. Played by Edie McClurg.

  • Carmen Carlson, wife of the 'Big Guy'. Played by Allyn Ann McLerie. Another of the women behind her man.

The Situation

When everyone is out to get you, paranoid is just good thinking.
- Johnny Fever

Recently-hired programme director, Andy Travis, arrives at a struggling 'easy-listening' radio station and decides to switch over to an all-rock format. Difficulties ensue as station personnel, alienated listeners and baffled sponsors try to adjust.

The show followed the characters' attempts to keep the station afloat financially and - especially - raise its ratings. Various episodes featured publicity stunts gone awry, relationships (and would-be relationships) between the characters, and life in Cincinnati. Probably the most popular episode involved a publicity stunt that misfired. Feeling left out because he didn't have much to do, Mr Carlson arranged a special, top-secret Thanksgiving Day promotion involving 20 live turkeys being dropped from helicopters. The results can be deduced from this popular quote from the show:

As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.
- Mr Carlson

This story was based on a real annual event - not held in Cincinnati - during which live turkeys were released from a low-flying aeroplane. The event went on for a number of years until a protest by animal-rights groups and a photo of the event in the National Enquirer4 forced promoters to abandon it.

The first few shows focused primarily on Andy Travis, but the other characters' strong personalities and popularity led the producers to highlight the team as a whole. The show owed its success not only to the chemistry among the ensemble of regulars, but also to the witty writing that could blend laugh-out-loud gags and serious topics into a seamless whole. While many memorable episodes were the strictly-for-laughs ones, even they often had more sombre undertones. This is particularly noticeable in the episodes that dealt with love and its failures. For example, one episode showed Johnny Fever gleeful at the news that his ex-wife was getting remarried, only to reconsider when he found out her fiancé was a sleazy sort. Another episode had Jennifer and Johnny pretending to be an 'item' to fend off attentions from the recently-separated Herb.

Les: What is an executrix?
Herb: Oh it has to do with whips, chains, and leather. That sort of thing.

Contrast these with the two episodes that dealt with the events surrounding rock group The Who's concert that took place on 3 December, 1979, in Cincinnati, during which 11 concert-goers were trampled to death when the crowd rushed to get seats5. The first episode presents the characters' immediate reactions to the tragedy, and the second takes place the day after. The episodes were played straight and were dedicated to the victims of the tragedy.

Memorable Bits

Aside from the Turkey Drop, other highlights included:

  • The pilot, in which Andy Travis changed the station's format almost mid-song. The newly-incarnated Dr Johnny Fever stopped the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing 'You're Having My Baby' with the words '...so sit right back, open up your ears real wide, and say, "Give it to me straight, doctor, I can take it!" Oh yeah, one more thing, fellow babies... booger!!6'.

  • Herb Tarlek's wardrobe of incredibly tacky suits (one of his costumes was actually made from the seat-cover of an old Volkswagen).

  • Les always wore a sticking plaster somewhere. Actor Richard Sanders had hurt himself and was still bandaged up when he shot the pilot episode. The producers liked it so much that they made it into a running gag.

  • Legendary Cincinnati Reds manager Sparky Anderson's appearance as a guest star.

  • The almost-obligatory retelling of the story of Scrooge, in which Mr Carlson plans to give the staffers almost no Christmas bonuses, but in a dream brought on by eating one of Johnny Fever's brownies, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future visit him to show him the error of his ways.

  • The episode in which Venus Flytrap was found to be AWOL from the US Army. (The episode dealt with the serious issue of the Vietnam War without being preachy.)

  • Those late-1970s clothes and hairstyles.

The Afterlife

Although the show was a hit in its Monday evening time lot, by early 1980 CBS executives took to moving it around. They often preceded and followed it with shows with much-more lowbrow humour, and the ratings dropped. In the summer of 1982, after two years of trying to find a slot where the show would 'fit', CBS announced that WKRP had been cancelled. However, the show became a breakout hit once it was released to syndication.

Hoping to capitalise on the success of the series, the producers spun off The New WKRP in Cincinnati, which ran from September 1991 to May 1993. Some cast members of the original show reprised their roles, namely Gordon Jump, Frank Bonner and Richard Sanders, but The New WKRP never achieved the popularity of its predecessor. It was also released to syndication after its two-year run.


More from the Edited Guide

See what your fellow Researchers have to say about some other classic American sitcoms:

1In the USA, as well as the big national TV stations there are smaller, independent local stations. When TV shows come to an end, they're often sold on as a complete package to individual stations. Many TV shows that have been dropped from channels like NBC or CBS have later gained popularity in syndication.2The Stadium has since been replaced by the Great American Ballpark (home of the Reds) and Paul Brown Stadium (home of the Bengals).3Mr Springer went on to fame, or perhaps infamy, as the host of a daytime talk show that featured outlandish, often violent guests in unreal situations.4A tabloid 'newspaper'.5The deaths were blamed in part on 'festival seating' which was subsequently banned at large concerts in the city.6Bogey, or snot, for those of you who speak British English. Johnny had been fired from a previous job for saying the word 'booger' on the air.

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