31. "Turkeys Away," WKRP in Cincinnati (1978)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
The highlight of "Turkeys Away" is a stand-up routine that could have been on The Ed Sullivan Show or on a 1960s comedy record. Les Nessman's narration of live turkeys being pushed out of a helicopter and "hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement" is similar to the absurd situations described by the deadpan Bob Newhart on his "Button-Down Mind" albums — with the big difference that Nessman (Richard Sanders) goes for an overwrought "Hindenburg" delivery of the news.
"Turkeys Away" is still a hugely popular episode (third-highest video result if you Google "turkeys," below "Turkey Dubstep"), despite its staginess and the middling success of WKRP in Cincinnati. It's a rare example of sitcom classic based on viewers' mental images of an event that's never shown on screen.
The "tell, not show" approach is apt for a sitcom about a radio station, but I don't think Les Nessman is what CBS had in mind when it put WKRP on its schedule.
Mr. Carlson: As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.
CBS was trying to restore order after its decades-long status as the No. 1 network was stolen by ABC and such youth-oriented hits as Happy Days, Three's Company, and Charlie's Angels. At the same time, the production company MTM Enterprises was trying to retool its formula after a string of disappointing shows with veteran leads like Betty White and Tony Randall. (See Jamie Weinman's recent essays on The Tony Randall Show for more on the MTM identity crisis.) A sitcom set at a radio station switching to a rock-music format seemed to be the answer for both parties.
And WKRP does have elements of the 1970s T&A era. There's Loni Anderson as tight-sweatered receptionist Jennifer Marlowe (who's actually the smartest one in the office, because MTM wasn't the place for dumb blonde jokes). The younger guys usually have too-small tops or half-unbuttoned shirts. And Gary Sandy, who played program director Andy Travis, was in a Nice Ass contest with Taxi's Tony Danza during the four years that both shows were on the air. (Danza was the winner because his butt was versatile enough to fill out both blue and white jeans, but Sandy's feathered hair elevated him over Taxi's Jeff Conaway.)
After these casting decisions, however, MTM couldn't help but relapse into classiness. WKRP could have populated its lobby with rock groupies, but there were hardly ever any knock-out women on the show other than Jennifer (who didn't seem to have any female friends outside of work and preferred to date older men). And while WKRP did the occasional sex farce, it preferred thoughtful stories about ambitions and career choices and lowered expectations. It wasn't as downbeat as Taxi, but you didn't get the sense that many of these characters would go on to bigger things.
Though remembered for its riotous conclusion, "Turkeys Away" primarily deals with the very MTM-ish situation of a middle-aged man trying to stay relevant at work. Jittery station manager Arthur Carlson (played by the perfectly named Gordon Jump) feels marginalized by the younger rock-music contingent, so he works on a promotion campaign of his own.
Venus Flytrap: What do you suppose he's up to?
Dr. Johnny Fever: Carlson? I don't know. You should have been here for the big wig promotion.
Venus: What happened?
Johnny: Well, naturally, it didn't work, and we ended up with a warehouse full of wigs. Carlson, he couldn't figure out how to get rid of them until the Guatemalan earthquake.
Venus: Say what?
Johnny: Well, the Red Cross called out, you know, for blankets, clothes, anything. So Carlson, out of the goodness of his heart, shipped these destitute earthquake victims in Guatemala three thousand blonde stretch wigs. You know, I still have this picture in my mind of quake victims stumbling through the rubble, all looking like Dolly Parton.
Mr. Carlson's "live turkey drop" over a shopping-center parking lot didn't help WKRP (the radio station), but it may have saved WKRP (the series) from a quick cancellation. CBS moved the show to a time slot following M*A*S*H for about a year, where it did reasonably well in the ratings. But it kept alterating its well-done wackier stories with seriocomic episodes (a tornado hits Cincinnati, Venus is revealed to be a deserter from the Army, Herb battles alcoholism) and some format experimentation (one episode was shot as a reality show, though the genre barely existed at that point). Perhaps miffed by the scarcity of Three's Company plots, CBS then changed the show's time slot 10 times in less than three years before finally cancelling it.
• Les Nessman's live report suddenly ends when his mike goes dead. That means we get to savor the image of turkeys-as-bags-of-wet-cement for a little while before Mr. Carlson, Herb, and Les appear at the station in "entrance after danger" mode to give a couple of new assignments to our imaginations (including the surviving turkeys' "counterattack"). Nice story structure.
Johnny: Thanks for that on-the-spot report, Les. For those of you who've just tuned in, the Pinedale Shopping Mall has just been bombed with live turkeys. Film at eleven.
• Don't bother to comment that turkeys can fly. They can't get as high as a low-flying helicopter.
• The Classic TV History blog has an oral history of the episode, including interviews with series creator Hugh Wilson and several cast members.
• "Turkeys Away" is on Hulu, or you can cheat and watch the 30-second version below.