American Thanksgiving used to trigger a Norman Rockwell kind of nostalgia, but for those of us who came of age in the 1970s, one pop culture moment invariably comes to mind. On Oct. 30, 1978, CBS aired the Turkeys Away episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, the network’s sitcom about the dysfunctional (but curiously telegenic) staff of a struggling U.S. Midwestern rock radio station
Anyone who watched WKRP in wood-panelled rec rooms will recall the show’s most iconic line, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.” The utterance from Gordon Jump’s station manager Arthur (Big Guy) Carlson concerned an ill-fated Thanksgiving promotion in which 20 gobblers were dropped to their deaths from a helicopter, “hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement.” The station’s oddball newsman Les Nessman reported live on air as he witnessed the turkey-bombing outside Pinedale Shopping Mall.
The sequence was genius, with Nessman (played by Richard Sanders) riffing on radio journalist Herbert Morrison’s horrified real-time reporting of the 1937 Hindenburg crash. “Oh, the humanity,” Nessman cried in despair as mall patrons fled the scene. Because there was no warning in the episode’s first act about the turkey-based promotion, viewers were just as unprepared for the chaos as Nessman and the bewildered characters listening to his broadcast in the DJ booth were.
The kicker happened when Mr. Carlson and tacky adman Herb Tarlek arrived shell-shocked back at the station. It was the well-meaning Mr. Carlson’s idea for the bird drop. His apology was sincere, the memorable turkey line depending on the Big Guy’s deep disappointment and genuine regret.
But here’s the thing: Wild turkeys can fly. More importantly, while the Turkeys Away episode was brilliant, there was much more to WKRP than its most famous 22 minutes.
Because of music-licensing costs, WKRP isn’t widely available in syndication. The complete series is, however, available on DVD (with most of the original music intact), courtesy of the reissue enthusiasts over at Shout! Factory. Sanders as Nessman trying on a toupée to the soundtrack of Foreigner’s Hot Blooded is wig-based absurdity that rivals Seinfeld’s Elaine grabbing George Costanza’s hairpiece and tossing it out an apartment building window.
WKRP was often about something. Sure, WKRP borrows brazenly from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but Mary, Murr and Lou never had much to do with something such as transgender characters. In WKRP, the showy manhood of polyester-and-plaid salesman Tarlek takes a big hit when a woman he was with revealed herself to be a former man.
Showrunner Hugh Wilson often fought with CBS over content, notably so when it came to the WKRP episode that dealt with The Who concert disaster that resulted in the death of 11 music fans at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum on Dec. 3, 1979. The local affiliate threatened to pre-empt the episode, but reconsidered after learning the episode advocated the prohibition of the “festival seating” ticketing that may have caused the tragedy.
Does anyone remember when the gang on Friends went to a Hootie and the Blowfish concert? Anyone? Anyone at all?
The strength of critically well-received WKRP was its gang cast, and even if Howard Hesseman’s stoned morning man Dr. Johnny Fever developed into the marquee character, it was Frank Bonner’s Tarlek and Sanders’s fussy newsman Nessman who were the show’s glue.
Nessman in particular, with his rotating bandages, masking-tape-marked office space and multiple Silver Sow awards, was fascinating – and deeply neurotic. He considered suicide after misinterpreting a professional athlete’s remark that he was “queer," and he is consumed with conspiracy theories. During an episode that pitted WKRP in a softball game against rival station WPIG, the athletically disinclined Les recalled the traumatic violin lessons of his youth, forced upon him by a bullying mother. It was a deep dive into a character, done with no cheap sentimentality.
In The Who episode, Fever reluctantly asked Nessman to accompany him to the concert:
Fever: Les, are you free tonight?
Les: In the larger sense, are any of us free?
Fever: [Sighs] I don’t know, Les. I just wondered if you wanted to go to the concert with a freewheeling, hip DJ like myself.
Les, meekly: You mean you, John?
The scene continued unpredictably; the interplay between the two unlikely date mates acted and written in a sophisticated, unforeseen way.
Save for Gary Sandy’s station manager Andy Travis, all the characters are defiantly non-stock, from Loni Anderson’s unflappable receptionist and deservedly highest-paid staffer Jennifer Marlowe, to Timothy Reid’s mild-mannered late-night DJ with a mysterious past, to Jan Smithers’s shy junior employee Bailey Quarters, who felt compelled to tell Nessman that the swimming term was “breaststroke,” not “breast-stroking.”
Fringe characters included Tarlek’s wife Lucille (played by Edie McClurg), who told a reality-television host that the Tarleks watched Little House on the Prairie. “It’s about blind children out West, and every week they have a fire, or someone gets an incurable disease," she explained. "We enjoy it very much.”
Although WKRP lasted just four seasons, creator Wilson (who died in 2018) was twice awarded the Humantis Prize, which is to script writing what the Pulitzer is to journalism. He was not involved when the show returned as The New WKRP in Cincinnati in 1991. The magic was gone; the spinoff lasted just two seasons. That turkey did not fly.