BY JOHN B. MOORE
It is more than a little surprising that a sitcom as revered as WKRP in Cincinnati is just now coming to DVD, more than 30 years after the last episode aired on TV. The first season was put out on DVD in 2007, but inexplicably sold poorly, so that was the only season available until now.
Shout Factory ended up buying the rights to the show – about a small radio station in Ohio that set out to change its format from glorified elevator music to rock. Shout then began the almost Sisyphean task of securing the music rights to a slew of classic rock and Soul songs – everything from tracks by AC/DC and Marvin Gaye to Springsteen and Van Morrison – that were originally played in snippets when the series originally aired. And, yes, it really does make a different when you hear an Elvis Costello or Cars song on a TV show about a rock radio station in the late ‘70/early ‘80s. They weren’t able to snag the rights to all of the songs, but enough that the impact is felt.
It’s almost a given that any network TV sitcom has the wacky standout character –the one that starts to garner more screen time as the series grows and steals all the great lines and big laughs. WKRP was one of those rare shows where almost all of the characters shared the role of “standout.” You had Howard Hesseman’s stoner DJ Dr. Johnny Fever, a bottle of Jack as his constant accessory; Tim Reid as the suave, cool as shit overnight DJ Venus Flytrap; the leisure suited sleazy ad salesman Herb (played brilliantly by Frank Boner); the clueless wimpy newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders); and the stunning and equally smart receptionist Jennifer (played by Loni Anderson). The other characters, station manager Arthur, program director Andy and Bailey (never quite sure what her job was), quickly faded to the background, as the others all jostled for the spotlight.
Despite the conventional use of the laugh track, an overused staple at the time, the series distinguished itself from the other network shows no one can remember 30 years later, thanks to great characters, stellar writing and envelope pushing story lines. In a funny and revealing extra tacked onto this set, Reid and show creator Hugh Wilson describe how they decided to film a screw-you episode to network execs who insisted on offering asinine feedback and notes to the writers. In an episode titled “Fish Story,” the group decided to dumb down their comedy, adding over-the-top gags, cramming in low brow pratfalls and a slew of predictable comedy. The execs, of course, loved the episode.
The issues the writers tackled with humor and genuine tenderness, at times, still come off as fresh; like issues of censorship in an episode when protestors, led by a priest, picket that station after it played John Lennon’s “Imagine”; or the station’s reaction to the deaths of local fans that were trampled at a Cincinnati Who concert (an actual incident that happened in Cincinnati in 1979). The occasional heavy topics aside, the show also managed to just be flat out hilarious, like the beloved Thanksgiving-themed episode (rumored to be based on a real life experience the Wilson witnessed while working at an Atlanta radio station), where the station decided to drop live turkeys out of a helicopter as a publicity stunt (“As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”).
More than three decades later, the short-lived – just four seasons – series remains just as funny and just as relevant as you remember it.