A lot of things from my youth don’t hold up. Stuff I thought was hilarious or moving or entertaining when I was a kid isn’t nearly as compelling as an adult. A few things have stood the test of time, however, and continue to be delightful and/or timeless decades later. WKRP in Cincinnati is one of those things.
The WKRP Thanksgiving episode is a classic. Plenty of people who weren’t even born on October 30, 1978 (when it originally aired) have seen and laughed their faces off at this episode. The entire series (from what I remember, it’s been a while since I’ve seen any episode except Turkeys Away.) was hilarious, with a lot of plays on words and clever situations. It was snappy and a little slapsticky, in a style that I think is unique to the the late 70’s/early 80’s. The show did rely on a few stereotypes – both women characters were ridiculously hot, Mr. Carlson’s mother was a shrew, Venus Flytrap was the Enigmatic Seventies Black Man. Down home Midwestern values always won in the end. The turkey episode is what WKRP will always be remembered for, though, no matter what happened in the rest of the series. This You Tube fan managed to get all the highlights in 30 seconds.
WKRP is a typical 70’s sitcom, with a laugh track, an ensemble of stock characters and snappy set-ups and punchlines. It stood out for the top-notch writing staff, which was never more on top of it’s game than during the legendary Thanksgiving episode.
The episode opens with Mr. Carlson(Gordon Jump), the station owner, feeling left out as his employees run WKRP without a lot of input or participation on his part. He begins pestering the staff, leading all of them to turn to Andy (Gary Sandy), the younger, hipper station manager for help. But it’s too late, Mr. Carlson has already banded with fellow old timers, plaid jacketed sales sleaze Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) and dorky newsman, Les Nessman (Richard Sanders). Mr. Carlson has planned a top secret promotional event for Thanksgiving, hoping to finally make his mark as a great business man.
In a conversation with Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) relates a previous promotional idea of Carlson’s, wherein he sent 3000 blond wigs from a failed promotion to Guatemalan earthquake victims as humanitarian aid. This leads into the big moment.
Les is on location at the local grocery, Johnny, Andy, Venus and Bailey (Jan Smithers) are back at the station. The Big Guy, Mr. Carlson, is no where to be found. As it turns out, the big promotion is a turkey giveaway, so Les is down at the Pinedale shopping center to oversee Mr. Carlson giving away dozens of birds to local families. Les describes it as “what may be the biggest Turkey event in Thanksgiving history.” Les is jostled by the crowd as he continues to report, until a helicopter approaches, drawing the crowd into the parking lot. The copter trails a banner, Les squints to read “Happy………. Th……..anks…………………giving! From W………..K………….R……………..P!” The copter circles, Les notes, “No, something seems to have come out of the back. A dark object…. Perhaps a skydiver, plummeting to Earth from only 2000 feet in the air. Oh! There’s a second, and a third!” At this point, Les begins to look concerned. “There are no parachutes yet. Those can’t be skydivers.” Scene cuts to Venus, Johnny, Andy and Bailey in the newsroom, Les is still heard over the air. “I can’t tell just what….. OH MY GOD THEY’RE TURKEYS! Oh, are you getting this? They’re crunching to the earth, right in front of our eyes! One just went through the windshield of a parked car! Everyone is running around pushing each other. Oh my goodness! Oh the humanity! The turkeys are hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement.” Les is lost, presumably when a wingless bird takes out his radio transmitter. Johnny announces, “Thanks for that on the spot report, Les. For those of you who just tuned in, the Pinewood Shopping Center has just been bombed with live turkeys. Film at 11.”
Flash to Andy in the office, speaking with someone who’s roof was hit by an errant gobbler, as well as others on the phone with the Humane Society and the National Guard. Jennifer (Loni Anderson) relays to the Humane Society “Lots of turkeys don’t make it through Thanksgiving.” I pause to wonder exactly how much Aqua Net it took each week to make Loni Anderson’s hair do what it is doing in this episode. Had she been hit with a Turkey, it would have bounced off.
Andy (who looks like Glee’s Mr. Schue with a 70’s Dukes of Hazard/mullet combo haircut instead of the Justin Timberwaves.) talks everyone down from being furious at Mr. Carlson, whose intentions were pure. Yeah, tell that to the turkeys embedded in the Woody Wagons and El Caminos, buddy.
Mr. Carlson and Herb appear, apparently they were in the copter tossing out the birds. Both look worse for wear, and dotted with feathers. The team makes Mr. C feel a little better, and he heads into his office. A shell shocked Les returns, and relays that after Mr. Carlson landed the helicopter to set the turkeys not tossed to their unseemly demise free, the turkeys seemed to organize and mount a counterattack.
Mr. Carlson steps out of his office to say “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.” A line that has made everyone in my immediate family laugh hysterically every Thanksgiving since 1978.