Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Ep. 63 - A Simple Little Wedding

March 14, 2018

Writer: Blake Hunter
Director: Nicholas Stamos
Original Air Date: March 21, 1981

Writing this blog, I've learned that people who are into WKRP are really into Bailey, so before I get into this episode, let's talk about her.

In the cold open, when Mr. Carlson lets Bailey and Jennifer in on his secret that he and Carmen are going to renew their vows, Bailey is the first one to jokingly flirt with the Big Guy and suggest he have a little fling before getting married. She is the one who leads Jennifer into doing the same thing. Just two years earlier, she was the shy, mousy girl whose name Mr. Carlson couldn't remember. Now she is confident, not just with his authority but her own sexuality!

This is what I see on fan boards - men who are attached to this confident version of Bailey. How much of this should we attribute to Jennifer's influence; inarguably the most confident character on the show (if not in all of Ohio)? How much of this stems from her "dungaree" generation taking the power mantle from the "suits" in the station - specifically Andy's confidence in her? How much comes for the world around her in 1981, in which all women were taking greater control of their own destinies? I suspect it's the writer's reflection of the latter, but I'm interested in Bailey's in-universe development.

Getting back to the plot of this episode, we once again see Carmen Carlson, played by the delightful Allyn Ann McLerie, together with Arthur.  This is the partnership in which he has always been most comfortable because, despite all the Carlson money, the two of them are simple people. They are romantic in their love and want to show in with a marriage renewal... simple and understated.

But a wedding (kind of like a funeral) is often more about the family and friends than it is the couple. Twenty-Five years earlier, Mama Carlson tried to make it the social event of the year. She had invited Senator Taft and even President Eisenhower! The young couple ended up eloping rather than going through all that. But this time it will be different! This time they are adults and they will be in control!

Herb sees the whole thing as a chance to cut loose, party and even impress some clients in the process, as well as hopefully score brownie points with the boss. Nothing impresses a boss like Mr. Carlson like a 50's themed bachelor party! I need to point out here the very specific call back to Herb's drinking from last week's episode. I wonder if it was the CBS censors said it would be in bad taste to follow a "very special episode" about Herb's alcoholism with an episode in which he gets bombed at a bachelor party. Whoever was responsible, it was maybe the best call back ever made on one of the first sit-coms that ever cared about its continuity.

It's peculiar how this show that so often succeeds with "theatre of the mind" relies so heavily on sight gags in this episode. Herb coming into Mr. Carlson's office dressed like a flasher, only to later remove his trench coat and reveal an even funnier outfit underneath is one. The eyes of the six male main characters watching strippers performing in their office is one (only Herb is comfortable. The others range from confused to embarrassed to horrified). The site of the other women sitting stock still, afraid to move, at Carmen's bridal shower is another.

I spoke earlier about Bailey's growing confidence. To one employer, she feels confident enough to slide right up against him seductively. However, to this far more fearsome employer, that confidence is only strong enough to ask "Might I move about?"

Mama Carlson is a far more skilled manipulator than Herb Tarlek can ever hope to be. Where he jumps Arthur with loud music and strippers, Mama slowly turns the heat up on Carmen, asking for a simple bridal shower, then inviting a few more friends to the shower, then asking her to wear a formal dress, then planning a full high mass ceremony. It's enough to make Carmen raise her voice for the first time this episode, not in protest, but for...


And we welcome the last major character to the WKRP universe, fan favourite "house boy" Hirsch. Played by Ian Wolfe when he was 85 years old, Wolfe's martini dry wit was the only thing Mama Carlson could not control.

How well do Arthur and Carmen know each other? When he escapes his own bachelor party and arrives to the Carlson estate, he sees his wife also needs rescuing. And if eloping worked 25 years earlier, surely it will work again.

The motel the Carlson's spent their first night as a married couple has changed in 25 years. It's now a make-out motel, with porn on the TV and a vibrating bed. See how gently McLerie delivers the line that there is a machine in the bathroom "that sells things." She makes the wisest point of the episode when, as Arthur notes leaving now wouldn't be the same, she says "it will be better."

Not all WKRP episode tie up as neatly as this one. The two parties ruined by their respective runaway guests-of-honour, Mama comes to the station to give her son a dressing down. But before she can, Herb rips into his boss about embarrassing his clients and leaving Herb stuck with the rental of a "red, crushed velvet tuxedo." He storms off with a sarcastic "Thanks a lot!" Arthur then turns to his mother, awaiting her attack. However, nothing she says could match what Herb has already gone over in far gaudier detail.

"Never mind." she sighes.


Other Notes - Twenty-Five years earlier would have put the Carlson's wedding in 1956. Somethings the writers got right were: Fred Waring & his Pennsyvanians was a big band radio show from 1933-1957, Dwight Eisenhower was president at the time and that probably was the way Les Nesman would have dressed then. Something they got wrong is that Sen. Robert Taft (son of the president) had dies in 1953.  Ian Wolfe has 303 (!) acting credits on IMDB and that site notes he appeared in 14 films that won the Best Picture Oscar.  Feather Austen, the actress playing one of the strippers, was also one of Herb's failed hosting candidates in the "Ask Jennifer" episode. A "Silver Bullet" is a drink made with gin and whiskey on crushed ice.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Ep. 62 - Out to Lunch

February 20, 2018

Story: Ben Elisco, Teleplay: Peter Torokvei
Director: Dolores Ferraro
Original Air Date: March 14, 1981

If you are reading this blog for the first time, welcome! If you go back through these posts, you'll eventually be able to anticipate what does and doesn't impress me about "WKRP in Cincinnati". Go back as far as the third episode "Les on a Ledge" to learn my thoughts about how this show handles the 1980's staple of a "Very Special Episode (VSE)." Or check out "Who Is Gordon Sims?" or "In Concert" or as recently as "Venus and the Man" just a few episode ago to learn my thoughts.

Never mind, I can't wait for you to go back that far! Here's the gist of it: one of the great strengths of "WKRP in Cincinnati" is that, for a sit-com from the late '70's and early '80's, its writers brought topical issues to the screen without being heavy handed about the content. Their well-rounded characters act and react to difficult situations in ways we as loyal audience members recognize as being consistent. Most importantly, even when the show got very serious, it never forgot that it was, first and foremost a comedy show! Tension is regularly undercut with big laughs.

If you've watched "Out to Lunch" yet, you know why I am bringing all of this up. This episode seems like it is from a different TV show! The story is credited to Ben Elisco, who didn't write anything else for the show and only has one other writing credit on IMDB. The characters all seem disjointed from how we know them and the steady drumbeat of judgement against Herb from the rest of the staff feel forced and false. This is a poorly written episode.

But I can completely understand why the producers would want to make this episode: Frank Bonner playing drunk! Bonner once again is the WKRP MVP with a subtle, sloppy performance. He's not play "drunk" like you usually see it. He's playing someone who is amped "up"; someone who is drinking just to keep the fake smile on his face a little longer. Herb says as much to the Big Guy in their conversation at the end. He's not slurring and bleary eyed - he's wired!

This episode does feature perhaps 'KRP's most famous "before he was famous" guest stars in future "Coach" and "The Incredibles" star, Craig T. Nelson. Nelson plays media buyer Charlie Bathgate who has been stringing Herb along for a good time, pretending to be discussing a big sales deal when really he had been fired weeks earlier. Why was he fired? "Any excuse and out you go. And I'll tell you something... I don't drink that much either." Once again, the image of Herb's possible future is heavy handed, but Nelson does a really nice job being on one hand classy enough to look legitimate and on the other, obnoxious enough to be an unemployable drunk.

According to the story, Herb's only really been drinking heavily like this for a couple of months, but already the losses are piling up: fumbling the record store account, not seeing his family, the threats to his job, his relationship with his coworkers, and finally a $5,000 Irish Sweepstakes ticket. He tells Carlson "it hasn't been a good month." It tells a lot about Herb that it's the Sweepstakes ticket that really catches his attention and makes him reevaluate his life, with Mr. Carlson's help.

How '1981' is it that Carlson pours Herb and himself each a scotch before discussing alcoholism with Herb? Probably as '1981' as all of the off-handed drunk driving reference made in this episode! (example: "I have to drive because I can't walk.") But the lines sound like they are being read out of a pamphlet entitled "So You Think You're an Alcoholic." Earlier in the show, Carlson is stating how remarkable it is Herb can drink at this pace. Now he's telling Herb "statistically you are (an alcoholic)! Someone who drinks every day is an alcoholic." Then Herb responds to questions about his drinking with "But I'll tell you why I do. It helps me at my job. I just use it as a crutch." His answers sound canned; not like the Herb we know

The worst sin of this episode is that it is simply not funny. Herb and Charlie's hijinks just look sad and cautionary to us. "But I'm not lecturing you!" Carlson repeats this phrase FIVE TIMES. This is what passes for a joke in this episode, which is what makes it so different from other WKRP VSE's. There is no really great joke to undercut the action. The arm-in-arm final shot seems too pat - too regular for a sit com of WKRP's abilities.


Special Note: I was interviewed about WKRP! The excellent "Hold My Order, Terrible Dresser," the deep dive history nerd WKRP in Cincinnati podcast spoke to me about my thoughts and memories of the show. Catch it here...

I come on at about the 58 minute mark, but if you like this blog, please go back and listen to the entire podcast. Thanks to host Rob McDougall for the interview.

Other Note: I rarely discuss music that was not licensed for the boxset, but this is a VSE in a musical sense as well: it originally included the Beatles song "Hear Comes the Sun" in the background when Charlie reveals to Herb he's been fired, and the U2 song "I Will Follow" in the going to lunch epilogue. That would have been one of the first times a U2 song was played on American television. Alas, both songs were replaced in in the boxset version. They weren't prominent or important to the plot anyway. However, the Paul McCartney song "Every Night" and the Bee Gees "Jive Talkin'" are still included.

More Other Notes: Up to the mid 1970's, most lotteries were illegal in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.. So the Irish Sweepstakes was famous and quite popular. Johnny compliments Bailey out of the blue and for no particular reason. I think this may be a link from last week's episode and into their future relationship.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Ep. 61 - Secrets of Dayton Heights

February 13, 2018

Writers: Jon Smet
Director: Frank Bonner
Original Air Date: February 28, 1981

Welcome back, Sam Anderson! Anderson appears in his third of four "WKRP in Cincinnati" episodes, this time as Special Agent Berwick of the Secret Service, which of course is a division of the Treasury Department. This time, he is a little bit like Les Nesman himself, self-seriously wearing sunglasses in his office. But he actually perks up when he hears his visitors have been sent to him from Washington... D.C.! Anderson gets a great laugh from the pause when discovering the Nesman files and a bigger laugh and ooow upon pulling out the huge file on our beloved "News Beacon of the Ohio Valley." Once again, the best, most versatile guest the show ever had.

With that out of the way, this discussion can go in two directions. We can talk about the A plot of Les meeting his biological father. Or the multiple sub plots involving French, fire and hurt feelings.

We have already seen Jennifer speak French before but in this episode she speaks more French than English! Now as a Canadian, I'm suppose to be bilingual. My teachers would tell you I am definitely not! But according to my Grade 10 French, Jennifer sounds pretty accurate, even if she cranks up the accent to Brigit Bardot levels. The nice secondary joke running here is how the men, Herb and Venus specifically, are enamored of hearing her speak French, even when she is saying terrible things.

I like the continuing call backs to the fire in the control booth stretching from the first scene to the last. We are never told what the problem is, or why Bucky Dornster isn't the one fixing things. However, the little pieces of Fever taking no responsibility while Venus is looking move the blame off of himself just reinforces these characters to us a little bit more.

Gary Sandy is very good in this episode. He flips halfway through from the person in charge, wanting to get to the bottom of Les's security issues with the government to a little boy pouting in the office because his being kept out of the loop. We don't often see this swing from him and it's a nice remindier of what Sandy can do.

Bailey is mostly seen in this episode sitting at Jennifer's desk, filling in for her. She even fills in the role of ego-stroker for Andy, getting up from the desk with a heavy sigh and literally turning on the persona of cheerleader for Andy. She even uses his own words, describing Andy as an "easy-going guy with a natural ability to lead. People seem to want to do what you tell them to do!" for encouragement. Where she has heard that before, we don't know, but Andy recognizes his words back to himself.

There are a lot of subtleties to these secondary performances and I think that is probably an attribute of Frank Bonner as director. This isn't his first time directing WKRP, but I feel like he's trying to show off what every cast member can bring.

All of these small subplots underline something that is true in real life but is rarely shown on TV, even today and even in other episodes of WKRP. That is: just because something monumentally important is happening to one person personally, doesn't mean it is effecting anyone else around them. Their lives just go on.

All of this brings us to Richard Sanders' portrayal of Les Nesman in a moment when his whole personal history is ripped apart. He learns the man he thought was his father was actually his step-father. He learns his mother has been lying to him for his whole life. And he learns why she instilled in him her strong anti-communist and anti-divorce views.

If you have read this blog, you will see I'm not always kind to Sanders' acting, or over-acting as I see it. But here he is at his most restrained. The shouting match in Carlson's office comes across as believable and not showy. As the scales fall from his eyes, we see tears that are earned. I can't imagine how such stunning news would affect me. Les is confused and angry, but we can see in his face he knows the things Mr. Carlson is saying are true.

So Les goes to Kentucky to meet Harvey Moorehouse, former Pentagon barber, former "proven, card-carrying Communist" and former father. And guess what? He's a really nice guy.

Harvey is not a sneaky commie or a no-account deadbeat Dad. He's a small town goofball who people call Pops. He likes big band music and cracking corny jokes and he only charges $3 for a trim. In many ways, he's the man Les is not. Les is self-serious and intellectual; uncomfortable in his own skin. What would he have been like with Pops in his life?

Sanders the actor is very self-contained in these scenes. It was a brilliant move to set this in a barbershop, where the two men could talk naturally without looking at each other eye to eye. He is holding the lid down on a boiling pot in not exclaiming that he is Harvey's son.

We don't hear more about this story in subsequent episodes and it is a real shame. I think there could have been a lot of comedy from the idea of Les trying to rebuild this time with his Pops.  And a lot more good Richard Sanders emotional work as well.


Other Notes - John Block was Reagan's Secretary of Agriculture from 1981 to 1986. Harvey was portrayed by veteran character actor Bill McLean who had 153 IMDB acting credit before he dies in 1994. Writer John Smet has no other writing credits ever and a Google search does not reveal anything about him. Is it possible this is a pseudonym for another writer?

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Ep. 60 - I Am Woman

February 6, 2018

Writers: Lissa Levin
Director: Linda Day
Original Air Date: February 21, 1981

Warren Buffet is said to have coined the term "skin in the game" to refer to a person's own personal investment in some dealing and how it effects that person's feelings towards that dealing. Simply put, a person is more emotionally concerned with something if they have have a personal stake in its outcome.

Here is an example: all of the staff at WKRP supported Bailey's ERA walk financially at the beginning of this episode, because they are friends with her. But Bailey actually took a day and walked 20 miles in support of the ERA. Bailey has "skin in the game."

This episode of WKRP is all about having skin in the game. It's easy to say you are in favour or opposed to something when the outcome isn't really going to effect your life very much. But how do you act when you have something important to lose on the outcome? Will you fight for the right thing to do if it means you are personally giving something up?

Bailey really doesn't have anything to lose in fighting to preserve the Flimm building (I think this is the proper spelling. I refuse to believe it would be spelled "Phlegm"). If anything, fighting for architecture just adds to her reputation as the "Lost Cause Lady" who fights for solar energy, saving the whales and the equal right amendment. When the rest of the station thinks they are going to be kicked out onto the street, they are all happy to join in the fight.

But then the Arthur Carlson Communications Centre comes along; Mr. Carlson's dream radio station. He would get his "think tank" hiding room. Les would finally get walls! Travis would get a record library (which today might get used as a storage room, I suppose). The DJ's would get new equipment and a lounge! Everybody would get something. So to continue to support preserving the Flimm building, all the rest of the staff have to put skin in the game. They all have to give up what the new building offers for the sake of Art Deco architecture.

Here's the thing - the only one who doesn't lose anything by maintaining the old building is Bailey! Her reputation is as the liberal fighter for causes. She continues to be that here. If anything, convincing everyone else to put "skin in the game" enhances her own reputation. Somehow, she becomes the hero the moment she has the least amount to lose.

She becomes "the intelligent man (who) always fights for the lost cause, realizing all others are merely effects" as Johnny paraphrases e.e. cummings to Herb. Strangely, it is Herb and Johnny together who sound the warnings against fighting for the building, primarily because they are the two least willing to sacrifice anything for this old building. Herb thinks this is all a waste of time for people who should be just running a radio station.

Johnny warns Bailey she is going up against "real estate mega bucks." He's more concerned for her than for some building. That friendship is really hinted at moving into something more at the end of the episode when Johnny asks Bailey "if I got you a pair of cut-off jeans, and I got a boat..." and she cuts him off with "Anytime." Ooooooooh!

As an aside, it's interesting that Bailey knows exactly what turns Johnny on in both women... and boats.

For an episode written by a woman, the Big Guy comes off strangely patriarchal at the end of this episode. The notion that he would call her father so see how he may punish her for running his commentary tape is weird. He would never call Andy's or Herb's fathers. He calls her "young lady" when yelling at her, as if she were his daughter. Perhaps this is to emphasis her maturity when she gives her Art Deco speech - that by the end of it, he sees her as an adult, maybe even his equal.

Herb ends the episode not understanding how Bailey could have earned Mr. Carlson's respect while acting so disrespectfully to him. He feels he would have gotten fired for acting that way and Les delivers the best line of the episode:

"The threshold of your termination is much lower, Herb."


Other Notes - What is the ERA? Oh boy, that's a big question. Most simply it is a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution stating that civil rights may not be denied on the basis of one's sex. (Thanks Google) It was THE hot button divisive issue between liberals and conservatives in the late '70 and early '80's and was defeated in 1982. There is much more to read on this topic.

The building used for the exterior shots of the Flimm building is actually the Cincinnati Enquirer Building. It still exists (yeah Bailey!) and currently houses two hotels. Shouldn't Andy be searching for a new location for the station since i) there is no guarantee Bailey's petition will work and ii) it would take years to have a new station built? The Sir Douglas Quintet was a band that had it's biggest hits in the early '70's but released a new album in 1981, just as Johnny tells us. A real B-29 SuperFortress bomber had four propellors, not two.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Ep. 59 - Ask Jennifer

January 15, 2018

Writers: Joyce Armor & Judi Neer
Director: Linda Day
Original Air Date: February 14, 1981

Welcome back!

I had a lot of difficulties writing the blog post for this particular episode. Much of that is because I was without a computer for about six weeks. Some of that was because of the holidays. But a lot of it was because I couldn't quite get a handle about what I wanted to say about this episode.

See, most obviously, a person would want to focus on the battered wife story at the end of the episode. But it is at the VERY end of the episode and the episode isn't really ABOUT that. I could speak about the rise of talk radio, but "Ask Arleen" was a very simple advice show and not indicative of the kind of scathing talk radio that would soon be coming to American airwaves. (Incidentally, someone with the opinion that we should "blow the whole country, oilfields and all, right off the map" would probably make a very successful talk radio host).

The more I've thought about it, the more I think this is an episode the producers of "WKRP in Cincinnati" wanted to be an "important episode." It features their biggest star Loni Anderson (who is very good here, especially with the one-liners to the callers). It does have that battered woman story element. Perhaps most importantly for 1981, it is an episode both written AND directed by women. But, despite all of those markings, "Ask Jennifer" simple is not an important episode. It's just a regular, middle of the road episode.

What does make this episode stand out is the conceit of time passing, with the Day Count in the corner, references to the number of days passed and the costume changes. So I have rewatched the episode specially to give you all the counts on what we are seeing.

According to the day counts, "Ask Arleen" runs over 96 days. At one point, Jennifer complains to Andy that she has been on the air for 64 days, but according to the day count, it has actually been 70 days. However, on the last day, Andy tells Mr. Carlson that Herb has "only been on the job (of finding a host for the show) for 194 days" and, including the first 168 days it took him to find the original Arleen, that actually does match the Day Counter!

Jennifer first gets a call from "not Joan" on Day 22 of "Ask Arleen." It is 38 days after that Jennifer advises her to tell her husband that she's leaving him, Walter Cronkite style (she gives that date as February 8, 1981. The episode aired on February 14, 1981 (Happy Valentine's Day America!)) There are 36 more days to go, so the original audience was seeing into the future!. Given the Day Count, Arleen "resigned on March 16, a total of 96 days.

But what is really important is the fashions!

Remember that in 1981, Loni Anderson was at the height of her fashion icon status, so an episode that features her in multiple costume changes would have been eagerly devoured. This episode is also proof that Anderson was wearing wigs throughout the run. Here are the numbers:
    Jennifer wears five distinct hairstyles of various lengths and eight different outfits, ranging from a yellow business dress to a denim blouse.
    However, both Herb and Andy wear 10 different outfits each. That is TEN different Herb Tarlek suits in one episode, people!!
    For those of you who need to know, Bailey only wears two different outfits here, and Les wears one for the whole show.

As much as the previous episode was a spotlight episode for Howard Hesseman, this one is a showcase for Loni Anderson. She gets to be at her quip-y best, while also being very sensitive in crying over Not Joan and caring for Mr. Carlson. Anderson would be nominated for the Emmy for Best Supporting Actress this season.

In my opinion, I think the show would have been wise to continue Jennifer in the position of advice lady in subsequent episodes, as there really was no reason to cancel the show. Jennifer (with Bailey's assistance) got the caller the help she needed. The show was very popular and has Jennifer herself admits to Andy, she actually liked doing the show. Maybe with Bailey acting as a producer, "Ask Arleen" could have continued.

The last five minutes of this episode could also be seen as the definition of the Arthur Carlson character. In one moment, he has the emotional weight of speaking truth to Jennifer when she wants to take all the blame onto herself. In the next, he's a big child coming to Jennifer when literally his toy is broken.


Other Notes - in the post about the episode "Hotel Oceanview," I argued that it should be Herb, as Sales Manager, giving the sales pitch and not Andy. Likewise here, it should be the Program Director who finds the host for a show, not the Sales Director.

Mourning the Loss of the Creator - Hugh Wilson

Tonight we learned about the passing of the creator of "WKRP in Cincinnati," Hugh Wilson. He was 74 years old.

If you are reading this blog, you care about the creations of Wilson. He developed some of the most famous characters in television. His characters have become a shorthand for a type - a "Les Nesman" or "Herb Tarlek" type. Wilson was adamant in his time with "WKRP" that these characters grow and flourish; not to be stagnant one-dimensional beings. It is why we still care, 35 years after they first came into our homes.

I encourage you to check out some of Wilson's other work, especially things he wrote, such as the TV show "Frank's Place" and the films "Guarding Tess" and "Blast From the Past." All of these things are generally low concept ideas but Wilson refused to let them be flat. He wrote a kindness of spirit into all the characters that elevate each from their original, simple premises.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Wilson and thanks for everything.


Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Ep. 58 - Dr. Fever and Mr. Tide

October 31, 2017

Writers: Steve Marshall
Director: Rod Daniel
Original Air Date: February 7, 1981

Call it the dungarees versus the disco suits.

This is a strangely dated episode of "WKRP in Cincinnati" even for 1981. Today it plays like an episode of "Mad Men" in which the audience is constantly asking "Is that really how things happened?"

I believe this episode exists for reasons outside of the story, which I will get to later. Storywise, the entire HOUR LONG episode is based on the premise of business versus authenticity. This is the moment, dear readers, in which the baby boomer generation (the "dungarees" of these past three season) must enter the Dark Night of the Soul and decide to either cling to their fading, tie-dyed ideals or embrace the Reagan-era, trickle down "greed is good" aesthetic and do what is best for business, best for your own wants and best for the bottom line. For John Caravella, this decision will literally rip his mind in half.

Writing a blog 36 years after this show aired means the direction of society has already been decided. Johnny has been perpetually broke since we first met him. If "Gotta Dance" is going to pay him $500 a week, that's more than Jennifer makes (we learned in Ep. 10 she is the highest paid employee at WKRP at $24,000 a year) PLUS he gets to keep his WKRP job. We saw in this season's "Daydreams" episode, Johnny longs to be the decadent, adored rock star figure he has always admired. Since getting fired in LA, Johnny's always been looking for a way to get back on top. The song he plays as his defiant send off from "Gotta Dance" is "Ready Teddy" by Little Richard, an artist who wore makeup and sparkling costumes to help sell his music. In 2017, there's not even a decision to be made: Dr. Fever would have taken the money and played music he didn't like.  As the Ripper himself says "The dude was stuck in the 60's and these are the 80's!"

But we as the audience are suppose to see Johnny as our better selves, the side that is never going to sell out. Loyal to the ideal that Rock 'n Roll can change the world, we are rooting for Johnny to have his Rip Tide cake and eat his WKRP cake too (sorry for strangling that metaphor). We want to be Johnny and believe we could walk away from both the big payday and the legal threats just to stand by our convictions.

We need to see the producer, Avis, as the face of the bad guys: the corporate suits. We need to forget that Johnny signed contracts, drunk, without a lawyer and then tried to back out 45 minutes before the show was to air.

Which begs the larger question: why hire Johnny Fever for a TV Dance show? Venus Fly Trap, who regularly plays a style of music more in line with what the producer wants, is literally standing right beside him! If this producer ever listened to Johnny's show, in which he famously never plays the hits, why would she think he'd be a good host for "Gotta Dance"? After looking at him, in his dark, rumbled T-shirt and sagging skin (sorry Howard) no one would hire him to host this show. If he was so important to it success, it would have been called "Dr. Fever's Dance Prescription" and replacing him with a no-name Rip Tide would have killed it.

I've written all of this and none of it matters. Because none of that is why this show was written, and certainly not why it had to be an hour long. This episode is an acting showcase for Howard Hesseman. He was nominated the season previously for an Emmy and would be again this season. I was not able to confirm if he was nominated in 1981 for this episode in particular but I be surprised if it wasn't. Hesseman plays both characters to their fullest, sometimes within the same sentence!

Johnny isn't just ashamed of the Rip Tide character he created - he's paranoid of him! He genuinely is afraid this "schlemiel" is going to take over his life. Johnny goes from casually taking on this new job to anger and fear about the job to glee that he's fooling people with this new persona to fearing the persona to regretting the whole thing happened. Rip Tide moves from being thrilled to perform to ambitious about his career to annoyed Johnny is holding him back. That's a lot for one actor to keep a handle on and Hesseman navigates well.

I'd love to get a commentary from Hesseman on this episode, describing how much was on the page and how much was improvised. We know about his years with the San Francisco improv troop the Committee and how he drew on that time to play Johnny Fever. I want to know if he came up with "I could eat you up Jennipoo. Yum, yum yum!" on the spot.

So many good lines! "My wink is my word, digez vous?" "The undoubtably soulful Oblivious Neutron Bomb!" "Well, I Gotta Dance! Hug hug!"

I felt a little split myself figuring out what to write this blog about. I was going to write a whole piece on schizophrenia and how it is NOT split personality disorder. And how Les can not claim to be "something of an expert" on it because he saw "Three Faces of Eve." I could have also written quite a bit about the relationship between Herb and The Ripper, and that Herb is the first person, even before Avis, to see what the potential of Rip Tide could be. I also gave some thought to how poorly Venus and Bailey treated John Caravella. If he wasn't going to be the Dr. Fever they knew, they were ready to abandon him. I also could go on at great lengths about how the time in this episode is too condensed. Johnny becomes Rip in under an hour. It seems like the whole "Gotta Dance" phenomena lasted a month at most.

But I'm going to wrap it up the way the episode wrapped it up - discussing payola. We saw in Ep. 14 "Johnny Comes Back" that the one unforgivable thing in radio (or even radio on the television) is to suggest the band or label have paid to have their songs played. Johnny knew that treating people badly, drinking, drugs, insulting his audience or even an interest in "really young girls" would not be enough to make the Rip Tide character unsellable. But saying he's only playing a song because it's been paid for is the death knell. Although that might have been a lie, it was only because Johnny was getting paid that Rip was pretending to like these songs as well. Where did the real payola start and excuse payola end? Maybe the way to judge would be to have Jennifer defiantly say "No! I really liked those songs."


Other Notes - Mary Frann, who played Avis, went on to her greatest success playing Bob Newhart's wife, Joanne, on "Newhart," which was also an MTM Production. She died in 1998.  "Gotta Dance" is based on the nationally syndicated dance show "Solid Gold" which ran from 1980 to, surprisingly, 1988. Allen Carr was a producer and manager whose clients included "the undoubtedly soulful" Olivia Newton-John, Ann-Margaret, Herb Alpert and many more. He also produce the films "Grease" and the Village People's "Can't Stop the Music."