Writers: Max Tash and Hugh Wilson
Director: Linda Day
Original Air Date: April 12, 1981
** IMPORTANT EPISODE **
There is an underlying, secondary theme in the episode that I want to address first. (We'll get to "Imagine" in a bit) It is provided by the Sage of 'KRP, Les Nesman:
"When I get confused, I watch T.V. Television is never confusing. It's all so... simple somehow."
In an episode about radio standards, there's a lot of talk about television. Venus bemoans the fact that CURB isn't going after television, which he sees as a greater purveyor of smut. Herb says there isn't ENOUGH smut on television and doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. Obviously, as a broadcast television show, "WKRP in Cincinnati" was wrestling with all the same issues of a newly elected Conservative structure to the U.S. as the staff of our favourite little station. There aren't clear black or white sides, and Arthur Carlson is forced to choose the principles he believes are most important.
This is why we like "WKRP in Cincinnati." It's not simple. It won't fit in the little box Les mimes and, once again, it is still relevant 35 years after it first aired.
If you have friends who don't understand why you would want to read a blog about an old sit com, or even why you watch an old sit com, watch this episode with them. It explores the issues of censorship and choice in a fairly balanced way while still maintaining a specific point of view. It's also very funny, especially the funny noises Carlson's new-fangled computer baseball game can make. There is so much meat on the bones of this episode, I had to check and make sure it was still only a half hour.
Gordon Jump puts on an acting clinic here. Carlson is a man who doesn't want to make a decision, wants to take the easy, obvious route in making a problem go away, and in the end is stronger and more at ease with himself because he put it the hard work of analyzing his beliefs and coming to a decision he believes his best for himself and, much more importantly, that he believes his best for his community. That means the community of his own station and staff, the community of radio broadcasters and the community of Cincinnati itself.
The episode is structured like many other WKRPs: a problem arises and is passed through each of the characters until a resolution is finally made. A very personable pastor named Dr. Bob Halyers comes to Mr. Carlson's office and announces he is with the Tri-Faith Broadcasting Advisory Committee and is heading its new task force CURB - Clean Up Radio Broadcasting. His group of "3000 Christians in Cincinnati alone" have been monitoring WKRP and heard a number of songs that they feel are offensive and are asking WKRP not to play them anymore. If the station doesn't comply, CURB will begin boycotting WKRP's advertisers.
At first, Mr. Carlson. a regular church-goer himself, is appalled by the lyrics and asks his staff to stop playing those songs. Remember, this is a character who, in the first season turned down a huge advertising deal from Ferryman Funeral Homes because he found the commercial to be in poor taste. "Righteous and Weak" is how he describes himself. Not playing those songs should solve the problem nice and simply, right?
Hold on! Andy is inherently suspicious of evangelicals because of issues he had with an aunt and uncle. Johnny just doesn't like to be told what he can or can't play. Venus shares Mr. Carlson's concerns about the subject matter in some of the music the station plays. But all three of them believe this is censorship, and oppose the list of banned songs on that principle. Johnny make the strongest case by saying, if they do stop playing these songs, next month the station will receive "another list, and after that another one and after that another one."
The camera stays on Carlson's reaction while Johnny makes this point. He realizes his simple solution won't work. Not playing a few songs will not make these people go away. As Dr. Bob stating when meeting with Mr. Carlson, CURB wants to "work together" with his program director to "help" WKRP play the kind of music they want to hear.
Dr. Bob is a great character because he is not an evil character. He has a valid argument to make: if his group is offended by what's played on the public airwaves, do they not have the democratic right to say so, and try to change it? As portrayed by Richard Paul, he is very calm and reasonable. In fact, Andy comes off as petulant in comparison. Richard Paul had been on TV for three years before this as Mayor Teddy Burnside on the show "Carter Country," in which he was a blowhard, low-level slimy mayor of a small southern town. He made a career of playing southern politicians, southern judges and southern ministers, culminating in his performance as Rev. Jerry Falwell (who he has always resembled) in the film "The People vs. Larry Flint."
And now we get to Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority History Lesson. Rev. Jerry Falwell was a founder and leader of the evangelical Christian organization. Created in 1979, The Moral Majority promoted what it considered a "tradition vision of family life," which included opposition to abortion, homosexuality and the Equal Rights Amendment. They were also opposed to media outlets which they claimed promoted an "anti-family agenda." (Thanks, Wikipedia). They were early financial supporters for Ronald Reagan's presidential bid in 1980 and he used them as advisors throughout his campaign. Falwell himself became a media celebrity by regularly appearing on talking head news programs to give the Moral Majorities opinions on events of the day.
I tell you all this to let you know that audiences of the day were familiar with how Falwell looked and sounded, and would be able to imagine his views of Rock and Roll. So when Richard Paul walks into the scene and says he's with the Tri-Faith Broadcasting Advisory Committee, they would read him immediately as a cipher for Jerry Falwell. They would also know that, to a small operation like WKRP, a "Moral Majority" could be a serious threat.
This episode pivots around the scene of Arthur visiting Dr. Bob at his office after the predicted second list arrives. It is a powerful scene in which Carlson arrives looking for a way out; looking for more of the congeniality he has seen from Bob, and has probably experienced from his own ministers in the past. By the time he leaves though, he realizes he is going to have to fight - there is no choice left to be made.
Carlson asks Dr. Bob to read the lyrics to John Lennon's "Imagine" and asks if this song would go on the list. Up to that point, there hasn't been a laugh in the show for about five minutes. We have been watching an informed and very civil debate about the rights of private businesses versus the rights of concerned citizens, censorship and choice, and the control of the few over the lives of so many. Dr. Bob reads the lyrics, including "imagine no religion" finally getting to the line "imagine no processions" to which he tosses the letter aside and proclaims "That sounds like Communism to me."
The crowd roars with laughter! They've been waiting for that relief for a long time (this is suppose to be a comedy, after all) and with that line, the point is made. This is just another type of McCarthyism, and the attack on rock and roll is a witch hunt meant to move political power to the small group Dr. Bob controls. It's a big important laugh, but Carlson is not laughing. He finally sees clearly what he is up against and what he and his station have to do.
Another big scene follows back in Mr. Carlson's office when he is visited by WKRP's most famous advertiser, Red Wigglers' owner Harvey Green. We get the sense Arthur and Harvey have known each other for years and I wonder if Red Wigglers would have been one of young Arthur's early clients when he was sales manager (easy to imagine Carlson the fisherman as a client of Red Wigglers - they ARE the Cadillac of Worms!) Harvey recognizes what CURB is about and what they are trying to do but he doesn't have the resources to fight back. He wants to do the right thing and stand beside his friend, but he is afraid. "I feel like a coward and I am ashamed!"
This is a scene most other televisions series would not have included, even if they had dared to write an episode like this. It's easy to write CURB as evil, not reasonable. It's easy to think of these advertisers who are bowing to pressure and being greedy and spineless. Once again, this episode is not simple. Carlson is magnanimous in letting Harvey off the hook (get it? Red Wigglers? Off the hook?) telling him he has made a wise business decision, all the while knowing his station is hurting.
Just before this, we saw Herb's fear. He is on the front line seeing what the CURB boycott is doing to the station and admits to Mr Carlson "I'm really scared, Big Guy! We're losing everything!"
Now it is Arthur Carlson's turn and he uses Dr. Bob's own charm offensive against him, telling him "I'm not sure giving up my freedom of decision is God's side." They continue to exchange biblical references until Dr. Bob says he'll need to learn to love his enemies. To which Arthur says "I don't think you're going to be able to trust your friends."
Boom! Mic drop!
Let's go back to 1981. "WKRP was an acclaimed show, but the ratings were weak. It was in real danger of being cancelled at this time, so as the conclusion of the third season, Andy telling Carlson he's going to fight CURB "tooth and nail" might have been the end of the series. Creator Hugh Wilson and Associate Producer Max Tash wrote this episode knowing this could be the case. So why possibly end this way? I think there may be two reasons: 1) the promised battle with CURB might make for something of a cliff hanger that could bring demand for renewal and 2) this was an issue they REALLY wanted to touch on while they still had a chance. Wilson saw the Moral Majority and their fight not as a rise of democracy, but as a challenge to freedom and he wanted to ring that bell as early as possible.
The season ends with Andy telling Carlson, that if need be, he has one final weapon against CURB. "I might even sick Les Nesman on them." Carlson replies "Boy, that might signal the end of organized religion as we know it!"
Other Notes - Look everybody, we actually get to see Bailey doing her job, scheduling commercials. Also look, she's not using a computer. The only computer at the station is Mr. Carlson's baseball game. Why is Jennifer so eager for Mr. Carlson to meet with Dr. Bob at the beginning of the episode - she sends people away all the time. Is it his Southern charm? The episode's title is "Clean Up Radio Everywhere" which would acronym to CURE? When did the change happen? Only one commercial is heard playing within this episode - during the meeting in the bullpen, we hear the Red Wigglers jingle.