Friday, 20 April 2018

Ep. 66 Clean Up Radio Everywhere

April 20, 2018

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!"

The episode ends with Dr. Bob once again visiting Arthur to see if WKRP is prepared to relent. Andy is furious and wants Jennifer to throw the man out but Carlson won't hear of it. He scolds Andy for being rude to a "Man of God," insisting his followers "are not 'nuts'!" Andy is rude, refusing to shake Dr. Bob's hand and trying to argue with him about the free market. But Dr. Bob is ready for those sorts of arguments and coolly shuts him down.

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!"

Roy

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.










Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Ep. 65 - Till Debt Do Us Part

April 11, 2018

Writers: Howard Hesseman and Steven Kampmann
Director: Frank Bonner
Original Air Date: April 5, 1981

I think this episode and the previous episode "Nothing to Fear But..." should be watched together as a double feature. Not because the topics are similar at all, but because the tones of the episodes are so different. Together these episodes show the range of moods and feelings "WKRP in Cincinnati" were prepared to cover. This was a show that trusted its audience to move not just between characters and stories, but between mood and approach.

Last week's episode was co-written by Tim Reid and exists to illustrate a particular social topic. This week's episode was co-written by Howard Hesseman and it really shows. The episode is almost entirely a acting clinic from Hesseman, with very little left for the rest of the cast to do. This is in fact Hesseman's sole writing credit on IMDB.com

The set-up is very simple: Johnny's first ex-wife, the mother of the daughter we met in season 2, is getting remarried, which means Johnny will no longer have to pay her alimony, so he is ecstatic! He's even planning a vacation with the money he's going to save. He says he doesn't care who she marries "Mr. and Mrs. Hitler? Fine by me!" but when he actually comes face-to-face with both her and her future husband, old feeling are stirred up.

Hesseman is taing Johnny out on an emotional limb with this story, so he put a lot of safety nets around himself. Frank Bonner, who directed the "Doctor's Daughter" episode is back directing here. And do you recognize guy playing Buddy Graves? That's Del Murdock, the very fast talking owner of Del's Stereo Shop from the first season episode "The Hold Up," performed by Hamilton Camp. Camp was a long-time friend of Hesseman's from their days in the improv group The Committee. Loni Anderson is used as Johnny's pretend girlfriend for the double-date, which in her uncomfortableness is very funny. But how much more interesting would it have been to bring Bailey, the woman he wants to take to Jamaica?

This episode is also very quiet. The joke with the couples ordering champagne at Johnny's favourite restaurant (which is really only open in the middle of the night) and actually being served gauspachu soup by a nice lady who doesn't speak English, just comes off as depressing, not funny.

The whole experience makes me think that Howard Hesseman's personal sense of humour may have been more in vogue in today's television climate, rather than in 1981. Finding the comedy in this awkward personal distress is more in like with shows like "Louie" or ""You're the Worst" than WKRP or other MTM shows.

As a final decision from me, I don't think this episode has the same emotional pay-off for the original "Doctor's Daughter" episode. In that one, we had the sense that Johnny had been kept form his daughter through circumstances and that this was a chance for them to finally come together. He always loved her. In "Till Debt..." Johnny resents paying wife alimony. He's talked about it for year as being the thing that has kept him trapped in the lifestyle he finds himself. The first half of the episode echoes this. Heck, even the title of the episode echoes this.

So for him to finally thank her for raising their daughter, and admitting he still has some attraction to her, no matter how well Hesseman performs it, it doesn't ring true.

What does ring true, and what finally ends the episode on a joyous note, is Les' excitement at the dream of traveling to Nebraska! This may answer the question of how the travel agency industry has almost died, but radio continues to live on.

Roy



Friday, 6 April 2018

Ep. 64- Nothing to Fear But...

April 6, 2018

Story: Tim Reid; Teleplay: Dan Guntzelman
Director: Asaad Kelada
Original Air Date: March 28, 1981

This is episode with a sneaky good script. At first glance, it unfolds in the way many WKRP episodes do... something happens and we move from character to character to see how each one deals with it. Also, WKRP was always a show that liked to take on issues of the day, and that happens here as well. However, differently than other episodes, here the characters reactions change over the course of the show, and the issue of guns and crime don't overshadow fun storytelling.

Within the cold opening, we see the station being burgled. Everyone has a different response. Bailey feels violated, like everything she touches is dirty. Mr. Carlson is shocked because he's never been robbed before. He takes the robbery very personally, asking Jennifer "Why would someone do this to me?"

But look at Venus' response.We can tell he HAS been robbed before and doesn't take it as a personal attack at all. "It was just our turn" he tells the others, as if the randomness of the robbery would somehow calm everyone down. Venus' perspective is a very important one because this episode was co-written by the actor Tim Reid. This is his impression on how his character, as both a black man and former Vietnam soldier would react to this situation. At first, he is calm, because he has seen this kind of thing before. But then, he paranoia starts to grow. Venus is more effected by the burglary than he is letting on. Johnny reacts the same way.

Les' reaction is one of nihilistic acceptance. "Modern society as we know it is doomed to a painful and stinking death!" he cheerfully informs the others. I don't think he realizes that, if that were the case, he would be the first person eaten by the masses, but whatever.

Herb's reaction is typical both for the times and for today... he buys a gun. Notice that they are robbed at the beginning of the week, maybe Monday or Tuesday, and Herb has the handgun in his desk by the time of Friday's party.

Compared to that, Mr. Carlson's reaction is reasonable given an unreasonable situation. He gets a fancy alarm for the front door.

The advertisers party is a great mechanism for the script. It puts our entire company in the building after regular closing hours and gives us a lot of great one-liners to balance out the drama happening upstairs. Les finds someone we would think is his paranoid equal at the party quoting John Donne's poem of "For Whom the Bell Tolls," but Les just casts aside young man with an indignant "What bell?"

Another throwaway joke is Andy hitting on the coatcheck girl. We've seen him do this in the past (say, with a candy stripper at the hospital) so it's well disguised that this turns out, in the very end, to be the turning point of the episode.

In the darkness of the station, Venus and Johnny's cool give way to hearing things go bump in the night. It's fascinating to watch the two men, who say later they "know better than this," move from mocking Herb for saying the burglars should be shot for stealing office furniture, to wondering where the gun is, to patrolling the halls with a loaded handgun.

Let's think about that for a moment: what is Herb's plan with having a loaded handgun in his desk at work? Is he planning on shooting a burglar? In the office? Herb might like to think of himself as a Charles Bronson tough guy, but would he ever really pull the trigger? Of course not - he isn't a killer. So it's much more likely that he would shoot himself or one of his co-workers accidently by just leaving a loaded gun in his desk.

Speaking of shooting a co-worker accidentally, Venus pulls a loaded handgun on Andy coming out of Mr. Carlson's office, as Johnny, Carlson and Les look on in panic. Gary Sandy moves quickly from terror to anger to embarrassment as it is revealed he is sneaking around in Mr. Carlson's office because he is canoodling with that same coatcheck girl.  Not so embarrassed that he doesn't bring her back into the booth with him, but shaken none the less.

Of course, the lesson comes at the end when, after all the alarms and guns, the station still got robbed of their coats and purses because the coatcheck girl wasn't at the party.

It has been a lasting fascination for me of how much the issues raised on "WKRP in Cincinnati" are the same issues being raised today, thirty-seven years later. However, at the time I'm writing this particular blog, the "March for Our Lives" in the wake of the Parkland FL school shooting has dominated the news. The issue of gun control has never been more at hand. And here comes WKRP, raising the same questions about guns in society America is wrestling with today.

Roy

Other Notes: This is the first time Asaad Kelada has directed an episode since Season One.

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...

"Hirsch!"

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.

Roy

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.

Roy

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...

http://www.holdmyorderterribledresser.com/2018/02/hmotd-051-listen-up-fellow-babies.html

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.

Roy

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."

Roy

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.