Sunday, May 14, 2006

Throw Away Genius: WKRP in Cincinnati

WKRP was a late 1970's television show about a cast of mostly incompetent characters working at one of the worst-rated radio stations in Cincinnati. WKRP was funny, touching and brilliant and was helmed by great writing, producing and actors with an impeccable sense of comedic timing. The number of jokes in each episode was high. When many other programs labored to produce only a few funny moments per show, WKRP threw away more laugh-out-loud gags per minute than you could count.

In this YouTube clip is an example of the unique genius that was the television show WKRP, the fine point of which is missed by many. This clip is usually referenced as the episode when WKRP disc jockey Dr. Johnny Fever, played by Howard Hessman, deigned to play one of the Top 40 songs from the stations' mandatory playlist. One of the running gags of the show was that Johnny refused to play songs from the official list as a matter of principle. Partly because he thought the music was poor and partly because he liked to stick it to the management.

In the episode "The Doctor's Daughter" (18 Feb 1980) Johnny finally meets his estranged daughter and hates her boyfriend. After a few attempts to be a Dad, Johnny realizes it is too late to make up for all those years of his absence. Or is it? Johnny and his daughter come to an understanding of sorts and after she leaves, Johnny later receives a letter.

The letter, which is read at the end of the show, is done in the familiar device of the scribe speaking in a voice-over as the recipient reads along silently. Now here is where the genius comes in.

After putting on to play a Top 40 song, Johnny reads the letter. He smiles and nods at appropriate moments and turns the letter over to continue reading, flips the page back to re-read a sentence and turns the letter over again. All the while the voice-over stays in perfect synch with Johnny's reading.

As I said, genius. And throw away genius, at that. The realistic way Johnny read the letter with the interrupted voice-over synchronization was a great gimmick that probably went unnoticed by many. The show was full of moments like that.


  1. An absolute favorite show of mine and not just because I'm more or less in Cincinnati. Brilliant ensemble cast worked so well together, the jokes were natural and the serious moments well balanced. If only the well-chosen music didn't keep it from being a huge success on DVD and/or in syndication!!

    Oh, even the brief revival version with French Stewart and Tawny Kitaen was well done!
    I've got some cool WKRP stuff to blog about at some point myself!

  2. Wow, that was neat! Throw-away genius, for sure. I believe the dvd release is being held up by music liscencing issues:(

  3. phillip is right.

    its a shame too, cause I love that show.

    the simple elegance of Nessman's bandaids, the brilliance of Tarlick's promotions...wonderful.

    i'd love to have it sit right next to NewsRadio on the DVD shelf.

  4. There were some releases with new music being added in place of the original tunes, but that won't work in some shows and also takes away from the originality. Some shows also had the storyline based on a certain song.

    While I don't know all the complexities surrounding the licensing I find it hard to believe that many obscure, old songs that don't sell now anyways would do anything but benefit from some exposure.

  5. Ah, it's good to see other people who appreciate WKRP... I wish they'd clear up the licensing issues and release the DVDs, if for no other reason than to see Johnny running from the phone cops again...

  6. CAN ANYONE HELP ME?! I'm trying to remember a character from WKRP, one of my favorite shows ever, to include in a book about philosophy that I'm currently writing. I THINK it was WKRP, at least--I hope so, because I'd love to be able to talk about the show in the midst of discussing the mind-body problem, etc etc.

    This is what I'm looking for: Does anyone remember a character (dark hair and forty-ish, from what I recall) who appears on the show and whose schtick is that he DOESN'T LAUGH? I can't remember anything else about him--job, relation to the show. The only thing I remember is that, when other people are laughing and there are lots of crazy things happening around him, he keeps a straight face and says: "I'M LAUGHING HERE [pointing to his chest], WHERE IT COUNTS".

    Am I completely inventing this character, or does anyone else remember it???? I was just looking at an episode-by-episode breakdown, but the guy was too minor a character to warrant any discussion. PLEASE HELP!!!

  7. Sounds more like Night Court. I don't recall that at all in WKRP but maybe it was the second series.

  8. Ugh, I hope it wasn't Night Court. That barely deserves to be talked about in the same breath as WKRP.

    Now that I think of it, the character I'm thinking about sort of resembles one that I'm sure was on KRP. It's a government official who, at a late stage of the Carter administration, has a portrait of Gerald Ford on his wall. When he talks about a larger government office in Cleveland, he smiles meekly and says, "They have a Carter."


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