Monday, May 08, 2006

More WKRP Clips

Here are some more "WKRP in Cincinnati" clips, of scenes that I particularly like. Warning: if you don't like "WKRP in Cincinnati," or the cast, or Hugh Wilson, well, there will be other, non-WKRP posts. But I wanted to post about it a few times, because I think of "WKRP" as the most underrated of the great '70s sitcoms.

"WKRP" has never really had a reputation on a par with "Taxi" or "Mary Tyler Moore" or "Barney Miller" or "M*A*S*H," but I think it was actually the best sitcom of its era when it came to the most important thing a sitcom can do: create memorable, distinctive characters and create comedy from those characters, instead of a lot of extraneous jokes. The characters on "WKRP" were all so well-defined that seeing them act out of character, even slightly out of character, could be inherently funny, and the characters all had different and well-defined relationships to each other, so you could put any two characters together in a scene and get a different type of comedy out of it.

The other thing Wilson did with the show was give it more variety than most sitcoms: it's not just that they'd do an occasional "very special episode," like the one about the Who concert in Cincinnati where kids were trampled to death; they would actually change the style and tone from week to week depending on what the story was about. So one week it would be a farce, another week a dramedy, still another week a traditional sitcom story and still another week an extended comedy sketch (there is one episode, "Hotel Oceanview," that is literally an adaptation of a Toronto Second City sketch by the same writer). "Mary Tyler Moore" and other MTM and MTM-style shows valued consistency in style and tone; "WKRP" fluctuated and experimented more, which may explain why it was treated as the red-headed stepchild at MTM ("I wouldn't watch it" -- Mary Tyler Moore).

So, anyway, here are today's clips for your delectation:



One of the most famous moments of the series, the "Ferryman" jingle from the episode "A Commercial Break" (co-written by Richard Sanders, the actor who played Les Nessman; he wrote five episodes of the series, most of them very good). The premise of the episode, that the radio station's new advertising client is a funeral home that wants to advertise to young people (to get them to make their funeral arrangements early) is the kind of dark/absurd premise that, in the words of commenter "John", was "doing humor in prime-time that up until that point had been limited to the "Saturday Night Live" skits on NBC."





For a good example of the strength of the characters and how they can be funny without any one-liners or obvious "jokes," here's a clip from the episode "Frog Story," where Herb has accidentally killed Greenpeace, his daughter's pet frog. Each character has his or her own reaction to the totally absurd death ("NewsRadio" would do a similar story about the death of a rat), and the scene is funny even though there's hardly a line in it that sounds like a setup or punchline.





An excerpt from the second-season opener, "For Love Or Money," which shows the way "WKRP" sometimes incorporated influences from sketch/improv comedy; I've mentioned before that there were a number of writers from Second City, but this particular episode was more a tribute to the comedy troupe The Committee: with Howard Hesseman joined as guest star by fellow Committee member Julie Payne, they reportedly started improvising on set, to the point that showrunner Hugh Wilson decided to incorporate the improvisation and expand their scenes together -- to the point that what was planned as a single episode wound up being rewritten, on the set, into a two-parter. In this scene, Johnny takes his ex-girlfriend Buffy (Payne) to Jennifer's apartment, hoping to rekindle their old affair, only to discover what his fond memories of Buffy had blocked out: she's a nut, and she's planning on suing him. My favourite bit in the scene, which is clearly an improvised bit: "I've learned to deal with materialism by really getting into it, so really I'm free of it."





This next clip is from the episode "Changes" (season 4), another episode written by Toronto Second City's own Peter Torokvei. The episode uses two parallel plots that intersect: Venus, learning he's going to be interviewed by a militant black magazine, tries to dress and act in a way that's more in touch with what he thinks of as modern black culture; while Jennifer offers to turn Herb's career around by teaching him to dress and act tastefully. The way it all plays out goes beyond the usual "just be yourself" sitcom episode. This scene, from near the beginning of act 2, brings the two stories together for the first time and also incorporates a topical political joke.





The episode "Baby, It's Cold Inside" (the heat conks out in the station and various characters start drinking to warm themselves up) is a 25-minute character study of the station owner, Mama Carlson; it does a really exceptional job of taking a character who hadn't appeared very often up to that point and not only filling us in on her backstory, but giving her a specific way of interacting with every regular character on the show. By the end of the episode, we know all kinds of things about a character we barely knew before, and we can also infer some things about the regular characters (like Jennifer's own similarity to Mama Carlson). In this scene near the end, Mama Carlson blackmails Johnny into playing Gershwin's "Someone To Watch Over Me," giving the wonderful musical-theatre performer Carol Bruce a chance to show off her great throaty voice. Herb mouthing the lyrics as she sings is a nice humanizing touch for that character.





From the episode "Venus and the Man" (season 3), written by Hugh Wilson, a great little self-contained scene for Les Nessman where he explains the history of music and the influences that created it (warning: high volume level):



Also, this is a little very-special-episode-ish, but I'll post it because it's hard to bring up "Venus and the Man" without mentioning it, and because ten zillion physics teachers have used this clip in class -- the scene where Venus explains the structure of the atom:




And finally, a famous example of the way the show used popular music: some excerpts from scenes in "For Love Or Money" that make use of the song "After the Love is Gone" by Earth, Wind and Fire.



4 comments:

Mark Mayerson said...

I'd be curious if you have any thoughts on Hugh Wilson's next sitcom, Frank's Place, which starred Tim Reid. It only lasted a season, but I thought the show was one of the most interesting I'd ever seen in that the tone shifted radically every week. That may have been what prevented it from catching on, but I was fascinated to watch them constantly taking off in new directions.

user said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ward Jenkins said...

The above comment was not me, but an imposter. Very sorry about that.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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