Though "WKRP in Cincinnati" will probably never be on DVD (music rights, music rights, and music rights are the three reasons why), I have a lot of episodes on tape, so I thought I'd occasionally post some clips from the show, just to remind us all what we're missing.
In this post, I've Youtub'd some clips from probably the best episode of the series, "Real Families," which aired in November 1980. It was written (with the usual rewrites by creator/showrunner Hugh Wilson) by Peter Torokvei. Torokvei had come to WKRP from Toronto Second City, where he, Steve Kampmann (another future WKRP writer), Robin Duke and Martin Short were part of a cast that Second City producer Andrew Alexander called "One of the funniest stage casts I have had the pleasure of producing." Torokvei's material for WKRP has that Second City style to it sometimes: absurd in a deadpan sort of way, and at once fascinated and repelled by the effects of pop culture on the way we live our lives.
The idea of "Real Families" is that the sleazy sales manager Herb (Frank Bonner) is profiled on a reality show that picks one "average" person every week and finds out whether they're really as average as they claim to be. Herb is determined to make a great impression on the show, and the hosts of the show (Peter Marshall and Daphne Maxwell) are just as determined to embarrass him. The entire episode is shot as an episode of "Real Families," with no audience or laugh track, and a semi-improvised feel -- though most of the material was in fact scripted.
In this clip, the hosts show up when Herb isn't expecting them, and Herb, caught off guard, tries to prove he's a clean-living man by taking his family to church -- even though it soon becomes apparent that he has no idea where to find a church. This is followed by a clip of Herb trying to do all kinds of "average American" things for the camera and failing at each one of them: barbecuing, throwing the football around with his son, making small talk. The clip ends with a funny-grim scene of Herb's family spaced out in front of the television, and has Herb's wife Lucille (Edie McClurg) taking a little dig at the show "Little House on the Prairie," which was killing WKRP in the ratings at the time.
The next clip has the hosts going to all Herb's colleagues at WKRP, asking them to say what they think of Herb. Every one of them robotically recites the famous line "He's a hard worker, a loyal husband, and an all-around fine person." Though Bailey (Jan Smithers) has some trouble getting it right.
In the next clip, after a couple of fun bits for Jennifer (Loni Anderson) and Johnny (Howard Hesseman), the hosts go to work exposing Herb in front of the TV audience, discovering that he doesn't actually do his job, and when he does, it usually ends in disaster. The "dancing ducks" promotion is based on a disastrous promotion that actually happened at a radio station Hugh Wilson worked with in Atlanta.
And here are the last few minutes of the episode, where both Lucille and Herb turn on the hosts, especially Herb, who kicks the camera crew out with an impassioned Howard Beale-ish rant about television in general ("Nothing on the tube is real! Not even in the news!"). But it doesn't end there; there's a bitter little tag scene that reminds us that people will subject to any humiliation and like it, as long as they can get on television.
And then, after a brief "I Love Lucy" reference, the famous gibberish closing theme song, and the MTM Kitten, the episode is over.
Obviously this isn't a typical "WKRP" episode, but it does demonstrate how strong the characters were: they're so distinctive that even in their very brief bits reciting the same line ("hard worker, loyal husband..."), each one does it in a different way that is appropriate for his or her character: Les (Richard Sanders) tosses it off and goes right back to talking about the only thing that matters, his brilliant work as a newsman; Jennifer just tosses it off dismissively; Bailey stammers and gets nervous. And the episode is great both as a satire of television and its effect on everyday life, and as a character study of the slimy but pathetic and kind of likable-in-spite-of-everything Herb.
Most of all, I love the fact that Wilson usually kept "WKRP" relatively free of easy setup-punchline jokes, or extraneous jokes; the characters never sound like they're clever joke machines, but rather they sound like people and the humour comes from the characters and the way they react to particular situations. Hesseman recalled that if you suggested a joke to Wilson, he'd often say: "That's a good joke, but it's off-story," and reject it for that reason.