Monday, July 20, 2009

WKRP Foreshadowing

In comments to the final episode, commenter Andy Rose points out that the big revelation is "a little hard to swallow":

While the station may have been financially beneficial to Mrs. Carlson as a write-off, surely it would be much more beneficial as a burgeoning success. (Note how she and Johnny speak about this in a very roundabout way... I presume the writers could never come up with a more precise explanation that would make sense.)

While nothing could make this situation completely plausible, it was actually supposed to be set up a little more than it was. The script for an unproduced episode called "Another Merry Mix-Up" actually contained a scene where Mama Carlson's accountant arrives to look over the books, and is disturbed by the fact that the station is starting to turn a profit.

The script never got beyond a first draft because CBS vetoed it due to the subject matter: it was about Mr. Carlson finding, and smoking, what he thinks is a marijuana joint. (He smokes it to calm his nerves for the meeting with his mother's accountant; after Jennifer tells him that she tried it once -- "In international waters" -- he realizes that his teacher must have lied to him when she said one puff would ruin his life forever.) Though the joint turns out to be oregano, CBS wouldn't allow the script to be produced.

I have a photocopy of the script; I haven't said much about it yet because I'm not yet sure what to say: because it's a first-draft script by a staff writer, it's inevitably not nearly as funny as a finished script. (If it had been produced, the final version wouldn't have been that similar to the script except in terms of scenes and structure.) But I'll do a post about it eventually; meanwhile, here's the dialogue about the station's unexpected profits, which (if the episode had been produced) would have foreshadowed the finale.

The fact that Carlson is unusually prepared and on top of things in this scene is supposed to come from the burst of confidence he got from smoking the "joint."

EMMETT [the accountant]: There's just one problem.

CARLSON: What's that?

EMMETT: That can be worse than losing money in terms of the overall corporate picture at Carlson Industries.

ANDY: It can?

CARLSON: Of course. It gives us triple leverage for a write-off.

ANDY (lost): Uh-huh.

EMMETT: Showing a profit where one is unexpected could have tax repercussions all the way down in the lingerie division.

ANDY: We have a lingerie division?

CARLSON: Oh, boy, do we.

ANDY: I didn't know that.

CARLSON (to Emmett): I'm sorry about unexpected profits. I guess you'll just have to start expecting them.

So that scene, if produced, would have made it a little clearer that WKRP is more valuable to the company as a big write-off than a small profit-maker.


Geoff said...

There is still a pretty blatant continuity problem in the context of the entire series: if Mrs. Carlson wanted the station to continue to bleed money, then why did she hire Andy to begin with? Why didn't she just leave the station as it was at the start of the series, playing nothing but elevator music?

I still like the concept, and viewed just in the context of the final season, as the station creeps up on success, it comes across in that final episode almost startling.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

There is still a pretty blatant continuity problem in the context of the entire series: if Mrs. Carlson wanted the station to continue to bleed money, then why did she hire Andy to begin with? Why didn't she just leave the station as it was at the start of the series, playing nothing but elevator music?

Not that it's really important, but you can actually make sense of that. Remember, in the pilot we learn that it was Mr. Carlson who hired Andy, and Mrs. Carlson is ready to let Andy go until her son stands up for him and threatens to quit if Andy leaves.

So seen in that light, the finale is the second time she makes a bad business decision to spare her son's feelings. The first was the pilot.

Griff said...

You've probably made reference to this at some point, but it always fascinates me to contrast WKRP with Universal's flop 1978 radio station comedy FM. The Ezra Sacks screenplay clumsily misreads almost every humorous situation -- or comic possibilty -- inherent in the material, and the film's characters are mostly smug and self-satisfied; there's not much for the audience to root for, though Martin Mull has some bright moments. Part of the film's narrative problem is that FM's colorless radio station isn't struggling or even unsuccessful like the endearing WKRP, it's simply endangered for some arbitrary plot-driving reason. The movie shows the station's fans rallying to its support, but we don't much care. Since FM opened and flopped before WKRP actually premiered, I wonder what lessons Hugh Wilson might have drawn from its failure. [If this has already been discussed here, I apologize.]

It would have been interesting to learn -- if the show had been renewed for another season -- just how much of a drain the unexpected "success" of the station might have on the Carlson empire; it might have become a running sub-plot.

J Lee said...

Actually, I think had the first draft script made it into the final season's filming schedule, it would have taken away a lot of the effect of the "reveal" Johnny comprehends when Mrs. Carlson tries to be cryptic about why she wants to change WKRP's format to all-news in the final episode, let alone the impact of her change of heart to prevent Johnny from telling the Big Guy that his mom set him up to be a failure.

The final epsiode doesn't spell out the profit/loss/tax write-off scenario as well as the scene with Mr. Carlson and the accountant would have, but not doing that allows you to go into the other scene as unaware as Johnny is on why the mother Carlson plans to make the chance.

Andy Rose said...

Very interesting... thanks for sharing that, Jaime. I had no idea there was ever a larger plan for that plot point.

David said...

I've always thought this episode was ironic in that AM radio's days as a home for stations playing popular music were numbered at the time that it aired, though of course no one knew that. Within a few years, the boom in FM radio had many AM stations abandoning music in favor of--guess what?--news and talk formats.

stevef said...

I actually worked in a Cincinnati radio station that was indeed a tax write-off, and yeah, if it made too much money, it created a problem. I remember the manager referring to us as "the real life WKRP." The tax laws were changed in the mid-80's so that companies couldn't shelter a station like that. The Big Revelation viewed today is quite dated.

Actually, switching format to all-talk in the early 80's was perfect timing. Mamma Carlson just stepping in her own bear trap. Now that would've been fun to see in teh next season.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Griff: The WKRP pilot was written, and possibly produced, before FM came out, but CBS's decision to pick up the show was apparently (I've read) based on their belief that FM was going to be a hit, because the movie came out while the network was trying to decide whether to buy it. (It's rare for a network to have time to develop a show that is an intended copy of a current movie, but it's very common for them to pick up something that has a similar subject.) The movie flopped, but the show made it.

I don't know if there were any lessons specifically learned from the failure of FM, though it seems like the early emphasis on wacky behind-the-scenes radio stories (concert promotion, contests, listener protests) might have been influenced by the movie itself, and the turn to smaller stories might have been influenced by FM's failure, since it proved that wacky radio stories weren't as popular as character-based stories. But it's hard to know, chronologically, and of course Wilson would have tried to put a bunch of radio urban legends into the early episodes in any case.

Wilson's pitch to the network, that the show was about "The dungarees vs the suits" (which he then wrote into an episode) might have been a somewhat FM-influenced pitch, and it's something the show soon abandoned.