Friday, June 02, 2006

A Book For WKultists

As a pre-emptive measure against my writing any more "WKRP in Cincinnati" posts, I will point out that there actually is a book on the series: "America's Favorite Radio Station: WKRP in Cincinnati" by Michael B. Kassel. Kassel interviewed many key people from the show -- Hugh Wilson of course; some of his staff writers; and some of the actors -- and does a pretty good job of collecting most of the key anecdotes about it, from the incomprehensible theme song to the network's bizarre treatment of the show (changing its time slot every couple of months).

The book is not perfect; it's clumsily written at times and doesn't have a lot to say about exactly why a show that sort of had second-tier status at the time (MTM didn't like it much; CBS pretty much hated it; "Taxi" beat it every single year at the Emmys) somehow wound up becoming a cult sensation, to the point that people like me can't stop talking about it. What does this show have that makes it so fondly remembered, not in a "cheesy nostalgia" way but a "that was a really great show" way? I have my own theories, some of which I've dealt with in earlier posts, plus an additional theory that it gets a boost from its quite phenomenal popularity with radio-industry people (sort of like how "The Dick Van Dyke Show" for a long time was like a shrine for aspiring TV comedy writers). Kassel doesn't really illuminate what set "WKRP" apart, but he certainly does a good job of providing the details of what it was and how it came to be.

One thing the book confirms is that it was Blake Hunter (a writer who was there for the whole run of the show) who was responsible for "WKRP"'s unusual degree of episode-to-episode continuity. Hunter says in the book that he kept notes of every character detail mentioned in a script -- what kind of car the character drives, family issues, previous jobs he or she held -- and made sure that these details were kept consistent in every subsequent episode: so that, for example, in one episode Herb mentions offhand that he's going to buy a Cordoba (with fine Corinthian leather!), and in an episode a year later he mentions that he is, in fact, driving a Cordoba. Hunter was enough of a continuity obsessive that the last script he wrote for "WKRP" was an attempt to resolve the continuity issues with the Venus Flytrap character: the whole episode is an extended retcon that might strike even a sci-fi fan as a little geeky (and I mean that in a good way; it's a great episode). WKRP's final season also had several story threads that ran through nearly the entire season, which was fairly unusual for a non-soapy television show at the time.

All that geeky continuity stuff may help to explain why WKRP fans can be as obsessive as fans of a science-fiction show: because if you watch enough episodes you start spotting the cross-references and the little biographical details that the characters drop about themselves (there are several "WKRP" characters for whom you could piece together an entire coherent back-story based solely on the "throwaway" jokes, especially Jennifer), and you sort of feel like the show is creating a world. "Barney Miller" did that too to a certain extent, and "Soap" did, but other ensemble shows didn't; M*A*S*H, for example, had real trouble keeping details straight from episode to expisode, let alone season to season. And there's my last attempt at trying to explain why I'm a "WKRP" fanboy, whereas with most shows I'm just a fan.

And that will be all I'll write about that show until such time as the damn music issues are worked out and it can be released to the public again. I still think it could be done, at a reasonable cost, if the essential songs were retained but music changes were made in spots where the audience wouldn't notice (like five-second snippets at the beginning or end of a scene, or background music that isn't clearly heard). Oh, well. Here's hoping Fox's music people eventually see it that way.

Until then, at least I managed to get the complete "Frog Story" episode onto YouTube.

Addendum: I also uploaded my single favourite "WKRP" joke, from the episode "Carlson For President."


Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that most sitcoms are pretty terrible about continuity of details regarding characters' lives. Just about the only thing "The Golden Girls," for example, ever kept straight was that Bea Arthur's character Dorothy was married to her ex-husband for 38 years before they divorced. Pretty much everything else about the lives of the ladies on that show was subject to enormous inconsistency from episode to episode. Such things seem like nit-picking, but when a show like "WKRP" goes to the trouble to keep details straight and consistent throughout the run of the series, it does much to increase viewer empathy and character likability.

VP81955 said...

I'm surprised more series don't follow "WKRP's" lead and have someone who scrupulously checks for continuity in backstory and character, as those inconsistencies are revealed when the show is run five days a week in syndication or put on DVD. (So exactly how old are Sabrina's aunts?) Such "quality control" not only makes the characters more vivid, but probably also makes it easier for writers to pinpoint ideas for lines or jokes.

Anonymous said...

I'm a lurker. In response to Frog Story, thank you for that [and for all the clips you've posted] as it's one of my favorites and I hadn't seen it complete in awhile. (I'm a Frank Bonner fangirl in the worst way.) I've been trying like mad to hunt down somebody who can supply me with uncut episodes as I'm too young to have been around for them and my collection is lacking. Not easy.

In regards to continuity, it's a shame more shows don't take the time to insure their credibility and promote character purity. I recall a complaint on Jump the Shark regarding Herb drinking on The New WKRP, but it's probably best not to bother pointing out continuity errors on that series.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed the fact that the great Sylvia Sydney appeared as Carlsons mom in an early episode, perhaps the pilot, and also that her home was decorated with NC Wyeth oils. It's been a long time so correct me if I'm wrong.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Sidney did play Carlson's mother in the pilot; when they brought the character back as a recurring character, Sidney wasn't available, so it was re-cast with the veteran musical-theatre performer Carol Bruce (Do I Hear a Waltz?, Louisiana Purchase).

And yes, Mama Carlson did have N.C. Wyeth paintings in her house.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I have my own theories, some of which I've dealt with in earlier posts, plus an additional theory that it gets a boost from its quite phenomenal popularity with radio-industry people (sort of like how "The Dick Van Dyke Show" for a long time was like a shrine for aspiring TV comedy writers).

That's pretty much it in a nutshell. Except for nit-picky details (the jocks never seemed to wear headphones, for example), WKRP was a spot-on representation of the industry (I worked in radio a long time ago, so I know whereof I speak). I enjoy your WKRP posts, Jaime--they bring back so many memories of an unjustly cancelled sitcom that was waaaay ahead of its time.

Patrick Wahl said...

I liked the show but in no way would I rate it as highly as you do. I always felt that Gordon Jump was a weak link in the cast as an actor, he just didn't feel that natural as a comedian to me, I thought all of his stammering and blundering about had a mannered feel to it. Wonder if anyone else has similar opinions on the guy or if it is just me. I think the best and most natural actor of the bunch was Howard Hesseman, hands down.