Let me tell you why I love “WKRP in Cincinnati.”
I watched a lot of TV as a kid. A good four to six hours a day sometimes. Which is especially amazing when you consider how little there was, compared to what we have now. (Three channels. No TiVo. No cable. My daughters simply do not believe this was the way TV worked when I was a kid. My daughters thought that Spider-Man was a real person, but they don’t believe me when I tell them this.)
But “WKRP” still stands out in my memory, and not just because it was good.
“WKRP” was a mildly successful sitcom in the late 70s and early 80s about life at a struggling AM radio station in Cincinnati, Ohio. I got to see it both when it was first-run — my dad let me watch with him — and later, in syndication.
The show struggled to find an audience — it was moved around the schedule constantly — and was dissed by Mary Tyler Moore herself (“Let me put it this way: I wouldn’t watch it.”), even though her company produced it. CBS clashed with the series’ creators about the show’s direction, and it was canceled after four seasons.
Despite all that, the show produced some of the best television around at the time, including one legendary Thanksgiving episode. (“As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”)
“WKRP” is the spiritual godfather to workplace comedies like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” and “Scrubs” — a group of zany characters, all trapped in a zany place, doing zany things. Like so many other shows, it was about a bunch of lovable losers — and they were losers, there was no getting around that.
Andy Travis, the program director hired to turn the station around, was a success — and then he came to the lowest-rated station in a dead-end market. Dr. Johnny Fever was a big-time L.A. DJ once — and then he said the wrong thing on the air and was blacklisted in the business. Herb Tarlek is a terrible salesman and a failure even as a sleazy lounge lizard. Les Nessman, the station’s news reporter, can’t pronounce most of the names in his stories and is obsessed with hogs and communism. The station’s general manager, Arthur Carlson, only has a job because his mother owns the station.
They are all trapped together in Cincinnati. I know now that their sets were limited by the budgets and designs of TV at the time, but it really looked like they spent their time in an ugly office before going home to cramped, cheap apartments. I could picture them even when the camera was not on them, heating something out of a can, watching bad sitcoms from the couch, before shuffling off to bed and starting the whole process again in the morning. Their lives were lonely, and like most lonely people, they were weird and complicated and sometimes hard to like.
I suspect that’s what makes a show like WKRP so rare now. You saw glimpses of it in “Community,” but it's not easy to sell a show about losers to a studio or a network or an audience. Real life deals enough loss to all of us.
That's not to say there are no losers on TV anymore. But other shows invite us to laugh at those characters — that Michael Scott, he’s such a moron; that Kramer, he’s so weird; and so on. We get to look down on them from behind a thick, protective coating of irony. We get to be the winners while they struggle.
The characters at WKRP aren’t so easily mocked. (Aside from the fashions and music from thirty years ago, I mean.) They tried too hard, and there’s nothing that’s so repellent to ironic distance as actual effort.
Here’s a good example, from the first season — and one of my favorite episodes. WKRP sponsors a band called “Scum of the Earth” and it’s a disaster from the moment the exceedingly well-dressed men show up. After abusing and insulting everyone within spitting distance, they refuse to play. So Andy and Venus and (reluctantly) Johnny have to beat them up to get them onstage.
It’s probably the smallest joke in the whole episode. (Johnny’s weary sigh: “Rock and roll.”) But as a metaphor, it’s pretty perfect.
Everyone at WKRP knows, on some level, that they’re all stuck. They know they’re never going to make the real big time. The ones who were there before, like Andy and Johnny, know they don’t really belong.
But they never stop aiming for something a little better. Not too much better. They’ll fight for it. Literally punch people in the head for it, if necessary, for reasons that aren’t too clear anymore.
And most of the time, they still fail. We can laugh about it. They do. (Eventually. Usually.) But it’s hard to look down on them for that. It seems a little too close to what we all do every day. We all need to believe we’ve got a shot — or at least a sense of humor — or we wouldn’t get out of bed. Especially on those cold, gray, winter mornings in Ohio.
(Note: I first published this, with minor differences, on August 20, 2014. It was lost from the site when my host service crashed a while ago. I went to the trouble of finding it again and re-posting it now because Hugh Wilson, the creator of WKRP, passed away over the weekend. RIP, Mr. Wilson. You made something great.)