Saturday, January 17, 2009

WKRP in Cincinnati

Since the show went on the air in the late '70s, I have been a huge fan of WKRP in Cincinnati. It's one of my favorite workplace comedies of all time: the writing was smart, ridiculously funny and the ensemble was extremely well-cast—in the cases of Howard Hesseman and Richard Sanders I would even say brilliantly. But for me, one of the stars of the show was the radio station itself: if it had been on the air in Fort Worth, TX, I would have listened to the kind of eclectic, personality-driven playlist that Hugh Wilson created.

All of this was brought back to me recently when my sister, Ellen, gave me a copy of "The Complete First Season" on DVD for my birthday—for which I am incredibly grateful. So far, Catherine and I have only watched the first two of three DVDs but it's just been a delight to revisit what remains of the show—the writing and the cast; the radio station, sadly, is no more. Much has been made in forums, blogs and articles about the decision by Twentieth Century Fox not to pony up the extra dough for the rights to the music from the original show: two great resources for how this changed the series are Jaime Weinman's review of the DVDs and this list that appears to be all that remains of his original WKRP fansite from the '90s.

Even as fans of the show, I must say that Catherine and I both had moments each time a song came on where we said to one another, "That's not right..."; this, to me, says that the redubbed DVDs are more successful than I would have expected. The very first song that Johnny plays (originally Queen of the Forest by Ted Nugent, I've since learned) sounds appropriate enough: it starts off with a screaming guitar riff and continues with a strong rock beat—it's definitely not Mantovani. It's disappointing not to have James Taylor's Your Smiling Face at the end of the episode "I Want to Keep My Baby," but only if you know that it's supposed to be there; if you don't, the generic replacement on the DVD seems appropriately sitcommy. Of course, one might say that calling it "appropriate" or "sitcommy" is damning with faint praise—we all loved WKRP because it wasn't like all of the other sitcoms; it had more of an edge than, say, Alice.*

Naturally, there are a number of references to particular songs and, in some cases, entire dialogue exchanges that had to vanish with the music. Possibly the funniest episode of the series (and, in my opinion, one of the funniest of all time), "Turkey's Away," had a scene early in it that couldn't be salvaged, relying as it did on a particular song from a particular album: Pink Floyd's Dogs from Animals.
Carlson enters the DJ booth where Johnny Fever appears to be asleep while a record plays. Carlson looks around the booth a bit, then moves toward the turntable, looking as though he might try to stop the album to see what's playing.

Johnny: Don't touch that.

Carlson: What's the name of this orchestra?

Johnny: Pink Floyd.

Carlson: Oh. Is that Pink Floyd?

Sound of dogs barking on the album.

Carlson: Do I hear dogs barking?

Johnny: I do.

Carlson picks up the album jacket and reads the track list on the back.

Carlson: Pigs on the Wing? What's that like?

Johnny: I don't do requests.

Thanks to progarchives for refreshing my memory on this scene; I'd forgotten the last two lines
This, to me, is a perfect example of what is lost when the actual music is taken out of the show. Watching the episode, Catherine and I both brightened up a bit when Carlson entered the booth: we've quoted the "Do I hear dogs barking" and "I do" exchange to one another for years and had no trouble recognizing the set up. Since we knew immediately that the song was not Pink Floyd, we were more than a little disappointed... and then the scene ended abruptly when Johnny startles Carlson with "Don't touch that." It's still funny but it's not hilarious: the original scene is absolutely hi-larious.

That said, if you never saw the original episodes, the "Complete First Season" (every episode in the first season is included, even if each episode is not in its entirety) is worth a rent on Netflix, if only for the tagline to "Turkey's Away" (spoiler alert: don't click that link if you haven't seen the episode). I also recommend the commentary on that episode and the pilot: Hugh Wilson, Loni Anderson and Frank Bonner have a couple of nice anecdotes about the series and clearly had a lot of fun watching the show together again.

*With all due respect to the talented cast of Alice, The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite had more of an edge.


Anonymous said...

The rights clearances on many of those songs would have blown a hole in the budget, hence the substitutions.

Here's some insight on the whole sad tale:

Luckily, they were able to keep Jan Smithers' incredible hotness intact.

Barry said...

Thanks for the link to Mark's story, Lee. Of course, he brings up another interesting point that is worth mentioning: who did commentary and interviews on the DVD. It's unfortunate that Gordon Jump wasn't interviewed or included on the DVD commentary; he died in 2003, well before the 2007 release of the DVD collection, so they may not have been ready for interviews when he died. Or he may not have been interested even if they were. But the rest of the cast are certainly still with us and having them on the DVD would certainly have added value to it.

I understand, too, the price point issue with regard to the music: if releasing it as a higher priced "Platinum Edition" is the only way to recoup the expense of the music, you're only going to get the diehard fans—the folks like my younger sisters, who were too young when the show originally aired, aren't going to say, "Yeah, I'll spend an extra $25+ to have Elton John's Tiny Dancer in the 'Americanization of Ivan' episode." She'd be making a HUGE mistake because the Russian guy saying to Bailey, "Hold me closer, tiny dancer," and then later saying the same ting to Les is abso-freakin'-lutely hilarious and the substitution of "Hold my order, terrible dresser" is almost DaDa.

Regarding Jan Smithers: YEAH! I mean, Loni Anderson was very sexy but Jan Smithers, with her girl-next-door looks and shyness and those glasses... sigh.