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 difficult and sometimes hard to like.
I suspect that’s what makes a show like WKRP so hard to make now. You saw glimpses of it in “Community,” but it’s very hard to sell a show about losers to a studio or a network or an audience. Real life deals enough of that to us.
Still, that’s nothing new. There are lots of characters like that on TV. 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.
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 any more.
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. It seems like 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.
Here’s something to distract you on a Friday afternoon. (And if you’re at work, it will look like you’re very seriously examining something on your computer.) It’s a short story I did a while ago called “Saturday Night Dead: The Oral History of SNL During The Zombie Outbreak.” It combines two of my abiding obsessions, zombies and “Saturday Night Live.” I know Seth Grahame-Smith mashed up zombies with Pride and Prejudice, but I’ve never been that highbrow.
Anyway. It might be in poor taste. It might be funny. You can read it here on the site, or you can download a PDF for free from Scribd. All I ask is that you don’t try to sell it or otherwise rip it off. Hope you enjoy.
If you only look at the world through the windows of the Internet and 24-7 news, you’ll spend a lot of time in a hateful, sad place. (Yes, I am aware of the irony of blogging this.) So I’ve been trying to limit my screen exposure lately, just like I do for my daughters.
But occasionally, I can’t avoid the TV at my gym, or I get sucked into the latest atrocity via my newsreader feed. And then I feel a raging fury dwelling within me, and I usually spend a lot of time rethinking the merits of the death penalty.
This is what set the Hulk-O-Meter off this morning:
An 18-month-old toddler was ejected from an SUV after it rolled during a police chase. Her father — and I’m using the word in the loosest, biological sense of the term — allegedly stole a girl’s purse, and then took off. The toddler was flung from the vehicle when it rolled, and then — taking her tiny, hesitant, toddler steps — chased after the SUV when it started to leave without her.
I swear to God, I see murder flash before my eyes when I think about that.
I think about my own daughters and the looks of bewilderment and betrayal on their faces when I do something that hurts or disappoints them. I think of the trust they extend to me without thinking, without hesitation. They have faith in me, because they are supposed to have someone they can count on, completely and absolutely. And that is the way it is supposed to be. Parents are supposed to be the first response and last line of defense for their children. We may not be perfect, we might occasionally lose our tempers or fail to buy the present or the ice cream cone, but we are supposed to be worthy of that trust.
And that is why, even after she’s been dumped from a rolling vehicle by the one man she should be able to trust with her life, the little girl gets up and runs after him.
That level of betrayal — that sort of stupid, thoughtless, and selfish variety of evil — makes my hands shake.
I realize there is very little that’s ironic or smart or original in this sentiment. (The snarky Internet commenter who lives in my head comes out and says, in a Comic Book Guy voice, “Oh, he’s against child abuse, how bold.”)
This is another reason I’ve passed by so many of the daily outrages lately. There are plenty of people willing to condemn and to comment, and I don’t need to add to the chorus. I may not be the Christian I once was, but I try to remember that everyone faces a hard struggle, and the greatest challenge there is in these times is to be kind.
But this is just too goddamned much. This is exactly the kind of behavior that should be met with all the outrage we manufacture for things like the plot holes in Prometheus, or the latest political circle-jerk, or, as I saw when I left the locker room, Kelly Ripa shrieking about cleanliness in ladies’ rooms.
So yeah. Hulk smash.
I didn’t like the 70s when I went through them the first time. True, I was only eight years old when they ended, but even then, I remember thinking on New Year’s Eve 1980, “Well, thank God that’s over.”
Part of it may have been my parents’ marriage starting to flatline. Or it might have been the dawning realization on the part of all Americans that the trajectory of the nation was no longer headed inevitably upward, that the flight-path toward American moon colonies and endless prosperity was running smack into the concrete walls of Watergate, the Oil Embargo and the Iran Hostage Crisis.
The 80s, by way of contrast, were a neon-colored, electronic synth, New Wave, Cold War Morning in America, with MTV and Japanese cartoons and movies that catered primarily to teenage boys, which was fortunate for me, since I was one. It was possible to be simultaneously frightened of the end of the world and still have an excellent time waiting for the nuclear holocaust.
Now the 70s are back, only bigger and meaner. We have a brand-new Me Generation, we’ve got skyrocketing gas prices, and we’ve got a housing crash and a recession, and a president looking at a possible war with Iran. Judging by fashion and hairstyles and music, it’s 1977 all over again. (Seriously, listen to this and tell me that’s not disco.)
This is why it’s a little baffling to me that I’m looking back on the 70s with ever-increasing fondness. Part of this is just the corrosive effect of megadoses of nostalgia. It’s worse than battery acid in the eyes if you want to see clearly. I don’t miss the ungodly amount of polyester everyone was wearing, or with the feathered hair or the faux-Afro perms.
But I got a couple books recently that reminded me of what I do miss: the insane possibility of that time, the blind, throw-a-dart-while-blindfolded-see-what-it-hits style that permeated so much of the pop culture that I remember.
For instance, these were the Slurpee cups Marvel offered people one hot summer in the 70s. Yes, that is Stan Lee in a cape and tights. Because, honestly, why the hell not?
Nobody in the 70s seemed to have any idea what would actually work in the marketplace any more, so any number of completely batshit ideas made their way into the lives of millions of impressionable kids — and I’m grateful. I try to envision pitching some of the shows I watched as a kid to a network today (outside of Adult Swim) and it always ends with someone calling security.
For instance, a show where a dad and his kids go through a magic waterfall and end up being hunted by lizard-men and dinosaurs who want to eat them. A guy with magic powers runs a resort with his dwarf slave and occasionally fights the devil. A cruise ship is a floating orgy interrupted only by announcements about the Lido Deck. Three hot chicks fight crime by displaying lots of cleavage. An astronaut will be partially dismembered and rebuilt and will use his new parts to beat up spies.
Oh, and Bigfoot will guest-star on at least three of those shows.
Superheroes were resurgent then, too. The 1966 Batman show was far enough in the rearview that Marvel attempted to make “serious” adaptations of its characters, like Captain America, Spider-Man, and the Hulk.
Even at the movies, where so much important, groundbreaking drama was going on, George Lucas built a world where a guy would discover he had magic powers and a laser-sword before blowing up a planet-sized space station. And DC and Warner Brothers finally made a big-screen, major motion picture version of Superman.
I loved all of that. Really. That’s what I loved most about seeing The Avengers on the big screen: the willingness to commit to a story that is certifiably insane. And that’s why I was so happy to get Marvel Firsts: the 1970s Vol.1 and Vol. 2 when they showed up in the mail.
The 70s were what I’ve always thought of as Marvel’s true Golden Age. and I was glad to see it wasn’t just nostalgia that led me to believe that. The books are a collection of some of Marvel Comics’ key issues from the time when the company threw caution to the wind and chased whatever trend it felt like on a month-to-month basis. Monsters were big for a week? OK, let’s do a monster comic. Kung-fu movies are playing at the revival theaters? Super, let’s make a kung-fu hero. Or two or three. Marvel did superhero, horror, romance, kung-fu, jungle action, and sometimes mashed them all together. It turned a one-off threat from Fantastic Four into a Christ allegory. It made a duck run for president. It had Dracula fight Doctor Strange and the Silver Surfer. It created the world’s first — and, as far as I know, only — voodoo-powered super-hero.
The issues don’t always hold up — it’s mostly the attempts to be topical or relevant, as when Greer Nelson has a feminist awakening before she becomes a cat-powered super-hero — but even the most ham-fisted political statements come off no worse than bad Silver Age exposition. And most of the time, the sheer lunatic joy of the concepts barrels past any mere logical objections. For instance, in Ghost Rider, you might ask: Why does Satan have a motorcycle-riding daredevil collecting souls? And the answer is: Holy crap, that guy’s skull is on fire.
Even though comics have increased in price roughly 1500 percent since the 70s, we haven’t seen a corresponding increase in creativity or, sadly, flaming skulls. That’s probably the only thing I really miss about the 70s: the sense of possibility. This isn’t entirely the fault of the creators or the companies. The market has narrowed and the corporate bosses are more demanding. If something isn’t a guaranteed hit, it’s difficult to justify the expense of getting it in front of an audience. The Internet also makes it possible for any trend to be sucked dry in a matter of days, so that comics can’t mine the zeitgeist the way they used to. And judging by the sales numbers, many fans are in the grip of a different kind of nostalgia than mine: they want newer versions of the same stories with the same characters. So I understand the obstacles.
That said, my favorite book on the stands now is about a guy who gets psychic impressions from the things he eats, and I’d love to see that more of that sense of what-the-hell hit comics again. I’ve got money still unspent when I leave the comic book store these days, and I never thought that would happen in my lifetime.
Thank God Marvel Firsts: The 1970s Vol. 3 is going to be out soon. It’s got dinosaurs.
The White House Correspondents Dinner is far more entertaining in retrospect. You can hear Obama laughing loudly at all of Seth Meyers’ jokes. Even the ones that no one else finds funny.
Then there’s his incredibly loose, stick-and-jab takedown of Donald Trump, where you can see how much weight is off his shoulders.
In retrospect, yeah — he knew something we didn’t.