The Love Song of Dr. Johnny Fever

wkrp cast

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. 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 — until he came to the lowest-rated station in a dead-end market. Dr. Johnny Fever was a big-time L.A. DJ once — until 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 and 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 tough to make now. You saw glimpses of it in “Community,” but it’s understandably difficult to sell a show about losers to a studio or a network or an audience. Real life gives us enough of that.

Admittedly, there are lots of weird characters on TV. But other shows invite us to laugh at them — that Michael Scott, he’s such a moron; that Kramer, he’s so whacky; 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 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 concert by a band called “Scum of the Earth” to show off its new format change, 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 fight them 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. I mean literally punch people in the head for it, if necessary, even if the reasons why 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. 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.

Robin Williams, RIP.

Robin Williams is dead.

By this time tomorrow, there will be thousands of remembrances, and I am certain that adding mine to the pile won’t mean much. But I used to listen to “A Night At The Met” with my friends Randy and Joe the way other people listened to Bon Jovi. Comedians were my rock stars. Robin Williams was Springsteen.

Williams struggled with depression and addiction his entire life. There was never enough fame, never enough money, to heal that anxiety and insecurity inside him. This is from Wired, Bob Woodward’s biography of John Belushi, Williams’ friend. It’s 30 years old now, but it could have been written a week ago:

Robin Williams in Wired

That’s the thing about working in what we call Hollywood, or anywhere in the arts: there is always the pressure to prove yourself, to perform again, to repeat the lightning-in-a-bottle trick you pulled off the last time. For some people, it is almost a physical weight, and it crushes them.

I’m not going to claim I have some special insight into what went through Robin Williams’ mind. This is just to say that I will miss him despite never knowing him, because I still have the greatest admiration for anyone who can be funny on demand, over and over. We need people who can make us laugh, and the world is missing another one today.

Waiting For The End Of The World

Photo from the College of Idaho

(On May 17, I was honored to speak to the graduating class of the College of Idaho, where I graduated myself in 1993, and the students were kind enough to sit there and listen. I’ve had a few requests for the text of the speech, so here it is, slightly edited. Twenty-one years ago, I gave the student graduation speech to my own class, called “The End Of The World As We Know It — And I Feel Fine.” As my brother pointed out, I basically gave the same speech again, only updated. But at least this time, I went from REM to Elvis Costello.  I also managed to quote Douglas Adams, Jim Harrison, Flaubert, and Warren Ellis. The College has promised me a video of the speech, so when I get that, I’ll post it, mainly for the benefit of my mom and other relatives.)

Stress, as Douglas Adams once wrote, is recognized as a serious problem throughout the galaxy. I know you have a lot on your minds right now: you’re facing graduation, packing up all your stuff, dealing with your parents and families, and wondering when and if you’re going to get a job.

So to quote Douglas Adams again: don’t panic. You will find a job. The world is not going to end. I promise there will be a uplifting message and a moral before I’m done, and we’re all going to leave here feeling hopeful and ready for the future that’s out there waiting for all of us: you, me, everybody. I promise you: you are going to be excited for tomorrow, and all the tomorrows that come after that.

But first, we’re going to talk about the end of the world and zombies, since that’s what I do for a living.

In the twenty-one years since I last stood up here and talked to my graduating class, I have not seen a future that doesn’t involve at least one Apocalypse. It seems like every movie, every book, and every TV show includes at least one version of the end of the world.

Right now, we have our choice of Armageddons: the Zombie Apocalypse, where the dead walk and go on an all-protein diet; the Flupocalypse, where some unknown disease jumps the species barrier and we all discover firsthand what the Black Plague looked like in Europe; the Peak Oil Apocalypse, where we run out of gasoline and everyone has to cut their hair into mohawks and join Mad Max style biker gangs to survive; the Nuclear War Apocalypse, which, like many other fashions from the 1980s, is coming back into style now that Vladimir Putin is annexing Crimean real estate; the Genetically Modified Apocalypse, the Vampire Apocalypse; the Nanotech Apocalypse; and many more.

You can tell a lot about a culture by its stories, and it’s pretty clear that many of us are waiting for the end of the world.

This leads to a lot of otherwise smart people looking for ways to distract themselves. We’ve made billionaires of the people who put the equivalent of a junior high yearbook online, send naked pictures over phones, and let us play Angry Birds.

As Jim Harrison once wrote, when distraction is at the center of the world, we have to look very carefully at what we’re being distracted from. I learned here, a long time ago, that apocalypse is also the word for revelation. Our visions for the Apocalypse reveal a lot about our fears, but they also reveal our hopes.

When I was a kid, our future included cities on the moon, space hotels, and flying cars. Somehow, we stopped shooting for that. We settled. We got small. It’s even become a slogan: “If this is the future, where’s my jetpack?”

That’s because it’s easier to be scared of zombies than to build jetpacks. Because it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than build a better future.

When I look at zombie movies and disaster movies, I see all the myriad ways we’re rehearsing for the end of all things, I think we’re waiting for our whole culture to hit rock bottom. For there to be a definitive end, some explosion that will level the world down to its foundations, so we can finally start rebuilding things the way they are supposed to be.

All of these Apocalypses have the same message whether they know it or not: they are mourning the end of the world as we knew it. It is an admission of a failure of imagination. My generation and the ones before it are having trouble thinking of anything beyond what we knew. So we imagine the end of history.

But history’s not done with us yet.

We have all these prodigious fears out in front of us despite the fact that, in many ways, the world is the best it’s been since a group of primates stood up on the African Savannah. More people are literate than ever before in history. Billions of people have, in their pockets, a computer that connects them to a global network with access to every bit of knowledge ever recorded by humans. Since 1900, we have almost doubled to the human lifespan through medicine, sanitation, and the complete elimination of some diseases. Two hundred and fifty years ago, it was still okay to buy and sell human beings in this country, and a hundred years ago, it was still okay to murder them for having the wrong skin color. And just this week in Idaho, a brave judge once again upheld the simple idea that all men and women deserve the equal benefits of the law, despite the pressures of prejudice and bigotry.

Flaubert wrote that our ignorance of history causes us to slander our own times. The world, according to the research of Steven Pinker, despite all appearances, is less violent than it has ever been, with fewer of us murdering each other or slaughtering ourselves wholesale in war.

Every day, in spite of our worst instincts and our basest selves, the world is getting better.

Admittedly, there are some things to be genuinely frightened about now. I’m not actually worried about a zombie outbreak in our lifetime, but the thought of global temperatures increasing by four degrees celsius genuinely keeps me up at night.

But we have to stop waiting for Armageddon to get us off the hook. If everything is doomed, then we are free from any responsibilities. But everything is not doomed. Our greatest fear is not that the world will end, but that it won’t, and that we will have to live with the consequences of our actions.

This means we can’t wait for the big revelation or the final battle. It’s like waiting for a heart attack before you finally start using your gym membership. By then, it’s too late.

This is where you come in. (Remember, I promised. Get ready. Here it comes.)

I believe there is a solution. I believe that we are capable of finding answers to any problem we create. That we have within us the capacity for the same kind of greatness that put human footprints on moon rock, that turned polio into the answer to a trivia question, that tamed lightning and used it to teach silicon to think.

Most of you belong to one of the first generations to live the majority of your lives in the 21st Century. You have in front of you an epic call to adventure. It’s time to come up with a future that’s worthy of us. I might not be able to see it clearly, but I’m betting one of you can.

And yes, I know, it’s a huge job. Look, our grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t know they were going to save the world when World War II hit. They were scared, too. But they found it in themselves to dream of a better future, despite the horrific death and destruction that they witnessed and endured.

I’m sure they were scared. They did it anyway.

Because the only thing we know for certain about the future is that we have to live there. We can be as scared of that as we want, but it’s inevitable. There is literally no alternative. So I choose to believe that the future is, as Warren Ellis once said, an inherently good thing, and we advance into it one tomorrow at a time.

The only choice we get is what kind of future we want to create. Zombies or jetpacks. It’s up to you.

This is where tomorrow begins. Right here. Right now.

It’s time to stop waiting for the end of the world, and start working to save it.

Outside of a Dog

She was never the dog we expected.

I thought we’d get an older dog. One that would sit at my feet at the desk as I typed. Jean thought we’d get a lap-sized dog, who’d curl up while we sat on the couch.

The woman at the shelter took us to see the puppies instead. The result of unplanned doggie-sex between a purebred Dalmatian and some wayward mutt. The owners had dropped the mother off at the highest kill-rate shelter in Los Angeles, and the rescuers saved her and the litter.

Her brothers and sisters were insane. They tried to eat my watch and Jean’s wedding ring. She was the runt, and the only one to get her mother’s spots. She came up to Jean and very gently placed her paws on Jean’s leg. When Jean bent down, she put her forelegs around Jean’s neck in an imitation of a hug. When Jean passed her to me, she buried her head under the neck of my shirt and would not come out.

We pretended to think it over and discuss it, but it was done. She’d chosen us. We named her Sadie.

That was maybe the last time in her life she was shy. After that, she inflicted her relentless love on anyone who came into her immediate vicinity.

She didn’t sniff crotches. She sniffed armpits. We had to explain this to everyone who met her for the first time, as Sadie roughly pushed their arms up and shoved her head into their sleeves. We knew who our friends were by who would put up with this.

She loved children, to the point that she thought she owned them. When our friend Mayrav had her oldest son Zev, Sadie would follow her around while she carried the baby, making yowling noises. “Sadie, I will not have you criticizing my parenting!” Mayrav finally told her.

When Jean was pregnant, Sadie knew before we did. When I brought Caroline home from the hospital, Sadie immediately rolled on her back and put her legs in the air. She knew the new boss had come home.

Caroline laughed for the first time when she saw Sadie chasing her tail. Daphne, our younger daughter, decided it was her job to feed Sadie from the table not long after she turned one. They shared a special bond forever after.

This isn’t to say she had magic powers. She was a dog.

She once came to me, wagging her tail with pride after she killed and ate a black widow spider. Her face immediately swelled up like a tennis ball and we made the first of what was to be several emergency vet visits. Or the time Jean left for work, dressed in all white — white coat, white sweater, white dress — and came back inside, a moment later, covered in muddy paw prints.

“What happened?”

“We have a very bad dog!”

Or the time I came home from Comic-Con, and woke up the next morning to discover her digesting a bunch of Bronze Age Marvels, the shredded newsprint all around her.

But Sadie could be surprisingly smart. Once, she got to an unguarded pizza on the counter. Most dogs would have gorged themselves without restraint. Sadie, however, carefully selected a few slices, and then — and this was genius — left one slice behind, so we wouldn’t know if we’d eaten the rest of the pizza or not.

She would’ve gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for the pizza sauce on her muzzle. I can still remember her trying to look innocent with tomato all over her face.

I always said, “God, Sadie, you are such a weird dog.” And Jean would say back, “Yes. I’m sure it has nothing to do with her upbringing.”

She was never a lapdog. She grew to be 56 pounds. Because we got her as a puppy, I honestly thought we’d have more time. I was wrong. She died last night after what was either a tumor or a stroke in her spinal cord.

There’s a quote that goes something like, “To have a dog is to make an appointment with heartbreak.” I don’t remember who said it, and I’m too exhausted right now to scour Google for the exact wording and the source. But to me it means that in a dog, you get unconditional love and acceptance — but only for a limited time.

She was never the dog we expected. But I’m glad she chose us. I wouldn’t trade a moment.

Goodbye, Sadie. You were the best of all good girls. I love you and will miss you.

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