When WKRP in Cincinnati Turned Subversive

The massive outpouring of nostalgia for “WKRP in Cincinnati” is especially odd considering that it was was never a huge ratings hit and, in fact, perched on the brink of cancellation less than third of the way into first season. That danger of imminent placement into the dusty archive of forgotten half-season wonders may have been due to the fact that those early episodes were barely indistinguishable in form and content from any of the other workplace sitcoms then dominating the laugh track schedule.

Although that first third of season one did contain the show’s most beloved episode in which a Thanksgiving promotion involving live turkeys and a helicopter goes insanely wrong, the overall feel of those and subsequent first season episodes provided “WKRP in Cincinnati” with a potential legacy of little more than jokes based on employee interaction, the cultural divide between ownership and the rock and roll crowd and an overly heavy emphasis on 1970s stereotypes. The second season of “WKRP in Cincinnati” offers indications of the tonal shift in direction that the show would explicitly make early in the second episode of its third season. Official transcendance of its mundane workplace sitcom originated with “Jennifer Moves.” Watching that episode misplaced among the first season episodes provides a jarring shock of recognition that the show really did change significantly. For one thing, you could watch the “Jennifer Moves” episode without ever realizing these people work for a radio station. The most subversive element within context of the show’s history and the era in which it aired is that, quite literally, nothing happens. “WKRP in Cincinnati” proved you could achieve comedy success with a show about nothing long before those guys in New York show up.

The very next episode was also unlike anything airing on a sitcom at the dawn of the 1980’s. “Real Families” is bitterly satiric parody of today’s Reality TV shows that aired two decades before such a genre existed. Two episodes later “WKRP in Cincinnati” continued its reinvention as the most daring sitcom on the air with an episode titled “Hotel Oceanview” that cemented what would become a staple of many of its most brilliant episodes to air over the next two years of its life. Trying to describe what makes an episode like “Hotel Oceanview” and, especially, “Baby, It’s Cold Inside” so daring, innovative and seditious within the world of the TV sitcom is kind of fruitless and yet that very difficulty paradoxically serves as the most effective explanation.

American sitcom humor is not based on mood, emotional tonality and a creeping awareness that the rhythm of dialogue is somehow slightly off. “Hotel Oceanview” presents several story elements that are inherently funny such as salesman Herb Tarlek unwittingly kissing a woman who was once a man and the possibility that the main characters may be in the midst of a serial poisoner serving as their bartender. Those plot devices are funny, but they aren’t what makes the episode great. What makes that and later episodes of “WKRP in Cincinnati” great and revolutionary is the overall vibe of the show…a studied sense of atmosphere at odds with three decades of engendered expectation about what a sitcom should, supposedly by its very nature, feel like.

Tone. Many sitcoms that followed in the wake of “WKRP in Cincinnati” experimented with the idea of tone as a dominant element of the show’s construction; including–not coincidentally–one in which the creative talents involved in WKRP were the guiding spirit: “Frank’s Place.” That sitcom was even more dedicated to tone as comedy. “Seinfeld” was allowed to develop a strong tonal quality, but it still looks pretty conventional compared to the the bulk of episodes from the last two seasons of “WKRP in Cincinnati.”