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WKRP in Cincinnati on DVD

October 12th, 2007

Well, in case you haven’t noticed, WKRP in Cincinnati has been out on DVD for about five months now. It came out in April; I got the DVD set in May, and immediately after that, a series of events in my life (like, moving to a new city as well as suddenly having to take on the work of two people at my job) pushed back my posting on the series until now.

Watching the series again reminds me of why I liked it as much as I did. Each of the characters had their own appeal, and none of them were lackluster–even Andy, the straight man, had his moments, and otherwise was funny just for the 70’s hair and tight clothing.

It was the over-the-top quality that made it likable; it’s not just that Jennifer was a stereotypical blonde bombshell, that Herb was a tacky salesman, or that Les was an ultra-paranoid nationalist wimp; it was the extremes the characters went to. A man comes up to Jennifer and says, “I’m not as old as I look”; Jennifer responds, “Are you any richer than you look?” Herb just showing up with wardrobe from a golfing store, with belts that make his behavior inevitable. And Les buying into conspiracies like Cubans backed by the Red Chinese massing in the lobby. And Johnny in a class all by himself:

I don’t know what you want here, but I think you should know that I’ve killed a lot of old people in my time… and I’m not above doing it again!

Even with the character of Venus, the writers and Tim Reid were able to pull off a miracle, taking the token-black character and making him a lot more. (Even though it’s not in the first season of the show, one of my all-time favorite lines from TV is, “I don’t know, Herb… how do you get paint off a frog?”) And that’s another charm of the show: everyone begins as a typical sitcom stereotype, but exceeds the role while still staying true to it.

But the gags come back so easily: Johnny finding ways to sneak up on Jennifer with a ridiculous monster-inspired gait; Les’ remarkably embellished intro tapes to the newscasts, his tape-defined-office, constant desire for a news helicopter, and his wandering bandage; and the usual spur-of-the-moment improvised put-ups that are so standard in comedy show, but WKRP pulled off with aplomb. Watching Johnny Fever’s reaction to Jennifer suddenly making him her husband is priceless, and the whole cast dynamic plays into it–Herb is in furious denial, Les is sweetly happy, and Mr. Carlson is nice and does not want to know what’s going on. What would be a boring rehash on any other show is funny as hell here.

Like any good comedy show, there were the cross-purposes misunderstanding gags, like the episode where Les is accused of being a homosexual, but Herb thinks it’s all about Jennifer being a guy who had a sex change operation (Jennifer: “What is going on?” Herb: “I don’t know, you wanna go bowling?”).

Also like a good comedy show, there was a fair dose of serious social commentary–interesting in the way the issue was dealt with in the 70’s, like Les and homosexuality, or Venus and the Vietnam War.

Watching the show is like going back in a time machine. You recall every episode, and even as you’re watching one, memories of so many others come to mind, like the painted-frog episode. I can’t forget Les Nessman’s announcement of a “giant lizard” ravaging the East Coast, Johnny informing him that the “B” is out on the teletype, and Les sticking to his story. Thinking of the issues covered on the show, I was immediately reminded of one of my favorites of the series, the season 3 episode, “Clean Up Radio Everywhere”–the episode where a Jerry Falwell-style preacher on a censorship spree. You know it’s a good show when you can’t wait for moments like that to come along, even though you know many won’t come until future season releases. That’s not a problem–each season has enough stuff you forgot about to make up for it.

The special features on the first season DVD box set are a bit skimpy; only two half-hour segments have commentary, and there are two featurettes. The commentary for the most part is good. Series creator Hugh Wilson comments with Frank Bonner (Herb) and Loni Anderson (Jennifer) on the first half of the pilot and the infamous “Turkeys Away: episode. They combine some of the well-known folklore (like the nonsense lyrics on the end song and Les’ roving band-aid), some less-well-known trivia (like taping down Loni’s nipples), and general reminiscing about the show and specific scenes. The one part where the commentary goes awry is when Hugh Wilson goes into a monologue about a backstory to the “Scum of the Earth” episode just as the Turkey story reaches the climax; you want to shout at him to stop and get back to the turkey story, but he goes on through the whole parking lot episode. Other than that, the commentary is pretty enjoyable.

The two featurettes are pretty short: one runs six and a half minutes, the other three and a half. They are essentially slapped-together clip shorts interspersed with video commentary by Wilson, Bonner, and Anderson, with some additional interview time with Tim Reid. The first covers the idea of Jennifer Marlowe being the quintissential blonde bombshell with Herb always hitting on her; the second is a short-short on how the episode “Fish Story” came to be. Interesting, but not much more than a little extra commentary.

Then there is the most controversial aspect of the DVD set: the missing music. It’s also probably what delayed the release, as the music labels tried to demand more than would have been worth it for the set to be released. As a result, some of the music has been replaced. For the most part, I don’t really notice; I’m not a big rock’n’roll aficionado, and don’t remember the original series in such great detail that I could notice whether a song had been replaced by memory alone.

Nevertheless, there are places where the missing music stands out. Sometimes Johnny or Venus will introduce a song with a clever segue, which will be broken up by not having the necessary musical cue. One notable example is in the second half of the pilot episode, where Johnny introduces a song by saying:

Are you awake? Whoo! Are you awake now? Because it’s 10:15 in the morning … for those of you who are still into “time.” You know, it really flies when you’re having fun, doesn’t it? I know I am! I know I’m outta control! I know my pulse is starting to pound. And the blood is rushing around. And I feel feverish. And I am the Doctor. And I know all you babies, you sittin’ at home, and you sayin’ to yourselves, “Tell me Doctor, when you feel like this, what do you take?” Well, I’ll tell ya:

Then Johnny starts the Bob Seger song “Old Time Rock and Roll,” which begins with, “Just take those old records off the shelf…” The segue works–the song answers Johnny’s question. Now, in the DVD version, they couldn’t use Seger’s song, so they replaced it with generic rock, no lyrics. The “what do you take?” segue is watered down, but still works on the level of “taking” music to quell the fever. But what gives away the alteration is that the audience laughter responds to the missing lyrics; you hear a laugh which responds to something that’s not there any more.

The thing is, this is not such a big deal. First of all, most of the changes aren’t quite so evident. For example, I have no idea if the song preceding Johnny’s segue was also changed; it may have been, I don’t know. Maybe that bugs you, but it doesn’t me–hell, it could even be a kind of game, “spot the missing music.” In the end, though, it doesn’t amount to much. A few gags are missed, and maybe a few songs you liked aren’t there any more. But what we’re talking about is really not much more than a fragment of the show, icing on the cake as it were. The meat of the show remains; the replaced music was a garnish. For example, in the above segue by Johnny, there were two or three good lines equal to or better than the missing gag. So really, it’s not a big deal.

The special features and the controversy really don’t impact the set much. If you’re buying the DVD, what you’re really getting it for is to watch the show. And the show is excellent. And about time it came out. The only question is, when are the rest of the seasons coming out? I want to see the painted frog episode!

In addition to the DVD being out, you can also download individual episodes from Amazon’s video download site

Oh, and by the way… Booooger!!

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  1. October 13th, 2007 at 01:52 | #1

    Oh….the Turkey episode! I remember laughing till I cried when it was on first. Even now just remembering it gives me paroxysms of giggles!

    This is one series that I’ll have to look out for, next time I’m at a good dvd store. Thanks for reminding me why I loved it so much.

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