Turkeys Away: An Oral History

November 21, 2012

TV Guide named it as the fortieth best television episode of all time.  On lists of favorite sitcoms, or favorite holiday episodes, it invariably ranks even higher.  WKRP in Cincinnati’s seventh episode, “Turkeys Away” begins as a wholesome, almost bland, Thanksgiving show.  Around the midpoint, though, the standard-issue sitcom setup – Mr. Carlson (Gordon Jump), orchestrates a secret radio station promotion – takes a spectacularly morbid and off-color left turn, one that sets up punchline after hilarious punchline.  The last line of the show (which can be viewed on Hulu, albeit with substantial cuts and music replacement) has become one of the most oft-quoted gags in the history of television.

This month, in a series of entirely new interviews, members of the show’s cast and crew (along with the “real” Herb Tarlek) reminisced about the making of this historic half-hour.

HUGH WILSON (creator and producer of WKRP in Cincinnati): The starting point was that I was a young, kind of new writer at Mary Tyler Moore Productions – MTM.

MICHAEL ZINBERG (director of “Turkeys Away”): It was in the heyday of MTM.  We often referred to it as Camelot, which it was.  Those shows were hand-crafted.  It was a remarkable group of writers and directors and producers, headed by Grant Tinker.  Hugh Wilson came out from Atlanta, and in three years was creating his own show.  That’s what the possibilities were.

CLARKE BROWN (radio executive): Hugh first started in the business as an account executive for Burton-Campbell Advertising.  He was about to get fired, and they said, “Wait a minute, don’t fire this guy.  This guy could be a great writer.”  They moved him into a copywriting position, and he became arguably the best copywriter that’s ever been in Atlanta, Georgia.  Later he became the creative director, and ultimately he became the president of the agency.  Then he abruptly left.  He got a divorce, and without a job or anything, he moved to California and ended up almost immediately getting a job with Mary Tyler Moore.

HUGH WILSON: Grant Tinker, who was Mary’s husband, let it be known one day in the most casual of ways that if anybody had any show ideas, they should tell him.  I know pilot season [now] is more important than Versailles, but in the day he just said that. Anyhow, I was working on a short-lived show, two seasons, called The Tony Randall Show.  Tony had had great success with The Odd Couple, and we did this.  It never quite worked, but that was what I was doing.  Anyhow, I got this idea for a radio station [series], and I told Grant, and we went over to CBS, and they all said, “Yeah, hey, great.”  What was lucky for me was that most of those guys . . . had at one time or another been in the radio business.  I hadn’t counted on having that kind of built-in affection for the idea.

So I went back to Atlanta, where I had some real good friends, at what was the number one rocker there, and I sat down with the station manager and told him what was going on.  He was very excited, because it was [about] radio and also because it was good publicity.

CLARKE BROWN: WKRP was based on the radio station WQXI in Atlanta, and there were several characters who were very much based on people at QXI, and the others were sometimes amalgamations and sometimes just completely fictionalized.  I was Herb Tarlek.

HUGH WILSON: Clarke Brown was a salesman at WQXI, and I based Herb Tarlek on him, although Clarke’s a pretty cool guy.  But Clarke was dressing in these pretty bizarre polyester outfits back in the day.

CLARKE BROWN: Not to that extreme, but I was kind of known for dressing wildly, mod clothing and so forth.  But he was making fun of me, essentially.  It just made me laugh.

HUGH WILSON: The character of Johnny Fever, he was based on a guy I knew in Atlanta called Skinny Bobby Harper.  That was funny, because he was the morning guy, so Skinny had to get up at four in the morning to get in there.  But he also loved being in the bars at night.  He was like Fever – in the pilot, I said [to Howard Hesseman], “You’ve got to play it like you’re sleepwalking, because you should be asleep by eight, but eight is just when you’re going out.”

CLARKE BROWN: Jerry Blum was “the Big Guy,” Arthur Carlson, and there was another guy that some of his personality was in the character also.  His name was Doug Burton, and he was the Burton of Burton-Campbell.

HUGH WILSON: Jerry Blum was a little bit of Mr. Carlson, and Carlson is actually more of a wonderful man that I worked for in Atlanta advertising.  He was my boss.  He was a great, great guy.

CLARKE BROWN: The location was [changed to Cincinnati] because of its central location, with no accents.  And obviously, “WKRP,” “W-crap” was the pun intended.

Hugh kind of worked with me in the mornings.  One day he’d go and sit in the control room, and then one day he’d sit in the sales office, and he absorbed the actual workings of a radio station firsthand in that manner.  Then, of course, he and I were drinking buddies, so he heard every story that was worth repeating over the years.  When Hugh was writing the show, a lot of the incidents were real.

HUGH WILSON: I was allowed to see everything, and then Jerry Blum, the station manager, told me about a promotion – I believe in Texas, and I want to say Dallas, but I’m not sure – in which he threw turkeys out of a helicopter, and they didn’t fly.  They crashed to the ground, it was just a horrible disaster, and he wound up losing his job over it.  So I said to him at the time, “Jerry, I think you just won me an Emmy.”

CLARKE BROWN: The turkey drop was actually a real incident.  It was at a shopping center in Atlanta; I think it was Broadview Plaza, which no longer exists.  It was a Thankgiving promotion.  We thought that we could throw these live turkeys out into the crowd for their Thanksgiving dinners.  All of us, naïve and uneducated, thought that turkeys could fly.  Of course, they went just fuckin’ splat.

People were laughing at us, not with us.  But it became a legend.  There were other stories of this nature that were embellished [on WRKP]; that one was really not embellished that much.  Although the turkeys were thrown off the back of a truck, as opposed to how it was depicted on the [show].

HUGH WILSON: I didn’t dream up the helicopter.  My memory is Jerry said a helicopter.

CLARKE BROWN: It just ended with, the joke’s on us.  And of course, our guys played it up.  It turned out to be a great little unintended publicity gimmick, the fact that it failed the way that it did.  Probably got more mileage out of it being screwed up than had it not been.

HUGH WILSON: Since that time, a couple of people have claimed that story, but Jerry said it was him.  He’s the one that said to me, “You know, Hugh, turkeys can’t fly.”

CLARKE BROWN: It is very possible that another radio station at some point in time had done something similar.  But I know for a fact that we had no conscious awareness that it had been done elsewhere, successfully or not.  We weren’t deliberately trying to clone somebody’s promotion.  Not that we wouldn’t do that, because clearly we would, and have.  But not that particular day.

HUGH WILSON: It didn’t matter to me whether it was true or who did it.  I knew I could use it on the show.  We decided that we would make it our Thanksgiving show of the first season, which I think was the sixth one we did.

The teleplay for “Turkeys Away” is credited to the late Bill Dial.

HUGH WILSON: He was a friend of mine from Atlanta, from the agency I worked with, that I had brought out too, because I thought he was good, and also I felt that somehow or other I had been let past the guards at one of these great studios, and now my job was to sneak in as many friends as I could.

CLARKE BROWN: A lot of people from Atlanta were involved with that show – his writers and music people.  A guy named Tommy Wells, who just recently died, did the music for the show and wrote the theme song.

HUGH WILSON: I just thought [Bill Dial] kind of missed it completely.  Dial, bless his heart, would tell you the same.  He got the credit and I think he kind of dined out on it, but you know, I pretty much wrote every word.

The premise of “Turkeys Away” is a kind of continuation of the pilot, in which station manager Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump) begins to feel left out and unappreciated following WKRP’s format change under the new program director, Andy Travis (Gary Sandy).

HUGH WILSON: That made sense to me.  The pilot was about a whole change there, and it would make sense that this guy, a dear man but an inept man, would want to reinsert himself into it.  It would be fun [to have] him to engineer it, rather than the angry Herb Tarlek.  It was good that Herb be his lieutenant.  Herb and Les, they kind of sided with the old guard, so it was great to have all of them on the wrong side of this.

Seeking to ingratiate himself with the staff, Carlson makes fumbling overtures to all of them.  To African American deejay Venus Flytrap, he proffers a watermelon.

TIM REID (“Venus Flytrap”): That actually came from a true story!  This was way back in 1968, about four years removed from the [start of] the Civil Rights movement.  I’d just come out of college. I was claimed as the first black hire to be a marketing representative for this company.    I’m not going to call the company’s name, but it was a major corporation and I was the first black hired in management.  Anybody with a college degree in a white company was looked upon as just landed from PlanetUniversity.  Nobody really knew quite how to deal with us.  We were all in training together, and there was a lot of joking, a lot of racial joking, and everybody got their turn in the barrel.

The person who [gave me the watermelon] was from the Deep South and I was from the South, and we had really been giving each other a pretty good row at the time.  I had given as much as I got.  It was a touché kind of thing, because I had really done something to him earlier.  Let’s just say I showed up in a sheet.  [Laughs.]  But that one topped it.  Then the shit hit the fan.  Everybody realized, Oh my god, this really isn’t funny.  This has gone too far.  So then the pressure all came to me as to how am I going to respond to it.  Which I never thought was quite fair.

That person and I never became great friends, but we – I saved his job, actually.  They were going to fire him because of that when word got around.  He came to me, very sadly, and asked, and I called [the bosses] and said, “Look, this was a give and take.  I don’t want to waste my opportunities on this one.  Let me save them for when I really need a chit.”  I knew he had learned his lesson, and I certainly had learned mine.

A lot of things in our lives became seeds of a story, or elements of a story.  Oftentimes when Hugh was writing, he’d talk to you, and you’d say something and he’d laugh and walk away.  Then you’d look up and it would be in the script.  Hugh would say, “Can I tell that?”  And I go, “I dunno.”  So, suddenly, innocently, Carlson doesn’t know what to do and he handed me a watermelon!

“Turkeys Away” has an extraordinarily slow build to its famous ending.  Arthur Carlson’s much-hyped secret promotion doesn’t emerge until the second act, and just what it is not revealed until the last few minutes.

HUGH WILSON: If you’ve got a real hot piece of comedy that you like, you sure don’t want to put it up front.  I tried hard to make it the climax, where the climax is supposed to be.

MAX TASH: We started with the table read on Mondays, and we would shoot on Fridays.  There would be a big rewrite Tuesday nights, and then usually a smaller rewrite on Wednesday night.

TIM REID: It was a great table read.  We’d get the script a day or so before table read, so you know going in whether or not you’ve got something that’s going to be a lot of fun to do.  And we all just couldn’t wait to get there.  I think it’s one of the first times in four years that we were all ever on time for a table read.

The classic payoff commences when Les Nessman’s live broadcast from the shopping center’s parking lot quickly becomes a bloodbath – one that echoes another famous disaster.

HUGH WILSON: I put in the thing that Les would be present, and I wrote that whole thing that made it sound like the Hindenburg and all of that.

TIM REID: The opportunity to see Les Nessman recount the falling of the turkeys in the style of the Hindenburg was just, tears to your eyes.  I mean, who takes on the Hindenburg, and does a comedy?  Takes one of the great tragedies in this country, and puts it in a comedy show?  We went there.

People don’t give us credit for a few firsts, but WKRP was the first television show to do an episode about Vietnam [“Who Is Gordon Sims?,” in which Venus Flytrap is revealed to have been a draft dodger].  Lou Grant did one after us, but we were the first, and it was so touchy and so difficult, that they sent the military to sit in the stands every day in the rehearsal.  It was literally going to be up to a commander from Camp Pendleton, that somebody had brought up as our advisor.  He was going to watch us rehearse for at least two to three days, and it was going to be his decision.  And if he said “no,” we were not going to do the episode.

MAX TASH (production associate): “Turkeys Away” was probably the most famous episode we did of that whole series, but there was an episode we did called “Les on a Ledge,” which had Les Nessman on the ledge of the Flimm Building, contemplating suicide because one of the Cincinnati Reds baseball players made a comment about Les after he had done an after-game interview, saying, “What a queer little fellow he is.”  So he took that to mean they think he’s gay.  And it was the third or fourth episode that we produced of this brand new sitcom, that was dealing with this issue, in a very funny way.  But that episode, to me, stood out even more than “Turkeys Away” because it showed the direction that the series was eventually going to go in.

Les quotes the famous line from Herbert Morrison’s radio coverage of the Hindenburg crash: “Oh, the humanity!”

HUGH WILSON: You know what, we’d put in a line, and invariably somebody from the network would say, “I don’t believe people, particularly younger people, know what that line about the Hindenburg means.”  And my answer was always, “So what?”  They were always deathly afraid that we would be going over people’s heads.  We did a commercial once that was for a beer where it said, “Look for the smiling face of Archduke Ferdinand on every bottle!”  Somebody said, “Hugh, it was his assassination that started World War I.”  And I said, “So what?”

The oft-told story is that Richard Sanders (“Les Nessman”) closely modeled his performance on Morrison’s broadcast.

MICHAEL FAIRMAN (guest star as the “Shoe Store Owner,” and Richard Sanders’s friend and writing partner on several WKRP scripts): We both listened to it together at one point.  It was Richard’s idea.  He said, “Why don’t I announce it as if it were [the Hindenburg broadcast]?”

TIM REID: We all did!  We all sat in the room and we watched the actual crashing of the Hindenburg as it was recorded [in newsreel footage], over and over, and we sat there as he [Sanders] did it.  And he did it so well.  If you look at him and look at the guy who gave the report on the Hindenburg, you’ll see the similarities.

MICHAEL FAIRMAN: Richard is an interesting guy.  Very – oh, what’s the word?  Very ordered.  Kind of strait-laced, kind of tight.  Sometimes we’d have little battles about that.  He had a very dramatic, teutonic kind of personality.  It had to be this way or that way.  He was very much like Les Nessman.  Compulsive, a little bit.  But a good guy, at base.

GARY SANDY (“Andy Travis”): Richard Sanders was my favorite character on the show.  I thought Richard was incredible in that part of Les Nessman.  He knew what he was doing every single second, every moment that he was on camera.  But, everybody was funny on that show.  Frank Bonner was funny in that episode.  I was young and cute.  [Laughs.]  Everything kind of worked.

As Les Nessman narrates the unexpected demise of hundreds of ill-fated turkeys, most of the other characters – Andy, Venus, Johnny Fever, and Bailey Quarters – listen in disbelief from the booth.

HUGH WILSON: That was all shot just as you see it.  They were in their set, and [Sanders] was in the swing set – that’s a set that you don’t see every week.  He was right there next to them on the stage; we didn’t shoot it separately and cut it in.  We did everything we could to make it work for the live audience.

MAX TASH: There were a few more extras [needed] than we had budgeted for, so our runner, Tim Womack, was one of the passersby when Les Nessman was doing the play-by-play.  In the background of that shot, also, was Hugh’s secretary, Lissa Levin, who eventually became a story editor and a renowned writer on her own.  And there were other production people and office staff who were in that episode as background people.  We were always throwing friends and family into the shots.

MICHAEL ZINBERG: You never know what you have until you get it in front of the audience.  Then when the laughter started, and turned into howls when those turkeys started coming down, it was hard to keep doing the show, because we were laughing so much watching the show.

HUGH WILSON: They were cracking it up.  There’s probably some good outs from that – I don’t know where – where they just started laughing and we had to cut.

TIM REID: We just could not keep from laughing throughout the whole taping of it.

HUGH WILSON: Richard Sanders never did that.  He was really amazing.  He could have the whole soundstage fall and he never broke character.  But the rest of them, being human . . . .   Particularly Gordon Jump, if he said something that amused him, he was sure as shit going to laugh himself.  Actually, those kind of things I enjoyed, because the audience loved to see somebody make a mistake.  They felt like they were on the inside.

FRANK BONNER (“Herb Tarlek”): My most fond memories of “Turkeys Away” are Richard Sanders’s (a very good actor) use of the reporter’s description of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster – [and then] “…the turkeys are hitting the ground like bags of wet cement.”

HUGH WILSON: That line was mine.

Before the turkey drop, Les reads aloud the text of the banner trailing behind the helicopter – even, slowly, the station’s call letters, as if he’d never seen them before.

HUGH WILSON: Where he had to read it?  That was his gag.  I’m pretty sure that that came up in rehearsal, and Richard did that.  Isn’t that good?  They were a funny bunch of people, all of them.

Jennifer (Loni Anderson), the station’s receptionist, fields a call from the Humane Society: “But, Mr. Colley, a lot of turkeys don’t make it through Thanksgiving.”

HUGH WILSON: That I don’t think I wrote.  I think that’s from Dial.

Finally, Arthur Carlson and Herb Tarlek return to the station, dazed and disheveled.

HUGH WILSON: I was a real grizzly about keeping to the lines.  There was a great deal of respect for writers at MTM.  Tinker and Mary were always right behind the writers.  I guess that started with Jim Brooks being so key to her show being a success.  So [the cast] stayed to the lines, but invariably they found funny things.  A lot of times they would find something and I would say, “Augh!  Nope, don’t do that!”  Then they’d try things and I’d go, “Yeah, that’s great.  Thank you very much.”  I must say I didn’t write it in the script that Gordon would show up with – Frank and him had makeup put those little feathers on them.  When I saw it, I fell down in laughter, so they realized I supported that.

No turkeys actually appear on-screen in “Turkeys Away.”

HUGH WILSON: No, thank God.  And I sure didn’t want one on the set, after Jerry said the turkeys attacked the people.  He was the one that said they landed and decided they’d let them out there so the people could grab them, but the turkeys were vicious to the people.  So I put that right in the script, too.

MAX TASH: I thought the funniest lines were happening because the audience was imagining what was happening.  You never saw turkeys thrown out – you only saw how it was being described.  You saw the aftermath when Carlson comes in with feathers in his hair.  So the funniest laughs were in the audience’s imagination.

Finally, Arthur Carlson re-emerges from his office, and utters the ten lines that would immortalize “Turkeys Away.”

GARY SANDY: The famous line from that show, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly,” is famous because, at the moment – and it’s like it was yesterday, I can see it – the genius of Hugh Wilson and Gordon Jump came together.  Gordon Jump was one of the nicest men that ever lived, really, he truly was, and I think his humanity, who the man was – he got by with a lot of stuff because he was just a great human being.  Gordon Jump was a very religious guy, so somehow or another “as God is my witness” is coupled with all that.

HUGH WILSON: Yeah, I wrote that.  That was from my mother.  She was always using God as her witness.  “As God is my witness, I have never in my life seen a boy,” etc., etc.  [I was] an only child who got caught for everything.  I mean everything.  I have five children, so I never really know who did what, but when you’re an only child, you’re screwed.

Jump does not utter the “As God is my witness…” line until after the end credits have begun to appear.

MAX TASH: The thing we learned from Hugh was: you tell the joke and you get out of there.  Don’t be hanging around.

HUGH WILSON: At the time, the show hadn’t been on the air [yet], and these were people [in the live audience] who were out vacationing, who were given these tickets at Universal’s [studio tour] and all, and they really wanted to see a show they had seen for years on TV.  They weren’t too happy to come in and see a show they hadn’t seen yet.  But that was the biggest success in terms of audience enjoyment up to that time.  So we were real excited about it.  So was the network.  People were just pitching fits.

MAX TASH: There were so many big laughs that you do end up cutting out laughs, because you’ve already established how funny the joke is, and you’ve already heard the audience, and if they went on maybe twice as long with a particular laugh it just takes away from the program time.

HUGH WILSON: That’s the kind of problem you prayed for.

MAX TASH: So, yeah, we did [trim the laugh track], but it wasn’t unusual on WKRP to do that.

Although it was meant to air the week before Thanksgiving, “Turkeys Away” was actually first broadcast on October 30, 1978.  The ratings-challenged series spent the holidays fighting for its life.

HUGH WILSON: I think after the sixth or eighth show we were taken off the air and put on hiatus for, quote, “repairs.”  That’s what Variety, I believe, reported that CBS said, that they were having a second look at the show and they were “tweaking it.”

Well, in point of fact, I just sat there and waited.  I didn’t tweak anything.  I went to some meeting where we all agreed that it should be funnier.  And then I turned in some scripts that they hadn’t seen, and they thought that they saw in there a reaction from me from that meeting.  But they’d been written way before that.  I just changed the dates on the drafts, so it would look like they were written after we were taken off the air.

I think, in a way, “Turkeys” saved us from getting cancelled, because it got a lot of talk.  Anecdotal, around town kind of talk.  Those people, of course, were ruled by necessity by Nielsens, but they also wanted to be involved with something that was thought around town to be good.

TIM REID: Today, not only could you not get away with that, nobody would get it.

HUGH WILSON: I meet people for the first time, and if we get to talking and it somehow comes up that I created WKRP, they immediately start saying, “As God is my witness, I didn’t know turkeys could fly.”  It’s rather amazing that the line itself is [legendary].  I’m just thrilled and tickled to death by it.  People either say “Oh, I love that show,” or they go right to “As God is my witness…”  It seems like half and half.

GARY SANDY: It’s not surprising to me that this has become what it’s become, because that moment was etched in my memory as being something really special.

HUGH WILSON: By the way, when I got a farm, I’d come up on wild turkeys.  They fly about two feet off the ground, and they can only go for about ten yards, but wild turkeys can fly.

Thanks to all of the participants in the above, and especially to Hugh Wilson, whose generosity in opening his rolodex made this piece possible, and to Justin Humphreys, who introduced me to Hugh.  For more “Turkeys Away” stories, check out the DVD audio commentary featuring Hugh Wilson, Loni Anderson, and Frank Bonner.

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