Classic WKRP Thanksgiving Episode Turns 40

As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.

Jen Cheney argues that “WKRP in Cincinnati’s ‘Turkeys Away’ Is Still the Best Thanksgiving Episode Ever.” It’s now forty years old.

[T]he most quintessential, uproarious Thanksgiving episode of a sitcom remains “Turkeys Away,” the WKRP in Cincinnati masterpiece of bird-dropping pandemonium that first aired in 1978. Four decades later, at least among those of a certain age or those possessing a certain amount of Thanksgiving pop-culture knowledge, it remains a touchstone. That’s partly because the jokes still hold up and partly because it ends with a perfectly quotable mic drop of a last line, spoken by the late Gordon Jump as clueless radio station manager Arthur Carlson: “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”

“Turkeys Away” will air on Thanksgiving night on MeTV, a retro-focused cable network. It’s also streaming on Hulu, which is where I recently rewatched it. As I did, I was reminded of what made this episode, and WKRP in Cincinnati in general, both a welcome deviation from the rest of the TV landscape and emblematic of it.

For those who have not seen it, “Turkeys Away” starts off with a straightforward plot that careens abruptly into dark comedy. Mr. Carlson, who runs the station owned by his wealthy, domineering mother, decides he needs to get more involved in day-to-day operations and comes up with an idea for a publicity stunt that will shine more attention on WKRP, which has recently changed formats from easy listening to rock. But he keeps the details of his plan a secret from his employees, with the exception of Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner), the skeezy ad-sales guy who becomes his right-hand man in this Thanksgiving fiasco. As his taste in leisure suits attests, Herb’s judgment is no better than Carlson’s.

In the episode’s second act, as WKRP newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) broadcasts live from the Pinedale Mall, what Mr. Carlson has done becomes clear, in real time, to Les, his colleagues back at the station, and everyone watching WKRP in Cincinnati: Mr. Carlson has chosen to drop 20 live turkeys from a helicopter with a “Happy Thanksgiving from WKRP” banner attached to it, above a busy shopping center parking lot. This … does not go well.

“The turkeys are hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement!” Les shouts while bystanders can be seen fleeing around him. When his feed cuts out during the mayhem, Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman), the disc jockey running the boards back in the studio, segues back to the music with a wry, perfectly delivered, “Thanks for that on-the-spot report, Les. For those who just tuned in, the Pinedale Shopping Mall has just been bombed with live turkeys.”

There are a number of amazing things about this whole sequence, but I’ll start with this: It’s actually based on a true story. According to this oral history of “Turkeys Away,” not just one true story, but two. Hugh Wilson, the WKRP creator who died earlier this year, said he based the plot on a similar promotion spearheaded by a station in Dallas, while staffers at the Atlanta station on which WKRP was based said they also once threw turkeys out of the back of a truck in a promotion that (shocker) went awry. The fact that not one, but two radio stations — and those are just the ones we know about!— actually executed some version of a live turkey drop lends this episode credibility. But what makes it funny is how incredible it is.

It’s also funny because it does such a masterful job of withholding information. Because Mr. Carlson is so insistent on handling the promotion himself, the reveal that his grand scheme involves shoving turkeys out of an aircraft comes as a shock, one we share with poor Les as he narrates the entire thing, not to mention Johnny, program director Andy Travis (Gary Sandy), DJ Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), and staffer Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers), all of whom are listening in horror back at the station. Observing their reactions to Les’s report heightens our own response; we’re not just watching these characters, we’re sharing in their baffled amusement.

Crucially, we never actually see a helicopter or any turkeys hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement. The entire picture of this scene is painted through Les’s words and tone, which escalate quickly from calm and newsman-like to absolutely panic-stricken. This is necessary for obvious reasons: It would have been problematic from an animal-rights perspective (not to mention prohibitively expensive) for a network sitcom to stage this scene. But it works better without us witnessing what happens. As we would if we were listening to Les on the actual radio, we are guided through this story primarily by Sanders’s vocal expression, a wonderfully appropriate touch for a show about a group of people attempting to assert the relevancy of radio. (It’s a shame that Sanders was never nominated for an Emmy; he made Les into such a believably naïve and uptight fussbudget.)

Here’s the iconic scene:

FILED UNDER: Popular Culture
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I still get tears of laughter watching that.

  2. Kathy says:

    When I first saw this episode, I tried to imagine what would have happened if turkeys could fly. It would have been less horrible, but also pretty bad.

    4
    1
  3. CSK says:

    Well, wild turkeys can certainly fly.

    8
    1
  4. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    I’ll never forget the first time I saw a turkey up in a tree and realized that, yes, turkeys can fly.
    That said, still likely one of the best episodes of a sitcom ever. Right next to Seinfeld’s “The Contest”.

  5. Hal_10000 says:

    I sometimes wish I could take a temporary amnesia and watch this episode again for the first time. I remember seeing it and the reveal was so unexpected and shocking. It’s still funny. But the first time I saw, it blew me away.

  6. Kathy says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    I don’t think I have a favorite Seinfeld episode, but I do have a favorite moment. it’s when a fireman asks George “How do you live with yourself?”

    Back on topic, I always thought the name “Les Nessman” would fit a secret agent. If you can set aside the image of Les in the show, that is.

  7. Joe Mack says:

    Thank you for bringing it up, was thinking it would be a great short prior to tonight’s movie at home. You forgot to mention Les won the coveted Buckeye Newshawk Award FIVE times. I don’t think Les ever forgot to mention it.
    Take that, Jake Tapper. Who has yet to win even one.

  8. BillCoolWalker says:

    I’m amazed that so much could be written about this episode without reference to the Herb Morrison Hindenburg broadcast, of which it is a direct, word-for-word in part, homage.

  9. Kristian says:

    My favorite line was during the after action when Les said, “And then it got strange”, as he turns and walks away (Venus and Andy look at each other, then chase him to make him explain…)

  10. Juan Del Mar says:

    Great stuff and more obviously a not so subtle comedic take on Herbert Morrison’s coverage of the Hindenburg disaster.

  11. Juan Del Mar says:

    Damnit. BCW beat me to it. Should have read all the comments.

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    yes, turkeys can fly.

    Wild turkeys certainly can, but in an effort to BuildaBetterButterBallBreast (say that 5 times real fast) they made the breast so large domestic turkeys no longer have the capability. The Broad-Breasted White turkey doesn’t even have the ability to breed anymore.

  13. I speak Turkey
    a dialect of Chicken.
    Certainly turkeys have gathered around me and flown up on to
    the car roof in order to talk to me turkey to turkey
    so to speak.
    I assume these were free range turkeys not butter-ball.

  14. Kaus Kommentator says:

    Oh, the humanity!

  15. Mister Bluster says:

    I suspect that ducks are not the same as they were when the Cavemen started hunting them for food.
    I’m pretty sure that today’s pigs and chickens aren’t either. Animal carpet still wall to wall?
    Maybe in Marrakech…

  16. Kathy says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    hardly anything is. Wild bananas, for example, are small, rather round, and have a lot of big, hard seeds. Ancestral carrots are purple, very thin and very short. Wild almonds are poisonous.

    I wonder if cats compare us to the undomesticated humans of old 🙂

  17. grumpy realist says:

    @Kathy: There’s a few documentaries on YouTube showing the difference between modern fruits and veggies and their ancestors. What surprised me is how recent some of the changes are (look at Renaissance paintings with watermelons, for instance.)

    (And as long as we show up with food for them, I doubt cats will care.)

  18. Kathy says:

    @grumpy realist:

    I’ve seen a few photos of such things, including the Renaissance watermelons. Jared Diamond goes into some detail in his book “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” Strawberries, as I recall, were not domesticated until the Middle Ages. Acorns have successfully resisted domestication to this day.

    As to cats, they know where to find the tribute the humans leave for them.