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: