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Turkeys Away!

Les Nessman: Turkeys Away

To me it’s not Thanksgiving without the WKRP In Cincinnati episode “Turkeys Away.” Writer Bill Dial made a story that was executed with a precise comedic timing that few contemporary programs today can match. The ensemble was on top of their game and the jokes were relentless and timeless. “Turkeys Away” was the seventh episode of the program’s first season, debuting on October 30, 1978 on CBS.

When the episode begins, WKRP is months into a regime change that has woken it from the doldrums of easy listening into a full-fledged rock n’ roll format. There have been some growing pains along the way but Program Director Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) has carefully moved his pieces into place, securing his team of oddballs and egomaniacs. Although he is technically in charge of WKRP, he still must answer to Station Manager Arthur “Big Guy” Carlson and his mother who owns it.

If that wasn’t enough, he must compete with an irrelevant newsman, an ad salesman with a very active libido, a secretary who doesn’t type or make coffee and a crew of DJs who constantly find themselves in misadventures. He also fosters high hopes of one-upping their rival station, WPIG.

In the first part of the episode we see Arthur Carlson again wrestling with the fact that he is really not in charge of the station. This is compounded by the fact that he feels pretty useless and out of touch with what kids of that era are listening to. He wanders around from department to department trying to “oversee” day-to-day operations, he only succeeds in getting in everyone’s way.

As events unfold, Carlson, in a rare display of bravado plans a Thanksgiving turkey giveaway in what he sees as a sure-fire way to get listeners. His enthusiastic effort to get the station some promotion takes a weirder turn when he wrangles Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) into getting twenty live turkeys for his promotion.

Despite a sense of uneasiness from his staff, Carlson remains undaunted in his mission. On paper he has a great idea of giving away free turkeys. In reality, it is a debacle.

The tension builds to a crescendo when a helicopter drops live turkeys onto an unsuspecting crowd below at the Pinedale Shopping Mall. The turkeys that don’t “fall on the ground like bags of wet cement” are released alive where they run rampant and terrorize onlookers. Luckily Les Nessman (winner of both the prestigious Buckeye Newshawk Award and the coveted Silver Sow Award) is on hand to provide a blow-by-blow description of the tragedy.

After the promotion spirals headlong into disaster, Carlson’s escapade culminates in one of the best lines in television history… “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”

As outlandish as the episode appears to be, it is widely believed that the events that unfold in it are steeped in radio infamy. Television historians contend that several promotional stunts similar to the one depicted actually occurred, however there are a lot of urban legends surrounding what stations were involved and when they happened.

One documented event occurred in the mid 1940s when a station in Marion County, Arkansas, in its zeal to promote a local Turkey Festival, gave their listeners a chance to indulge themselves in a live turkey release from the roof of a municipal courthouse. This is rumored to have become an annual event for decades.

Another great part of “Turkeys Away” is the music. A hilarious scene with Carlson and Johnny Fever is made funnier by the use of Pink Floyd as the musical pretext for a series of gags. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “It Came Out of the Sky” is also used to hilariously frame the outro from Nessman’s remote broadcast.

Sadly, the DVD release of WKRP In Cincinnati does not include the music used in this episode, which detracts from the charm of the story to later generations who miss out on the experience of seeing the episode in its complete form.

This episode not only provides tears-inducing comic relief but also allows Richard Sanders (Less Nessman), a trained Shakespearean actor, to steal the episode. His naïve Nessman is the consummate newsman although with severely paranoid and neurotic tendencies.
His amazing performance is topped off with a pitch perfect mimicking of Herbert Morrison’s infamous radio coverage of the Hindenburg disaster.

Also shining here is Gordon Jump, a veteran character actor and former Dayton DJ who would later go on to play the Maytag Man, as Carlson. His lovable ineptitude makes him one of the most loveable misfits of modern television.

The success of “Turkeys Away” helped save WKRP from cancellation. It was later put on hiatus after eight episodes but critics and fans rallied to get it back on the air.

In circumspect, creator Hugh Wilson and the crew had no idea that the episode they labored to make in 1978 would become a Thanksgiving tradition as well as am indelible American pop culture moment for over three decades after it originally aired.