Thanksgiving episode cemented ‘WKRP’s place in history

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    Gordon Jump, left, and Frank Bonner in a scene from "WKRP in Cincinnati."

  • Richard Sanders in a scene from
    Richard Sanders in a scene from "WKRP in Cincinnati."

    Live turkeys raining down from a helicopter “like bags of wet cement” onto a crowded parking lot 2,000 feet below.

    A radio newsman broadcasting this radio promotion turned carnage as if it were the Hindenburg tragedy.

    And the eminently quoted capper to the madness: “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”

    Oh, the humanity.

    More than three decades after the unceremonious cancellation of WKRP in Cincinnati, this situation comedy about a moribund easy-listening AM radio station gone rock and roll and its zany staff enjoys renewed relevance every year at this time with what is arguably TV’s greatest Thanksgiving-themed episode, Turkeys Away.

    “It was hilarious, if I may say so myself. And I feel like I can say that,” said WKRP in Cincinnati’s creator and head writer Hugh Wilson, now 70, living in Virginia, and retired from television. “Even when I meet people today and I get around to saying who I am, the first damn thing they’ll say to me is ‘As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.’ ”

    As strange as it might seem, Wilson’s famous line from Turkeys Away is only partially fictionalized. Even more surprising is that the episode is based on real events.

    Gordon Jump, left, and Frank Bonner in a scene from
    Gordon Jump, left, and Frank Bonner in a scene from "WKRP in Cincinnati."

    It’s a truth stranger than sitcom fiction, and it begins in Atlanta, where Wilson worked as the creative director for an advertising agency before leaving for Hollywood to be a comedy TV writer.

    Atlanta is home to WQXI, at one time the city’s top rock station in the 1970s and which was the inspiration for much of WKRP. Wilson was friendly with many of the station’s employees when he lived in Atlanta, and so he returned to WQXI to research characters and story ideas for his sitcom.

    After a few drinks one night, Jerry Blum, the station’s general manager at the time, told Wilson about an ill-conceived promotion he helped put together years before while working at a Dallas radio station: dropping live turkeys from a helicopter above a shopping mall parking lot.

    Much like the WKRP version, Blum’s account didn’t end well.

    “Jerry said to me … ‘Those [expletive] turkeys, I think one went through the windshield of a car. [And] when we saw the terrible damage we had done, we landed the helicopter in the parking lot of the mall and tried to set the turkeys on the ground for the people to pick them up, but the turkeys attacked the people.’

    And the “God is my witness” line?

    Blum offered up this explanation: “ ‘I’m from Queens, New York, how the [expletive] would I know turkeys can’t fly!’

    “[The TV quote is] my cleaned-up, G-rated version of what he said,” Wilson said. “He was a very, very funny guy.”

    Wilson, who by then had written for The Bob Newhart Show and The Tony Randall Show, right away recognized the comedic possibilities of the turkey tragedy. And he thanked Blum for the story.

    “I told him at the time, ‘Jerry, I’m not going to share any money with you, but I want to share my thanks. I think I might have won an Emmy here.’ As it turned out, I think the show got nominated but it didn’t win.”

    But not everyone related to the fowl humor.

    Gordon Jump, left, and Frank Bonner in a scene from
    Gordon Jump, left, and Frank Bonner in a scene from "WKRP in Cincinnati."

    When Wilson got back to Hollywood, he passed along his story notes and directions to Bill Dial, the staff writer assigned to that script.

    Dial “completely missed the boat” with his version, Wilson said, and “took it in a different direction, which made me kind of mad, to tell you the truth. Because I had done the interview, I stayed up the night before we shot it and rewrote the whole thing.

    “It was so easy to write because I didn’t seem to have to invent much.”

    WKRP in Cincinnati premiered on Sept. 18, 1978, to disappointing ratings. Wilson said the buzz about the Turkeys Away episode, which aired less than two months later, might have saved the series.

    “It didn’t initially have a great ratings bump, but it got a lot of talk inside the business. I always thought it was real booster shot.”

    And now, decades later, he’s flattered that people still remember it.

    “It’s really an honor and a real kick to do something like that that seems to stick with people,” Wilson said. “It makes me feel so good.”

    Contact Kirk Baird at 
or 419-724-6734.