Of all the major American holidays to build a TV episode around, Thanksgiving is an easy win in any showrunner’s schedule. The forced nature of familial togetherness is a recipe for buried conflicts, resentments, and feuds, while the holiday’s theme of compulsory gratitude only amplifies everyone’s dissatisfactions. Comedies, especially, have long relied on this ceremonial turkey sacrifice for cozy laughs, the inevitable frictions generating heat, then equally inevitable warmth, just in time for pie.
In the pantheon of great comedy Thanksgivings, various permutations of this can’t-miss setup have been dressed up over the years. Cheers’ classic “Thanksgiving Orphans,” as the title suggests, sees the bar’s regulars coming together for an ill-fated, destined-to-be-thrown meal upon realizing that, outside of Cheers, they don’t have anyone else to celebrate with. New Girl’s “Parents” sees Zooey Deschanel’s adult child of divorce Jess attempting to wrench her family unit back together for her idealized Thanksgiving dinner, despite the fact that her aging parents (Jamie Lee Curtis and Rob Reiner) are comfortably out of each other’s lives. And poor Bob Belcher’s perpetually doomed quest for the perfect family meal makes every Bob’s Burgers Thanksgiving episode an exercise in thwarted holiday peace.
But it’s WKRP in Cincinnati’s “Turkeys Away” that’s perpetually sought out for repeat Thanksgiving viewing by nostalgic viewers each November. Originally aired just before Halloween, 1978, the episode sees Gordon Jump’s cluelessly beleaguered station manager Arthur Carlson (aka The Big Guy) coming up with a surefire holiday promotion giveaway designed to shore up his last-place radio station’s ratings. The fact that the Big Guy refuses to let the ragtag employees of his newly reformatted rock and roll station in on even the tiniest detail of his brainstorm leaves viewers in the dark, leaving in-the-dark and on-the-ground station newshound Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) to narrate the ensuing, off-screen catastrophe.
Mr. Carlson, eyeing the calendar and pooh-poohing WKRP’s usual T-shirt giveaway promotion, has rented a helicopter, sent brown-nosing sales manager Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) out to purchase 20 full-grown and very much alive turkeys, and planned to release the terrified and flightless birds several hundred feet over a crowded Cincinnati shopping center. (The stunt was inspired by a similar fiasco from WKRP creator Hugh Wilson’s time in the lower reaches of the radio industry, although it involved a pickup truck and not a helicopter.)
Sanders’ delivery of Les’ growing horror at the resulting bloodbath is an all-timer, Les’ initial delight at breaking a guaranteed scoop live on air transforming into a blow-by-blow of plummeting turkey-bombs, terrified shoppers, and a dramatic callback to the “Oh, the humanity!” live Hindenburg broadcast, before his remote mic suddenly goes dead.
“Turkeys Away” isn’t really about Thanksgiving. Sure, those unfortunate turkeys provide the perfect setup for one of the most darkly hilarious sequences ever. (TV Guide ranked it as #40 on its “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time” in 1997.) And the way in which the show parcels out the reveal of the Big Guy’s plan is a masterful course in patiently building to an explosive comic climax. Sanders’ pivotal dawning realization of the feathery chaos is pitch-perfect, both at the scene and in his shell-shocked return to the station, where his rundown of the bloody aftermath (involving a The Birds-style counterattack by the surviving and very pissed-off turkeys) paints a more vividly funny picture of the scene than any onscreen spectacle could be.
The subversion of our own Thanksgiving episode expectations is only part of what makes “Turkeys Away” such an enduring favorite, though. The buildup to Carlson’s harebrained scheme sees the childlike station manager feeling shut out from the authority he supposedly wields over his piddling 5,000-watt empire (a position, the series eventually reveals, he only holds because his wealthy mother expects his incompetence to maintain WKRP as a money-losing tax dodge). His hyper-competent receptionist Jennifer (Loni Anderson), reminds him that she neither takes dictation nor fetches coffee, and parcels out a single letter to him from the pile of actual mail each day. Newly hired program director Andy Travis (Gary Sandy), who convinced the wary Carlson to switch WKRP’s format from sleep-inducing muzak to DJ-driven rock in the pilot, struggles at one point to assure his boss that what he does in his quiet office each day is actually vital. (Travis first interrupts Carlson playing rocket ship with an idle pencil.)
And so “Turkeys Away” becomes the Big Guy’s mission to prove himself, as he demands to micromanage every responsibility he’s happily farmed out in the past, irritating everyone to no end and leading to his top secret turkey brainstorm. The rain of carnage that ensues (Les describes the unfortunate gobblers hitting the parking lot like “sacks of wet cement”), leaves the Big Guy shrunk back down to size, as he and the sycophantic Herb, their businesswear covered in feathers and shredded by the frantic flailing of turkey talons, stagger back into the station lobby.
His dream of heroic leadership dashed in a cataclysm of blood, feathers, smashed windshields, and irate phone calls (Andy assures the mayor that the National Guard will not be required while Jennifer unsuccessfully fobs off the head of the local ASPCA with the fact that “a lot of turkeys don’t make it through the holiday”), Carlson can only reemerge from his office to utter the episode’s indelible final line, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”
It’s the utter, shattered sincerity of that line that both takes the otherwise cruel edge off of the episode’s central (thankfully unseen) gag, and wedges “Turkeys Away” slyly into the reliably heartwarming TV Thanksgiving genre. As in Cheers’ beery, food-fighting Thanksgiving outing, “Turkeys Away” serves to bring the WKRP misfits together in realization that their unlikely chosen family is all they’ve got. In a rallying speech awaiting the turkey drop crew’s return to the station, Andy takes wisecracking DJs Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid) and Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) to task for mocking the Big Guy’s attempts to find some purpose in his work. “We’re the young ones,” Travis explains, “and sometimes I think we’re just a little too concerned about being number one.”
Andy, who’s rescued several failing stations in his career, knows his boss is a boob, but the soft-voiced Sandy evokes a generosity of spirit toward Carlson and old station holdovers Les and Herb, haltingly telling his fellow jeans-clad hipsters, “Mr. Carlson, he’s… Mr. Carlson. He just wants to be a part of things.”
Before this, the series’s seventh episode, we’d been given hints as to how this last-place station’s motley crew found themselves at the bottom of the Ohio radio barrel. Johnny’s DJ lifer wound up blearily spinning scratchy Mantovani records in Cincinnati after being fired from a cushy L.A. gig for saying “booger” on the air. Dedicated but unconfident employee Bailey (Jan Smithers) is a journalism school grad and proud feminist who is starting out at the literal bottom.
Les holds pretensions toward being an old-school newsman (he proudly touts his lone Buckeye Newshawk Award, handed out for best Ohio radio story about root vegetables), even as his bowtie-clad unworldliness makes him a laughingstock. Herb’s loud leisure suits and perpetual workplace sexual harassment of the deeply unimpressed Jennifer mask a desperate middle-man’s insecurity. And Mr. Carlson, well, he’s Mr. Carlson, a cowed middle-aged momma’s boy unaware that his imperious mother has essentially warehoused him where she imagines his ineffectualness will do the least harm.
For all the young hotshots’ understandable disdain for the suit-wearing squares resisting their rock ’n’ roll ambitions, even Andy, Johnny, Venus, and Bailey (with the preternaturally serene Jennifer on her own, unassailable island) have to admit that they work at WKRP in Cincinnati, a joke of a station where a great promotional idea might just be the difference between making payroll and not. And, sure, they predicted that their infantile boss’s super-secret game-changer would flop (although not to the gory degree it did), but “Turkeys Away,” in the tradition of the best workplace sitcoms, shows how even a dingy, unpromising job can foster surprisingly meaningful, even familial, connections. And if a few innocent turkeys have to pay the price, then that’s Thanksgiving for you.
Dennis Perkins is a freelance entertainment writer with bylines at The A.V. Club, Paste, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Portland Press Herald, and elsewhere.