“Turkeys Away,” a WKRP in Cincinnati episode, which first aired in 1978, has often been hailed as the best Thanksgiving TV episode ever, and it just may be. It's deliciously entertaining.
Now, of course, you may be somebody who thinks Friends had some pretty good Thanksgiving episodes. Or maybe you really liked The Middle’s take on Thanksgiving. You may even think those episodes were funnier or better than the classic WKRP episode. But you are wrong.
Granted, having grown up near Cincinnati, and having lived in Cincinnati for a couple years in my 20s when I was a features reporter for a few years for The Cincinnati Post, I may be a little biased in favor of the show.
But, seriously, no matter where in the country you live, if you’re a fan of WKRP in Cincinnati and have seen “Turkeys Away,” I suspect you agree with me. It's the best Thanksgiving TV episode ever.
But why is the episode considered so good? How did it come to be? What is the episode’s legacy? If you have fond memories of the series, or you’ve never seen the episode and are wondering what all the fuss is, well, sit back and stay a spell.
Today's "TV Lesson" Breakdown:
- For those who aren’t familiar with WKRP in Cincinnati
- The Basic Plot of “Turkeys Away”
- The Making of “Turkeys Away”
- “Turkeys Away” may have saved WKRP in Cincinnati from cancellation
- “Turkeys Away” was based on a true story
- The Call Letters of WKRP
- For years, there was a “turkey drop” in Yellville, Arkansas
- The Legacy of “Turkeys Away”
For those who aren’t familiar with WKRP in Cincinnati
WKRP in Cincinnati was about the misadventures of a low-rated, scrappy underdog radio station located in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio.
There was Andy Travis (played by Gary Sandy), the station's young and whip-smart new program director.
Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump) was the often-befuddled but amiable station manager who ran WKRP.
Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) and Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid) were extremely cool but flappable DJs. Three other DJs were mentioned on the show, but we almost never really saw them.
Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson) was the attractive secretary who was probably smarter and wealthier than any of the other WKRP staffers.
The shy at first, easy to like, Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers) did a little of everything. She started the series handling the billing and station traffic but during the series became a radio journalist.
Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) was the radio’s overconfident and yet deeply insecure salesman, trying to convince companies to spend money to advertise on their low-rated station.
And Les Nessman (Richard Sanders)? He was the station’s bow-tied and dedicated (maybe too dedicated) newsman.
(Yes, Nessman was a newsman. That clearly wasn’t an accident.)
The Basic Plot of “Turkeys Away”
Arthur Carlson had a swell idea, he believed, for attracting new listeners to the radio station. The station would do a big Thanksgiving giveaway promotion at the Pinedale Shopping Mall, which, sadly, was fictional. Sadly, some of the bigger shopping centers in Cincinnati like the Tri-County Mall, the Eastgate Mall and the Beechmont Mall were not namechecked in the series, or at least in this episode.
The specific details of the promotion would be a secret, Carlson decided.
Poor Arthur Carlson. If only he had shared what he was planning, one of his staff members would have pointed out the major flaw in his plan. He could have saved himself and the city of Cincinnati a lot of heartache.
Not that the staff didn't try to find out what was going on.
"Mr. Carlson… sir, this is your promotion, and I respect that. But don't you think… you should let us know some of the details?" Andy Travis asked.
"Ours is not to wonder why, Travis," Mr. Carlson said, clearly enjoying himself. He really thinks this promotion is a spectacular idea. He asks Andy if the newspapers will be coming out to report on it.
"No, they said that giving away turkeys wasn't their idea of news," Andy says.
"Why, those fools. They'll be sorry. This event's gonna set the town on its ear," Mr. Carlson says. On that point, he was right.
The entire episode builds up to a promotional giveaway of 20 free live Thanksgiving turkeys. If Carlson had handed out 20 free frozen or even live Thanksgiving turkeys at a supermarket, it may have not been that exciting, but as radio promotions go, it probably would have been a success.
But, no, Carlson went a different way. As fans of the episode know, he went up into a helicopter -- with 20 live turkeys.
While Carlson is in a chopper, Les Nessman is down below at the mall, reporting on the scene. He is, however, standing in front of the doorway of a store, and the business owner asks Nessman to move.
"Don't you know who I am?" Nessman asks.
The owner doesn't know and doesn't care. Not even when Nessman informs him: "I won the Buckeye News Hawk award last year."
Nessman steps away from the store entrance and continues reporting. He then is pleasantly surprised to see a helicopter with a "Happy Thanksgiving from WKRP" banner trailing from behind.
And Nessman, still happy and curious and eager to report, sees something else.
“Something just came out of the back of a helicopter,” Nessman says to his radio audience. “It's a dark object, perhaps a skydiver plummeting to the earth from only two thousand feet in the air... There's a third..."
It's here where Nessman begins to go from elation to concern.
"No parachutes yet... Those can't be skydivers," Nessman says. "I can't tell just yet what they are but... Oh my God! They're turkeys!”
Yes, 20 fully alive (for now) turkeys are hurtling to the ground.
It gets worse for Nessman and the hoards of shoppers who have come to witness the Thanksgiving promotion.
"Oh, they're crashing to the earth right in front of our eyes,” Nessman exclaims, describing the scene to WKRP's listeners. “One just went through the windshield of a parked car! This is terrible! Everyone's running around pushing each other. Oh my goodness! Oh, the humanity! People are running about. The turkeys are hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement!”
Other than some shoppers scurrying past Nessman, we see none of us, which is part of the brilliance of the episode. Your imagination fills in the colorful details.
And, of course, the entire episode leads up to that last wonderful line at the very end, back at the radio station, with the entire WKRP gang in the lobby. Arthur Carlson, shell-shocked but very sincere, says: “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”
The Making of “Turkeys Away”
Hugh Wilson, the executive producer of WKRP in Cincinnati came up with the idea for the episode – and more on where the idea originated momentarily. Wilson pretty much sketched out the entire story outline and gave it to writer Bill Dial, who then went in another direction. That didn’t thrill Wilson, who loved his ideas and then rewrote the script.
That isn’t to take away from the work Dial did. Over the years, when Wilson would discuss the episode, he was quick to mention when a favorite line of the episode was Dial’s.
For instance, it was Dial who came up with secretary Jennifer Marlowe, talking on the phone to somebody from the Humane Society: "But, Mr. Colley, a lot of turkeys don't make it through Thanksgiving..."
Wilson does, however, take full credit for the “As God is my witness, I thought turkey could fly” dialogue. It was a hybrid of something an actual radio executive said and a phrase Wilson's mother often uttered: “As God is my witness…”
When Arthur Carlson and Herb Tarlek arrive at the WKRP station after the turkey debacle, looking frazzled, scattered feathers adorn them. That was apparently a decision by Frank Bonner and Gordon Jump or somebody in makeup. As Wilson said in the aforementioned oral history, “When I saw it, I fell down in laughter.”
And having Richard Sanders report the turkeys falling from the helicopter in the style of a reporter watching the Hindenburg airship disaster? According to an oral history of the episode with Stephen Bowie, a film and television historian, that was Sanders’ idea.
“Turkeys Away” may have saved WKRP in Cincinnati from cancellation
Hard to say for sure, but that was a theory of Hugh Wilson, the creator of WKRP in Cincinnati. Ratings weren’t great at first, although CBS arguably wasn’t much of an advocate for the show.
In 2012, in the aforementioned oral history, Wilson theorized that WKRP might have been on the chopping block if it weren’t for Arthur Carlson's ill-fated Thanksgiving promotion.
“I think, in a way, ‘Turkeys’ saved us from getting cancelled, because it got a lot of talk,” Wilson said. “Anecdotal, around town kind of talk. Those people, of course, were ruled by necessity by Nielsen, but they also wanted to be involved with something that was thought around town to be good.”
Right after “Turkeys Away,” WKRP went on hiatus for awhile. During that time, CBS made suggestions about the show (which were pretty much ignored). Soon, the show was back on the air.
In 1979, a year after 20 fictional turkeys met their untimely end at a fictional Cincinnati shopping mall, Howard Hesseman, who played Johnny Fever, did an interview with the Associated Press. He groused that CBS executives were mismanaging the series and specifically referenced "Turkeys Away."
"Listen, we're talking about people who scheduled our Thanksgiving show for the night before Halloween,” Hesseman said. “I confronted one of these people and said, 'I can't understand it. It's Thanksgiving turkeys. Turkey giveaway is the theme of the episode. Thanksgiving. It has nothing to do with pumpkins, Jack-o-lanterns, witches. It makes no sense at all.' His response was, "Ha-ha, yeah. I know. Damn crazy, isn't it?'”
Hesseman was not pleased, adding, “He considered that a response. He could have belched and been more articulate."
“Turkeys Away” was based on a true story
Hugh Wilson used to work in advertising in Atlanta in the late 1960s and early 1970s before winding up in Los Angeles and working in television. After he came up with his idea for a TV show based on a radio station, he went to Jerry Blum, the station’s general manager of WQXI, an Atlanta AM rock station that Wilson had worked with.
Over some drinks, Blum told Wilson about a promotion he had helped put together years before, while working at a Dallas radio station.
According to Blum, he had come up with a stunt in which he dropped live turkeys from a helicopter above a shopping mall parking lot. However, in the oral history, Clarke Brown, a radio executive at WQXI, said that the turkeys were flung from a truck. Wilson was adamant, however, that Blum, who passed away in 2019, said the turkeys came out of a helicopter.
No matter. Turkeys were once tossed onto shoppers for real, and the promotion didn’t go well. As Wilson told The Blade, Toledo’s paper of record, in 2013, “Jerry said to me… ‘Those [censored] turkeys. I think one went through the windshield of a car. 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 when Wilson asked if Jerry had realized that turkeys weren’t birds of flight, his response was, “I’m from Queens, New York, how the [expletive] would I know turkeys can’t fly?”
The Call Letters of WKRP
Just as an aside, Wilson picked WKRP as his fictional radio station's call letters because after the “W,” you can read the radio call letters KRP as “crap.”
That inside joke fits in nicely with the underdog tone of the series, both with the fictional staff of WKRP and the actors on WKRP in Cincinnati, a show that was treated pretty poorly by its network. Aside from the hiatus, the show often was placed in various time slots, so audiences couldn’t find it easily.
But Wilson really picked WKRP as his show’s call letters because he had to find a combination of letters not already being used by a radio station. He realized that nobody was likely to go with WKRP due to how it sounded, and so that’s how WKRP got its name.
For years, there was a “turkey drop” in Yellville, Arkansas
This kind of blows one’s mind that this lasted so long. In 1946, the Turkey Trot Festival in Yellville, Arkansas, started a tradition that lasted until 2017. Live turkeys were dropped out of a low flying airplane, and the people who caught them, could keep them for dinner.
At first, the live turkeys were dropped from the roof of the courthouse, but in 1948, a pilot took the birds into the air.
Not surprisingly, for years, animal activists complained – and finally, in 2018, the festival decided to drop the turkey drop. The understandable bad publicity around the event was apparently negating all of the good that can come out of a local festival.
The Legacy of “Turkeys Away”
WKRP in Cincinnati never really became a hit until it went off the air. It became popular once it went into syndication, and audiences warmed up to it. It became so well liked, in fact, that long before reboots and sequel TV series became a trend, The New WKRP in Cincinnati debuted. It was a syndicated first-run series that ran from 1991 to 1993.
Arguably, it never quite caught on in the way the original did, probably because the show didn't feature the original gang. Arthur Carlson was back, as was Herb Tarlek and Les Nessman. But the other characters either came around sporadically or not at all. Dr. Johnny Fever was back for four episodes in the first season and five more in the second season. Jennifer Marlowe made a couple appearances. Venus Flytrap returned for one. Andy Travis and Bailey Quarters never appeared on the series.
Meanwhile, as time went on, “Turkeys Away” remained beloved by fans, and the cast of WKRP couldn't help but notice. Richard Sanders and Gordon Jump ended up participating in several “fake turkey” drops organized by real radio stations. For instance, in 1990, on November 17, Philadelphia radio station WYSP-FM dropped 94 paper turkeys from a helicopter over the Plymouth Meeting Mall. Anyone who caught a falling turkey could redeem it for a free frozen turkey. Richard Sanders and Gordon Jump joined the WYSP DJs in broadcasting the play-by-play as the paper turkeys tumbled to the ground.
Two members of the WKRP in Cincinnati cast are no longer with us – Gordon Jump passed away in 2003 and Frank Bonner died earlier this year. Series creator Hugh Wilson went to that great big radio station in the sky, in 2018.
But they’ll always be with us, thanks to “Turkeys Away.” For years, on Thanksgiving, cable channels like MeTV have aired the episode, and every year, it seems, newspapers and blogs like this one write about the episode and wax nostalgic over it.
"Turkeys Away" may not be quite as beloved in the American public’s hearts and minds as holiday classics like the TV animated specials A Charlie Brown Christmas or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but it’s got to be close.
Decades after the series ended and after he retired, Hugh Wilson said to a reporter, “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.’”
Where to watch WKRP in Cincinnati (at the time of this writing): The series doesn’t seem to be offered anywhere for free right now, though the cable channel MeTV often runs the “Turkeys Away” episode on Thanksgiving. Hopefully they won't let us down this year and will air it.
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