WKRP in Cincinnati
"As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly."—Arthur Carlson, "Turkeys Away" episode
A classic four-season Work Com on CBS that was originally an underdog property of MTM Productions, only to have the syndicated reruns catapult the series to recognition as one of the great TV sitcoms of all time.
Brilliantly written and acted, as adult as was possible on network television at the time, and able to shift from wacky to satirical to outright surreal without losing a step, it was in all respects way ahead of its era -- in fact, was the first series on Jump the Shark.com to ever be voted "Never Jumped". The episode referenced by the page quote was, in fact, voted the single greatest episode of any show, in any genre, in the history of television by the readers of TV Guide.
In addition, often lauded by Real Life radio-station employees as being a devastatingly accurate depiction of the industry, thanks to series creator and executive producer Hugh Wilson's experience with same. Several of the more outrageous onscreen moments are actually the most realistic.
The year is 1978. Hotshot program director Andy Travis (played by Gary Sandy) arrives for his first day of work at WKRP, a small Cincinnati radio station whose "soothing sounds for senior citizens" format (aka Beautiful Music, a Muzak-esque concept actually popular at the time) has "catapulted" it to a permanent position at the very bottom of the Ratings. After encountering the requisite cast of oddballs working at the station, Andy immediately -- as in mid-song -- throws out the old format and replaces it with Top 40 music, then hires an oddball or two of his own to add to the mix.
Among the ensemble were:
- Arthur "Big Guy" Carlson (Gordon Jump) -- The sweet and well-meaning but totally ineffectual station manager, son of WKRP's formidable owner. Usually happy to remain clueless, but occasionally got the urge to be more hands-on, with predictably disastrous consequences.
- Jennifer Elizabeth Marlowe (Loni Anderson) -- Carlson's highly skilled
secretaryreceptionist, blonde but in no way dumb, with a wicked wit and an appetite for rich men. The highest-paid employee at the station.
- Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) -- The station's nerdly news director, completely divorced from modern American culture and, indeed, much of reality. Strangely obsessed with the region's hog farming industry, which allowed him to maintain his illusion of journalistic credibility by constantly giving him Silver Sow awards. In his most memorable effort to live up to this self-image, he marked out an "office" with packing tape on the floor, and insisted visitors knock on the non-existent door before 'entering'. Named the best situation comedy character in American television history in a 1999 poll of television critics.
- Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) -- The vaguely repulsive but basically harmless Casanova Wannabe ad salesman. Hits on Jennifer at every opportunity. Enjoys three-martini lunches. Shoes match the belt. Son plays with dolls. Has a surprisingly strong moral code hidden under all those layers of smarminess. Suits based on local broadcaster Bob Braun's wardrobe.
- Johnny "Dr. Johnny Fever" Caravella (Howard Hesseman) -- Once legendary, now a down-at-the-heels rock DJ (he got kicked off the air in LA for saying "booger") whose entire life is reinvigorated when Andy changes the station's format. Smart, cynical, but vulnerable to random irrational neuroses, as for instance his terror of the "phone cops" coming to get him for breaking a phone.
- Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers) -- The shy, conscientious intern, an office wallflower who could be surprisingly strong and articulate when needed. She and Johnny shared a tentative attraction, though the comedy generally cut in before it could be explored. Later gets promoted to the news staff and gets Les terribly jealous by actually being good at it.
- Gordon "Venus Flytrap" Sims (Tim Reid) -- Velvet-voiced evening DJ hired by Andy. In reality, he's an ex-teacher who is a federal fugitive wanted for desertion from the US military, which makes him deathly afraid of being approached by the authorities. He is shown broadcasting late at night, in the early evening and afternoon, as the plot requires.
The show was originally envisioned as Values Dissonance in action -- the "suits" vs. the "dungarees" (jeans) -- with one of each group playing off a member of the other. Mr. Carlson and Andy were the all-but-powerless management (Andy not being able to get anyone to play the playlist, for instance); Herb and Venus were the flashily-dressed Casanovas; Les and Johnny were the nutcases (Johnny with his "phone police", Les with his masking-tape walls), and Jennifer and Bailey were the women. The "suits" vs. "dungarees" idea was used in a few early episodes (notably the turkey episode, where it's brought up by the characters), but quickly faded away in favor of a straight ensemble show.
Not surprisingly, the show was also a major early user of established hit rock music to illustrate -- and often inform -- the action. Unfortunately, the resultant expiration of license agreements has precluded keeping the original songs on current airings, and delayed publishing the series on DVD. The first season was released on DVD, but got around the music licensing by cutting out nearly all the music, and removing scenes that were accompanied by music. There is very strong disagreement on this point among the fans. The same problem affects the DVD release of Daria.
- An Aesop: In "Venus and the Man", Venus uses an example of street gang politics to explain the structure of the atom to a tough street gangster and show him why going to school is worthwhile.
- Slightly subverted at the end, when Venus the kid's mother that the odds are he'll just drop out of school when the semester is over.
- The Alcoholic: Herb, though Mr. Carlson also has a tendency to get smashed a lot, and Johnny has done so much drinking that he's built up a resistance to it.
- Amazing Freaking Grace: Bailey sings this to audition for the commercial in "A Commercial Break".
- Artistic License: The show took several liberties with the way radio worked at the time. The WKRP DJs almost never wear headphones, unlike in real life, because that gives them more freedom to move around and talk to other characters.
- Also, most radio stations at the time had stopped playing music directly from LPs, but WKRP continued to do it because it looked cooler.
- Interestingly, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment in the episode "Hold-Up" manages to avert Artistic License Gun Safety. When Johnny gets hold of the "robber's" gun, a Colt 1911, he not only drops the magazine, but also clears the chamber.
- Badass Preacher: The Reverend Little Ed Pembrook, the WKRP's Sunday morning evangelist, is a 300-pound former pro wrestler who intimidates everyone at the station.
- Baseball Episode: The softball game against WPIG.
- The Beard: Jennifer tries to get rid of an old boyfriend by pretending to be married to Johnny.
- Beleaguered Bureaucrat: Mr. Anderson (Sam Anderson), the immigration officer in "The Americanization of Ivan." He's not very busy, but the government has left him without the resources to handle anything happening at all beyond the occasional Visa application.
Bailey: Why do you have a picture of Richard Nixon on the wall?
Mr. Anderson: They never sent me a Carter.
- Berserk Button: The title character in "Les' Groupie" finds out the hard way that you DO NOT make fun of the imaginary walls of his office.
- Betty and Veronica: Bailey and Jennifer are often regarded this way by the show's fans, although they weren't involved in any actual relationship triangles on the show.
- Beware of Vicious Dog: Les has one at home, accounting for his frequent bandaged injuries.
- Big Ego, Hidden Depths: "Put Up Or Shut Up": Bailey convinces Jennifer to accept a date with Herb in the hope that he'll get scared and back down.
- Black and Nerdy: Venus. Despite his cool showbiz persona, he's repeatedly shown to known more about business and investments than anyone else at the station.
- Black Comedy Burst: "Hotel Oceanview".
- Black Like Me: Subverted when Les tries to disguise himself as an African-American, with predictable results.
- Brawn Hilda: It's implied that Little Ed's wife is this; when the question is asked why the oversized preacher is called Little Ed, the response is, "'Cause his wife is Big Ed."
- Breakout Character: Deliberately averted. According to a Wall Street Journal article at the time the show premiered, Johnny Fever was the most popular part of the pilot in testing, but CBS executives felt that it would unbalance the show if it concentrated too much on one supporting character.
- Cannot Keep a Secret: Les. He claims that it's his instinct as a newsman to disseminate information as soon as he hears it.
- Casanova Wannabe: Herb Tarlek is a borderline case. Compared to his more sleazy clients, he's normal.
- Characterization Marches On: In the pilot, Jennifer doesn't like Mr. Carlson, referring to him as "the jerk who runs this place." From the second episode on, she's practically a second mother to him.
- Childhood Memory Demolition Team: "I Am Woman" has Bailey trying to save WKRP's old building when it's about to be torn down, even though it will enable them to move to a better building, because she sees older buildings as symbolic of a pre-machine era when people mattered more.
- Clip Show: "Mama's Review", where Andy and Mr. Carlson recount some of the crazy things that have happened at the station since it switched to rock n' roll.
- Unusually, this clip show was done early in the series, in the middle of the first season. The reason for doing it was that the show had returned from hiatus in a better time slot (after Mash) and the clips were a way to introduce a new audience to some of the best scenes from the early episodes, including the turkey drop.
- Compressed Vice: Herb's drinking problem in "Out To Lunch".
- Continuity Nod: An unusual number for a sitcom of the era. Example: in the pilot episode, Andy promises Les a news helicopter, and in the third season premiere, this becomes a plot point.
Les: Travis, the day you came to this station, you promised to get me a helicopter.
Andy: I know, Les, but that was a long time ago and I was lying.
- When Venus is framed for armed robbery, the revelation of all the comically criminal things Venus has done in previous episodes -- including helping the gang break into a photographer's studio and pulling a gun on Andy -- don't help his case.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Mama Carlson.
- Creator Cameo: Hugh Wilson plays the cop who shows up to arrest Johnny at the end of "Hold-Up".
- Cute Kitten: Mimsie, the MTM Enterprises Vanity Plate.
- For the revival, Mimsie's mew is replaced with the voice of Les saying "Oooohhh!"
- Dead Air: Unsurprisingly as it's about a radio station, it had at least a few examples.
- "That moment of silence was brought to you in honor of the hearing-impaired listeners of this station.."
- Deadpan Snarker: Johnny, joined to varying degrees by Andy, Venus, and occasionally Jennifer. Not to mention Mama Carlson's butler Hirsch.
- Dead Pet Sketch: "Frog Story", where Herb brings in his daughter's pet frog Greenpeace, who's dying as a result of Herb accidentally spray-painting him.
- Dirty Communists: One of Les's fixations.
- Distracted by the Sexy: Jennifer helps win the game against WPIG by standing right next to Mr. Carlson on the mound and messing with the hitters' concentration.
- The Ditz: Jennifer is one of the most famous TV subversions, while Les often comes close to playing this straight.
- Jennifer does a brilliant job of playing the ditz when everyone is called upon to play their opposite selves in "The Consultant".
"We have all kinds of chairs! There's one over there, and one over there, and one over...no, that's a clock."
- Les once led off a newscast by saying the station was off the air.
- Documentary Episode: One episode is done entirely as an episode of a sleazy documentary show called "Real Families."
- Dropped a Bridget On Him: Happens to Herb twice (sort of):
- In one episode, Herb starts flirting with a woman who claims she knew him in high school. While making out with her, he learns he did know her in high school... before she had the operation. She was a teammate of his on the high school football team, in fact the center to Herb's quarterback. To say Herb had a case of the Squick is putting it mildly.
- In an earlier episode, the trope is invoked and subverted by Johnny. To get Herb to stop hitting on Jennifer, he tells Herb "Our receptionist, the beautiful Jennifer Marlowe, is a result of the most cunningly successful sex change operation in the United States!" The ploy works... sort of.
- Drugs Are Bad: The DJ in "Johnny Comes Back" is taking payola to support his cocaine habit.
- Played with in the same episode, when to avoid complications Andy tells Carlson the packet of white stuff is 'foot powder'. The Big Guy promptly tries it out... cue hilariously panicked stomping when he finds out the truth.
- The bad guy in "The Consultant" is also a coke user.
- Embarrassing Slide: In one episode some of the staff make a pitch to land an important new advertising account. As part of this, Andy Travis fires up the slide show: "...I have no idea where that pornographic slide came from."
- Expansion Pack Past: Several characters, but especially Jennifer, whose rise from a poor girl from Rock Throw, West Virginia to wealthy society patron -- all while working as a radio receptionist -- is almost entirely told through throwaway jokes.
Venus: Jennifer, what would you say if Ronald Reagan called and asked you to be secretary of the Treasury?
Jennifer: I said no.
- Failure Is the Only Option: The goal of making the station successful; partially averted, in that the station staff does turn the business around, but it proves a frustratingly slow process. Later, it is revealed that the owner, Carlson's mother, gets a tax break on the station's negative cash flow, and doesn't want it to be successful.
- In "The Consultant", Andy realizes the only way to keep people from getting fired is not to hide the rampant dysfunction and incompetence going on at the station...he just has the competent people play dysfunctional and vice-versa, rendering the consultant's report useless and forcing Mama Carlson to leave everyone alone.
- Subverted in what proved to be the series finale, where Johnny confronts Mrs. Carlson about her betraying her son's success with WKRP over a tax break when she decides to switch to an "All-News" format. She relents and allows The Big Guy to keep the station as is.
- Suggested plots for the proposed fifth season would have focused on how much harder it was to run a successful radio station instead of a failing one.
- The revival series had Carlson, Herb, and Les still at the station while everyone else successfully moved on with their lives into better careers. Johnny only comes back for frequent visits because he's achieved a zen balance between success and failure.
- One episode has Andy lamenting that he hasn't actually turned the station around, but in the end realizing that in order to really do it, he would have had to fire Les, Herb, and Carlson, and he wouldn't want to work there without them.
- Fan Service: An equal opportunity version in "Filthy Pictures", where Jennifer appears in a bathing suit for the first and only time in the show, right alongside an embarrassed Andy in a skimpy bathing suit of his own.
- Lampshaded by Bailey: "How come the women are always doing the cheesecake? It's about time we got to see a little beefcake."
- Freudian Excuse: Herb's father is the same sleazy, womanizing, bad-dressing con man he is. Herb, who worships his father, acts the way he does to live up to his dad's "impossible standard of excellence."
- Funny Foreigner: Ivan Popasonoviski, the Russian defector in "The Americanization of Ivan", whose knowledge of American popular culture mostly comes from Elton John's then-recent tour of the Soviet Union ("Hold me closer, tiny dancer!").
- Geeky Analogy: Inverted, Venus teaches a gang leader about the structure of the atom using gang references.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar:
- Literally, albeit indirectly. The station's official mascot is a KaRP fish, however the call letters can also spell KRaP, as the Mad Magazine parody pointed out.
- The writers weren't allowed to say directly that Johnny uses marijuana, so they found many ways to imply this without incurring the wrath of the network censors. In one episode, Mr. Carlson brings some visitors into the booth and surreptitiously waves his hand to clear away any smoke that might be surrounding Johnny.
- Ginger or Mary Ann: Jennifer and Bailey are a prime example of this.
- Gold Digger: Both played straight and subverted with Jennifer. She dates rich old men and accepts expensive gifts from them, but she seems to have real affection for them, and when one of her old boyfriends dies, it's revealed that she asked him not to leave her any money.
Jennifer: If he did, it would make him seem like an old man with the hots for a younger woman. Which, of course, he was. But in a charming way.
- Granola Girl: Buffy, Johnny's ex-girlfriend from California, is a compendium of every Southern Cal hippie-chick stereotype. "I just think it's sad that we even need locks in the first place."
- Halloween Episode: Oddly enough, "Turkeys Away" technically qualifies; while the episode's all about Thanksgiving, it originally aired on October 30, 1978.
- Hates the Job, Loves the Limelight: Johnny Fever.
- He Who Must Not Be Seen: Moss Steiger, WKRP's late-night disc jockey.
- Honest John's Dealership: Many of WKRP's advertising clients qualify as this, but especially Del's Stereo and Sound, the down-and-out stereo shop in "Hold-Up".
"'No refunds' -- that's our motto."
- Hot Librarian: Bailey.
- Hypercompetent Sidekick: Jennifer.
- Immune to Drugs: Johnny's years of abusing his body have made his reflexes get better, not worse, with every drink he takes, to the mounting rage of the cop administering the test.
Cop: You have obviously built up a superhuman tolerance to alcohol!
Johnny: Yes, it's true, it was once sort of a hobby.
- Ineffectual Death Threats: Mr. Carlson repeatedly makes these against Herb.
"I want this man killed. Slowly and painfully. Okay? That's just the way I want it."
- Inherently Funny Words: In The New WKRP, the producer of Johnny's 'KRP-inspired sitcom pilot changes Les's taped out walls to a taped out desk, because desk has a "k" in it.
- Intoxication Ensues: Johnny goes out on a date with Bailey after his ex-girlfriend has slipped amphetamines into his coffee, and he's moving and talking a mile a minute. "I don't know what that was, but I bet I'm gonna be able to talk about it all night."
- This is also the explanation for Mr. Carlson's dream in "Bah, Humbug":
Mr. Carlson: I can't wake up. Scrooge could wake up.
Mr. Carlson's grandfather: Scrooge didn't eat one of Johnny Fever's brownies.
- The Jeeves: Jennifer, and Hirsch, Mrs. Carlson's butler.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: After selling air time to a sports supplement store, Herb has a crisis of conscience when a high school student dies from using them, as the "supplements" may have been something much more illicit. Herb makes an on-air apology for the advertising.
- Drifts into Jerk with a Heart of Jerk when his consummate salesman attitude kicks in and slips into a sales pitch for WKRP at the end of the apology.
- Jive Turkey: Played straight with Venus in early episodes, then subverted, as it turns out his slang and clothes are mostly just part of his show business persona.
"I beg your pardon... I mean, say what?"
- Johnny McCoolname: Dr. Johnny Fever.
- Just Eat Gilligan: Justified. When Andy is upset the ratings are going up only slightly, he realizes he'd have to fire half the staff, including the station owner's son. Not exactly the most feasible option.
- He also realizes that the meager ratings boost was great for everyone's else morale, since they had never gone up in the ratings before.
- Just Testing You: In "Put Up or Shut Up", Johnny Fever has a drug flashback. He asks Andy, "Do you see anybody over in that corner?" After Andy says no, Johnny says, "Neither do I. Just testing you."
- Kitschy Local Commercial: All of WKRP's commercials are like this:
- The most frequently heard spots are the jingle for Red Wigglers ("the Cadillac of Worms") and the advertisement for Shady Hills Rest Home ("Many people ask this age-old question: what happens when I can no longer feed myself?").
- "A Commercial Break" has the characters producing one of these commercials themselves, a song for a funeral home; it's in such bad taste that Mr. Carlson gives up a big account rather than allow it on the station.
"Hey, you're young and swingin'
No time to think about tomorrow
But there ain't no way to deny it
Someday you're gonna buy it."
- The Last DJ: Johnny, who refuses to use the hit-heavy playlists Andy gives him, preferring his own instincts.
- Long-Lost Uncle Aesop: The station's cleaning woman, Cora, appears for the first and only time in "Venus and the Man" so Venus can talk her son out of dropping out of school.
- Loony Fan: Les gets one of these in Darlene, a caller who has sex with him and then moves into his apartment and takes over his life.
- The Main Characters Do Everything: Though other employees and disc jockeys are referred to, most of the time the only people at the station are the eight main characters. Lampshaded in "The Consultant" where the title character is stunned that WKRP's entire sales department consists of only one person.
- Malaproper: Les specializes in mispronouncing words, especially anything ethnic.
- Most famously, he pronounces the name of golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez as "Chye Chye Rod-ri-gweez".
- Massive Multiplayer Scam: "Ginger, I despise you. I always have, and I always will."
- "Wolfgang does not speak for the entire cartel!"
- Also: "But this is minor alongside the racial unrest that exists between the disc jockeys!"
- May-December Romance: Jennifer's dates are almost all elderly men with money; the one time she dates a man her own age, it turns out badly.
"You know, I think I do like older men better. They're so mature and kind, and they tire easily."
- Meaningful Name: The funeral home director who hires WKRP to do a jingle for him is named Mr. Ferryman.
- Meganekko: Bailey.
- Mistaken for Gay:
- Happens to Les, who almost commits suicide over it.
- When a fashion photographer secretly took photos of Jennifer undressing and planned to publish them without her consent, her failed efforts to seduce him into giving up the photos led to her believing he was gay. Herb reluctantly attempted to seduce him; his first words when he returned to the station were, "He's not gay!"
- Mood Whiplash: The first two-thirds of "Ask Jennifer" is a light comedy about Jennifer hosting a talk show, before it suddenly turns into a serious story about a woman getting beaten up due to Jennifer's advice... only to turn back into a light comedy again when Johnny takes over Jennifer's show.
- "In Concert" is a very deliberate version of this trope: the first act, before the real-life tragedy that inspired the episode, is entirely light comedy, and the second act is entirely serious.
- Multiple Choice Past: Venus had one of these for much of the series, with several seemingly incompatible facts given about his past before he came to WKRP: He was said to be a successful New Orleans disc jockey, a Vietnam deserter on the run, and a former schoolteacher.
- "The Creation of Venus", one of the last episodes, was a writer's attempt to reconcile these different parts of Venus's backstory, although in doing so, he created a small new Continuity Snarl by making it seem like Andy knew Venus's real name all along.
- My Beloved Smother: Mama Carlson.
- My Own Private I Do: Mr. Carlson and Carmen eloped to get away from Mama Carlson, who had taken over the planning for the wedding and was throwing a huge party they didn't want. When they try to have a second wedding, History Repeats itself, Mama once again takes over everything, and they wind up eloping again.
- Nepotism: The only reason Mr. Carlson has his job is that his mother owns the station.
"You know, I had a dream once, Les, of one day becoming General Manager of WKRP. And I worked hard at that. Then one day mother gave me the job... boy, don't tell me dreams don't come true!"
- Network Decay: Two In-Universe examples:
- Andy abruptly changes the station's format in the first episode.
- It comes back in the last episode when Mrs. Carlson wants WKRP to change to an all-news format, but it turns out to be a very different kind of network decay; Mrs. Carlson created WKRP as a tax write-off, the real network decay happened when WKRP became profitable.
- No-Tell Motel: In "A Simple Little Wedding", Mr. Carlson and his wife discover that the hotel they went to on their honeymoon has become this, complete with coin-operated vibrating bed, condom machine, and heavy-breathing porn on the TV.
Mrs. Carlson: [calling from the bathroom] Arthur, what's that noise?
Mr. Carlson: Uh... television, sweetheart. Laverne And Shirley.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Dr. Bob Halyers, the preacher who wants to censor radio stations, is Jerry Falwell in all but name.
- No Party Given: In the episode where Mr. Carlson runs for City Council, his party affiliation is never mentioned. Later in the series he is revealed to be a Republican, though. Justified in that Cincinnati municipal elections are officially non-partisan and the candidate's party is not listed on the ballot.
- Nostalgia Filter: Mr. Carlson doesn't like rock n' roll, agreeing to the format change only because he wants to make the station a success; he often laments that music was better in the days of Guy Lombardo and Benny Goodman.
- In "Hoodlum Rock", Andy experiences this after an encounter with a punk rock group, complaining that in his day, bands would just come out and play without attacking the audience. It's a moment when he and Mr. Carlson realize they're Not So Different.
- The whole show is suffused with nostalgia for an earlier era of radio, before corporate ownership and automated playlists. It's implied that one of the reasons the competent employees stay at WKRP is that they wouldn't have that kind of freedom at a more modern station.
- Oblivious to Love: In the season 2 opener "For Love Or Money", Johnny is oblivious to Bailey's crush on him. Reversed in the final season episode "Rumors", where Bailey is now the one oblivious to Johnny's feelings for her.
- Only Sane Employee: Andy.
- Our Slogan Is Terrible: Most of the businesses that advertise on WKRP.
"Hutchins' Community Hospital, where malpractice is rapidly becoming a thing of the past!"
- Panicky Expectant Father: A very realistic version of this trope when Mr. Carlson's wife gives birth (in an actual hospital, unlike most sitcoms). Being from a generation where the husband was expected not to be in the delivery room with the wife, Mr. Carlson is nervous not only about his wife's health but the idea of being with her at all.
- Perspective Flip: "The Creation of Venus" gives us some of the events of the pilot from Venus's point of view.
- Plucky Office Girl: Bailey practically defines this one.
- Pointy-Haired Boss: Mr. Carlson.
- Prank Date: Mr. Carlson learns that this was the reason his wife Carmen first agreed to go out with him in high school.
- Pretty Fly for a White Guy: Les considers himself an expert on "negro culture" and frequently embarrasses himself by trying to discuss the subject with Venus.
- Pretty in Mink: Jennifer has quite a few furs given to her by rich men she befriends. No, she doesn't sleep with them. They just like her so much, they insist she take those gifts.
- Professional Butt-Kisser: Herb to Mr. Carlson, especially early on.
- Punny Name: Mr. Ferryman of Ferryman Funeral Homes.
- Reality Is Unrealistic: Some of the crazier plots that occur on the show -- especially "Turkeys Away" -- tended to be based on real-life calamities in the radio industry. Creator Hugh Wilson worked in radio and based the show on his experiences.
- Real Life Writes the Plot: A few examples:
- The tragic deaths at the December 1979 Who concert; see Very Special Episode below.
- On a less grim note, the actor playing Les had to wear a bandage during the taping of the pilot episode, and it became a Running Gag.
- On a meta-level: the television show about a radio station that's struggling with the ratings to stay on the air... is itself struggling with its ratings and trying to convince the network each year to keep the show going.
- Really Gets Around: Andy. A lot of his throwaway jokes indicate that he spends a lot of weekends with a lot of beautiful women.
- This backfires on him in "Nothing to Fear But..." when he tries to have sex with a waitress in Carlson's office, and a paranoid, gun-wielding Venus mistakes him for a burglar.
- Speaking of Venus, he also fits this trope, using his nighttime show as an excuse to bring girlfriends to the station -- sometimes several at once.
- Recycled Script (in universe): After dropping Ferryman Funeral Homes as an advertiser, Herb re-purposes the jingle Venus wrote to fit a new client, Morrison Tires.
- Red Scare: Both played straight -- in a memorable episode in which Bailey helps a visiting Russian defect -- and parodied through Les, who was such a rabid anti-Communist that he rewrote the station's emergency procedures manual so that it would only be useful in the case of a Soviet invasion. When a tornado struck, he was forced to improvise from the manual while on the air, resulting in a long diatribe against "Godless tornadoes".
- Retool: During the first season, CBS put the show on hiatus and brought it back claiming it had been retooled, though not much had actually changed and no characters were added or dropped.
- One thing that did change after the hiatus: the creators added a new set, the bullpen, where all the supporting characters could hang out and work together.
- Reverse Psychology: The best way to get Les to spread a rumor at the station is to tell him it's a secret.
Herb: Don't tell this to anyone. And Les, don't tell them soon.
- Revival: The New WKRP in Cincinnati -- same station, same Big Guy, Herb and Les, different supporting crazies. Lasted two seasons.
- Johnny Fever also appears 9 times between the 2 seasons. Howard Hesseman even directed some episodes.
- Rich Bitch: Mrs. Carlson.
- Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor: Jennifer considers giving up her rich boyfriends for a young, handsome and poor repairman named Steel. Unfortunately, Steel turns out to be more of a Gold Digger than she is.
Jennifer: He wants my money, that's all! He doesn't want me!
Mr. Carlson: [to Steel] Oh, you're a very sick young man.
- Ripped from the Headlines: An episode where Bailey fakes a news story is based on a then-recent scandal involving a Washington Post reporter who made up a fake child to be the focus of her story. Bailey even mentions the real-life Post reporter as an example of a similar situation.
- Rogue Juror: In "A Mile in My Shoes", Herb serves as foreman of a jury and switches his vote to "not guilty" at the last minute after convincing all the other jurors to vote "guilty".
- Running Gag: Les especially was a walking compendium of these; as noted above, one of them was his always sporting a bandage somewhere on his anatomy.
- Jennifer also has several of these, including her doorbell that plays "Fly Me to the Moon" and her ability to sense Johnny coming in without turning around.
- Sassy Secretary
- Scary Minority Suspect: Invoked by Herb as a reason why Venus didn't rob the station.
Herb: Venus couldn't do it, because he'd be the first person we'd suspect!
Venus: Very sensitive of you, Herb.
- Scatting: The ending tune.
- Servile Snarker: Mama Carlson's butler Hirsch.
- Sexy Secretary: Jennifer would be this, except that she insists she's not a secretary.
"I am a receptionist. Receptionists receive."
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Venus, whose Vietnam War experiences left him so shattered that he deserted shortly before the war ended.
- Shout-Out: Several both by and to the show:
- Dozens to bands and singers, plus the bulletin boards full of bumper stickers sent to the show by real radio stations across the country.
- Andy's college T-shirts rotate among the local colleges.
- An episode with Venus and Johnny drinking on air in a drunk test inspired Funday Pawpet Show's Herbie to do the infamous "Drunk Show" in which the puppeteers took a shot of Rumplemintz every half hour of the four hour live netcast (and spent the night sleeping it off in the studio).
- Show Within a Show: Johnny, Venus and Les are all routinely shown doing broadcasts.
- Signs of Disrepair: variation -- instead of broken neon letters, the 'B' is broken on the news teletype, causing Les Nessman to announce in a panicked voice that a "giant lizard" is approaching Cincinnati.
- Sitcom Arch Nemesis: WKRP's has an ongoing rivalry with WPIG ("Those swine!") the most popular radio station in town.
- Small Name, Big Ego: Les is convinced that his meaningless local awards make him a newsman to equal Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, and he's genuinely surprised when people he interviews haven't heard of him.
- Herb Tarlek also acts like this, especially around Jennifer. Thoroughly -- and hilariously -- subverted when the Tarleks appeared on the spoof TV show "Real Families".
- Soapbox Sadie: Bailey is a crusader for various liberal causes including the Equal Rights Amendment, nuclear bans, and saving the whales. She's usually portrayed positively for this, though.
- In "Jennifer Moves", Bailey drags in a man with a petition and asks everyone to sign it, without bothering to find out what the petition is for.
- Something's Different About You Now: Herb and his transsexual high school classmate.
- Spiritual Successor: News Radio.
- Spotlight-Stealing Squad: Two of the third season writer-producers considered Herb their favorite character, leading to a season where one-third of the episodes were about Herb.
- Springtime for Hitler: When the station becomes successful, Mama Carlson isn't happy, because she intended WKRP to lose money for tax purposes.
Johnny: 'KRP is not supposed to make money. We're set up to lose. But we didn't. And that's why you're changing the format -- so you can lose money for four more years!
- When Herb sells air-time to a sports supplements store, Johnny and Venus are pegged to do the spots, but when they read the script, they believe the "supplements" are stimulants. Disgusted, they try to sabotage to ads by deliberately doing a bad job, only to backfire when the ads prove incredibly popular.
- Stepford Suburbia: Landersville, the blissful suburb Jennifer moves to at the beginning of season 3. Her next-door neighbors' marriage is breaking up, there's a sex pervert in the neighborhood, and all building and planning is controlled by corrupt politicians. No wonder she moves back to her city apartment the following season.
- Suspiciously Apropos Music: Any time a character turns on WKRP, it's going to be playing a song whose title or content is related to what's happening in the episode.
- Actually drives the entire plot in "A Date With Jennifer", where hearing the song "Hot Blooded" by Foreigner fills Les with a determination to be more assertive and stand up for himself.
- Suspiciously Specific Denial: More of a Suspiciously Specific Affirmation, when the Real Families crew interviews the staff. "Herb Tarlek is a hard worker, a loyal husband and an all-around fine person."
- Swallowed a Fly: Les rides a motor scooter to work, and occasionally has the problem of bugs in his teeth.
- Swapped Roles: "A Mile in My Shoes". Andy takes over as sales manager and discovers that all his radio experience is useless for selling a station as bad as WKRP. Venus becomes acting program director and ends up telling Johnny exactly what records to play. Meanwhile, Herb, who is serving as foreman of a jury, takes on something like Andy's Only Sane Man role.
Herb: Andy, have you ever been in charge of a whole group of people who didn't listen to you or care what you said?
Andy: Uh, yeah, Herb, yeah, I have.
Herb: What happened?
- Sweater Girl: Jennifer.
- Take That: The DJs frequently insult bands the actors or writers didn't like, especially Disco groups.
Lucille Tarlek: Little House on the Prairie, oh, that's a fine, wholesome show. It's about blind children out West, and every week there's a fire or someone gets an incurable disease.
- The Tape Knew You Would Say That: In his Video Will, Jennifer's dead boyfriend is able to anticipate some of the things his sponging relatives say.
- Team Mom: Jennifer takes this role quite a bit, especially in "Most Improved Station", where she gives the big speech that convinces the other characters to stop fighting and realize that they're a family.
- Thematic Theme Tune: Partially subverted by the mock broadcast that runs beneath it, quoted above.
- This Is My Side: Les and his imaginary office walls.
- Token Minority: Venus Flytrap, but at least actor Tim Reid and the producers worked hard to give him unique elements as a real individual.
- Took a Level in Jerkass: Les started out as a meek, sweetly clueless little guy. By the second season, he developed into a delusional weirdo whose behavior bordered on the psychotic.
- Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Mr. Carlson's son "Little Arthur", transformed by military school into a tiny fascist.
Andy: You interested in radio?
Little Arthur: Kind of.
Johnny: Probably because the first thing you do in a dictatorship is seize control of the radio stations.
Little Arthur: And then you shoot all the DJs.
- Turn Out Like His Father: Mr. Carlson has already turned out like Mama Carlson's late husband Hank, a weak-willed man who died of a broken heart after she took over the station. Her guilt over this seems to drive her unwillingness to fire her son from a job he's obviously unqualified for.
- Ultimate Job Security: Everyone, no matter how badly they screw up. Lampshaded a number of times. In one episode, Herb even admits that he should be fired but smugly predicts that no one will have the heart to do it.
- The Unintelligible: The ending theme song (done on purpose, apparently).
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The "Turkeys Away" episode was based on an actual radio station promotion gone wrong, believe it or not.
- Some of the more unbelievable plots are based on creator Hugh Wilson's experiences working in radio.
- Very Special Episode: "In Concert", when the station promoted the infamous December 1979 Who concert at Riverfront Coliseum where eleven attendees were killed in an accidental uncontrolled rush for the door for "festival seating", (no assigned seats) and the staff spends the next day beating themselves up about it.
- Vitriolic Best Buds: Herb and Les, whose relationship is summed up by Les's line "I hate him, but he's my best friend."
- One episode has Les trying to strangle Herb, and in another episode, Les tries to stab Herb with a letter-opener in retaliation for spitting on him. None of this seems to affect their relationship.
- Welcome Episode
- Wham! Line: All together, now: "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly."
- Whole-Episode Flashback: "The Creation of Venus", where Andy and Venus recall what led up to Venus's entrance in the pilot episode.
- Who Would Want to Watch Us?: In The Revival, guest star Howard Hesseman as Dr. Johnny Fever from the first series had sold a Pilot based on his time working at the station, but Executive Meddling made him pull out of the project. For example: instead of This Is My Side, the Les Nessman character had real walls but a taped-out desk and sat on the floor. Because "it's funnier". After all, "desk" has a "k" in it.
- Will They or Won't They?: Sometimes hinted at with Johnny and Bailey, who date on again and off again from the second season onward but never seem to consummate the relationship.
- Working with the Ex: In the revival, morning drive time DJs Burns & Allen are exes who still work together professionally.
- Yet Another Christmas Carol: With Carlson as both Scrooge and Marley, and Jennifer, Venus, and Johnny as the ghosts.
Mr. Carlson: Wait, this isn't going to be another one of those Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol things, is it?
Mr. Carlson's Grandfather: Yep.
Mr. Carlson: Hoo boy.
- You Look Familiar: Sam Anderson appeared as a different guest character every season.
- Zany Scheme: Johnny likes to come up with these, including two different ones in "Filthy Pictures".
- Subverted in "To Err Is Human" when Johnny rehearses Bailey in a Zany Scheme to steal some embarrassing ads featuring Venus, a plan that turns out not to be necessary when Andy solves the problem by calling the advertising client and explaining what happened.
Johnny: Here's how we do it. We go into the supermarket. Bailey, you create a ruckus in the produce section. Venus, you grab the poster, slip it under your jacket, we're out the door!
Bailey: What kind of ruckus?
Johnny: I don't know, uh, something with mangoes.