Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Why I didn't work on WKRP IN CINCINNATI

Here’s another of those days where I sneak in more Friday Questions since they’ve really stacked up and I want to get to as many as possible.

Chris Gumprich starts us off:

This may be a Friday Question that you've already answered a few times, but this post made me wonder -- you're an ex-disc jockey working for MTM on a show with Hugh Wilson. Why didn't you ever write for WKRP IN CINCINNATI? It seems natural.

I had left MTM and was on MASH at the time. I did call Hugh with an offer to be a technical consultant. There are a lot of radio inaccuracies in WKRP, but Hugh was quite happy with the show the way it was. And he obviously was right.

Although I never worked on the show, I remained a big fan. Even watched the new WKRP.

therealshell wonders:

Do you think that it's ever "too soon" to make jokes about tragic events?

It really depends on the event. There is now a hilarious SEINFELD spec about 9-11. A few years ago that would be unthinkable.

It also depends on the venue. You can say stuff on Howard Stern you can’t say on NPR.

But basically, if you have a joke and worry that it might be “too soon” then it probably is.

Graeme Perrow asks:

What's the reasoning behind many shows that now split the season into two, with a "fall finale", a two month break, and then a "spring premiere"? Is it just a way for them to get away with producing fewer episodes per season, or do they simply bunch all the rerun weeks together instead of spreading them out? Or are there other reasons behind this recent trend?

The thinking is that viewers would rather watch a batch of new episodes without interruptions or reruns, especially on serialized shows. And since cable channels have been breaking up series into 13 episode chunks (a la BREAKING BAD, MAD MEN, SUITS, etc.), networks feel the audiences are conditioned for it.

But here’s the problem – if the audience watches a show but doesn’t really give a shit about it, they often times don’t return for the “second” season. And if too much time passes and the viewer realizes he’s existed quite happily without this show he too may not return. So networks are taking a risk.

I couldn’t wait for BETTER CALL SAUL and FARGO to return (that was before the FARGO finale last week). I don’t think I really care about QUANTICO.

And finally, from Mitchell Hundred:

I've noticed that when you talk about your days as a radio DJ, you tend to gloss over the actual music that you played (with a few exceptions). So my question is: How much attention do you pay to that stuff when you're on the job, and how much leeway are you given to be snarky about a song that's really obviously terrible?

I was very fortunate. I worked at stations and formats where I genuinely liked the music. Never had to play Mantovani or polka records. So quite often I would have the speakers up while I was playing the songs.

As for leeway in making fun of the music, that depended on the program director although most understood that when they hired me, snarkiness came as part of the bargain. Most of the PD’s gave me a lot of latitude. So thanks to Bob Whitney, Bobby Rich, Jimi Fox, Johnny Mitchell, Jhani Kaye, and Mike McVay. I’m no longer in radio but it’s not cause of you.

What’s your Whatever-Day Question?


Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

"As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!" Just about the funniest line in radio and tv, both at the same time.

alkali said...

WKRP is sort of like the greatest show that is a complete mess. Too many characters, at least some of the actors apparently in the grips of personal crises, a fair number of scripts that never seemed to go anywhere, and yet there are some truly classic episodes. Perhaps the proprietor can give us his views at some point.

Brian Fies said...

A Whatever-Day Question: I've noticed that in "real life" (your blog, your podcast, Kevin Smith's podcast) you're not shy about profanity. Fine with me, but something I read in Dan Rather's autobio years ago stuck with me. Rather said he never swore in real life because he feared that if he were on the air live in a stressful situation, some swears might slip out. Better to just not have them in his vocabulary at all. Playing records or calling baseball isn't broadcasting from Beirut, but I'm wondering if you had any similar concerns, philosophies, tricks of the trade, or mental disciplines to keep America's Airways Clean?

Roger Owen Green said...

Family Feud - Love Boat vs. WKRP in Cincinnati

blinky said...

You asked if Fargo was becoming Twin Peaks a while ago. I would say it pulled a full tilt True Detective.
What was a quirky, odd, regional dialect driven show became something else completely.
What is your take on this season?

Emma said...

Hi Ken,

I was going through some of your old posts as you suggested yesterday and I searched the word "Collins" for Jackie Collins. But I was disappointed that no post or anything specific about Jackie is there on your blog. I thought that since she gave a pretty accurate depiction of Hollywood and its screw-ups like Drug addicts, sex maniacs, egotistical personalities, you would have talked about her or her writing but only I found that you called her a "trashy novelist" once that's all.

So here is a Friday Question - "Who according to you depicted Hollywood screw-ups better in their novels? Harold Robbins?"


But one good thing about the search (Joan Collins came up too in the search), I found old Ken Levine gold - a superb post with all your signature snarkiness on Warren Beatty's womanizing - - Jan 03 2010.

What makes the post even better are the hilarious replies by many readers. So anyone interested can read it up.

Tom said...

Regarding 70s DJs commenting on the bad music they were playing, I remember Larry Lujack was the only top 40 jock I ever heard do that. "That's Chicago's new song. You know it's a Chicago song because they all sound alike." Or after his first spin of "Midnight Train to Georgia" which he introduced by saying he was looking forward to it because Gladys Knight and the Pips had never recorded a bad song, "I think they just recorded their first one!" I loved Superjock.

Wally said...


I tried to do a similar thing riffing on this script in a more modern day Archie Bunker way. It didn't work out nearly as well as it did for Mark and Mark

benson said...

It bears repeating....

WKRP was not a sitcom. It was a documentary.

And Tom, you are right. Ol' Uncle Lar was the best. RIP.

YEKIMI said...

Think I've said this before but I worked at an AM/FM combo with studios at the opposite ends of the really lonnnnnng hallway. The production studios and some offices were between them. No one in the building the shifts I worked [evenings and overnights] and the FM studio [a sort of an AAA/Lite Rock format hybrid] had these huge honking speakers on the wall and if there was a song I liked, those speakers were cranked. The guy from the AM side [Music Of Your Life format] would come screaming down the hall into our studio yelling because you could hear the FM music bleeding through the doors of the AM studio and it was being picked up by his mic when he was doing his live breaks. So I turned our studio speakers down.....until the next song I liked came up in rotation.Somewhere along the line he must have bitched to the station engineers or GM because one day I came in and cranked up the volume and it was about half of what it used to be.

Bobby Rich said...

"Know your audience" has always been the secret ingredient. Whether a radio program director or a show runner, the person in charge should coach their talent. And great talent should already know without having to be told. Like Ken, I was fortunate in various forms of music radio to most ALWAYS love the songs I was presenting to the audience. If you didn't a listener/viewer might wonder about your credibility. (This obviously does not apply to a scripted program) However, my personal style (we like to call it "authentic personality" in the radio biz) allowed me to occasionally rat out a dinger. But always with an image of someone in the audience looking at their radio and saying, probably out loud, "well then screw you Mr. Deejay, *I* happen to LOVE that song you just dissed."

Philip said...

As an English Lit. Ph.D candidate I say that FARGO season 3 is a borderline masterpiece.

But, as you point out Ken, its on television, and even though it is on a premium network, there is a constant tension between art and entertainment. I read the finalé of FARGO not as a "let the reader decide" but as a formal representation of the nature of truth and story. I don't know the show creator, but I bet he's familiar with Russian Formalists, Narratological story time vs. discourse time and the like. I loved it, but I like metafictional properties and read ULYSSES for fun

I mean, is this ending much different than the Don smiling ending of MAD MEN? There is no decided link between Don and the Ad, and we can only surmise that he either is smiling because he is finally happy (and this sincere emotion inspired the COKE ad) or that he got the idea via a false meditation (and the add is ironic). This isn't post-modern cop out, but an formal tool to indicate that perhaps it doesn't matter.

It comes down to: who is telling the story? Varga or the Detective?

Been away otherwise would have posted this on the proper post.

Dr Johnny Fever said...

Expository dialogue drives me crazy because it usually feels so unnatural. The worst offender I've experienced was 'Person of Interest' where even by season 5 they still felt the need to explain yet again how the show worked for that 1 new viewer that maybe missed the previous 100 episodes.

Is expository dialogue something that writers feel is a necessary evil and accept it easily, or is it something hated in the writer's room but mandated by the higher-ups?

Anonymous said...

Regarding "split seasons"...

I start my day with a couple of Perry Mason episodes with minute-plus intros and outros. Seasons when this program was airing consisted of more than forty, hour long episodes. Today I can't think of any program that turns out even twenty-six episodes.

Arthur Mee said...

WKRP has too many characters? Can't imagine how this show would benefit by losing one or more of the ensemble. Everyone has a distinct personality, gets their laughs from very different places, and can work well as a supporting player or as a lead depending on the needs of the episode. WKRP also had the same number of ensemble characters (8) as either Cheers or M*A*S*H at their peaks.

You want a half-hour sitcom with too many characters? Try the 90s update, the "New" WKRP in Cincinnati. Felt like they had about 15 people or so in the main cast, and as a result, most of them had very little to do.

And one of the cast was John Chappell, who I just posted about the other day! He played the lazy, semi-incompetent station technician -- and was, as usual, quite amusing in a very tiny role. Chappell also played the Ernest Angeley-ish huckster "Reverend Little Ed" in an episode of the original series.

Stoney said...

I actually DID play Mantovani and polka records!

My first job (age 17, just out of High School) was at a local AM/FM. I was on the FM; in a small studio with NO MIC, spinning "Beautiful Music" on vinyl LP's and punching carts at the breaks. Right next door was the AM with a DJ at the mic spinning Adult Contemporary. It would be three years of "keep plugging" before I made the move over there. (Just in time too because the FM was about to go automated and on a sat network!)

Ya' know, Superjock Larry Lujack spent nearly six months working the "Beautiful Music" on WCFL in 1976 before he got re-hired at WLS.

It was several years later, at another station, where I became familiar with the music of Jimmy Sturr, Frankie Yankovic and others of the accordion and clarinet sect. That happened on occasions when the regular polka DJ (who was a local legend) would take time off or do a remote broadcast. Never got into the music that much but I loved John Candy and Eugene Levy as The Schmengie Brothers in "The Last Polka".

VincentS said...

Whatever Day Question: What are your thoughts on William Shakespeare's work? I know this sounds off the wall but Shakespeare, like you, had a long, successful career writing popular entertainment profesionally so I'm curious to hear your insights regarding what has made his work so enduring and I think your professional assessment would be more valid an academic theoretical critique from some PhD., particularly regarding keeping one's work fresh for a mass audience over a long period of time. And, no, this is not for a term paper.

Anonymous said...

@stoney: "Ya' know, Superjock Larry Lujack spent nearly six months working the "Beautiful Music" on WCFL in 1976 before he got re-hired at WLS."

When he moved back to LS from CFL, somebody asked Uncle Lar what he thought of playing Beautiful Music.
Lar said, "Hey. I love Percy Faith records. Percy's cool."

(actually Lujack wasn't crazy about the 1970's rock he played at LS. His tastes were more 1950's rock and country like Merle Haggard)

Charles H Bryan said...

I hadn't heard about that Seinfeld 9-11 script! I Googled it and read it. It is very true to the show and the characters' voices. And damn funny. Thanks!

Andrew Beasley said...

Hi Ken. You directed just one episode of Frasier, and I was wondering a) why not more, and b) why did you get that one in particular? It wasn't one you wrote, but is that how it usually works? I guess that's c)! Thanks.

Barry Traylor said...

Ken Said, "I couldn’t wait for BETTER CALL SAUL and FARGO to return (that was before the FARGO finale last week). I don’t think I really care about QUANTICO."

BETTER CALL SAUL feels as good to me and as well written as BREAKING BAD was. It is a hoot seeing various characters that died on BREAKING BAD back in the storyline. In the finale of SAUL I missed Jonathan Banks as Mike. But I suppose they did not have to time to fit his storyline in.

ADmin said...

I was in (small town) Radio for 9 years - some of it in the WKRP era. You're right, they got a lot of the technical stuff very wrong.

DwWashburn said...

I've got a cousin who has worked in small town radio for forty years. He was worked with many formats but he seldom keeps the speakers on when the music is playing. He's worked for several stations where he couldn't stand the format (country) but even when he likes the format he says the playlists drive him crazy. Hearing the same song every day over and over again is just to much, he says.

jdarowski said...


My name is Joe Darowski and I co-authored a book about Frasier that will be published in August. We cited your blog a few times in the book and were wondering if you would like a complimentary copy of the book?

If you are, I would be happy to send you one.



By Ken Levine said...


Thanks much. I'd love a copy. Get in touch with me at Cheers.


Arthur Mee said...

"Cheers"? No, I believe he said the book was about Frasier...