Plenty of beloved TV comedies have great Thanksgiving episodes. The episode of Cheers that devolves into a food fight is an all-timer. Multiple Thanksgiving episodes of Friends are now considered holiday classics. The Simpsons’ “Bart vs. Thanksgiving” is as much of a must-watch every year, at least for me, as A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. More recent sitcoms — like The Office, Bob’s Burgers, Veep, Black-ish, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — have delivered great hat tips to Turkey Day, too.
But the most quintessential, uproarious Thanksgiving episode of a sitcom remains “Turkeys Away,” the WKRP in Cincinnati masterpiece of bird-dropping pandemonium that first aired in 1978. Four decades later, at least among those of a certain age or those possessing a certain amount of Thanksgiving pop-culture knowledge, it remains a touchstone. That’s partly because the jokes still hold up and partly because it ends with a perfectly quotable mic drop of a last line, spoken by the late Gordon Jump as clueless radio station manager Arthur Carlson: “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”
For those who have not seen it, “Turkeys Away” — which is available to rent on Amazon and iTunes — starts off with a straightforward plot that careens abruptly into dark comedy. Mr. Carlson, who runs the station owned by his wealthy, domineering mother, decides he needs to get more involved in day-to-day operations and comes up with an idea for a publicity stunt that will shine more attention on WKRP, which has recently changed formats from easy listening to rock. But he keeps the details of his plan a secret from his employees, with the exception of Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner), the skeezy ad-sales guy who becomes his right-hand man in this Thanksgiving fiasco. As his taste in leisure suits attests, Herb’s judgment is no better than Carlson’s.
In the episode’s second act, as WKRP newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) broadcasts live from the Pinedale Mall, what Mr. Carlson has done becomes clear, in real time, to Les, his colleagues back at the station, and everyone watching WKRP in Cincinnati: Mr. Carlson has chosen to drop 20 live turkeys from a helicopter with a “Happy Thanksgiving from WKRP” banner attached to it, above a busy shopping center parking lot. This … does not go well.
“The turkeys are hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement!” Les shouts while bystanders can be seen fleeing around him. When his feed cuts out during the mayhem, Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman), the disc jockey running the boards back in the studio, segues back to the music with a wry, perfectly delivered, “Thanks for that on-the-spot report, Les. For those who just tuned in, the Pinedale Shopping Mall has just been bombed with live turkeys.”
There are a number of amazing things about this whole sequence, but I’ll start with this: It’s actually based on a true story. According to this oral history of “Turkeys Away,” not just one true story, but two. Hugh Wilson, the WKRP creator who died last year, said he based the plot on a similar promotion spearheaded by a station in Dallas, while staffers at the Atlanta station on which WKRP was based said they also once threw turkeys out of the back of a truck in a promotion that (shocker) went awry. The fact that two radio stations — and those are just the ones we know about!— actually executed some version of a live turkey drop lends this episode credibility. But what makes it funny is how incredible it is.
It’s also funny because it does such a masterful job of withholding information. Because Mr. Carlson is so insistent on handling the promotion himself, the reveal that his grand scheme involves shoving turkeys out of an aircraft comes as a shock, one we share with poor Les as he narrates the entire thing, not to mention Johnny, program director Andy Travis (Gary Sandy), DJ Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), and staffer Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers), all of whom are listening in horror back at the station. Observing their reactions to Les’s report heightens our own response; we’re not just watching these characters, we’re sharing in their baffled amusement.
Crucially, we never actually see a helicopter or any turkeys hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement. The entire picture of this scene is painted through Les’s words and tone, which escalate quickly from calm and newsman-like to absolutely panic-stricken. This is necessary for obvious reasons: It would have been problematic from an animal-rights perspective (not to mention prohibitively expensive) for a network sitcom to stage this scene. But it works better without us witnessing what happens. As we would if we were listening to Les on the actual radio, we are guided through this story primarily by Sanders’s vocal expression, a wonderfully appropriate touch for a show about a group of people attempting to assert the relevancy of radio. (It’s a shame that Sanders was never nominated for an Emmy; he made Les into such a believably naïve and uptight fussbudget.)
WKRP in Cincinnati was by no means the first TV comedy to do a Thanksgiving episode. Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, and All in the Family, among others, all centered stories around the fraught, family-oriented holiday before the CBS series did. But unlike most sitcoms, WKRP didn’t focus on a disastrous turkey dinner or riff on the story of the Mayflower. It considered how the best Thanksgiving intentions can go terribly wrong, but within the context of a work event. While the Thanksgiving episode became much more commonplace on television in the decades after “Turkeys Away” aired, even now, its approach feels like something fresh, different, and definitely warped. (The dropping of turkey bombs is weirder than Rachel accidentally putting beef in a trifle on Friends.)
At the same time, this episode also emblematic of the spirit of WKRP as a whole, and of many TV comedies of the 1970s. In that era, especially post-Watergate, a lot of sitcoms skewed anti-Establishment, either in the material they chose to tackle (like the controversial soap-opera send-up Soap), or because they focused on scrappy middle- or working-class underdogs moving forward in spite of a system that didn’t cut them many breaks (Laverne & Shirley, Alice, Welcome Back, Kotter and Good Times). These types of shows gave average guys and women something to rebel against, whether it was military authority, as in M*A*S*H, or a cab dispatcher with a Napoleon complex, like on Taxi.
WKRP in Cincinnati fit this mold perfectly. It’s a show about youth trying to overturn the order established by the old — specifically, Carlson’s mother — by bringing rock-and-roll to a station once considered an easy-listening snoozefest. WKRP is itself an underdog, a low-rated station with a ragtag group of eccentric employees who have intermittent successes but are destined, always, to be fighting The Man.
It’s also a show about inept people trying to take charge of things, while the cooler and more competent members of the team — Travis, Johnny, Venus, and Bailey — roll their eyes and eventually compensate for their mistakes. Later workplace shows like News Radio, The Office, 30 Rock, and Great News owe a huge debt to WKRP in Cincinnati, which also had a gift for addressing social issues without sacrificing its comic sensibilities.
In its own twisted way, “Turkeys Away” is about the same thing as just about every Thanksgiving episode: people trying to do something perfect for the holiday, failing wildly at that endeavor, then moving on with their chins up after it’s all over. It may not cover the usual Thanksgiving traditions like making dinner or navigating family dynamics, but this episode of WKRP still ends the way that a lot of Thanksgivings dinner do: with a couple of dead birds, a huge mess to clean up, and everyone in the immediate vicinity feeling irritated with each other.
Yet every November, we all agree do it all over again, determined to achieve the impossible and get everything perfect this time. Maybe that’s why this episode of WKRP in Cincinnati still resonates, too. In a way, when you think about it, every Thanksgiving we’re all trying to make turkeys fly.