On the 40th anniversary of its signoff, a look back at 'WKRP in Cincinnati'
Forty years ago today, on April 21, 1982, CBS aired the final first-run episode of “WKRP in Cincinnati.” Although critically acclaimed, the show drew only moderate ratings across multiple time slots from 1978-1982.
Its 90 episodes fared much better in syndication, at one point rivaling “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” in popularity. After years of delay due to music clearances, the entire "WKRP" series was released on DVD in 2014. At the time, we spoke with Fresh Air's David Bianculli about the show's legacy. And in 2010, we spoke with the Akron-based co-writers of its iconic theme song.
From Brotherly Love to the Second City to the Queen City
The adventures of the fictional radio station sometimes mirrored reality in Cincinnati, such as when 11 people were trampled to death as fans rushed into a concert by The Who in 1979. Or when Sparky Anderson was fired by the Cincinnati Reds.
Both of those episodes were written by Steven Kampmann, who was also nominated for an Emmy as one of the show’s producers.
A lifelong baseball fan, he grew up in Philadelphia and eventually made his way to Chicago in the 1970s.
“I did a 'summer of risk' with a friend where we went across country doing different kinds of physical risks," Kampmann said. "And also, one of the risks was to go to Chicago and audition for Second City. We went upstairs, and the owner and the manager all came out and they gave us a chance to do our act. And three weeks later, we were in Second City. I was there for two years in Chicago and then two years in Toronto with Martin Short, Catherine O'Hara, Andrea Martin, etc. That led us create a pilot. We took that to L.A. and my partner, Peter Torokvei, and I got work because of it. And that tape got to Hugh Wilson, creator of ‘WKRP.’”
Kampmann and the late PJ Torokvei chose a real-life event as the basis for their first writing assignment: the firing of Sparky Anderson. In “Sparky,” the former manager hosts a sports talk show with disastrous results.
Although initially a team, Kampmann and Torokvei eventually worked separately.
“I regret that because Peter and I were a team up in Toronto for two years," Kampmann said. "We came in as a team and then we allowed ourselves to get broken up and I think that was a mistake. We did write some stuff together in the beginning, but then we started working with different people. And we never really regained the partnership after that, which is too bad because he was a good writer.”
Their improv background served them well in the "WKRP" writers’ room.
“Hugh Wilson did ‘The Tony Randall Show’ and a few others and was a really good writer," Kampmann said. "We learned a lot because, remember, we got these jobs without any knowledge of how sitcoms work, and so he was a mentor and teacher. And so, when you're pitching an idea — as opposed to the script — that's where the improvisation would happen. You would sit in the room with all the writers and we would come up with different ideas and toss them about. And then when we got a sense that there was a structure to the idea, then Hugh would make the assignment to the writer that and go from there.
“Then based on the rehearsals, you're changing lines, you're changing whole scenes, you're working all the way up to Friday — which is show day — getting it better, better, better, more refined.”
Film versus video
Unlike most other sitcoms from MTM Productions, “WKRP” was shot on videotape as opposed to film, giving a different visual quality. Kampmann said he’s two-minded about whether he would have pushed for film had he been showrunner.
“It tones down the colors and gives a softer feel," Kampmann said. "I always thought that was much preferred. I don't lament [videotape] because it makes the comedy kind of brighter and shine, so I think all that mattered to me was that what we were shooting was funny.”
Kampmann later added “director” to his resume, something he found very comfortable to do.
“After all, I was an actor so I had an easy time with working with other actors," he said. "I could improvise as a writer. I could give them lines to say.”
That improv training helped Kampmann gel with Howard Hesseman, one of the stars of "WKRP." They co-wrote the season 3 episode, “Till Debt Do Us Part,” which included guest star Hamilton Camp.
“These were guys I had seen in The Committee [improv troupe] years before in San Francisco," Kampmann said. "Howard was very comfortable in improvisation. So, he took to Peter Torokvei and I very quickly. We worked with him on that episode — going to his home, improvising lines, improvising themes. That was really fun because we were kind of able to go back to our roots.”
Although he gravitated toward writing the fictional characters of Herb Tarlek, Les Nessman and Mr. Carlson, Kampmann often wrote episodes with celebrities playing themselves, such as Dr. Joyce Brothers and Bert Parks.
“It's a good observation on your part," Kampmann said. "I wasn't consciously doing it, but I always thought blending reality with fiction only helped the show. It kind of gave it a credibility with real people coming on.”
And that led to the episode “In Concert,” airing just two months after 11 people were trampled to death at a concert by The Who. Kampmann recalls having to lobby for the idea.
“You can't ignore something that would be a big event for a radio station — to act like it's not happening is just a mistake," he said. "In reality, if there was a concert in town, the radio station would be involved. And I stayed on that theme until finally Hugh said, 'OK.' He gave me permission to write it and then he kind of dealt with the network. It was an uncomfortable feeling because people in the staff felt that this is going to be a bummer.”
The episode was one of several installments which brought dramatic elements to the sitcom. But one idea which was pure slapstick also came from Kampmann. He incessantly pitched a joke which would require messing up the hair of actor Gary Sandy, who played WKRP’s perfectly coiffed program director, Andy Travis. It finally happened in episode 31, “Baby, If You’ve Ever Wondered.”
Only 17 plots?
After 90 episodes, "WKRP" came to an end on April 21, 1982.
“I've always said that it went for four years, but it was really built to go for seven or eight. It could have, even though Hugh always said there's only 17 basic sitcom stories. He was so funny about all that. You know, in England they only make 13 or 14 shows, like 'Fawlty Towers' with John Cleese, or 'The Office.' And then in America, that's where all the money is made, because they end up doing 100 episodes. 'WKRP' did 90, but they probably could have done 140.”
Today, Kampmann maintains a connection to Cincinnati: one of his four sons lives there. He’s most proud of them, his wife Judith (a star in her own right on several Norman Lear sitcoms), and dog Greta, who was adopted in Cincinnati.
Back to school
After "WKRP," Kampmann joined “Newhart” in the role of Kirk Devane for its first two highly rated seasons, before transitioning to a film career beginning with the cult classic, “Stealing Home.”
“I decided, with a writing partner from Second City — Will Aldis — to write something that we cared about," Kampmann said. "We were thinking we were done with show business, so let's write a script that our children can read that's meaningful. So, we wrote about the summer my father died. We wrote it in on legal pads and we would move from cafe to cafe till they would throw us out. We wrote it in three weeks, and in six weeks we sold it, which was shocking. And suddenly we're in the movie business. Then we had to rewrite for different directors over four years. Jonathan Demme, a wonderful director, was attached for a year. And eventually my partner and I made up our minds to approach Columbia. We said to them, 'We've been working on this for four years. We've had other directors. We've been at different studios. We will only make this movie if we get to direct.' And he accepted. We were all set to go — we had to go to Sundance — and while we were at Sundance, Columbia dropped the movie. Fortunately, we are able to get it set up at Warner Brothers. I was always really comfortable with directing. Later I was attached to a movie called 'Clifford' to direct and I didn't do it. But I did do a pilot, and I wrote a movie called ‘Buzzkill’ that I directed later. I wish I'd moved over to directing earlier in my career.
“I've written over 30 movies, such as Rodney Dangerfield's 'Back to School,' and I actually worked 88 straight quarters as a writer. And then we took another risk: taking our entire family back to a boarding school in New Jersey where my wife and I taught and ran a dormitory.
“I just remember going up to class and — because I've been in show business — I thought teaching was entertaining kids for eight hours a week. I didn't have any idea what I was doing. So, in fact, the following year when I would run into one of my students, I would say, ‘Sorry for last year. Who's your teacher this year? Oh, it's Mr. Brandwood? He's good. You'll catch up.’ And then I would hand them five dollars.”
Kampmann said that experience could be a sitcom unto itself. But it also led him to an important new career.
“While I was there, I created a course called the ‘Dream Course,’ because I have a master’s degree in psychological counseling," Kampmann said. "It's a mentoring course for people in their 20s and 30s who are trying to figure out who they are and what they want to do in life. I've been doing that for the last two years and I'm in the process of writing a book about it. It's all about using your dream life to figure out what's going on with your outer life. So, it's very satisfying.”
An extension of the course is the podcast that Kampmann hosts with son Mikey. In the episode “Mountain Story,” he relates a life-changing moment from the early 1970s which eventually led him to MTM Productions, home of “WKRP” and “Newhart.”
“I was living in Vermont and I was working at a hospital, but I really didn't know what to do and I was going through a relationship situation that was very painful," Kampmann said. "I was in therapy and I would go once a week into town and would pass this beautiful mountain called Camel's Hump. One day I was driving past it and something said to me, ‘You know if you just climbed that mountain, everything would be OK.’ And I ignored it promptly, saying, ‘No, that's crazy.’ Eventually I kept thinking about it and then one day I said, ‘Let's do it,’ and I did.
“One cold January morning I awoke, drove over to the mountain, got out with a knapsack and started to walk up in the snow and noticed a little blue house and wisps of smoke coming out of the chimney," Kampmann said. "So, I knocked on the door and it was a retired jazz player and his wife and they were very kind, and I said, ‘I'm going up the mountain, if I don't come down by 3 could you notify someone?’ And they said sure and they gave me a trail guide and snowshoes. And up I go — and it was not easy going. I go for four hours, just trudging through the snow, and finally got to the top where there were 60 mph winds and it was bare, so I had to crawl the last 100 yards to the top. And then I stood up and I put my arms out and just went, ‘I am alive!’ And I suddenly felt this rush of energy. I went down the down the mountain, stopped at the blue house, and had tea with the jazz player and his wife. And I did this for the next two years, every season.
“Fast forward 10 years: I'm in Los Angeles, not in Vermont. I'm acting, which I was never doing when I was in Vermont. I'm on a TV show set in Vermont, “Newhart.’ And I'm about to do a scene with the star, Bob Newhart, where he’s talking to someone and I'm at a table reading the paper. I started reading the paper that was handed to me, the ‘Burlington Free Press’ — and this is all on-camera — and I'm flipping through the paper and I come to the last flap and there is the obituary of the jazz player that I'd met 10 years earlier. I was just shocked by the coincidence of it all, but it took me back to my original line driving in the car: ‘If I can just climb that mountain, everything else will be OK.’ And that's kind of what I teach — that if you take a risk in your life or follow something that you think is important, doors open.”
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