HOWARD HESSEMAN AND LONI ANDERSON
LIVING ON DVD IN CINCINNATI
by Jay S. Jacobs
“Baby, if you ever wondered whatever became of me… I’m living on the air in Cincinnati. Cincinnati – WKRP.”
So starts the theme to one of the classic sitcoms of the late Carter administration, WKRP in Cincinnati, which is finally being released on DVD.
The series was made up with a colorful cast of characters. Howard Hesseman played Dr. Johnny Fever, the hard-living DJ. Loni Anderson was Jennifer Marlowe, the glamorous secretary who essentially kept the place running. Tim Reid was Venus Flytrap, the super-fly DJ. Gary Sandy was Andy Travis, the program director with great hair. Jan Smithers was Bailey Quarters, the shy, smart and beautiful assistant. Gordon Jump played Arthur “The Big Guy” Carlson, the hen-pecked son of the owner. Richard Sanders was Les Nessman, the self-important and insecure news director. Frank Bonner was Herb Tarlek, the sleazy sales manager.
All of these characters have taken a place in sitcom lore since the series debuted on CBS in 1978. The show lasted for four seasons, but it was a phenomenon upon its debut. Thanks to the TV on DVD explosion, the classic first season is now making it to the stores nearly three decades later.
“It’s hard to believe that it’s been 30 years,” admits Howard Hesseman. “And terrific that it’s being released on DVD, because I think more people will see it, or people will be reminded of it that are already familiar with it but haven’t had access to it through syndication in the last few years. I’m like everybody else that worked the show. I was really proud of it. We had a great time doing it. I think it shows, in some fashion, that the good time we had doing it is in evidence on some level when you look at it.”
Loni Anderson agrees, “It just seems like yesterday. But who knew that this would ever be possible? It’s just incredible [that the show is being released on DVD]. I’m so glad. I have grandchildren who’ve never seen it. I’m very excited that they’ll get to see what all the fuss was about.”
The funny thing is, these two almost did not play the characters which made them household names. Hesseman was called to audition for the show while he was playing a recurring character in a story arc for the sitcom Soap. When he got there, he was given a script to look over. The problem was, creator Hugh Wilson saw Hesseman as the polyester-clad sales manager Herb Tarlek.
He told the producers, “I have to tell you, I’m far more interested in this disk jockey. I know some people in radio in San Francisco. I have an idea who this guy is and what his life might be like that I’d be happy to share with you. But I’m really not interested in doing the salesman character.” Hesseman laughs at the memory. “I remember leaving the room, one of them said, ‘You’re certain about the salesman?’ I said, yeah, if it’s the disk jockey or the salesman, it’s got to be the disk jockey. Because it’s the disk jockey or nothing as far as I’m concerned – sort of a show of bravado that paid off. But it turned out that the next person through the door to meet them was Frank Bonner, whom they ended up casting as Herb Tarlek. Frank and I, it turns out, were born one day apart. And our dressing rooms were next to one another. So, I have great memories of times spent with Frank on the show. But my memories of that show – even though my memories are getting old and kind of lazy – are very good. It was a great group of people.”
In the meantime, Anderson had been avoiding going in to audition for a while because she had no interest in playing a stereotypical character. Finally, her agent convinced her to go, if for no other reason so that they may consider her for something in the future.
“I went in on a Saturday,” Anderson recalls. “Hugh Wilson and Grant Tinker were nice enough to come in on a Saturday. I basically went in with my little soapbox to give my little speech about how I didn’t like the idea of ever being a dumb blonde or window dressing or anything like that. I was a serious brunette actress, thank you very much. I hope they’d consider me again sometime. So, I did my speech and then Hugh said, ‘Well, how would you do it?’ That’s how it all started. And I got the job.”
It is somewhat ironic that both of the actors held out to make sure that they got the roles that they wanted – because after long careers in which each has played many other characters, Dr. Johnny Fever and Jennifer Marlowe still somewhat define Hesseman and Anderson in the public eye. While there are some pragmatic reasons for that (“I think because it reran forever,” Anderson suggests), it also shows that the characters struck a real chord with the audience.
“It was very innovative for the time,” Anderson explains. “No glamorous women had been funny. Pretty women had been funny, but not glamorous women. Most glamorous blonde bombshell kind of women had been ditzy. I have a lot of women fans. [It was] women who really were impacted the most by the character – knowing that you could be glamorous in the workplace and still be the smartest person in the room.”
Hesseman also thinks that his character resonated with the public, but for a slightly different reason.
“I think that all of us have a kind of iconic disk jockey in our back-brain – if you grew up in America, certainly,” Hesseman says. “There had to be a moment in a parked car, late at night, when your DJ played specific song that made something wonderful happen. I always felt like people have that aural connection in their head. It’s always come to them aurally – through their ears. Here was a chance to showcase where that experience came from. It was new workspace to examine without getting deeply into how radio stations operate. The show was really about how people operate in a specific place. I have to credit a great deal of it to the writing. Because Hugh… No matter how funny a joke was, he would kill it. He would scratch it if it got in the way of telling the story. As he would repeat over and over, we’ve only got 22 minutes to tell a story with a beginning, middle and an end. We can’t be leaning out for jokes.”
Those stories worked mostly because of the characters and the cast. One of the greatest things about the show was the ensemble. The world of WKRP was sort of a generation gap mixture of the hip and the old school. Somehow that combination just clicked.
“Hugh always said that, in creating the show, he wanted to create for any viewer somebody they’d really like and somebody they wouldn’t like all that much,” Hesseman says. “Since conflict is at the heart of drama and comedy as well, he really started off with the right footing. Although they were sort of generic characters, he was also smart enough, hip enough as a writer to make them specific. He hired writers who hadn’t worked in sitcoms. Most of them came out of the ad game, as did Hugh. So, they had a different approach to finding humor. They weren’t just looking for jokes that worked. Of equal importance, that from Hugh on down, virtually everybody in the company was collaboratively minded. We all felt free to offer ideas to one another. In a workplace, cooperation goes a lot further than competition, I think.”
That sense of collaboration was contagious, Anderson agrees. “It was immediate. Everybody seemed to be in exactly the right part. Even though we were of different generations and different schools, everybody was pulling for one another. On the show, [there was] the feeling of the characters all caring about one another and caring what happened to each other. Then behind the scenes, too, we were all a family. So, I think that just carried through.”
Of course, the world has changed a lot in the time since WKRP ruled the airwaves, but those changes somehow make the show even more enjoyable in the sometimes-overwhelming modern world. For example, looking back from a television world where gritty realism and harsh language is a way of life, it’s nice to ruminate back on a world where it was a real accomplishment for a DJ to be able to say the word “booger” on the air.
“Well, you know, those were different times,” Hesseman laughs.
“Gosh, it has changed a lot, hasn’t it?” Anderson says. “We used to get memos about so many different things that now people don’t blink an eye on shows that are on today.”
For example, in this post-sexual harassment world, could a show pull off a relationship like that of Jennifer and Herb Tarlek, in which the married sales manager was coming on to her on a nearly constant basis?
“I think [it’s funny] only because she handled him,” Anderson says. “He never really got anywhere. I think more women would like to know how to keep everybody in their place. Because, I don’t think it stopped, I just think you could be more threatened by it. There could be a lawsuit about it. Jennifer just knew how to handle it.”
“All I can remember was Herb saying something in the pilot, something like ‘I could get you a side of beef.’” Hesseman laughs hard. “Frank Bonner was so great in that part. He used to just destroy me. I was afraid I was going to go up in scenes, because he had that guy down so thoroughly.”
Sadly, three decades on from the show, the idea of a sitcom is on life-support. There are some good ones out there, but way too much the artform is being replaced by reality television. Watching the old episodes of WKRP is just another reminder of how much we need and miss them.
“I’m very sad to see that they’re going,” Anderson says. “Well, scripted television altogether has certainly taken a dive since we’ve had all this reality. I hope it comes back and I hope comedy comes back.”
“I think they’re such a hard sell because [sitcoms] cost more money than reality shows,” Hesseman says. “People, for whatever abhorrent reasons, are more and more maniacally inclined to try to get on camera and reveal themselves for the fools that they are. I always felt that if I’m going to do that, I should be paid, and I studied to find ways to do it.” He laughs. “You know, I’m not really interested in finding out if I could bungee-jump of a 47-story building with my mouth full of worms. That kind of stuff, I just don’t understand it. Unless it’s just that we’ve as a nation just developed this real appetite for humiliation. In which case, we’ve certainly got the right administration.”
So now, nearly thirty years on, WKRP still has a loyal following – a core audience that has been jonesing for the release of the series on DVD. Now that it is here, it makes the stars happy that they can share the experience with the audience that has been there with them for so many years.
“It’s just wonderful,” Anderson says. “I’ve known for years that there are staunch fans. You know when the reruns come on and the fan mail keeps coming. New generations who weren’t even born when you went off the air are rediscovering it. It’s thrilling. It’s just terrific.”
“It’s very gratifying, you know?” Hesseman agrees. “You like to feel that what you’ve done meant something to somebody. It still makes me feel good when I’m walking down the street and somebody says, ‘Hey, doctor!’ I turn; never mind that there might be an ambulance there and people in white coats trying to save lives. I think it’s about me. But I’m quite pleased when somebody acknowledges that they dug something that I was a part of.”
Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 24, 2007.
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