Revisiting ‘WKRP in Cincinnati”s Classic Thanksgiving Episode
In October 1978, a TV show about a fictional radio station in Cincinnati aired its most famous episode, one that culminated in 10 unforgettable words: “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”
Those words were uttered by station manager Mr. Carlson in the seventh episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, “Turkeys Away.” Following the trajectory of the show's pilot episode, in which the station undergoes a format change that leaves the old guard of eccentric staffers feeling bereft, Carlson plans a secret Thanksgiving promo to prove his worth: dropping live turkeys from a helicopter into a shopping plaza to celebrate Thanksgiving.
The results are now legendary.
It may not have gone well for the station, but the ploy turned out a lot better for the series after the episode went on to become one of the most memorable holiday episodes in TV history. In 2009, TV Guide slotted it at No. 65 in the 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time.
It’s a good thing, too, according to the show’s creator, producer and head writer, Hugh Wilson. “It didn’t initially have a great ratings bump, but it got a lot of talk inside the business," he told Classic TV History in 2012. "I always thought it was real booster shot.”
Even though the episode was initially slated to air closer to Thanksgiving, it was broadcast in late October because the show was taken off the air “for repairs” around the holidays. “That’s what Variety, I believe, reported that CBS said, that they were having a second look at the show and they were 'tweaking it,'" Wilson said. They didn't tweak a thing. Instead, Wilson said he turned already-written scripts into CBS with the dates changed so it looked like he had taken the network's directive seriously. The show returned not long after and lasted another three seasons.
But the joke at the center of the episode that most likely saved the series wasn't made up. It was based on a true story told to Wilson, who worked for many years at the Atlanta advertising agency Burton-Campbell before moving to Hollywood to become a writer for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Tony Randall Show and The Bob Newhart Show. He went back to Atlanta to research WQXI, a top radio station there that had the same market as the fictional WKRP. He met with Jerry Blum, then the station’s general manager, who recounted an incident he spearheaded at a station in Dallas. Wilson instantly knew it was comedy gold.
In the real-life version, turkeys were thrown from an 18-wheeler, but Wilson maintained Blum told him it was a helicopter. In the episode, WKRP’s reporter, Les Nessman, offered live on-the-scene accounts in a manner purposely reminiscent of the Hindenburg disaster.
“The opportunity to see Les Nessman recount the falling of the turkeys in the style of the Hindenburg was just ... tears to your eyes,” recalled Tim Reid, who played DJ Venus Flytrap. “I mean, who takes on the Hindenburg, and does a comedy? Takes one of the great tragedies in this country and puts it in a comedy show? We went there.” Nessman, who exclaimed on-scene, “Oh, the humanity,” a direct callback to the Hindenburg disaster, later noted, “I really don't know how to describe it. It was like the turkeys mounted a counter-attack! It was almost as if they were ... organized!”
“Turkeys Away"'s script is credited to Bill Dial, a friend and colleague of Wilson’s from Atlanta, but the first go-round wasn't easy. Wilson recalled being mad when, after handing his friend a brilliant idea, he felt Dial’s script missed the mark. “I just thought he kind of missed it completely," he said. "Dial, bless his heart, would tell you the same. He got the credit and I think he kind of dined out on it, but you know, I pretty much wrote every word.”
Wilson recalled he completed a rewrite the night before shooting. “I thought the funniest lines were happening because the audience was imagining what was happening," Max Tush, a production associate, recalled. "You never saw turkeys thrown out – you only saw how it was being described. You saw the aftermath when Carlson comes in with feathers in his hair. So the funniest laughs were in the audience’s imagination.” The show's laugh track actually had to be edited down.
As for the line that fans remember verbatim all these years later, it intentionally appeared late in the show — later than planned, actually. “If you’ve got a real hot piece of comedy that you like, you sure don’t want to put it up front," Wilson said. "I tried hard to make it the climax, where the climax is supposed to be. It was hilarious, if I may say so myself." Wilson said he still gets people quoting that line to him. “Even when I meet people today and I get around to saying who I am," he noted, "the first damn thing they’ll say to me is ‘As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly'" -- something his mother used to say to him when he was misbehaving as a child.
Station manager Carlson was based in part on the real-life general manager Blum, who defended his own promo blunder. “I’m from Queens, New York," he said. "How the [expletive] would I know turkeys can’t fly!”