Thursday, November 22, 2012

I Swear, As God Is My Witness, I Thought Turkeys Could Fly!

Les Nessman reports from the horrifying
and hilarious scene. "O, the humanity!"
Last year at Thanksgiving, CBS' Watch! magazine ran my interview with WKRP in Cincinnati creator Hugh Wilson about that show's most beloved, and Thanksgiving-themed, episode, "Turkeys Away!", which first aired on October 30, 1978.

I've always been a big fan of Wilson's work, including his critically acclaimed but short-lived 1987 series, Frank's Place.  Now 69, this writer who got his start on The Bob Newhart Show is semi-retired and teaching a course in screenwriting and television writing at the University of Virginia.  Below, his reminiscences on perhaps THE classic Thanksgiving-themed sitcom moment.

October 30, 1978

WKRP in Cincinnati Creates a Classic out of a True Thanksgiving Tale

I had been in advertising in Atlanta, and so when I had the idea to do the pilot for WKRP, I went to observe friends there in the radio business.  At the time, the #1 rock station in Atlanta, WQXI, was run by a wonderful guy named Jerry Blum, a longtime “station doctor” who had bounced from one station to the next.  When I was just hanging around there, he told me about how he’d gotten fired from a Dallas station for throwing live turkeys out of a helicopter.  And I said, “Jerry, tell me more.  I think I just won an Emmy.”
Then, in five minutes, the story we used in our episode, “Turkeys Away!” pretty much all came from this fellow’s lips.  It’s been my experience that the real stories are the ones that lead you in great directions.  Jerry was from New York City originally, and didn’t know that turkeys can’t fly very well.  I’m sure most people don’t know that.  So when they started their promotional stunt, the turkeys just went down like bombs.  What’s worse is, when they saw their error, they landed the helicopter to release the rest of the turkeys – and the turkeys fought back, chasing people and running into traffic.  It was the perfect nightmare a comedy writer would want to hear about.
Hugh Wilson in 2008
In our episode, our reporter Les Nessman reports that one turkey went through the windshield of a car – well, I took a liberty with that.  Bill Dial wrote the first draft of the episode, and I did the rewrite.  We had the idea to make Les’ whole report sound like the famous radio broadcast of the Hindenburg tragedy, with the line “O, the humanity!”  But the rest of it had all come from Jerry.
Even now, it’s amazing.  When people find out who I am, they come right up to me, and the first thing out of their mouths is, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!”  I have to take credit as the author of that line, because I’m really proud of it.
--Hugh Wilson, creator of WKRP in Cincinnati 

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