Hugh Wilson: behind the scenes on WKRP in Cincinnati

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Hugh Wilson with Loni Anderson at the Paley Center tribute to WKRP in May

Part of the fun in speaking with WKRP in Cincinnati creator Hugh Wilson for the long-awaited DVD release of his series was getting his back story. I’m always curious about where TV storytellers come from and how they got into The Game.

I’m also fascinated about how shows were made in the ’70s and ’80s compared to today, so, warning–plenty of nerdy details ahead.

Wilson is 71 now and lives in Virginia, not too far from ‘KRP pal Tim Reid.  He was working in advertising in Atlanta and hating it when he got the itch to make television.

Some pals had landed gigs in Hollywood, including Jay Tarses (The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, Slap Maxwell). Tarses was able to get Wilson an interview at MTM, with none other than legendary executive (and Mary Tyler Moore’s husband at the time) Grant Tinker. The two hit it off, but since Wilson didn`t have any writing credits, the best Tinker could offer was an intern position on one of his sitcoms, The Bob Newhart Show. Wilson grabbed it.

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Wilson’s first gig was on The Bob Newhart Show

“Since nobody would ask a 30-year-old intern to make coffee,” says Wilson, he had plenty of time to roam the studio. Most of the MTM comedies in the `70s were shot on what is now known as CBS Radford.  It was on that storied lot where Wilson cut his teeth on the TV business. He was able to spend hours observing the classic MTM comedies being crafted from the studio floors and rafters and eventually landed a gig as a writer on The Bob Newhart Show.

Wilson recalls the warmth and inclusion he felt from Newhart and co-star Suzanne Pleschette but says he learned even more from the star of his next series, The Tony Randall Show. Stage and screen veteran Randall stressed motivation, telling Wilson every character should always know exactly why they were entering a room.

In 1978, when WKRP began, many U.S. network TV shows were still being shot on film. All the previous MTM comedies, including Mary Tyler Moore and The Bob Newhart Show, were filmed shows.

As I wrote for the WKRP feature which ran in Monday`s Toronto Star, Wilson`s sitcom became MTM`s first videotaped comedy. This was mainly a cost cutting measure. Not so much because videotape was cheaper than film, but because the music rights clearances for the rock tunes played on the sitcom would be half the cost if the series was taped.

The decision to go video moved the series off the usual Studio City MTM lot and down into Hollywood. The Radford lot simply wasn’t set up for video. Large “side vans,” basically portable control centres, were trucked next to the sound stages for the occasional video production. In Season Two, once MTM was fully equipped to handle video production, WKRP moved back and Wilson says he was deeply honored to shoot his series in the same soundstage where Mary Tyler Moore was filmed.

Still, being “off shore,” as Wilson calls it, that first season, probably added to the sense of creative freedom Wilson says he found at MTM. WKRP, as the DVD box set reveals, is a pretty free-wheeling show. It helped, Wilson is quick to point out, that Tinker was there to protect the novice showrunner from the network.

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TV royalty: Mary Tyler Moore and Grant Tinker

“I was lucky I was at MTM,” acknowledges Wilson. Tinker ran interference. “I don’t know how he did it—he was a perfectly charming man is probably how he did it. He probably reminded them that four of their top 10 hits was from him. He would come back and say, ‘Hugh, it’s all right, you can do that.”

Not every battle would be won. One thing the network would not tolerate in 1978 was any drug references, even thought it was obvious, says Wilson, that Hesseman’s Dr. Johnny Fever had, well, issues. “I would sometimes have him stepping out of a closet waving his hand as if to clear the smoke,” says Wilson of his scripts. The network censors would insist that those scenes be cut. Soon it became a strategic game for Wilson. “I knew they were going to get it but I would pretend to be all offended and they would give me something else.”

Wilson says the weekly production schedule would  go something like this:  “We’d sit sown and read the script on Monday,” he says. “In the beginning the scripts were pretty tight. By the third year, we almost had blank pages, we were so far behind.”

WKRPFortunately, he says, the cast had faith the show would be there by Friday. Some of the more seasoned improvisers, such as Hesseman, were given a great deal of freedom to fashion their own dialogue within a scene.

Two versions of each episode were committed to tape each week. One with, and one without an audience. “I found that if you brought in an audience during the day, around 4 or 5, that audience would take you down,” says Wilson. “If you brought in an evening audience, they were so excited to be there.” After a few weeks Wilson turned away the afternoon audience. “We’d shoot the show dry and the I’d be there yelling, ‘Energy, have fun, smile.'”

Separating the two shows seemed to spark the cast. “Boy, when that live audience came in, and they started getting the laughs, the actors started just having so much fun with it.”

Wilson says the studio audience tapings were done very quickly. Audiences came in at 7 p.m., “we fired through the show”  and were back on the street by 8:30. Wilson knew he already had an earlier taping, without an audience, in the bank, so any mistakes made in front of the fans in the bleachers could be quickly patched later.

Wilson did the warm up himself. “I wasn’t about to let some comic come in there that didn’t know the show.” Wilson would occasionally drag cast members before the studio audience with him. “If I knew Gordon [Jump] wasn’t in the next scene, I would bring him out to do a two-hander with me while we re-set. I’d ask him his questions, he had his shtick everybody had their shtick.”

Doing a four camera, studio audience sitcom in 90 minutes is pretty much unheard of.  Three hours is considered pretty good. Some went way longer.

“We’d hear about Laverne & Shirley shooting until two in the morning,” says Wilson. “I thought that was just toxic.”

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