Monday, December 14, 2015

Blake Hunter, of WKRP in Cincinnati

Decades after his heyday, Blake Hunter remains one of my favorite sitcom writers, and like so many of my favorites (e.g., Bernard Slade on Bewitched, Charlotte Brown on Rhoda, David Pollock and Elias Davis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bud Wiser on One Day at a Time, Bob Bendetson on Newhart, Tucker Cawley on Everybody Loves Raymond), I love him for the scripts he wrote for a single show, in this case WKRP in Cincinnati. Hugh Wilson created WKRP, but Hunter was there all four seasons, and his scripts are the ones I still marvel at.

Hunter doesn't get a fraction of the recognition that he deserves; his Wikipedia entry, particularly compared to some of his lesser KRP colleagues, is distressingly short. And sadly, he's best-known as co-creator of the Tony Danza vehicle Who's the Boss?, and I say "sadly" because it's remembered for being worse than it was. I didn't watch a whole lot of it, as none of the cast members were particular favorites, but it was a solid, deserving sitcom success. (Co-creator Martin Cohan is also trapped being remembered for Who's the Boss?, although he had a long career, and occasionally an inspired one. During the first two seasons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, before the shake-up that transformed it into the groundbreaking show we love and remember, it was essentially a traditional late-'60s-type sitcom: That Girl 2.0. But during those first two seasons, every time Cohan steps to the plate, he pens an episode that anticipates exactly where the characters are headed in Season 3; it's like he understood how it could be transformed into a great show even before its creators did.) So as noted, not being a regular Who's the Boss? viewer, I can only comment on Hunter's work on WKRP, but it's a pleasure to do so.

He has a couple of nice "firsts" to his credit: his first WKRP scripts written, the two-parter "Goodbye, Johnny" and "Johnny Comes Back," were the first to embrace the notion of the show as an ensemble comedy (as it would, in time, become); his first script aired, "Tornado," was the show's first episode to hit #1 in the weekly ratings. He specialized in stories about station manager Arthur Carlson (series regular Gordon Jump), his wife Carmen (the winning Allyn Ann McLerie) and his mother Lillian (the formidable Carol Bruce). Most of the key Carlson family moments come via Hunter. He charts the moment when Carmen learns she's pregnant ("Patter of Little Feet," which includes a frank discussion about abortion, which most shows had avoided since the controversy that swirled around "Maude's Dilemma" seven years earlier); he's there when Mother Carlson makes an unexpected early-morning visit to the station ("Baby, It's Cold Inside"), which leads to some reminiscences that draw upon Bruce's own stage background; and he sows the seeds for a season-long arc when Mother Carlson pulls in her son and her program director to sway an upcoming "Union" vote.

But more than the plots themselves, it's Hunter's sensibility that sets him apart. In a 1974 essay that I've always admired, Carol Traynor Williams, professor of humanities at Roosevelt University, took a look at The Mary Tyler Moore Show, then early into its fourth season, and defined the MTM style as "a continuing comic-drama about a group of human beings who are connected to and care about each other, and with whom we are made to feel a connection and concern." The best MTM scripts, she noted, "make that dull virtue, companionship, a value of power and promise ... They affirm the complexity of every human being; they parade their every butt and foil...and insist (no less stubbornly for their subtlety) that we see their dignity." This essay, written during MTM Enterprises' formative years, was astonishingly prescient, anticipating two decades of programming, from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Newhart, from The White Shadow to Hill Street Blues. And to my mind, there was no greater practitioner of the MTM "house style" than Blake Hunter.

Hunter had written only one script, for the MTM-produced Tony Randall Show, before moving over to the studio's WKRP, so it doesn't seem so much about him learning the house style as simply intuiting it. During his years on WKRP, he imbued every character with dignity, defying all temptation to mock or ridicule for an easy laugh. His writing avoided histrionics -- it never strained for effect; he simply offered up the cadences of everyday speech, and the interactions of everyday people, as its own aesthetic -- and perhaps never more so than in his best WKRP script, the classic "Jennifer and the Will," a quiet tour-de-force for Loni Anderson, and probably her best work on the show. Anderson's Jennifer Marlowe, as I've noted elsewhere, was WKRP's answer to all the dumb blondes clogging the airwaves: as blonde and as beautiful as her TV counterparts, but also (gasp!) bright, capable, articulate and perceptive. (Occasionally she seemed to be running the station single-handedly.) "Jennifer and the Will" dares to ask: what can't Jennifer handle? What's too much?

It begins with one of the show's most confident cold openings: with Jennifer and an elderly gentleman friend, the Colonel, out to dinner at an elegant French restaurant. The Colonel falls asleep before the check arrives, but according to Jennifer, "He often takes a little snooze between dessert and coffee. Helps build up his strength for the long walk to the car." She assures the Maitre D', "The mere presence of an overly inflated bill always arouses him." But when the check comes, the Colonel doesn't wake. And when Jennifer nudges it playfully in his direction, still no response. And when she puts her hand on his, and he remains still, her shock and sudden grief reduce this most literate of ladies to just two words: "Oh, dear."

Cue the opening music.

And when we return, Jennifer is arriving at the station the following morning, and everyone wants to know: has the Colonel left her anything? She presumes not ("I asked him not to. And if he does, it'll make him look like an old coot with the hots for a younger woman -- which is of course what he was, but in an utterly charming way. Oh, I'm going to miss the old coot..."), but what he has done is appoint her executrix of his estate. (He doesn't trust his family.) And from there the plot follows two convergent paths. The first is the efforts of the WKRP staff to console Jennifer, something with which no one's had experience. (Jennifer is always the one consoling others.) The bits are beautifully in character, with Andy blustering and Mr. Carlson bumbling:

Mr. Carlson: Oh, Jennifer, I don't know what to say.
Jennifer: Neither do I.
Andy: Well, do what I do: put your first through the wall. [and Jennifer stares at him, incredulously] Wrong thing, I said the wrong thing...
Jennifer: The Colonel always called me a good little soldier, and that is exactly what I am going to be.
Andy: Sure: hey, look at the positive side of things -- he was a nice man.
Jennifer: He was a wonderful man, who lived 80 very full years. But his last years were his happiest...
Mr. Carlson: Why was that? [and Jennifer stares at him, incredulously]

Venus, typically a smooth talker, stumbles and stammers; Johnny proposes taking her mind off things with a diversion drawn from experience ("You ever been to night court? Last week they caught this guy with 106 television sets"); while even her closest friend Bailey is reduced to platitudes. But of course, there is no such thing as a "suitable" expression of sympathy, so perhaps the only good condolence is an awful one, one that substitutes frankness for feeling -- and that can only come by way of Herb:

Herb: Hey, Jenny, I didn't get a chance to tell you how sorry I am that that Colonel guy bought the farm. Hey, he had a long life, a lot of dough, he got to go out with you -- caught the big bus while he was eating in the best joint in town. Not bad, if you ask me.
Jennifer [Smiling]: Sometimes I really like you, Herb. You really have a way with words.
Herb: Hey, I'm in sales!

Running counter to all that is what the Colonel's death -- and her new responsibilities -- are doing to Jennifer. Like so many of Hunter's scripts, and like much of WKRP Season 4, the episode is about someone having to cope outside their comfort zone, and Jennifer's response is a slow descent, from resolve --

Jennifer: I'm going to see that his wishes are carried out to the letter.
Mr. Carlson: What would you guess was involved here? Maybe a couple hundred thousand dollars?
Jennifer [laughs]: Millions for sure, perhaps even billions. There's so much to count.
Andy: Tough job.
Jennifer: I don't mind. The Colonel knew I was getting restless: I'd mastered seven languages, just about finished [redecorating] the lobby here. He knew I needed another project.
Mr. Carlson: He was a darn thoughtful man.

-- to stoicism, as the Colonel's family takes to the press, to discredit Jennifer (whom they paint as a gold-digger) and contest the will --

Bailey: What are you doing?
Jennifer: Thinking.
Bailey: About what?
Jennifer: Well, this morning it was the nature of existence. Around noon, I began to embrace the philosophy of Camus. Existentialism is perhaps the answer.
Bailey: Is this the evening paper?
Jennifer: Uh huh.
Bailey: May I see it?
Jennifer: Sure. Read what it says in the article there about the blonde floozie...

-- to despair in the hours leading up to the funeral, when the attacks in the press ("It is not known if the industrialist's woman companion is employed") have grown unrelenting: "I just want to be left alone. I'm tired, I'm really just tired." It's poignant and unsettling -- we're not used to seeing Jennifer rattled. Her self-confidence has always been her most dependable (and inspiring) trait.

But of course, at the lawyer's office the following day, when she sees the Colonel once again in his pre-recorded video will (a bravura performance by Pat O'Brien, and an insanely novel way to use a guest star, scoring most of his laughs after he's dead: "To my brother Cedric, I leave nothing -- because he's always been an all-or-nothing type of fellow, and since he can't have it all, he gets -- nothing"), when she realizes -- with his hostile, useless relatives seated beside her -- what's at stake and what she's fighting for, she rallies. The Colonel wants his fortune distributed among the veterans of his old unit, the Fighting 47th, including a parade in their honor. His sister objects: "A parade! I mean, really: it's insane, it's frivolous, it's --" "Going to start around 2," Jennifer interrupts, already working out the details: "Probably last till around 7. I'm going to pick a nice summer's day when all the kids are out of school." The family warns her, "I can see we're going to have a fight on our hands," and recharged, she counters, calmly, "Just as big as you'd like to make it." And of course Jennifer will prevail, because that's what she does.

WKRP staff writer Peter Torokvei once admitted that he preferred to write for "foible-laden characters" like Herb; his fear was that by delving too deeply into a "strong character" like Jennifer, you risked sacrificing the very elements that made her so admirable. It takes a great writer to take a strong character, one who prides themselves on being in control, plant them in a situation that saps their self-confidence, and not only find the humor, but find a way back. And that's Hunter's great accomplishment: Jennifer's crisis doesn't diminish her; it humanizes her. And, as with so many MTM series, she gets through it with a little help from her friends.

WKRP was an odd series, one that lurched from spectacular highs to baffling lows. It often seemed like a wild beast out of control, but Hunter was the great tamer, the one whose gentle, quiet hand always restored order. I know nothing of Hunter as a person; I'd like to think he was as compassionate, wise and even-handed as his scripts, but for all I know, he might well have been like one of those guys Lou Grant once described who writes greeting cards by day, then "comes home and kicks his dog over a hedge." But as a writer, Hunter was remarkable: the torchbearer at the end of MTM Enterprises' first decade, whose humanistic approach elevated his characters even as he mined them for humor. Without Hunter's contributions, WKRP would be far less memorable than it is. His scripts were impeccable, his place in TV history indelible.

Now maybe someone can expand his Wikipedia entry?

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