I thought turkeys could fly

I thought turkeys could fly was a line from a 1978 episode of the TV sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. The episode, titled Turkeys Away, is generally considered one of the 100 greatest TV sitcom episodes of all time.

Turkeys Away: Turkeys can’t fly?

I thought turkeys could fly
Actor Gordon Jump, pictured above in this snippet from a WKRP VHS tape, delivered the line I thought turkeys could fly.

WKRP in Cincinnati bowed out on April 21, 1982. But its finest moment happened October 30, 1978. That was the night when Turkeys Away first aired. In this episode, the manager of a struggling AM radio station in Cincinnati, Arthur Carlson (played by Gordon Jump) decides to run a Thanksgiving promotion that he promises will be the greatest in radio history. He arranges to fly a helicopter over the busy Pinedale shopping mall. Not only is the helicopter pulling a banner wishing onlookers a Happy Thanksgiving from WKRP, he gives away turkeys in an unconventional manner. He keeps all of the details secret from the staff except for sales manager Herb Tarlek (played by Frank Bonner). Tarlek eagerly takes the role as his accomplice.

I’ll attempt to give a brief synopsis of the episode without giving away the entire thing. But if you haven’t seen the episode and don’t like spoilers, maybe skip to the next section.

Synopsis of the episode and the line, “I thought turkeys could fly.”

The station’s bumbling newscaster, Les Nessman (played by Richard Sanders) is on the scene to give a live play-by-play account, which he delivers in the style of the newscast from the Hindenburg tragedy. His horror grows as he realizes someone is dropping turkeys from the helicopter and they are falling like sacks of wet cement onto the parking lot. The crowd panics and runs for cover.

The episode didn’t actually show any turkeys. Showing the turkeys and the helicopter would have been cost prohibitive, not to mention the ethical concerns. Instead, the scene cuts back and forth between the Nessman on the scene and the radio studio, where DJ Johnny Fever (played by Howard Hessman) is giving his morning show as the rest of the staff listens on.

The publicity stunt did indeed get the station lots of attention, but of the negative kind, from the Humane Society and the mayor of Cincinnatti. Program Director Andy Travis (played by Gary Sandy) attempts to do damage control.

The famous line, I thought turkeys could fly, comes at the end of the episode, uttered by a dissheveled Arthur Carlson.

The episode shows the divide in the station. Travis had been brought in to oversee a format change, while Carlson didn’t really approve. Tarlek and Nessman generally sided with Carlson. The rest of the staff was on board with Travis. The tension between the old guard establishment and new guard counterculture serves as a subtle undercurrent to the episode.

Real life inspiration

The synopsis of the episode was inspired by two real life events in which a turkey promotion went awry. Atlanta radio executive Jerry Blum related to show creator Hugh Wilson that he’d staged a publicity stunt early in his career in Texas. Blum said he threw turkeys from a helicopter, accidentally created a turkey massacre, and lost his job over it. Radio executive Clarke Brown, the real-life inspiration for Herb Tarlek, related that a similar incident happened in Atlanta, where he threw turkeys from a truck.

Wilson and Brown disagreed over some of the details of the inspiration. But seeing as this was a work of fiction, Wilson and writer Bill Dial could meld the stories together and fill in any gaps as needed.

The show, which aired on CBS, was a minor hit that had the misfortune of running opposite NBC’s Little House on the Prairie for much of its existence. WKRP fared better in syndication, where it didn’t have Michael Landon to worry about.

I only remember the show from syndication, when the independent stations would run the show either directly before or after their local newscast. If I ever saw the show in prime time, I don’t remember it. My parents were big Michael Landon fans and I was very young, so I can imagine my parents not thinking WKRP was the most appropriate thing for me to be watching.

I do try to watch the episode, with its seminal line I thought turkeys could fly, sometime in November most years.

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One thought on “I thought turkeys could fly

  • April 22, 2023 at 2:45 pm

    WKRP was family-friendly when originally aired. My parents and all of us kids would watch it. It did tend to push the envelope a bit. One episode took on a stampede killing concert goers, which was something that had happened. They also had an episode taking on censorship on the radio, where a programming group who sought to “clean up” radio took issue with John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Bumbling Mr. Carlson ended up confronting the head of the programming group with the lyrics, which they objected to, and he said something along the lines of “he said ‘imagine’.” Caused more than a few discussions in my home. Then there was the episode with Herb’s former high school male classmate who had transitioned to being a woman which was extremely edgy for it’s day.

    The number of one-liners that stuck out of the Turkeys Away episode are still fairly brilliant. The entire sequence with Les Nessman in front of the shop when the turkeys are released and the throwbacks to the Hindenburg footage are nearly as funny as the DJs in the booth, including Johnny Fever’s “Palmdale Mall bombed by live turkeys, film at 11!”

    All in a first season episode. I’d put it maybe second to the MTM Chuckles episode for just great TV.

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