When WKRP in Cincinnati aired its seventh episode more than 40 years ago on October 30, 1978, no one—including creator Hugh Wilson, who passed away in January 2018—had any idea the freshman series was about to become part of television holiday special history. And they didn’t even have to use any actual turkeys to do it.
“Turkeys Away,” which was credited to the late writer Bill Dial, was a Thanksgiving-themed entry for the sitcom about an Ohio-based radio station and its eccentric staff. For a holiday tie-in, Wilson decided to use an anecdote he had heard from Atlanta radio executive Jerry Blum: that another station had once arranged a publicity stunt in which a number of turkeys were thrown out of either a helicopter or a truck—the exact details are lost to time—and proceeded to horrify the gathered crowd with an unintended turkey massacre.
Wilson thought this would be a fine premise for a show. As he explained to the Classic TV History blog in 2012, the incident morphed into a plot in which station manager Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump) arranged for an equally misguided stunt, where broadcaster Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) narrates from the street in a style reminiscent of the Hindenburg disaster.
Nessman’s growing horror as the birds fall “like sacks of wet cement” to the pavement below was inspired by watching footage of the accident prior to shooting. (In 1997, Sanders was present for a homage to the episode with WKRQ in Indiana humanely dropping toy turkeys from a chopper that could be redeemed for the real thing.)
You’ll have to watch the complete episode to fully appreciate the payoff—including one of the most often-quoted closing lines in sitcoms—but know that no turkeys were actually harmed.
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A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2021.