Monday, August 7, 2017

"Lord knows, I do want to be a good... Gone With the Winder."

From the very beginning of this podcast (okay, to be fair, from the second episode of this podcast), we've had to deal with the fact that WKRP In Cincinnati is a product of a very different time. In "Les on a Ledge," we had to deal with a double dose of "well-meaning" 1978 sensitivity towards homosexuality that looks quite unfortunate to modern eyes, to say nothing of the crude use of the possibility of Jennifer being trans as a punchline.

This week, in our look at "Three Days of the Condo" and "Jennifer and the Will," we get that same push and pull of WKRP in one moment trying so hard to be progressive, and the next indulging in the worst kind of stereotyping. In "Jennifer and the Will," we finally see Jennifer confront the gold-digger innuendo that has floated around her throughout the series as an attractive young woman who dates older men, thanks in large part to a powerful and understated performance by Loni Anderson. But in "Three Days of the Condo," we have the well-known denouement in which Johnny pretends he and Venus are lovers to get out of Johnny's condo contract.

Rob makes an excellent point in this week's podcast that surely the writers of WKRP thought they were the hip ones, puncturing the absurdity of homophobia in episodes like "Les on a Ledge" and "Three Days of the Condo." After all, the evil condo board at "Gone With the Wind Estates" can't countenance a gay interracial couple, and they're clearly the bad guys! But regardless, Johnny's performance for the condo board is of a piece with other camp portrayals of homosexuality from this period: broad, full of stereotypes, and uncomfortable to watch in 2017. I remember reading in more than one source that the Monty Python troupe regretted their use of camp over the course of their series in the late '60s and early '70s. Even having Graham Chapman (an out gay man who definitely could and did play around with characters who were alternately butch and camp) in the group didn't let the straight Pythons off the hook for what they felt were repeated insensitive portrayals of homosexuality for cheap laughs.

And I think that's the key to Johnny's (and Howard Hesseman's) performance. Those with privilege sometimes can't see that whatever their good intentions, using broad comic signifiers to signal a kind of hipness to a "straight" crowd (here meaning "straight" in all senses of the word) perpetuates the same hurtful stereotypes as outright mockery. It's of a piece with stuff we've discussed in the past about the "love and theft" at the center of the collision of dominant white and oppressed black cultures in terms of things like popular music and the history of rock and roll. It's still an issue that hits home hard today in terms of things like cultural appropriation.

I'll point you again to Tommy Krasker's excellent summary of Season 4 which in part discusses WKRP's returning to unfortunate gay jokes over and over throughout the series' run. We'll be discussing this part of Tommy's piece in detail in this week's podcast. (You should also check out Tommy's piece on Blake Hunter and "Jennifer and the Will" while you're there: it's magnificent.)

Putting these serious issues aside, this is a funny (and moving!) pair of WKRP episodes, so join us on Wednesday as we take a look at both "Three Days of the Condo" and "Jennifer and the Will" with a pair of special guests!

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