The humble “Christmas Episode” of any series either means an overly-earnest piece where the characters all bond together when they’re stuck in the show’s setting instead of being with their families or, particularly in the ‘70’s or ‘80’s, an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” with the show’s grumpiest or most clueless character dropped into the Scrooge role. Sanford & Son gave us “Ebeneezer Sanford.” Sesame Street gave us Oscar The Grouch as Scrooge in 1978. There was even, no kidding, “A Bionic Christmas Carol,” the Six Million Dollar Man episode where Lee Majors’ Steve Austin convinced a curmudgeonly tech supplier to open up his pocketbook to his impoverished family. Perhaps the best “Christmas Carol” TV episode, however, is “Bah Humbug,” the 1980 third-season Yuletide chapter of WKRP In Cincinnati.
The show may be best known for its Thanksgiving episode “Turkeys Away” (where hapless reporter Les Nessman details, on-air, a failed promotion to launch turkeys out of a helicopter), but “Bah Humbug,” a relatively serious offering where WKRP Station Manager Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump), who, first seen in old age makeup asks “Wait, this isn't another of those ‘Christmas Carol' things, is it?” is visited by three ghosts which represent the different eras of broadcasting— ending with a very prescient future filled with automated, hopelessly generic music. Funny yet poignant the way the best WKRP episodes are, this piece encapsulates what’s so great about the show, which delivered big laughs often alongside strong messages and emotions without ever seeming preachy or heavy-handed.
Shout Factory has recently issued WKRP In Cincinnati: The Complete Series, which is fantastic in and of itself, but more so because of the effort Shout has put into retaining as much of the series’ original music has possible. Many television series or movies never make it to home video due to music rights issues— while most modern programs make provisions for home video, streaming and downloadable rights to the music included in their episodes, TV shows from the pre-home video era found themselves orphans. Not only did the music preclude the episodes from being purchased, but also often meant that they couldn’t be rebroadcast in syndication in their original form— and that’s above and beyond the few minutes that are snipped to time constraints (a dirty secret is that syndicated shows are usually trimmed to allow for extra commercial breaks). Shows like The Wonder Years and Dawson’s Creek are notorious for having music issues; fans raised hell when the Paula Cole song under the opening credits of Dawson’s Creek was replaced on its run on Netflix.
But WKRP In Cincinnati, with music so intertwined in the show’s DNA as a story about, yes, a radio station, got hit the worst. When 20th Century Fox Home Video released the first season of WKRP on DVD a few years back, not only was the music changed, but often whole scenes in which they couldn’t clumsily replace hit songs with generic library tracks were lopped out. To add insult to injury, the shorter syndication episodes were used instead of the original versions. Shout has remedied this — for the most part — with The Complete Series, having gone back and worked to renegotiate music rights deals with the artists and the publishers (who, more often than not, aren’t the same entity— Michael Jackson’s estate, after all, owns the publishing rights to The Beatles’ catalog). Not every thorny issue has been worked out — Pink Floyd’s “Dogs,” which underscores a joke in “Turkeys Away,” is still missing (as with a snippet of Gordon Jump asking “what’s the name of that orchestra?”) along with a number of notable rock songs and even jingles like “Take Me Out To The Ball Game,” which you’d assume was in the public domain — but a vast number of the original songs have been retained, with artists ranging from to Otis Redding to Elvis Costello to The Who, whose music is crucial to an episode focusing on the stampede death of 9 fans at the band’s show at Riverfront Stadium in 1979. Where the songs have been removed, by and large, Shout has dropped in replacement music that’s similar in beat and tone so dialogue hasn’t been cut out or dubbed over. It’s a compromise, yes, but one much more palatable than in previous iterations of the show— and, frankly, the best we’re ever going to get.
Shout gives us all five seasons of WKRP in one nearly perfect box set. The picture isn’t perfect all the time — keep in mind, this is a 35-year-old show shot on videotape — and for some reason, the first season looks a little darker than the others, something which can be (somewhat awkwardly) fixed by adjusting the gamma on your TV set. The commentary tracks from the Fox release haven’t made it over to the new set, but extras include featurettes about the show and, best, an hour-long retrospective held at the Paley Center For Media in Beverly Hills this past May including creator Hugh Wilson, cast members including Howard Hesseman, Loni Anderson and Tim Reid and directors Jay Sandrich and Asad Kaleda. Gary Sandy, who wasn’t able to make the retrospective, appears in a separate interview segment. In short, this is a set that’s hard to beat this Christmas— and, if “Bah Humbug” doesn’t satisfy your Christmas jones, the set also includes “Jennifer’s Home For Christmas”— with all its Yuletide music, from Chuck Berry to “White Christmas,” intact.
If radio isn’t your thing, Shout has also taken on the television industry with the Blu-Ray release of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s UHF, his 1989 feature debut. It’s a hit-and-miss affair that, while not holding together all the way through — Yankovic and co-writer (and director) Jay Levey have never seen an obvious joke or gag they haven’t embraced — still offers huge laughs as “Weird Al” finds himself inheriting a tiny UHF (that’s pre-cable for some of you) television station and, with his go-for-broke programming, challenging a rival station run by a manic Kevin McCarthy. The best gags involve the likes of janitor-turned-kids’ show emcee Michael Richards and 16 Candles’ Gedde Watanabe as the host of bonkers game show “Wheel Of Fish.” The actual plot is negligible, but the charisma of “Weird Al” — whose video highlight show, The Compleat Al, has also finally made it to DVD — carries the day. In addition to a sharp new 1080p transfer, the disc is packed with extras, including everything from the old MGM SE DVD along with “The Wonderful World Of ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic,” an hour-long San Diego Comic-Con retrospective of Yankovic’s career which coincided with his album, Mandatory Fun, hitting Number One on the top of the Billboard charts.