Sunday, 21 July 2013

Venus teaches the atom


It is one of the most poignant episodes of television I have ever watched. Maybe because I trained to be a teacher, and maybe because of the clever writing, but when deejay Venus Flytrap explains the atom to a gang banger teenager on an episode of “WKRP in Cincinnati” it created a memorable moment of television.

The gang banger is the son of the station’s cleaning lady. She’s worried he’s fallen in with the wrong crowd, and asks Venus to talk to him. When he does, the boy says he doesn’t understand anything. Venus asks him what’s he’s studying. He tells him stuff like the atom. Venus tells him he’s not stupid. Then he bets him all the money he can find that he can teach Arnold the atom in two minutes.

What follows is a truly inspiring moment. Venus equates the parts of the atom to street gangs and Swahili words. Arnold learns, and by the time Venus is done, he teaches him the atom. However, he took longer than two minutes.

The show ends in comedic fashion. Fellow deejay Dr. Johnny Fever was asleep in the back, and woke up to hear Venus work his magic. He offers to buy him and beer, then asks, “You think you can teach me about magnets?”

The episode won a 1981 Humanitas Award (an award for film and television writing intended to promote human dignity, meaning, and freedom), and was nominated for a primetime Emmy for its direction.

Social conscience
“WKRP in Cincinnati” lasted for four seasons, and broke a lot of ground for its time. Not only was it one of the best comedies on television, but it tackled a lot of social issues.

There was an episode about payola, where a new deejay was taking cocaine in exchange for playing certain records. Fever discovers the payola just when station manager Arthur Carlson walks in. They tell him it’s foot powder. When the Deejay asks Fever what Carlson will do, the answer is simple: “Carlson’s no idiot, he’s going to put it on his feet.”

There was an episode addressing the real-life trampling deaths of fans at an outdoor concert in Cincinnati, an episode where we discover Venus is actually a draft dodger, and episodes addressing alcoholism, mental illness, and much more.

It’s still funny
At its best, it was just plain funny. There was the episode where Carlson arranges an airplane drop of turkeys at Thanksgiving. “As God is my witness I thought turkeys could fly,” he exclaims. Obviously they cannot.

There was the episode where Venus and Johnny have their reaction times checked as they get drunker and drunker. The problem is their reaction times get better and better.

And it all started with the pilot where Johnny Caravella freaked out on air as the format changed from easy listening to rock and roll, and in the spur of the moment became Dr. Johnny Fever.

The proof was in the ratings. After it was cancelled, "WKRP in Cincinnati" became one of the most successful syndicated sitcomes over the next decade. It outperformed most of the shows that beat it in prime time, and all the other sitcomes produced by its production company.

You watch an episode now, and it still holds up. It was a funny, funny show, that still made you think, and nothing made you think more then when Venus taught the atom.

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