HAPPY THANKSGIVING: “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!” #gobblegobble #writing

THANKSGIVING TURKEY GIVEAWAY! (WKRP in Cincinnati) from Tony DeSanto on Vimeo.

This is, in my humble, a damn-near perfect gag–which is saying something, because I find single-camera laugh-track situation comedies almost entirely unbearable to watch. They are the awful, crippled, shambling intermediate link between stage plays (which I like) and modern cinematic multi-camera sitcoms (which I *also* like). That said, the terribly be-shitted wasteland of laugh-track sitcoms was–by very virtue of the enormous piles of shit–nutrient rich soil, and some wonderful things flourished there. Chief among them were gags like this. Here it’s presented as a single, stand-alone joke. But in the episode itself, it was broken up (you can see the rough jump cuts where it’s pasted together here), and developed across the entire half-hour of programming as a sort of lietmotif.

TIP FOR WRITERS: This sort of multi-strand punctuated development is a really great tool both for building and managing tension (and thus carrying the audience along), and for building stories that can grab and hold otherwise non-overlapping audiences (MY SO-CALLED LIFE is sort of a perfect example of this: Most episodes had largely independent narrative threads about the parents and teens, making that show highly watchable to two groups who otherwise can’t agree on much).

ANOTHER TIP FOR WRITERS: When this joke is presented standalone like this, it becomes obvious that it’s a pretty tidy example of a piece that is pleasing and easy to track, in part, because it manages cognitive load gracefully–establishing a premise, building expectant tension, then releasing that tension–with a classic three-part structure.

FINAL NOTE: When I was a kid, it was the general manager’s punchline that I repeated–“as God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!”–believing that it was the key to this house. I mean, after all, folks laugh when you say that. But as I get older and re-watch this each year, I find that what really, really makes it is Les Nessman’s earnest reporting of the facts–he is, in fact, in his naiveté, perfectly modeling what a reporter should be and should do–and especially his shell-shocked recounting, during the story’s Tangle, of the turkey’s counterattack. I’ve found that often–especially in literary fiction–authors confuse the Tangle with the Resolution, believing that once they’ve provided the Setup and Tangle, their story is done. I’d previously assumed that this was because they’d mistaken a simple twist for a “twist ending.” But the WKRP Turkey Drop Gag gives a clue as to a deeper reason for why folks confuse the Tangle for the Resolution: It’s because the Tangle is often the source of your story’s real punch, the place in its core that it coils back down into in order to spring out from its heels and knock you silly with the Resolution. (If these terms–Tangle, Resolution–are throwing you, just skim the bulleted bit near the top of the cognitive load post.)