The Person in the Mirror

The death of Howard Hesseman over the weekend came as a surprise, but it probably shouldn’t have. So many people who are important to us are well past their Biblical three-score-and-ten (Hesseman was 81), and the losses are going to multiply. Hesseman’s death apparently came after complications from colon surgery, which hits me close to home.

Every single obit of Hesseman mentions Dr. Johnny Fever and WKRP in Cincinnati in the first sentence, although he spent as many seasons as history teacher Charlie Moore on Head of the Class in the middle of the 80s. He was a master comedic improviser going back to his days with The Committee. Michael McKean paid tribute to Hesseman’s improv skills on Twitter the other day, and said that his role in This Is Spinal Tap was devised literally 24 hours before it was shot. Hesseman’s first acting credits included The Andy Griffith Show and the 60s reboot of Dragnet, for which he was billed under his early stage name “Don Sturdy.” He actually worked in radio for a while, at KMPX in San Francisco, and he even dated Janis Joplin.

For a lot of us in radio, the person we see when we look in the mirror is Dr. Johnny Fever. He’s as funny and cool as we’d like to imagine we are. But it’s more than just having the right line at the right time. A lot of radio jocks will tell you that what’s especially great about Howard Hesseman’s portrayal of Fever is how realistic it is. In a post about the people of WKRP from 2015, I wrote:

There are lots of Johnny Fevers in real stations: they’ve been in big markets and small, been married and divorced, seen and done things that make for good stories. Now they’re a little older, a little tired, and would just like to find a place to fit in, and be as happy as possible in an industry structured to make happiness elusive. (I suspect Johnny would agree that you can love radio, but you shouldn’t expect it to love you back.)

In the second-season episode “Mike Fright,” Johnny explains to Bailey how radio works. He tells her that he simply talks into the microphone and his voice goes “out through the wires,” and “once a week, whether you need it or not, somebody comes in here and gives you a check for $38.”

He says it with his characteristic insouciance. But once you watch the entire series and you know who Johnny Fever is, you hear how it epitomizes his character, and you hear the accumulated wisdom in it. Series creator Hugh Wilson wrote the line, but some of its wisdom had to have come from Howard Hesseman himself. He knew what it was like to work in radio, and he knew people who were still in the industry. His delivery carries the weight of lived-in truth. There’s his description of the weird alchemy of radio—just how does his voice go to all of the places it goes? Who knows? Clearly, it matters that a DJ’s voice goes places, because somebody pays you for putting it onto the wires. But you had better learn to take your satisfactions where you can (“whether you need it or not”), because they aren’t going to pay you very much.

People talk about the scene where the station changes format (“boooooooger”), but his explanation of radio is a more definitive Johnny Fever scene.

The little secret about WKRP in Cincinnati is that across the entirety of the series, it’s not quite as good as you remember; a lot of episodes drag in the middle or are doomed from the start by ill-advised premises. But many individual scenes are as funny as anything you’ve ever seen on television, and many of those feature Hesseman. And as long as veteran radio jocks long for a place to fit in, to be who they are, to love what they do, and are willing to take $38 a week to do it, Johnny Fever will never die.

5 thoughts on “The Person in the Mirror

  1. My wife gave me the WKRP box set for Christmas and we’ve slowly been working our way it since. You’re right, it’s not always as good as remembered, but when it’s on… funny stuff. Hesseman’s acting prowess is especially on display in the Season 3 episode when he hosts a TV dance show as “Rip Tide.”

  2. mackdaddyg

    Yeah, it may not be as good as I remember, but it is still a lovely show to have around.

    Hesseman’s death hit me a little harder than most celebrity passings. His Johnny Fever character was a television highlight for me.

    I wonder if any airchecks of his days in radio exist anywhere.

    Anyway, nice piece about Hesseman and radio in general.

  3. Wesley

    Hesseman’s work as Dr. Johnny Fever was so spot on that you’d think that he’d won an Emmy or two for it, but all he got was two nominations instead. To me, his characterization stood out with his body language. Away from the microphone, his body drooped along with his mustache and he sagged in his seat as he heard the latest scheme for the station that he had heard before in other markets and/or realized was doomed to failure. But behind the mike, even seated you could see how energized and enthused he was about his chosen profession. A truly great performance worthy of appreciation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.