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.