We’re watching WKRP in Cincinnati from start to finish, and recently we got to “In Concert,” one of the show’s most memorable episodes, about the December 1979 stampede at Riverfront Coliseum before a concert by the Who, in which 11 fans were killed.
Although we can’t watch “In Concert” now without knowing from the start what happened (and it’s doubtful that anybody could have, even in February 1980 when it originally aired), it doesn’t let on too soon. At first, Steven Kampmann’s script makes reference only to “the concert.” There’s a subtle reference to the tragedy, thanks to a prominently placed December 1979 calendar that shows up in one scene. It’s not until the last line before the act break that the characters say they’re going to see the Who.
After the act break, we’re back in the WKRP office on the morning after, as the staff discusses the tragedy. They repeatedly refer to 11 people who “lost their lives,” and the phrasing seems so awkward that I found myself wondering if the producers (or CBS) were squeamish about saying “died” or “were killed.” Staffers deal with their emotions in different ways—Venus, Johnny, and Andy go to a bar; Les consoles Bailey and throws himself into covering the tragedy as a news event; Mr. Carlson is consumed by guilt, partly for enjoying the show with his son the night before, unaware of the disaster, but also because of WKRP’s role in promoting the show. The episode ends with Carlson and Venus in the studio talking about the vigil to be held for the victims, and ends with a graphic explaining exactly what happened at Riverfront Coliseum on December 3, 1979.
Sources conflict on what creator Hugh Wilson thought of the idea at first. Some say he resisted when Kampmann pitched the script, while others say it was Wilson who came up with idea in the first place. Once the script was greenlighted, CBS said no, but Wilson, with the support of the cast, refused to back down. The CBS affiliate in Cincinnati threatened to preempt the episode, fearing it would be exploitative and in poor taste, but relented after seeing a preview. The episode’s criticism of festival seating gives it a purpose that goes beyond merely telling a story about the tragedy. The producers originally wanted the closing graphic, which notes that Cincinnati banned festival seating within weeks, to criticize other cities that had yet to do the same, but CBS wouldn’t permit it.
The staffers’ shock at the deaths and their anger over festival seating is realistic, as is Les’ desire to do a good job covering it as a news event. However: were I in their shoes, I’m not sure that I’d feel personal guilt. It’s made clear in the script that WKRP merely gave tickets away. It’s not as if WKRP booked the show or hired the security force that made the decision to keep the doors of the arena closed for too long. They’re not in any way responsible for what happened. Shock and sadness are natural in such a situation, and more than enough.
Today, nearly every sitcom, no matter how silly, does at least one Very Special Episode about a serious subject, but very few argue for a specific solution to a specific problem taking place more-or-less in real time. “In Concert” was a rare episode that did. Watch it here with all the original music intact, before it gets taken down.