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Conversations with Clayton: An Interview with Mike Grasso

Host of WKRP in Cincinnati Podcast, Hold My Order, Terrible Dresser.

2005 TV Land Awards - Press Room Photo by Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images

For this week’s edition of “Conversations with Clayton,” I interviewed Mike Grasso, one of the co-hosts of Hold My Order, Terrible Dresser: The Deep-Dive History Nerd WKRP in Cincinnati Podcast, the best television program ever produced about our little corner of Ohio.

Mike is also a museum professional and a highly accomplished writer. He is a contributing editor and exhibit curator at the Cold War pop culture blog We Are The Mutants, and a regular Twitter presence at @MuseumMichael.

Clayton Trutor (CT): What are your earliest memories of WKRP in Cincinnati?

Mike Grasso (MG): This is something we've covered on the podcast, because my co-host Rob and I pretty much had identical experiences in discovering WKRP: as re-runs in syndication in the early-to-mid-1980s. In the Boston market, throughout most of my childhood from the ages of 8 to 12, there was a block of WKRP on from 7-8 p.m. before prime time. WKRP, along with other '70s sitcoms like Barney Miller and Taxi, were on in our house constantly. I'm 10 years old watching these, barely able to comprehend the adult intricacies of most of the plots or jokes, but I absorbed these episodes at an early age while my brain was still a sponge.

CT: How did you get the idea of doing a WKRP-themed podcast?

MG: Rob and I both really enjoy the Columbo podcast hosted by Jon Morris and RJ White, Just One More Thing. (I was really excited to have actually guested on that podcast a couple of months ago.) They were basically the inspiration for us. Rob and I had gone back and forth on Livejournal a decade or more ago, trading WKRP references, so we each knew the other loved the show. So one day in late 2014, I sent out an email to Rob and another friend asking if we could do a rewatch podcast of WKRP. Our other friend had to drop out, but Rob and I, two complete podcasting neophytes, decided to do this thing. Two years and hundreds of followers later, we're still going strong and ready to start our fourth and final season this summer.

CT: Which episode of Hold My Order have you enjoyed the most?

MG: I'm one of those weirdos who loves listening to his own podcast. It's very tough for me to choose. Our podcast on the classic "Turkeys Away" was the first time I felt Rob and I really went kind of off-the-rails into our own particular brand of weird analysis of WKRP. For pure Cold War nostalgia, our episode on "The Americanization of Ivan," where a Soviet hog expert tries to defect at WKRP, is a good one; we cover our memories of growing up petrified of nuclear war and all the pop culture dealing with nuclear paranoia of that era. Of course I can't avoid hyping the episode we did with our moms; it was a real delight. But I think purely for the power of the WKRP episodes discussed and the topics we covered, I'd have to say our discussion of two Very Special Episodes of WKRP, "Frog Story" and "Venus and the Man," with our guest Mandy Leetch. It came out right after the election and it covers ecology, raising your kids right, and the power of education. It was just what I needed to hear at that point in my life.

CT: What's the deal with the Carlson family?

MG: There's that famous Tolstoy quote: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." And the Carlsons are... well, I don't want to spoil too much for folks who haven't seen the show. Arthur Carlson, general manager of WKRP, is an amiable goofball with a loving wife and a troubled son in a military academy. But Arthur's also got a bullying, domineering mother, who happens to own the radio station and thus is his boss. Except, as the series goes on, you find out it's not quite as simple as that, and that Mama Carlson has her own reasons for trying to make Arthur a little tougher, a little bit more like her. That's one thing we've discovered over the course of three out of WKRP's four seasons; the psyches and backgrounds of these characters are almost as rich and fleshed-out as any New Golden Age of Television protagonist.

CT: If you were to recast WKRP in 2017, who would cast for each of the major roles on the show?

MG: Oh man, we've been asked this question multiple times by our loyal listeners. And just having done an April Fools' Day episode where we covered the not-very-lamented New WKRP in Cincinnati reboot from the early '90s, we've seen what happens when you try to answer this question in, say, 1992; you get French Stewart doing a Howard Hesseman impression. But in all seriousness, I think for a reboot of the show to succeed today (set at a podcast network, maybe?) you'd need to do what the original creators of WKRP did: gather a cast of unknowns and underground stars and find that magical chemistry to make a classic. It's tough to do intentionally. I know this is a cop-out, but I approach the original WKRP characters as near-sacrosanct.

CT: When you think of "Cincinnati," you think ___________

MG: Well, thanks to my co-host Rob's professorial expertise in American history, I now think "Porkopolis, hog butcher to the world," but I think generally speaking I think of: a city on the border between Midwest and South, one with an impressive civic history (we've now covered Save the Union Terminal story from so many different angles, I tend to think of it as a case study for the last century in urban design and citizen activism). But probably, most importantly, I think of Cincinnati as home to the hated Cincinnati Reds. I was born during the Red Sox's 1975 season, and was two months old when Fisk hit his famous game six home run. That 1975 team was held up all through my childhood as the paragon of Red Sox achievement (and despair). Of course when I turned 11 I got to have my own taste of the endless crushing defeat of being a Sox fan when they lost to the Mets in the 1986 Series.

CT: Besides Hold My Order, what are your five favorite podcasts?

MG: This is going to be a tough list to narrow down, but I think I can do it:

  • The aforementioned Just One More Thing; great guys and a very entertaining podcast (those Columbo fans are way tougher than any WKRP fan, let me tell you).
  • The Beyond Yacht Rock podcast: I loved the original Yacht Rock webseries, and watching the four guys at the center of it reunite and talk music has been the thing that got me through 2016.
  • Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: nominally a podcast about tabletop roleplaying games, it's also a wonderful gateway into the weirder corners of history.
  • Netflakes: a movie review podcast where they cover the films available on Canadian Netflix, it's also just a great and eclectic movie review podcast with smart guests.
  • The Spinal Tap Minute: they are only about a half-hour into the film at the moment, but it's the latest and greatest in a long line of minute-by-minute podcasts.

CT: For those uninitiated with the show, which three episodes of WKRP provide the best introduction to the program?

MG: I would say watch "Fish Story" from the first season, a great example of what the cast can do when they're just allowed to get silly and pour on the physical comedy. For a quieter episode that, again, was a great inspiration the week after the elections, I'd suggest "I Am Woman" from season three, where Bailey Quarters organizes the staff to save the Flimm Building where the station is located. And from season two, "Carlson for President" threads the needle between serious and silly pretty much perfectly and might be, for my money, my favorite showcase for Gordon Jump's comedic perfection.

CT: Tell me about We Are the Mutants. What is your favorite topic that you've written about for the site?

MG: We Are the Mutants is a magazine that covers "Cold War-era popular and outsider culture, with a strong emphasis on speculative (sci-fi, fantasy, horror), genre, pulp, cult, occult, subculture and anti-establishment media." That's a mouthful, but basically this came out of a desire of our editor-in-chief Kelly Roberts to go a little bit beyond the typical retro blog mandate of "remember this? remember that?" and instead thoughtfully engaged with and analyze the artifacts of our Generation X childhoods in their historical and cultural context. Again, I have a lot of favorite pieces, but probably the most emotional for me was looking at the very brief period when PBS tried to educate America's schoolchildren via the television airwaves. It's really my childhood in a nutshell. I was raised by TV, and PBS shows like Sesame Street and then later, 3-2-1 Contact and Cosmos, made me the intellectually curious person I am today.

CT: What are you working on right now?

MG: I'm presenting my first academic paper in a few weeks at a conference titled: UFOs, Aliens, and the Academy: An Interdisciplinary Conference. I'm looking at those great cheaply-produced UFO documentary films from the 1970s and TV series like In Search Of... My paper is called "'UFOs Are Real, UFOs Are Here!': Ufological Documentaries, the 1970s Media Landscape, and Generational Nostalgia." There definitely seems to be a pattern in the stuff I'm into, I'm realizing.

Mike Grasso is outstanding at Twitter. Follow him now @MuseumMichael

For more of the same, follow me on Twitter: @ClaytonTrutor