Saturday, September 22, 2012

James Buchanan Hijinks

When Robert Hegyes, who played Juan Epstein, died a few months ago, I felt a tinge of sadness, but didn't feel the need to write about it. When Ron Palillo, who played Arnold Horshack, died a few weeks ago, I was similarly sad, yet still reluctant to mention it. Why the reluctance? Because the TV show both these actors were on, Welcome Back, Kotter, was a piece of crap.

If you're not familiar with Welcome Back, Kotter, it's about a man named Gabe Kotter, played by Gabe Kaplan, who returns to his high school alma mater to teach social studies to a group of rowdy remedial students known as the Sweathogs, so-called because their classes were restricted to the top floor of the building. The school administration, in the person of Assistant Principal Woodman (John Sylvester White), believes the young hoodlums to be beyond redemption, and their job merely to go through the motions of teaching them until they were old enough to drop out and pursue a life of crime. However, Kotter, like Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier before him, sees promise in these students, believes they're worth saving, and sets about teaching them not just facts from a book, but life lessons as well.

Sounds like anything but crap, huh? Ah, but it's all in the execution. The show was based on Kaplan's own high school experiences, and while his own goals for the show may have been noble enough, I suspect that the other producers and network execs involved never saw it as anything more than a quick advertising buck. Everything about that show reeked of cheap. Cheap sets, cheap jokes, cheap expectations. The cheapness may have been exacerbated by being shot on videotape, common--in more than one sense of the word--for sitcoms in the 1970s. Videotape worked well for some shows like All in the Family,  but most others suffered because of it. For whatever reasons,  tape, as opposed to film, made a set look like a set instead of a living room, office, or classroom.  Worse still was the hallway outside of Kotter's classroom. I was never convinced it led to a gym, lunchroom, other classrooms or Principal's office. I always knew if you walked far enough down, you'd come to a bunch of stage hands using crude gestures to describe what they did that weekend as they waited for a cue from the director.

The executive producer of Kotter was James Komack, whose first show was The Courtship of Eddie's Father. This was a beautifully filmed, well-produced show that, while not laugh out loud funny, told its stories well. The switch to videotape, first with the crummy Chico and the Man, and then Kotter, seemed to have eroded Mr. Komack's storytelling abilities. And here is where we come to the real problem with the show: shoddy writing. Welcome Back, Kotter relied entirely too much on a series of catchphrases--"What? Where? Why?" "Ooh-ooh-ooooh!" "Hi there" "Hey, Mr. Kot-taire." "I got a note" "They're not people!" "I'm so confused!" and "Up your nose with a rubber hose."--that were arguably funny the first time you heard them, but not so funny, or intelligible, once they replaced such things as narrative structure, exposition, and character development. Or fresh jokes.

James Buchanan High School must have been located across the street from a costume shop, as the Sweathogs played dress-up quite a bit, depending on that particular episode's story. Epstein dates a girl from the Midwest, so the rest of the gang dress up like stereotypical farmers. At Christmas they're reindeer. Helping a hamster give birth, they're in surgical gowns and masks. Another episode has them entering a room as window washers. Much of this was just them clowning around, but there's a couple of episodes where they're actually wearing disguises so people won't recogize them. Some punk steal cars. Others snatch purses. These punks lift harebrain schemes from I Love Lucy.

The Sweathogs are supposedly four teenage miscreants bored by school. You would think they'd cut class a lot. Just the opposite. These teenage miscreants must have had the best attendance record in history. They were often shown in class, or at least in the classroom, when Mr Kotter wasn't even there. When there were no other students there. When it wasn't entirely clear school was even in session. They were just there. Why hang out at some street corner, they must have reasoned, when they could be sitting at some nice comfortable wooden desks?

Welcome Back, Kotter also had a lot of "message" episodes, warning of the dangers of smoking or pill popping or unprotected sex, but these topics were tackled much more intelligently by the Afterschool Specials of the era. On Kotter, however, a show where the cast gets locked in an Egyptian tomb in one episode and a Japanese inventor shows off his battery-operated musical underwear in another, these messages seem motivated less by the desire to make the world a better place and more by the need to mollify parent-teacher groups who might otherwise complain about the sitcom's glorification of juvenile delinquency.

Now that I've made my disdain for Welcome Back, Kotter perfectly clear, why should I care at all about Robert Hegyes and Ron Palillo's earthly cancellations? Truth be told, at one time or another, both of these fellows made me laugh.

As did John Travolta, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, White, and Kaplan (as well he should; the man was a stand-up comedian.) Even Marcia Strassman, who played Julie, Kotter's wife, made me laugh, usually when she wasn't laughing at her husband's "uncle" jokes that opened and closed the show. Whatever its flaws, Kotter was extremely well cast.

None more so than the four young talented comic actors who played the Sweathogs. Well, talented at  the broadest of broad comedy. Could they have been as talented doing a more subtle, more gentler form of humor, such as that which could be found on The Mary Tyler Moore Show? For that matter, could they have done The Courtship of Eddie's Father? It's now apparent that Travolta has a decent range as an actor, but as for the other three, I don't know. I can't recall ever seeing them on anything after Welcome Back, Kotter went off the air. And now two of them are dead. For those two, and possibly the third Sweathog who didn't become a superstar, Kotter is their legacy.

The Sweathog that did become a superstar, of course, was John Travolta, who played Vinnie Barbarino. 1970s movie critics often compared Travolta to Brando after his great success in Saturday Night Fever, but what they seemed to miss was the comic twist he applied to the Marlon mumble while still on Welcome Back, Kotter. Travolta would mutter the first two or three word, emphasize the fourth or fifth, mutter the next two or three, emphasize the word after that, and so on: "you're sister is SO LOW she plays HANDBALL against the CURB." Like everyone else on the show, Travolta/Barbarino had a catch phrase, not muttered this time but enunciated in a deliberately paced matter, "What?...Where?...Why?" He usually said this to avoid responsibility, but as time went on, and as the character became more dimwitted, he really seemed to believe it. We are what we pretend to be, Kurt Vonnegut once warned, so we must be very careful about what we pretend to be.

In the early part of the show's run, Barbarino was considered the leader of the Sweathogs, but that became less and less sustainable as that character's IQ decreased. Thus, Puerto Rican Jew Juan Epstein--Robert Heyges--increasingly became, if not the leader, than at least the linchpin of the group, the spokesperson, the one who got to crack wise first when they all entered the room. With his winning smile and gutteral Shecky Greene/Alan King/Jack Carter vocal delivery, this Borscht Belt Dead End Kid often got the best lines ("best lines" being a relative term on a show like this.)

Freddie "Boom-Boom" Washington, played by Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, proved hipness and comic shtick need not be mutually exclusive. The character's most well-know catchphrase, "Hi, there" was spoken in a deep mock-announcer type voice. He would then switch to a mock Frenchman when addressing his teacher, "Hey, Mr Kot-taire." OK, it's hard to imagine a Frenchman saying "Hey", but it seemed to work for Hilton-Jacobs/Washington. When not talking like a faux-announcer or faux-Frenchman, Washington's main mode of communication was washed-scrubbed-rinsed-and-dried-for-TV street jive. The Three Faces of Boom-Boom. However he was talking, Hilton-Jacobs often put the whole of his, tall, angular frame into a joke. His character played basketball for the school, and even when off the court, he seemed ready to dribble down the court and shoot one through the hoop. And did in the form of a punchline (oops, wrong sport.)

Finally, Ron Palillo played Arnold Horshack, a misfit's misfit. The other three probably wouldn't have let such an odd duck hang out with them if wasn't for his willingness to serve as the group's entertainment. He was their madcap mascot, campy court jester, and spastic sycophant. In several Horshack-centric episodes, he does balk against the subservient role he was asked to play,  and those ended with the others promising to show him more respect from now on, now on lasting no longer than until next week's show. Academically, Horshack was the smartest of the Sweathogs ("ooh-ooh-ooooh, Mr. Kotter, I know the answer!"), and in one episode he gets such good grades that he's transferred right out of Kotter's classroom. But the outside world, or at least the rest of James Buchanan High that we never get to see, proves to be bit too much for poor Arnold, and he returns to the Sweathog fold, trading independence for security and a sense of belonging. Maybe a closet, too. Arnold Horshack could make you laugh, as long you didn't dwell too much on his dilemma. If you did dwell, he might make you wince.

There you have it. Four funny guys. As funny as they may have been individually, though, they were even more so as a group. As others have pointed out, they resembled the Marx Brothers. A Night in the Blackboard Jungle. A Day in Room 222. But where as Minnie's boys undermined and subverted the sensibilities of opera impresarios and high society matrons, the Sweathogs targets were closer to homeroom: rules, books, and teachers (except for Kotter) with dirty looks. This was tremendously appealing to the average 14-year old kid in 1976, who, after all, isn't going to care about any of the stuff I was complaining about earlier, such as poor production values or scripts with holes in them. In fact, I didn't even care at 14. It was only decades later, when I watched Welcome Back, Kotter again on cable that I noticed those things. That's what happens when you get older. You notice things.

The Marx Brothers relied on such talented writers as George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind for material. The Sweathogs got crap from hacks. The four remedial students made the hilarious most out of that crap, and for that they deserve a passing grade.

Welcome Back, Kotter had one other redeeming feature: a great opening song, one of the best TV themes of the 1970s. Written and performed by Lovin' Spoonful founder John Sebastian, it so impressed the producers, they incorporated it into the show's title, which theretofore had simply been Kotter:



  1. All I can say is wow! Amazing, all the details of Mr. Kotter's classroom. Things I had long since thought I forgot. This excellent post made me laugh out loud. Especially when you outed the crappy set's for the lame TV show we all watched. Dayum, if only I could write half as well.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Patricia.

      Back in those days, with only about 6 channels--ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and a couple of UHF stations--we were pretty much forced to swallow whatever crap they shoved down our throats. It's much better now. With cable, we have 500 or so crappy options to freely choose from.

      The point I really wanted to make with this essay is that even dumb shows may have talented people involved with them. Next time you watch a repeat of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, look closely at the set. You'll see a schedule of shows on the wall (remember, MTM took place in a TV station) with MY MOTHER THE CAR prominently displayed. Know why it's there? It's a sly, in-joke reminder that the creators of the most sophisticated situation comedy of the 1970s, arguably of all time, got their start writing for a show about a man whose mother is reincarnated into an antique car. Unlike that show, the talent on WELCOME BACK, KOTTER lied not within the writing but the acting. Actors go where the work is, until they're overexposed and nobody wants to watch them anymore, and they have to hope the residuals are big enough to live on.

  2. I remember this show but I must admit I got tired of it really fast.
    I despised the sets and the sound quality. It looked so false. That is always a big no for me.
    Plus after hearing all the actors punch lines all the time it got more annoying than funny.
    I thought the actors where good but as this was a comedy they seemed to become caricatures of themselves.
    Plus I think either I was too busy at school or working after school that I really didn't have a ton of time to watch TV.
    I really needed a reason and the time to watch a tv show.

    Gosh I am so weird !

    cheers, parsnip

    1. YOU'RE weird, parsnip? I wrote a 16 paragraph essay that, due to time constraints, took me close to three weeks to write, about a show I now feel was kind of dumb. What does that say about MY sanity?