On Gabe Kaplan and “Welcome Back, Kotter” (with Special Guest Groucho)

THAT, my friends, is a LOT of curly haired men.

It’s the birthday of Gabe Kaplan (b. 1945).  I was a tween during Kaplan’s pinnacle years, the perfect age at which to appreciate his youth-oriented sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter which ran on ABC for four seasons (1975-1979). It would be inaccurate to say that this show eclipsed Happy Days in our eyes, but I think we can say that the two shows were definitely neck and neck. It was a phenomenon. There were Welcome Back, Kotter lunchboxes. There was a Welcome Back, Kotter comic book. The theme song, by the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian went to #1 on the pop charts.

Why was it so successful? It was like lightning striking, I think. Inner city grit was IN on screens big and small during the ’70s, from Blaxploitation to Taxi Driver to The Taking of Pelham, One, Two, Three to Kojak. Gabe Kaplan was a hip young stand-up comic from Brooklyn whose material mixed nostalgia for old school pop culture with edgier, more topical stuff. I just watched a 1973 clip from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson last night. In the routine, he uses the epithet “retard” to describe his childhood nickname and does bits including a drunken Ed Sullivan, and Ebeneezer Scrooge working in a Times Square sex shop. (I went back and watched it because I was too young to see this late night material when it originally aired. I had never seen his stand-up). He also did material about his high school days. And much as Bill Cosby had done with Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, he turned the real-life characters from his stand-up into a tv show. You can hear him doing the routine on record prior to the advent of his sitcom — very cool (and funny) to hear this original material, which is quite a bit racier than what made it on to the show, which was on prime time, in an era when profanity was not permitted on tv. You can listen to it here. 

At any rate, the concept for Welcome Back, Kotter was pretty ingenious. They essentially married Kaplan’s stand-up routines to a pre-existing genre: the Heroic Teacher Taking on a Class Full of Juvenile Delinquents genre. Movies like The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and To Sir, With Love (1967) — that’s totally a whole genre, right? Anyway, Kaplan plays a guy named Gabe Kotter who returns to his old Brooklyn high school to teach the latest crop of punks who belong to the very same gang he belonged to years earlier, known as the Sweat Hogs. Because this is a tv sitcom, the Sweat Hogs are disruptive but somehow only in an adorable,non-menacing way, apart from all of them being several years too old for high school. Somehow, for example, the Sweat Hogs were “tough”, but didn’t beat anyone up, commit serious crimes, or do drugs. Right! Thanks for castrating the entire premise, tv!

John Travolta was the break-out star, playing ladies’ man Vinnie Barbarino (in an era when Italian American chic was exploding: Coppola, Pacino, De Niro, Scorsese, Stallone, and a certain faux Italian named Fonzarelli. Travolta was at the crest of that tidal wave.) There was also African American Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs from the film Cooley High, the movie on which What’s Happening!! was based, as Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington. And Robert Hegyes as Juan Epstein, the Puerto Rican Jew (undoubtedly one of my first introductions to either one of those concepts). And lastly there was Ron Palillo, who was Italian and gay, and who played Arnold Horshack, who was apparently Jewish, and definitely stridently annoying (in the tradition of Jerry Lewis and Arnold Stang), but whose ticks and mannerisms made him the show’s other breakout star (they were even considering him for his own spin-off at one point). Other recurring student characters included Charles Fleischer (later best known for voicing the title character in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) as Carvelli, chief rival to the Sweat Hogs; Debralee Scott from Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman as Rosalie Hotsy Totsy; Helaine Lembeck, Harvey Lembeck’s daughter, as the straight A student Judy; Vernee Watson as Washington’s girlfriend Verna; sexpot Susan Lanier as “Bambi”; and Malonie Haller as Angie Grabowski, the only official girl Sweat Hog. (Whew! We needed to get some Polish in there!). Also there were guest stars. George Carlin was in one episode, and Pat Morita played a teacher named Mr. Takahashi in another episode (this character was spun off into its own short-lived series).

The show’s principal foil was the evil school vice principal, the extremely short and Nixon-esque Mr. Woodman (John Sylvester White). And though there were many theoretical slutty chicks among the high school characters, the main female heart-throb of the show was the post-hippie, all-natural beauty Marcia Strassman as Gabe’s wife Julie. This was very much the aesthetic at the time. She was the girl next door, an Ivory Girl, but she also she seemed like she probably smoked dope. In real life (or in the Blackboard Jungle movie) the gorgeous wife of the teacher might well be in danger when a gang of adolescent boys crawls in the window off the fire escape. In the third act the teacher would have to get all vigilante and crack open some heads. In the show, they’re just kind of cuddly, and their only punishment is to have to eat Julie’s “World Famous Tuna Casserole”.

The casserole was one the show’s many comic rituals. Another included the jokes Gabe would tell Julie at the top of every episode about his family, a routine essentially adapted from Gracie Allen. Others included Horshack’s laugh and enthusiastic hand-raising, accompanied by “Ooh! Ooh!”, and a boatload of catchphrases, such as Barbarino’s “Up Your Nose with a Rubber Hose”, a watered down version of the much funnier original from Kaplan’s original routine, which went “Up Your Hole with a Mello Roll” (a Mello Roll being one of those push-up ice cream treats. But putting ice cream up your ass was considered too vulgar by Standards and Practices in those days.)

These rituals are what sustained the show, made it popular with kids, and kept viewers from noticing that it actually wasn’t a very good show. Sadly, it wasn’t. I went back and watched an episode recently, and found it to be one of the few old shows that hasn’t gained charm with age. I just sort of cringe to think how enthusiastically I joined the herd of kids that loved it.  It’s very crudely written, and by that I don’t mean vulgar so much as dumb and basic. And Kaplan, who has to hold the show together, while a fine stand-up comedian, is really not much of a thespian, which is why he only starred in three theatrical films: Fast Break (1979), Nobody’s Perfekt (1981) and Tulips (1981). In fact, the main reason why I would watch Welcome Back, Kotter nowadays is the beautiful credit sequence with its shots of ’70s era Brooklyn, the graffiti, the street kids, those enormous American automobiles, and the elevated trains, accompanied by Sebastian’s lush, terrific, beautiful theme song.

But there is one major thing to be thankful to Kaplan for. He was, and is, a major Groucho Marx fan. I am certain that he provided me with much of my earliest Marx-ucation. Kaplan looks a great deal like the Marx Brothers’ father, Frenchie (he especially did when he was younger and leaner). He played Groucho in a 1982 tv movie and in a one-man stage show, and would frequently do impressions of him on Welcome Back, Kotter, including the very first episode. Furthermore, Robert Hegyes, who plays Epstein on the show could both do an excellent Chico impression AND could throw a Gookie like Harpo. But best of all, check this out:

The actual Groucho was booked to be on the show in 1976, and actually came to the set. But he was unwell, so they never rolled the cameras on him. I just love the picture above. The excitement of the cast (at least the five people on the left) is palpable! I don’t know what’s up with other two. Hilton-Jacobs seems to be saying, “Shut up, Old Man!”  and White seems to be saying, “Are you done yet, sonny?”

So, Welcome Back, Kotter turned out to be a short-lived fad. It was actually too big a hit for its own good. Or at least, Travolta was too hot to stay there. He had a #10 single on the pop charts called “Let Her In” (it’s distinctly forgettable), and starred in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976), Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978). So by season four he was all but phased out. And Kaplan was having contractual squabbles with the producers so he was gone a good deal of that season as well. Without those two on hand, the show sank like a stone. These days, because the times we live in are insane, Kaplan is best known for playing poker on television.

Sadly, a surprisingly large number of the principal cast is no longer with us: White died in 1988 (no surprise there), but also gone are Hegyes (d. 2012), Palillo (2012), and Strassman (d. 2014), leaving just Kaplan, Travolta and Hilton-Jacobs. Is there a Sweat Hogs curse? Was James Buchanan High School full of lead and asbestos? Only time will tell.