Welcome Back, Kotter #4A column article, Cheap Thrills by: Daniel Elkin
Random Pulls from the Bargain Bin
In these economic times, finding inexpensive entertainment is difficult. Thank goodness for the local comic shop and a slew of comics nobody cares about anymore! Each week Daniel Elkin randomly grabs a comic from the bargain bin (for 50 cents) to see what kind of bang he can get for his two-bits. These are those tales.
Author's note: Due to my attending Image Con in Oakland this weekend, this week's Cheap Thrills is a freshly edited version of an earlier column that ran on the web site Pop Culture Zoo in May of 2011.
May 11, 2011 – paid 50 cents for:
WELCOME BACK, KOTTER #4
Published by DC Comics
Written by: Mark Evanier
Art by: Ric Estrada and Bob Oksner
SOMETIMES, WHEN YOU WIN, YOU WIN…
SOMETIMES, WHEN YOU LOSE, YOU WIN…
Sure May of 1977 was all about Star Wars, but you have to remember that this was also the time that George Willing from Queens, NY climbed the South Tower of the World Trade Center in 3.5 hours, A.J. Foyt won his unprecedented (at the time) fourth Indianapolis 500, Smokey and the Bandit came out in theaters, Hotel California cemented the Eagles a place in Rock and Roll history and Patty Hearst was let out of jail.
If you ask me, though, the most significant event of May 1977 was the release of Welcome Back, Kotter #4 from DC comics. With this, we all had a brief, shining momentary access to the universal nature of everything, with this we all had a chance at enlightenment.
For those of you who have no idea what Welcome Back, Kotter was, first off, shame on you. Welcome Back, Kotter was a smash TV show of the 1970s. It featured comedian Gabe Kaplan playing a character named Gabe Kotter, a social studies teacher at James Buchanan High in Brooklyn, New York. He seemed to only teach one class, and that class was made up of what were known as The Sweathogs: Vinnie Barbarino (played by a pre-Saturday Night Fever John Travolta), Arnold Horshack, Freddy “Boom Boom” Washington and Juan Luis Pedro Philippo DeHuevos Epstein. The Sweathogs were remedial students on a track to failure, and Mr. Kotter was the teacher who inspired them to be more than washouts.
He was also a Bodhisattva.
As you can tell from all that exposition, this is a plot ripe for a licensed comic book adaptation.
At least they let Mark Evanier, one of the writers from the actual sit-com, pen the comic. It lasted for ten issues. I pulled issue number four out of the bargain bin.
Issue four of the Welcome Back, Kotter comic begins with Mr. Kotter rushing out the door in the morning to get to his job at the school.
As an aside, I always wondered how Kotter got himself such a hot wife. I gather from this scene above that it had something to do with his sense of humor. Gabe Kaplan (like Woody Allen and Larry David) still remains an inspiration to all nerdy but funny Jewish boys hoping to someday get themselves involved with a hot shiksa lady.
Anyway, back in the comic Kotter begins to tell her a joke about his Uncle Ezekiel who, while playing golf one day, had his partner die on the fourth hole. The punch line is “hit the ball, drag George, hit the ball, drag George.” This was pretty funny stuff in 1977–or at least funny enough to get you a smash TV show, a comic book based on said smash TV show and a hot shiksa lady in your life.
While Gabe tells this joke, Arnold Horshack bursts into the Kotter apartment and hides under the sofa. The reason Horshack is hiding?
He’s hiding from the gym teacher, Mr. Bloch, a.k.a. Tyrannosaurus Rex (though why this sobriquet is applied to Mr. Bloch is never explained).
All the Sweathogs live in fear of Mr. Bloch, and go to great lengths to avoid his class. Barbarino and Washington even resort to cross-dressing,
but to no avail.
The Sweathogs hate Mr. Bloch because apparently he is a clichéd PE teacher sadist who believes that only through enormous physical exertion at a truly dangerous level will a young boy become a man. Bloch is quite defensive of this philosophy, to the point of denigrating Kotter’s class as “social studies garbage.”
One could see this conflict as just an extension of the Cartesian Mind-Body duality argument, but that is approaching it from a Western perspective. Welcome Back, Kotter #4 embraces more of an Eastern sensibility, so really the argument between Bloch and Kotter should reframed as representational of the struggle between the world of appearances and the true nature of reality as being comprised of the Om. Thus, the struggle of The Sweathogs is the struggle we all go through as we begin to accept the First Noble Truth–the one that has PE as a graduation requirement.
Mr. Kotter, being the empathetic man, is understandably concerned about the health and well-being of his students, so he complains to Principal Woodman about Bloch’s choice of pedagogy.
Apparently, though, Principal Woodman is cut from the same sadistic cloth as Bloch, and Kotter’s concerns fall on deaf ears.
The next scene takes place within the confines of Kotter’s classroom where Horshack, Washington, and Barbarino are physically demoralized to the extent that even Bambi, Barbarino’s girlfriend, is beginning to consider breaking up with him due to his inability to perform physically on their dates due to exhaustion (this being the '70s, these sorts of concerns were paramount).
Epstein, though, is spared this physical torture. He has a note, which Barbarino reads:
This was a running gag on the show. People thought it was very funny in 1977.
Kotter has had enough of his student’s exhaustion taking away from their ability to concentrate and learn in his class. He is concerned that this focus on the realm of the senses pulls them from their spiritual goals. He leaves his classroom unattended (because you could do that in 1977) and goes to the gym to confront Bloch.
While there, we get this heartwarming scene:
Why this student would go to Bloch with his family problems in the first place is anyone’s guess, but Bloch really shows his incapacity to move beyond the physical limitations of the soul in this scene, making him even more the villain than before.
Finally, to settle this spiritual debate, Kotter and Bloch agree to a foot race to see who is more physically fit, because these sorts of things happened all the time in 1977.
The next day, Kotter shows up ready to run.
He feels surprisingly positive about his chances of success; however, the Sweathogs, being the gritty street punks they are, want to make sure that Kotter wins this road of trials.
So, much like Dick Dastardly in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon (although that was more late '60s than '70s), they come up with all sorts of hijinks to keep Bloch from success.
These range from Horshack donning a beard and carrying groceries to block Bloch,
to Epstein faking a detour into a backyard full of angry dogs, to Barbarino dropping a purse in Bloch’s hands and yelling at a cop that Bloch just stole the purse. Once again, this was comedy gold in 1977.
Still, Bloch, the symbol of the power and lure of the material world, proves far too fast for Kotter. As he is about to overtake the lead once more, though, he slips on what appears to be either a corn chip or dog vomit.
This results in Bloch twisting his ankle and being unable to continue the race.
Mr. Kotter takes this opportunity to show that he is the better man, a true Buddha revealed, and in an altruistic act he helps Bloch to his feet. While walking together, Bloch reveals to Kotter the extent of his pathos, while Kotter, sensing Bloch's true needs for his own true path to enlightenment, gives Bloch the opportunity to still win the race.
In these four panels, Bloch explains his motivations for his sadistic streak, experiences enlightenment, and is forever a changed man.
See, Gabe Kotter is the Buddha. Just look at that bodhisattva smirk in that final panel above.
So though Bloch crosses the finish line first, it is Kotter who really wins the race.
Kotter’s koan at the end should serve as a lesson to us all.
“Sometimes when you win, you win . . . Sometimes, when you lose, you win . . .”
Was this comic worth the two bits? Look at it this way, I could have spent ten-thousand times that amount for a weekend Buddhist retreat in the mountains some place and only reached half the enlightenment I reached from reading Welcome Back, Kotter #4. Not only that, but it was at least attempting to be funny at times.
I just wish there were more panels devoted to Mrs. Kotter.
Anyway, besides being a lesson in overcoming the physical limitations of the body towards a spiritual actualization, Welcome Back, Kotter #4 was a nice welcome back to a time in my childhood I had long repressed.
Oh, and if you don’t agree with me about Welcome Back, Kotter, then, as Siddhartha Gautama was quoted as saying before he sat beneath the bodhi tree, “Up your nose with a rubber hose!”
See you next week with an all-new Cheap Thrills.