Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Mystery of Kotter versus Mrs. Harper

Indulge me for a moment on two subjects: Mama's Family and Welcome Back, Kotter.

Mama's Family had its roots in a classic series of poignant but amusing skits on the popular and long-lasting Carol Burnett Show. When cancelled on its original network, it pioneered by switching to national, first-run syndication (which many people erroneously think was first done by Baywatch). It starred a gifted comedian who was also a talented singer (Vicki Lawrence had a number one hit with That's the Night that the Lights Went Out in Georgia). Her co-stars included Rue McClanahan (as her sister Fran) and Betty White (as her daughter Ellen), who left the show to become enormously famous in the Golden Girls. The show won an Emmy for costume design. 117 epsisodes; 7 years.

Welcome Back, Kotter, on the other hand, starred an unknown, mumbling stand-up comedian with virtually no resume and a handful of unknowns. It's shining light was "Mr. Woodman", the maniacally cynical Vice Principal played by John Sylvester White ("I went away for awhile, but now I'm back...."), whose last acting job before he died, by the way, was on Mama's Family, playing Mr. Vogleman of the Raytown Travel Agency ("It's good day at the Raytown Travel Agency, how may I help you?").

Its principal gas was overused catchphrases and a trunk full of dusty Borsch Belt vaudevillian jokes. Even its "star" barely appeared in half of the episodes in the final season (of which there were only four, with a total of only 47 episodes). And Allan "Bubba" Kayser (left) was and is fifteen times hotter than John "Barbarino" Travolta (right).

Yet Kotter remains (comparatively) well-known; it spawned lunchboxes, comic books, novels, and even boardgame. Ice-Cube is set to star in the movie version next year (let that sink in).

Mama's Family? Nearly forgotten.

Why? Actually, my real question isn't, "Why Kotter, not Mama's Family?" And I'm certainly not trying to make the case that one (or either) is a great comedy (or even a good one). But, on paper, it would look as though Mama would have great long-term influence than Kotter; but it doesn't.

My real question is, What causes similar inequities in any medium?

There was (until recently) only one story with the god-like Lady Cop; god-awful Azrael's series lasted 100 issues. The original Firestorm had only 5 issues, but he's become nearly iconic; Impulse had 75 (mostly) marvelous issues and look what they did to him. The Martian Manhunter never got beyond 36 issues. Jimmy Olsen? 222 issues. Tomahawk had an astonishingly 140 issue and almost no one even remembers him.

Why do some series last and others not? Why do some with scads of issues have almost no impact, while some short-live series resonate still today?


Bill Reed said...

IMDB tells me there were 95 episodes of Kotter.

As for the answer to your question, I'm going to assume a combination of luck, mass appeal, and zeitgeist.

Matthew E said...

One partial reason is that some series (like, I assume, Azrael's) get support from the company publishing them, while others are on a shorter leash.

The rest is... well, nobody knows. It's like what William Goldman says about the movies: "Nobody knows anything." By which he means that the people who make movies don't know for sure what will work and what won't. Sometimes a movie that almost nobody believes in will be an unexpected smash hit; sometimes a movie that's supposed to be a smash hit doesn't draw flies even when it's rubbed down with poo. And they just don't know why. It's not always quality.

Scotus said...

"Why do some series last and others not?"

These days, it seems like a lot of people are prejudiced against certain characters going in, regardless of how good the book is.

People may like characters such as Martian Manhunter, Captain Marvel, and Plastic Man, but not enough to support their solo series. How many times did DC try and fail to relaunch The New Gods, before finally getting the hint? And obviously, any book featuring a brand new character has the odds stacked heavily against it.

"Why do some with scads of issues have almost no impact, while some short-live series resonate still today?"

Isn't it possible that the reason they have that impact is precisely because they were so short-lived?

Using Chase as an example, there was a book that had a few really great issues before getting canceled. It's so fondly remembered, partly because people didn't have to sit through stuff like multiple creative team changes, a really lousy crossover with the Blood Pack, or an ill-advised storyline where it was revealed that Cameron Chase was actually a clone, and the real one was in hiding the whole time, as they undoubtedly would have if the book had survived.

The Mutt said...

144 issues? Damn.

Azrael said...

I'm sorry about that.

Tim O'Neil said...

I can't speak to the larger issue, but specifically, it might be because Mama's Family was one of the most horrendous cultural artifacts in the history of human civilization, and makes everyone who watches it both sterile and insane.

Captain Qwert Jr said...

Just because a character can be an amusing guest star, or second banana or team-mate does not mean they can hold a series.

Azrael just the rode 'Bat-'/'X-" speculator tide, and crashed with it.

We are all just to PC to ever support any western title, even if said title is as PC as possible, so Tomahawk has not a chance. Johnan Hex has a certain nostagia appeal, because he was the last Western book anyone remebers, and has an unforgetable look.

Martian Mahunter's "I'm so alone" alien shtick can only be taken in small doses, or when diluted in a team book. Same can be said with other whine-based charaters.

Allan said...

Why is Kotter remembered and Mama's Family forgotten?

Catchphrases and a teenage audience.

Kotter's success was not based on its overall merits (an admission Gabe Kaplan has been known to make himself) but rather on the presence of a hearthrob named Travolta and the public's infautation with being reminding of things they thought were funny the first time they heard them.

I'm not old enough to remember watching Kotter when it first aired, but I loved watching afternoon reruns of it as a six year-old. Imagine my surprise then when I saw it again a decade later and discovered how truly devoid of jokes the show was. Rather than spend valuable time crafting witty lines and perceptive dialogue, the writers of the show simply had the sweathogs repeat their popular mantras in place of actual punchlines.

Washington: "Hey there!"
Epstein: "I'm a Puerto Rican Jew!"
Barbarino: "What?"
All of Them: "Up your nose with...."

And while this makes for truly awful comedy, the repetition of these phrases did become hard for the generation that briefly enjoyed them to forget. And since they remember the show, but have forgotten how awful and tedious the actual episodes were, they assume that it must have been worthwhile or else it never would have lingered so long in their memories.

Mama's Family, on the other hand, while never the model of a perfect sitcom was a genial low-key comedy that was based on the interplay of its characters rather than setting its cast up to deliver lines meant only to make the studio audience scream out from the delight of their recognition. Plus it was about adult characters which meant that it was appreciated by the kind of older audiences who have no influence over the popular nostalgic zeitgeist these days.

As to your larger question....

Well, that's the eternal frustrating mystery isn't it? Why did a show like Arrested Development have to constantly struggle to stay on the air for its three brief seasons, while According To Jim remained strong?

In the end the most likely answer is probably the simplest. Just because a person buys comic books or watches TV does not necessarally mean that they can tell the difference between works that resonate and those that do not. Sometimes people are too busy watching/reading dross to appreciate the other more-worthy works availble to them.

That said, chances are that the people who will someday exert the most influence on the medium in the future are the ones who did pay attention to and enjoy great works that somehow managed to be ignored by a mass audience. To paraphrase (I believe) Midge Ure, only 2000 people bought the first album by The Velvet Underground, but everyone who did immediately started a band after they listened to it.

So too it is with comics, film and television. The people making the creative choices are among the relative few who recognized greatness when others did not and who are thusly influenced by that greatness and willing to remind everyone else what they had missed that first time.

Either that or the Gods of Fate are seriously pernicious and whimiscal mofos.

SallyP said...

The real question here, is why don't they start re-running WKRP! Now THAT was a classic.

H said...

I think Allan hit the nail on the head, but I'll add one more observation that won't help with the comic book portion of the inquiry - Welcome Back Kotter had the hit song, which Mama's Family didn't. Another factor in staying alive in people's minds.

And I assure you that I never saw an episode of Mama's Family (but do recall religiously watching the Carol Burnett Show - I even took my wife to see Carol Burnett live with Harvey Korman and Tim Conway a few years back in a funny show unlike any other contemporary stage shows), but did watch every episode the first season of Welcome Back Kotter. I believe for that half year I considered Hotsie Totsie the feminine ideal.

Dorian said...

Oh my, that's how Allan Kayser grew up? Very nice.

I always preferred Mama's Family myself. Kotter I only have a vague memory of seeing when I was young, probably because my parents wanted to watch whatever was on after it. But Mama's Family was usually on right when I was coming home from school. It was dumb, but it was just clever enough to keep me occupied, and the cast was actually pretty good, all things considered.

But then, I always tend to remember the underdog in pop culture. I still prefer Fangface to Scooby Doo.

Anonymous said...

Just drawing your attention to this:

Ice Cube as Mt Kotter. The Horror.

Bill Meisel said...

I think in the long run, quality wins. So, people may appreciate MAMA'S FAMILY now years after it ended while they have forgotten, say, WE'LL GET BY, a Norman Lear sitcom they ran after ALL IN THE FAMILY for, I think, one summer of my childhood.

The whole existence of DC ARCHIVES is based on the idea that the truly memorable comics of the 40s and 50s deserve to be preserved (though where are the MR. TERRIFIC ARCHIVES or the GENIUS JONES ARCHIVES?).

The Fortress Keeper said...

Mama's Family gets the last laugh. At any given time in any given city, Mama is still stirring up trouble in re-runs.

Kotter? Is that even on TV Land these days?

Scipio said...

"Just drawing your attention to this:
Ice Cube as Mt Kotter. The Horror."

"Yet Kotter remains (comparatively) well-known; it spawned lunchboxes, comic books, novels, and even boardgame. Ice-Cube is set to star in the movie version next year (let that sink in)."

Sometimes I think people don't really read what I post...

Neil said...

I have to agree with the whole "the short run series never had to content with artist/writer/actor changes, lousy story-lines, and other various pitfalls, including the inevitable "jump the shark" moment(s).

But, I think it also has to do with the audience. I think the audience which favors the quality shows that don't last long are more demanding. They're quicker to complain about a story direction, writer/artist/actor choice, etc.

The people who like the longer-running series are the ones who are more complacent. They don't care that it's the 200th "transporter accident" episode of Star Trek, because, it's Star Trek so therefore they don't need to stress about it. They know, which reasonable certainty that the reset button is going to be pressed, or at the very least, the issue will be ignored after a few episodes.

They are more willing to put up with things that would drive the audiences of the shorter-run series crazy. It's safe, they know the exact level their brains will be engaged, and they can sit in their favorite chair, with a beverage handy and watch/read their favorite series week/month after week/month.

Matthew said...

In comic books, its due to the Anti-Monitor and his sinister forces of evil! How else could 100K be buying ASB&R and 20K buy Manhunter?

tadwilliams said...

The real answer to the question comes in the form of an even more elusive question:

What's the difference between a really good but SIMPLE piece of work and a bad one? What's the difference between great minimalist art and the lousy stuff? The design of a Shaker chair versus that of a cheap wooden barstool from Target?

Nobody can truly say, although art critics and reviewers have created an entire profession around trying to make just such distinctions. As the Taoists would say, it is the ineffable -- that which cannot be described. (Quantum physicists might liken artistic merit to those smallest of particles which cannot both be identified and located at the same time: if you pin down one, you cannot pin down the other.) The rest of us would have to admit, "I know what I like even though I don't always know why."

As far as the specifics of those two shows:

I didn't like WBKotter even at the time, but as with all the most successful memes of any given era, kids wanted to say the lines at school and some grown-ups thought they'd be kind of hip if they threw those same catchphrases into conversation with their peers.

It may simply be that Mama's Family (which I never really saw, since I didn't have a tv at that time) may just not have had writers who were as prone to epigrams, good OR bad.

In my opinion, the better-written shows usually replaced tag lines with character tropes -- the specific personality traits of George Costanza or Ted Baxter (and the audience's knowledge of those traits) were what created the humor, rather than something like Jimmy Walker saying "Dy-no-MITE!"

(An aside: Jack Benny's signature joke, the "I'm thinking!" joke, seems like it's a tagline, but it's not -- it's a character piece. It works best because we feel we "know" Benny and how lovably stingy he is.)

In a few cases, like the Honeymooners or All in the Family, the writers combined both and you had all the wonderful character comedy, but you also got Ralph's, "To the moon, Alice!" and Archie's "Stifle yerself!" and other iconic phrases.

As with pop music, sometimes we all just like stuff that gets stuck in our heads easily, whether it be song hooks, signature lines, or political slogans.

Thank god nobody's ever really figured it out, or William Goldman and the rest of the wordsmiths wouldn't be working for the movies, they'd be cranking out never-fail mind-control catchphrases for the government.

Hmmm. There's a short story in that idea somewhere...

Mallet said...

Everybody knows where this comes from:

"Don't worry Wonder Woman, I'll summon my finny friends! DoooWooowooowooo!"

~Booming Voice~ "And with his Aquatic telepathy..."

But hardly any casual person can remember what the Superfriends episodes were about.

Kotter is just like that. People don't remember content, just the sound bites.

Scipio said...

"Quantum physicists might liken artistic merit to those smallest of particles which cannot both be identified and located at the same time: if you pin down one, you cannot pin down the other."

Great Archimedes, Tad! You've just invented "aesthetrons"!

Scipio said...

they'd be cranking out never-fail mind-control catchphrases for the government.

Like "read my lips" and "stay the course"...?

Bully said...

The real question here, is why don't they start re-running WKRP! Now THAT was a classic.

Possibly because the music clearances have expired and would be prohibitively expensive to re-clear. The DVD releases feature generic music in its place.

David said...


A similar idea is included as part of Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, when the villian goes to a jingle-writer to get something which will ward off telepathic scans...

totaltoyz said...

Reminds me of an episode of Ed (how I miss that show) where the weird guy tried to come up with his own catchphrase. He settled on "Shave my poodle!" and started saying it in every situation, such as handing out bowling shoes to the customers.

Jon H said...

One big difference between Kotter and Mama's Family is that Kotter was back in the days before cable, so it had very little competition, there being only 3 channels. No wonder everyone watched it.

David Thiel said...

Interesting post. I'd argue that a comics character like the Martian Manhunter is iconic despite being unable to sustain his own series because he's so frequently used in other series, and that's because, like Mr. Spock, he's a solid ensemble player rather than a character you'd want to focus solely upon.

As for the eternal Kotter vs. Mama question, I think that one thing you're overlooking is the power of network television prior to the explosion of cable, satellite, VCRs and DVRs. Back then, most everyone watched the same relatively small subset of programs at the same time each week. Mama's Family might have run a long time, but it was more likely to do so on independent stations at all sorts of odd times, and without the vast promotional resources of ABC behind it.

gene phillips said...

Scipio jokes about "aesthetrons," but I gotta say that I've often thought that a quantum theory of literature makes about as much sense as any other I've read (and I've read a number of the prominent ones). Whether you're reading MOBY DICK or watching KOTTER, the process is sort of like letting the "light" of differing intensities play over you. One minute you're just observing basic info like you commonly do when looking at everyday reality: here's Ishmael looking for a room, here's Gabe Kaplan looking for a joke set-up... and then POW! The quantum-intensity changes and you've got something that has "resonance," best defined as "underlying meaning" in Encarta. It may have dramatic resonance, comic resonance, or even (in the case of both KOTTER and MAMA'S FAMILY) "so bad it's good" resonance, but it is, as tadwilliams said, ineffable and inexplicable.

BTW, while I think young kids repeating catchphrases may have at least as much to do with their perpetuity as anything else, it seems to me that adults also do it pretty frequently, though less "Up your nose with a rubber hose" and more "Ex-CUUUUUUUUSSSE ME!!!"

Anonymous said...

Actually, in the South and the Midwest, MAMA'S FAMILY still plays in syndication. I think it depends which part of the country you are in. In the Bible belt, MAMA'S FAMILY is still one of the most popular shows!