July 13, 2007

Welcome back, Kaplan

About four years ago, my father forwarded me an e-mail that was making the rounds among historians of the Cold War. It had originally been sent to Yale professor John Gaddis.

Dear Prof. Gaddis,

My name is Gabe Kaplan. If you're not familiar with me, I am a Russian-born American actor and history buff. For the last ten years, Iíve been free to pursue my hobby of researching life in Russia during the Stalin era. As an expert in 20th century Russian political history, I am hoping you can help me out.

There is one area of Stalin's character that is either largely unknown or purposely ignored by historians and biographers. Now that it's the fiftieth anniversary of his death, I feel it should come out (if, of course, it's true). Before I begin, let me tell you that I have personally confirmed this story by talking to one actual eyewitnesses, the offspring of actual eyewitnesses, and people who just heard it through the grapevine.

It seems Joseph Stalin was a practitioner of genital origami, the ancient art of manipulating oneís genitals into familiar shapes and figures. Not only could he do the classic seven positions, he pushed way beyond that and took his passion to heights only achieved by 19th century Chinese masters. In 1946 he created his masterpiece when he twisted his package into a flock of geese migrating over the Kamchatka peninsula.

I have heard his remarkable gift was, at first, completely unappreciated by everyone in the Kremlin. However, with time, they actually looked forward to these performances and their applause and excitement was genuine. Even Beria became completely intrigued with the dicktatorís hobby. Please let me know what knowledge you have of this curious aspect of Stalinís personality.

Letís share information,

Gabe Kaplan

Now, Welcome Back Kotter was pretty much the first sitcom I ever watched. Certainly the first one I watched regularly. It was a defining piece of my media childhood. So I jumped on the chance to write to Kaplan, telling him that I knew this had to be a joke even if I didn't quite get it, and asking if I could write it up as a gossip item for the first issue of Radar.

Kaplan relates the story of our exchange in this interview promoting his aptly-titled new book, Kotter's Back: E-mails from a Faded Celebrity to a Bewildered World.

As the Gawker regulars note, Kaplan comes across as a nice, well-adjusted guy with a good sense of humor, and that's exactly how I found him in our conversations. It's refreshing when a celebrity you're fond of turns out not to be a dick.

I haven't read the book yet, but if the one e-mail exchange I saw is an example, the actual content isn't going to be particularly hilarious, not like The Lazlo Letters or even Letters from a Nut. What's funny is the half second where you believe Gabe Kaplan is trying to reinvent himself as an amateur historian and has gone totally off the rails.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


I saw him a few years ago on the Game Show Network on a plane flight. He was hosting poker. I've seen him in various poker-related things since then. Seemed like a pretty good way to go out. Good for him. "Epistolary Comedy" is a rough sport and you're dead right in identifying the source of the laugh.

From what I've since learned, he's actually a pretty serious semi-pro poker player.

Yeah, everybody on the tv was giving him "mad respect" viz poker playing talent.

Whoa, I had no idea you were Ronald Radosh's son. I have, however, always suspected Huckapoo of being commie spies.

The brilliant thing about the first Lazlo book wasn't just that Novello's letters were Spinal Tap quotable ("I can run faster than a beagle/You are the feet beneath my knees") or that Lazlo is as plausible a fictional character as you'd find in any novel. It wasn't even that the responders thought the letters were serious, although some of them no doubt did. The amazing thing was that the PR functionaries for these companies were so hamstrung by fear for their own jobs that it didn't matter if they thought he was being serious or not. They had to treat every customer or potential customer as if his input was valued and insightful, even when it patently was not.Novello's books weren't about gullibility, they were about commercial paralysis and corporate blindness.

I haven't read Kaplan's book but it seems like every subsequent attempt at this has suffered from a change in business attitude. In fact "Letters From a Nut" produced almost the opposite result. Most of the responders seemed to reply with the assumption that the letters were a prank. Many of them obviously thought they were being funny by pretending to take the letters seriously. In the end it's not even clear whether the joke is on them or on "Nancy."

But good on Gabe Kaplan. Kotter was the first show I really called my own. I still have Welcome Back, Kotter trading cards, which makes me cool with exactly no one.

Didn't he have a son who played major league baseball?

That was Gabe Kapler. A landsman like Gabe wouldn't have a son named Gabe.

Charles, that was reply bait, which you probably suspected anyway, but thanks for nibbling.

What's a landsman?

KapLER's on-field / on-screen appearances were greeted with howls of "Mis-tah Kot-TAIR!" By jerks I've read about. And later, more privately, "Aw yeah, Julie, Julie, nununu leave those glasses ON" . . .

A landsman is a member of the tribe. Hope that clears things up.

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