Thank your lucky stars
The fortunes of comedian Gabe Kaplan
By David Cotner 08/22/2013
In life — and in luck — if you hit on something big, it tends to stay with you forever. “Forever” was, until recently, a fairly abstract concept that, as with the effects of luck, has become a practical one in the modern age. The power of the law fosters concepts like perpetuity, while the speed of television broadcasts shot into space via passive electromagnetic radiation ensures that even the farthest star systems will enjoy way-out reruns of Small Wonder and The Morton Downey Jr. Show for eons to come. Lucky aliens. One TV show sure to warm the hearts, or whatever pass for hearts out there in the black reaches of space, is Welcome Back, Kotter, the late-’70s socially conscious ABC sitcom that presented a wry, comedic version of integrated, inner-city school life. Based on stand-up comic Gabe Kaplan’s high school experiences in Brooklyn and starring Kaplan as the titular Kotter, it was a program that launched the career of John Travolta, and was so popular that its merchandising included everything from lunchboxes to a line of action figures, although the entertainment value of an action figure based on a schoolteacher is decidedly slender. Kaplan’s second career, spanning the better part of the past four decades, continues as that of a successful high-stakes player in the World Series of Poker. Luck and timing: a powerful combination in the life of an incisively insightful comedian for whom both qualities are equally and constitutionally crucial.
VCReporter: Is reading someone’s poker “tell” the same as being able to read an audience?
No. It’s its own thing. It’s just like with chess: Bobby Fischer was a great chess player; does that mean he’s really smart and would be good at physics? Being a good actor doesn’t mean you’re not going to be a good poker player, but it doesn’t mean you are going to be a good poker player. It’s a whole different set of skills, but actors sure seem to like to play poker! And now, when you watch the World Series of Poker, you’ve got 30 to 40 actors that enter.
So what is it with this idea that gambling is a necessary rite of passage with males?
With poker, everybody thinks they’re a great lover, they’re a great poker player –– especially with men. You want to think that you’re really good at this game because it taps into the whole masculine mystique of being “that guy” outplaying somebody at a poker table. So everybody really overestimates their skill as a player, including some of the really good players who fall into that syndrome of trying to become professionals, traveling around and playing the tournaments and thinking, “Well, now I’m a professional poker player.” And very few of them — a miniscule amount, actually — will survive on a year-to-year basis for any length of time.
How much luck do you think you’ve had?
When I started, I was playing with people who were better than me. I won a few tournaments and I got lucky. I pretty much stopped doing it, and I haven’t got lucky. I haven’t played in tournaments for a few years, but the last time I played, five or six years ago, I almost won the World Series of Poker. I came in second, and I was pretty lucky until there were just two players, and then I got really unlucky the last six or seven hands, and there was nothing I could do. My luck had been great for four days, and on the last day, it deserted me. It wasn’t a lady on the last day!
Is it better to be lucky than it is to be right?
Luck is like baseball, a matter of inches. Life is a matter of inches, too. Like in show business, how many times has somebody been casting for a sitcom or a movie and somebody’s in there just at the right time? Every actor, every performer has, at one point their life, a situation comes up where they’re there at the right time. Right place, right time — everything revolves around getting that one situation where things break right for you — you can be the most talented person in the world, but if things don’t happen correctly, if the stars aren’t lined up at one point in your life, it’s not going to happen.
Was Kotter a stroke of luck?
Here’s the luck element of it: I started out at the Improv when it first opened up in New York [in 1964], where Rodney Dangerfield, Richard Pryor and I were the first group of comedians there. Robert Klein was a couple of years older than me — I was the youngest — and Pryor was working at the Village Gate. Rodney had been a comedian, and he had retired because he’d had to make a living for his family. He came back at that point [to the Improv] to start doing comedy again. From 1964, I had worked, and worked consistently, and it was 1972 already, and I wasn’t on television. I had had this wealth of material that I had built up over eight years and the talent coordinator for The Tonight Show had come to see me a few times, and he didn’t like what I was doing, but I was doing what I thought would be right for television. I was still pretty young — under 30 — but one time he came into the Improv, and I had this material that I did that was pretty far out that I only did at colleges. It was not the kind of stuff that was on TV at the time. I got lucky where that circumstance happened, I got on The Tonight Show. I did well. I met James Komack, the guy who was producing Chico and the Man, and he happened to be a kid from Brooklyn, too, and he said, “There’s more to this about what you’re talking about with these kids. The characters are really interesting, so let’s do a show about them.” And I said, “Well, I can’t be their contemporary, what if I’m their teacher, and the same kids are my students instead of being my friends?” And he said, “Yeah, that works.” So all those things, down the line . . . I could have been a comedian that never got on television.
Gabe Kaplan will appear at the Ventura Harbor Comedy Club on Friday, Aug. 23, and Saturday, Aug. 24.