Scene4 Magazine: Kathi Wolfe - Life Among The Heffalumps

September 2012

The 'Sweathog' and The Muse

Recently, at dinner, a prize-winning poet whined about a rejection she'd received from a literary journal.  "They rejected me without even a personal note," groused this distinguished bard.

How can she be so high school, I thought to myself.  Until I remembered how happy I was the other day when one of my frenemies didn't receive an award.

I've been thinking about my inner teenager since learning that Ron Palillo, who played "sweathog" Arnold Horshack in the sitcom "Welcome Back Kotter," died last month from a heart attack at age 63.  Set in a Brooklyn high school, the TV show, which aired on ABC from 1975-1979, starred Gabe Kaplan as the teacher of the unruly Sweathogs, who weren't among the brightest of the bulbs.  (They were called the Sweathogs because their classroom was so over-heated.)  Though you'd never want to teach (or be the parents of) these students from hell, you couldn't help, as a TV viewer, but love them. Especially Horshack, the one with the crazy laugh who, when the teacher asked a question, manically shouted "Ooh, ooh!" before giving "Mista Kahta" a spectacularly wrong answer.

Palillo, a consummate actor, was nothing in real life like his best-known character Horshack.  His performances ranged from a year-long role in the soap opera "One Life to Live" to the lead role in an Off Off Broadway production of "Amadeus."  He wrote a musical about the life of "Peter Pan" author J. M. Barrie and directed its first production.

But, we'll remember Palillo most for his striking portrayal of Horshack, one of the indelible TV characters of the 1970's.  As the "Los Angeles Times" noted with his death, an iconic part of pop culture died.

Why is Horshack so beloved?  Because all of us, especially we who are poets, painters, actors, playwrights or other types of creative artists, never, on some level, leave high school.  We're all afraid of being rejected, ridiculed, bullied or of appearing to be too smart.  "All of us have of those Sweathogs," Palillo told the "Los Angeles Times" in 2011.

As sweaty, scary and scathing as it can be, sometimes we creative types find it easier to stay in our inner high schools than to (figuratively) graduate and begin making art.  At least that's often the case with moi.  In high school, we can throw spit balls at the teachers, complain about the principal, feed our homework to the dog, and blame everything on "them."  As artists, we're often the "them" that we complain about. We have to be our own teachers, assign ourselves homework, track down our muse, listen to her and, if we want to feel fully alive, begin the hard work of creating art.  If we rebel, we'll have to throw spit balls at ourselves.

One writer who never got stuck in the quicksand of high school was the late David Rakoff, who died last month at age 47.  Rakoff, a superb essayist and humorist, was known for his contributions to the radio show "This American Life" and his award-winning essay collections.  He received the Thurber Prize for American Humor for his collection "Half Empty."  His collections "Fraud" and "Too Hard for Comfort" won Lambda Literary awards.

In his incisive, witty and poignant essay "Isn't It Romantic," Rakoff skewers the romanticized myth of the suffering, angst-driven, creative type, who because he or she is an artist, is exempt from such irrelevancies as paying bills or engaging in the hard work of making art.  "In Rent, AIDS seems only to render one cuter and cuter.  Creative types," Rakoff, who was gay and died from cancer, writes about the late John Larson's musical updating of La Boheme, "...They screen their calls and when it is their parents they roll their eyes....They are never going back to Larchmont..."

"They will stay here," Rakoff continues, "living in...picturesque poverty, being...creative.  Who can blame them?  It can be spend one's days engaged in...creative pursuits. Exponentially more delightful...than a life of responsibility..."

Though we need to be responsible, we artists need to respect our inner teenagers. This part of ourselves helps us to feel empathy and can , at times, be raw material for our art.  Yet as we mark the passing of  Palillo and Rakoff, let's remember that if we want to meet our muse – if we want to make art – we must graduate from high school.

R.I.P. Ron and David

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©2012 Kathi Wolfe
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine - Kathi Wolfe |
Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications.

For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


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