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The Humor & Style of TV’s Greatest Cop, Kojak

Sections: Comedy, TV

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“Who loves ya, baby?” – Kojak, saying goodbye to someone, regardless their gender.

Telly Savalas as Kojak Given that I’ve never been into cop shows and have avoided large parts of TV in general, why lately have I been so enamored with Kojak, the detective show set in New York which aired from 1973 to 1978? The writing can be clunky at times, and some plots silly. The characters are often barely two dimensional. The bad guys are stock characters that bring to mind the cartoon burglar on the older targets at a shooting range. The overall look of things is what people would call cheap or cheesy, or not “real,” a common critique showing that people put too high a premium on verisimilitude.

At the center of this rickety procedural however is the inimitable character of Lieutenant Theo Kojak, an old-school streetwise cop of the no bull-crap variety, who strides through the show and New York as if he owns the place. To say he grows on you is to put it lightly. Kojak renders everything around him as very real; any questionable setup is important once his massive presence is on the scene. I’m convinced he would have no trouble carrying even a wisp of a show all by himself.

And the show itself is fun and really funny, sometimes unintentionally. In one episode the bomb squad shows up. This consists of two cops — in no special protective gear — gingerly pulling a bomb from under a car, carefully walking it over to what looks like a bread truck and placing it in a box. I had not realized how much this show specifically was the influence for the brilliant parodies Police Squad! (1982) and the Naked Gun films.

There are classic, all-caps episode titles such as CONSPIRACY OF FEAR, and DEATH IS NOT A PASSING GRADE. Fans of Leslie Nielsen will laugh harder at his work after taking in some Kojak, and may notice some similarities between the two characters themselves. The dumb joke, a staple of cop shows, appears on occasion and is wielded best by Kojak who never laughs at his own: on coming through the door into the office when everyone is loudly banging away on typewriters, he bellows, “What is this, a typing class?!”

There’s a bit of simplicity and corniness that’s fun when comparing it to cop shows of today. There’s none of the jerky camera motion that’s now the trend. It’s free of high-concept and hi-tech gadgets providing answers under green laser light in the lab. The shootouts seem to go in slow-time, stagey and theatrical. Kojak’s revolver looks small enough to get swallowed up in his hand – that’s fine, he doesn’t need to prove anything with a big gun, or “cannon” as he calls them. The clunky seventies police cars look as if they’re taking off in slow motion. Do we want to watch a long shot of Kojak’s car, in real time, round a circular entrance ramp to a highway? Why not, and let’s put the kettle on while this is happening.

“Greeks they don’t threaten – they utter prophecies!” – Kojak, turning up the heat on a suspect.

As the ideal man that he is, Kojak infuses a cool macho style into everything he does, and mostly he does those things his own way. There is a touch of noir in him, like when he can stare off lost in thought while pulling out a matchbook and striking a match all with one hand. His unwrapping of a lollypop has as much resonance as Humphrey Bogart lighting a cigarette. He is stoic, and as the heart of the show his emotional range comes through this tough guy facade; his determination to set the world straight simmering, rarely blowing out as steam.

He will bend the rules to get things done, but never abandon his moral compass. His interaction with those around around him is always forthright. Seemingly oblivious to the idea of sexual harassment, Kojak openly flirts with women even if they’re involved in a case his is on. None of them ever object to this. He will often make reference to his Greek-American identity, once chiding another detective who failed to catch a term from Greek Mythology, “What kind of a Greek are you?” The deadpan, sarcastic lines continually flow no matter what’s going on.

“Hm, I think you and I have met before, cannon. Maybe on a ballistics report on my desk. Do you suppose?” – Kojak, talking to a gun he picked up off the ground.

And it’s in his language that Kojak’s wit and warmth and even his anger really comes through. His dialogue is a kind of street poetry full of endearing classic lingo and sarcastic creations. When unable to act against a stalker threatening him and his family, Kojak can only sum it up thus: “Tweet, tweet, baby. I’m a cop in a cage.” The angrier Kojak gets, the more flowery and figurative his language becomes – an aspect sent up so well by Leslie Nielsen.

Kojak calls you “sweetheart” whether you’re male or female. And he can give that term – which sounds like “sweethot” — quite and edge when he wants, taking it from endearing to more like you better watch your ass. “Coochie-coo” on the other hand is another thing altogether. You’re right on his short list or possibly already in custody, as in “Take these two coochie-coos down to the station.”

Kojak may refer to porno films as “French postcards that move,” or assess a situation with a Greek twist on a cliché – “If I’m wrong, well, that’s the way the baklava crumbles.” He often slips a black joke into dire situations, as when commenting on a missing person: “There are a lot of women in my life I wish would disappear – Cheryl Pope is not one of them.” And there is one exclamation of his, louder than his gun, that counts as a recurring sound effect in the show. At any moment he may let loose with a loud, “Crocker!” to summon his sidekick, detective Bobby Crocker. This doesn’t phase Crocker — Kojak is always shouting around the office.

Though a verbal whiz he doesn’t shy away from getting physical either. He’s one to grab a suspect’s tie or jacket, pull him up to his face and sneer right at the guy. If Kojak doesn’t like you you’ll know it. To a perceived slight from a suspect being held at the station, he immediately barks, “It’s Lieutenant Kojak, you cockroach!” And I’ve seen him step onto an elevator, turn and flip off a bad guy with the Italian flick of the hand under the chin, saying “Ciao, baby.”

Placed alongside Kojak, modern TV with its set of new cliches, slick look and flash doesn’t seem like an advance over older TV and its cliches and reliable supports leaned upon. When critics mention how “good” TV is these days, I always feel something is missing. Like a tough, class act, a cool, proudly Greek American, poetic street cop such as Kojak. Who never did anything without his three-piece suit on.

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  • Isabella McNaull

    Will is a great writer, describing exactly what that Kojak show was all about in detail, and if you had never seen an episode, you would know exactly what the show was about. Good job on his part, he has good skills. Not just because I am related to him, either.

  • Joe bob

    The best cop character only Stabler of SVU is a match.

  • David R Cooke

    I love the genuine no-frills locations of New York. A gritty time-machine/travelogue. One of the most ‘real’ shows ever, on that score.