This week, lifelong Welcome Back, Kotter fan Brian Boone helped with the review of this new complete series box set.
Taking a stand-up comedian and translating their act or persona into a sitcom is a TV staple. But before FOX’s upcoming Mulaney, and before Roseanne’s sardonic stand-up routines on blue collar life became Roseanne, or Bill Cosby’s tales of exasperated fatherhood became The Cosby Show, there was Gabe Kaplan and Welcome Back, Kotter. This week, Shout! Factory released Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete Series, the latest in the company’s long line of excellent TV-on-DVD collections that preserve some of television’s most noteworthy series.
In 1974, Kaplan released his hit album Holes and Mello-Rolls, which contained the popular routines he’d performed on The Tonight Show about his juvenile delinquent friends he’d made in remedial courses attending high school in Brooklyn. The names he created for those friends—Vinnie Barbarino, Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington, Juan Epstein, and Arnold Horseshit—would become the names of the four teenage characters (well, except one, as Horseshit became the TV friendly Horshack)) when Kotter and James Komack turned the routines into the sitcom called Welcome Back, Kotter. The show debuted on ABC in the fall of 1975 to instant ratings success.
Kaplan took on the role of Mr. Kotter, a kind history teacher who gets through to the juvenile delinquents and remedial students—because he used to be one. Kotter returns to the very high school where he studied, James Buchanan High School in Brooklyn, to teach the next generation of “Sweathogs,” the remedial students so named because their classes were taught on the sweltering top floor of the school.
At a time when sitcoms were mostly wacky and surfacey, Kotter held a humanist premise and stuck to it. Barbarino (John Travolta), Boom-Boom (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), Epstein (Robert Hegyes), and Horshack (Ron Palillo) weren’t one-note urban thug stereotypes or sob stories like we’d later see in movies such as Stand and Deliver or Dangerous Minds. The Sweathogs are real kids, damaged (but not ruined) by poverty, broken families, and urban decay, shuffled off to remedial because they’re difficult to deal with.
While not necessarily book smart, the Sweathogs were clever and funny, and Mr. Kotter interacted with them in an authoritative yet detached, friendly manner, making Welcome Back, Kotter one of the best high school TV shows of all time. It’s also a fascinating period piece—the sets of the rundown Buchanan High, and Kotter’s Brooklyn apartment, are among the dirtiest, grimiest in TV history. They recall the filthy, hellish New York of ‘70s movies like Death Wish or The French Connection.
The series made a star out of Travolta, which was destined to happen from episode 1. The live studio audience gravitated to his naiveté, while teenage girls at home swooned over him. The show also preserved cheesy vaudevillian-style humor in the form of Kaplan’s episode-ending tag jokes to his wife (Marcia Strassman). A fixture of ‘50s television, such jokes found an unlikely home on a ‘70s sitcom that was also among the first mainstream shows with a truly, and organically, multicultural cast of characters.
Digging into the box set and the complete series, Welcome Back, Kotter starts off on strong footing. Watching the pilot, it’s apparent that the actors had already found the voice of the characters. It’s amazing how quickly the four Sweathogs gelled as a comedy team, with Kaplan playing their straight man most of the time. All four actors created non-menacing goofs who were more like the Little Rascals than a real threat. Likewise, the chemistry between Kaplan and Strassman was strong. Their portrayal of a newlywed couple struggling to make ends meet was honest and cute.
The first two seasons are the best. You watch the show grow from an underdog into a strong ensemble sitcom. While the clothes may be dated, the humor remains pretty solid in those first two years, and this is because the cast meshed so well together. Even though Kaplan and Travolta became the draw of the show, each of the cast members has plenty to do.
As the first season progresses, you can hear the live audience falling in love with the Sweathogs. The cheers for their first entrances get louder with each subsequent episode, and whenever Travolta breaks into his rock ‘n roll persona (which he’d use to catapult him into super stardom with Grease in 1978), the actors have to pause for the audience cheers to die down.
By season three, the show begins to lose steam, as the four Sweathogs are barely believable as teenagers anymore. All were in their mid-to-late-20s by this point, and they look it. To counter this problem, the producers introduced the Kotters having twin daughters. There are still some funny moments, but you get a sense that Travolta had begun to outgrow his role. By this time, he’d already been in the horror smash Carrie, and of course, he’d garnered acclaim and an Academy Award nomination for Saturday Night Fever. The best episode of season three may be when Boom-Boom gets hooked on pills and the gang has to help him. The series always had a serious undertone, and this “very special episode” remains a highlight of mixing an issue that plagues society with the kind of warmth and humor Welcome Back, Kotter excelled at.
Unfortunately, the fourth and final season is a bit of a train wreck. At that point, Kaplan had a contract dispute with the network, and Travolta was concentrating on his film career, resulting in both essentially leaving the series. They both appear intermittently (Kotter is always conveniently sick or out of town, and Vinnie is working at a hospital), but their absences are felt. To fill the void, Strassman was given more to do, as Mrs. Kotter takes a job at the high school (but what about those twin babies?) and a new Sweathog heartthrob is introduced in the form of Stephen Shortridge’s Beauregarde “Beau” De LaBarre, a slick talking native of New Orleans who was popular with the girls. Neither of these ideas works. It’s no surprise that the fourth season had dismal ratings and ABC cancelled it soon thereafter.
For years, the show had a life in syndication, but bespite its stature and popularity, Welcome Back Kotter doesn’t show up in reruns anymore. It ran on Nick at Nite in the ‘90s, and pops up on those digital, over-the-air substations that specialize in running classic, cheap TV. That makes this complete series DVD set a welcome addition to the TV-on-DVD canon. Shout! Factory has compiled all of the episodes in a nice box with great artwork. Included in the set is an episode guide, as well as a short featurettes made several years ago (before the deaths of Palillo and Heyges in 2012), that gives a nice history of the show.