Your dreams were your ticket out.
To that same old place that you laughed about.
Well, the names have all changed since you hung around,
But those dreams have remained and they've turned around.
Who'd have thought they'd lead ya,
Who'd have thought they'd lead ya,
Back here where we need ya?
Back here where we need ya?
Yeah, we tease him a lot,
'Cause we got him on the spot,
Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back.
Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back.
There was a time back in 1975 and a little part of 1976 when Welcome Back, Kotter was about the coolest show on TV. I was ten when it premiered - close to the perfect age for this kind of nonsense - and the Sweathogs were a giddy blast: G-rated rebellious punks who openly supported violence, surliness, and deliberate ignorance. In other words, everything most little kids would love to get away with just once in school. But like us, the Sweathogs of James Buchanan High School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn talked a good game, but when push came to shove, it was all just that: talk. Funny talk, though. I hadn't thought about the show in years, and perhaps remembering the final lame season, was a little leery of entering Mr. Kotter's classroom again. But Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete First Season turned out to be a fun trip back down memory lane.
Welcome Back, Kotter premiered in September of 1975 on ABC, occupying the 8:30PM sweet spot right after rising megahit Happy Days (11th for the 1975-1976 season). Based on the stand-up comedy of Gabe Kaplan, Welcome Back, Kotter told the story of Gabe Kotter (Kaplan), a newly licensed teacher assigned to return to his old high school in Brooklyn. Kaplan, a former "Sweathog" (a term used for the remedial students), dreads going back (Kotter has since matured and obviously pulled himself along in life), but his sensible, beautiful wife Julie (Marcia Strassman) convinces him that bills are more important than pride, and he accepts the assignment.
Returning to James Buchanan High, Kotter must deal with the residual effects of his past indiscretions. His new boss, Mr. Woodman (John Sylvester White), was his old assistant principal, and he's just as suspicious of Kotter's motives as he was when he was a student. As revenge against Kotter's past antics, Woodman assigns Kotter to the "special guidance remedial academics group" - the same class Kotter attended and home to the Sweathogs. Leader of the Sweathogs is Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta), a super-cool Italian stud who's also comically dim. His enforcer, Puerto Rican Jew Juan Luis Pedro Phillipo de Huevos Epstein (Robert Hegyes), is the toughest kid in school (voted "most likely to take a life"). The smooth talker of the group is Freddie "Boom Boom" Washington (Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs), a streetwise African-American who can charm his way out of any situation with a simple, "Hi there." And the court jester of the group, the sad sack that everyone dumps on, is Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo), a Polish nebbish with a distinctive, disturbing laugh (in the old country, his last name means, "the cattle are dying"). Difficult as it is for Kotter to try and reach these kids, his job becomes even tougher when the street-wise, wise-cracking Sweathogs find out that Kotter is actually one of them.
Prior to Welcome Back, Kotter's premiere, ABC had a modest hit with Room 222, which tackled the serious problems of urban teenagers in a Los Angeles high school. Although there were moments of low-key comedy in the show, it was essentially a serious drama with a message. As the stridency of the late 1960s and early 1970s counterculture finally started to fade away in the mid-70s, there was room for a show like Welcome Back, Kotter on TV, which took Room 222's basic premise (with a little of The Blackboard Jungle and To Sir, With Love thrown in for good measure), and turned it into a farce. Social concerns involving teenagers, such as teen pregnancy, illiteracy, school bullying, as well as more universal themes such as honesty, integrity, and moral bearings, can still be found in the Welcome Back, Kotter scripts. But clearly, the emphasis has now turned towards comedy. While Mr. Kotter may try to get to the bottom of who among the Sweathogs may be the father of Rosalie "Hotsy" Totzie (Debralee Scott) baby, never fear: she's not pregnant, and none of the boys ever slept with the virgin Hotsy. And that's pretty much the level of realism in Welcome Back, Kotter. Gentle lessons in life and growing up may slip through the wise-cracks, but the real-life tribulations of 1975 teenagers are pretty well Disneyfied in search of big laughs.
At the center of the show - at least until Travolta's career took off into the stratosphere - is Kaplan's understanding yet youthfully wacky Mr. Kotter. Giving a nice twist to the time-worn TV sitcom formula of having a steady, straight anchor for the nuttiness surrounding him or her (think The Mary Tyler Moore Show), in Welcome Back, Kotter, the anchor here is just as crazy as the supporting characters. Kaplan, with his intentionally corny, Borscht Belt jokes and celebrity imitations, is admirably funny while still maintaining a basically low-key profile. He's laid-back, but still capable of hanging with the young turks in the classroom when the put-downs are being thrown around. But I also found Kaplan to be quite good in the more quiet moments of Welcome Back, Kotter; I don't know if he ever had any formal training, and he's certainly not ready for Shakespeare, but he's surprisingly good projecting out a decent guy who really cares about these kids.
But regardless of how good Kaplan is with his comedy, Welcome Back, Kotter wouldn't have worked if the actors playing the students hadn't clicked with the audience. And in Welcome Back, Kotter, the producers hit the jackpot with young talent. I was trying to figure out exactly what it was that made those young stars so immediately identifiable and liked by a sometimes fickle TV audience, and then it struck me: they're fine actors, not just TV personalities. We've all seen hit shows where the actors are less than impressive, and where popularity comes from a cute gimmick masking relative inexperience. But with the young actors in Welcome Back, Kotter, it's obvious that these were well trained performers who knew their acting business first before coming onto the set. Of course, we all know who the break-out star was on the show, and you can't say enough about the truly funny turn Travolta does here as criminally stupid Vinnie Barbarino. But Hegyes, Jacobs, and Palillo are equally accomplished, with each of them carving out a distinct character that the audience waited for week after week.
And along with terrific performers, the scripts for Welcome Back, Kotter are genuinely funny. Now I remember groaning at some of the clunkers found in later seasons, and there are a few here, too (especially some of the lame generic comebacks that wheeze like, "Off my case, potato face"). But overall, the writing for this first season of Welcome Back, Kotter is consistently sharp. It's fairly bold writing, too, if you compare it against the timid, P.C.-choked TV world we inhabit now. Watered-down ethnic humor that today's viewers might find offensive (after years of being told it's offensive -- or else) flies all over the place, and nobody is spared a ribbing -- the key to having such humor work (often, an episode will have the uncanny feeling of a Bowery Boys movie, with the same kind of corny ethnic humor and faux-tough guy comic posturing that made those films so entertaining). Nobody's touchy or jittery about it; it's all part of the comedy, and it's engagingly put over to the audience. Sure, there are some annoying holdovers from 1970s TV production (the "big applause" anytime somebody gives a phony speech or whenever one of the characters hits their trademark comic phrase), but overall, Welcome Back, Kotter holds up surprisingly well after more than thirty years.
Here are the 22, one-half hour episodes of the four disc Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete First Season box set, as described on their slimcases:
The Great Debate
Like a rumble...with words. Kotter's class takes on Buchanan High's debate team.
Hoop dreams. Freddie's sure he'll be an NBA star, so why bother studying?
Welcome Back (Pilot)
Home, sweat home. Kotter returns to his old high school to teach a remedial class of rowdy Sweathogs.
Tired of being unfairly known as the class punchboard, Rosalie hatches a plan to save her reputation.
Vinnie runs for Student Body President...and runs smack into trouble.
No More Mister Nice Guy
When Mr. Woodman teaches the Sweathog class for a day, his surprising success leads to surprising consequences.
Is Freddie ready for marriage? Kotter and the Sweathogs try to discourage him from tying the knot.
One of Our Sweathogs is Missing
When tough-guy Juan loses a fight, he takes flight -- straight to the Kotter's apartment.
Mr. Kotter, Teacher
Kotter's inventive teaching methods get the kids thinking...and Kotter suspended.
Teacher's pet. The Sweathogs rib Vinnie when he is attracted to his tutor, a super-sarcastic super smartie.
A blonde named Bambi? She's just gotta be a California girl...and a Sweathog dream come true.
Congratulations, Arnold! Horshack is promoted to regular school. So why is he so miserable?
The Longest Weekend
Julie's on a ski trip and Kotter's fine about it, but the Sweathogs assume their marital bliss is on the fritz.
If it's Wednesday, this must be liver. The Sweathogs object to the school cafeteria's midweek menu.
Follow the Leader (Part 1)
Vinnie is ousted as Sweathog leader. Distraught, he moves into the Kotter apartment...and Julie moves out.
Follow the Leader (Part 2)
Politics makes strange bedfellows. Kotter reluctantly shares his sleeper sofa with losing candidate Vinnie.
Dr. Epstein, I Presume
"This student should explore the highly rewarding field of manual labor." Juan's counselor dashes his career hopes.
One Flu Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Teacher shortage; a flu epidemic has the Sweathogs sharing a classroom with high-achieving students.
Arnold's convinced that a local TV station would leap at the chance to host a Sweathog telethon.
The Catholic Church has stood for centuries, but it may not survive this; Vinnie decides to become a priest.
Here's where things go a little south for the Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete First Season box set. The full frame video image has lots of compression issues; it looked fairly terrible on a big monitor. This wasn't one of the better shot sitcoms when it first aired, but the DVD doesn't improve anything. Quite awful, actually. All episodes time out at 25 minutes, which is correct, so no apparent editing has taken place.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 mono accurately reflects the original broadcast presentation. Close-captioning is available.
There's a fun look back at the series with added bonus, Only a Few Degrees From a Sweathog. Running 23 minutes, and hosted by Marcia Strassman (who, if possible, looks even better now than she did thirty years ago), everybody is back to talk about the show (except, predictably, Travolta) with some fun memories and stories about the production. As well, there are some cool original screen tests for the major characters. Too bad somebody didn't provide an episode commentary or two.
Getting past the subpar transfer, Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete First Season is still an entertaining sitcom with plenty of sharp writing and fine ensemble acting. This is probably the best season out of the series, when all the characters' familiar shtick hadn't been done to death. If you loved it as a kid, you'll enjoy being sent back a grade to watch Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete First Season. I recommend it.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.