Created by stand-up comic/actor Gabe Kaplan and Alan Sacks, when Welcome Back, Kotter premiered on ABC on Sept. 9, 1975, it was viewed as a vehicle for Kaplan to utilize his stand-up comedy in a sitcom format, specifically his jokes about how tough it was being a high school student in New York. He played Mr. Gabe Kotter, a teacher, who had been a difficult student during his years at James Buchanan High. Now with his return as a teacher, the school’s stern vice-principal (John Sylvester White) remembers all too well the trouble Kotter caused as a student. As a kind of payback, Woodman gleefully assigns him to teach the latest collection of problem students, a group who still bear the same name as they did in his day: the Sweathogs.
With Woodman constantly holding his past over his head, Gabe tries to do his best with these hard to reach kids. Kaplan brings his experience as a stand-up to each episode, as Kotter tells a joke to virtually anyone who will listen. Each episode begins with him telling his wife Julie (Marcia Strassman) a story about one of his supposed relatives. Given that there were 95 episodes of Welcome Back, Kotter, apparently Gabe had a very big family! Kotter would often break into a Groucho Marx impression in front of his class.
While Kotter was the glue that held everything together, the success of the show rose and fell with the students. Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta), the leader, the stud of the bunch an unapologetic mama’s boy, isn’t the brightest bulb in the draw, but always has a catchphrase ready: “Who? What? Where?” Juan Epstein (Robert Heyges), the Puerto Rican Jew (or is he a Jewish Puerto Rican?) and tough guy, Freddie “Boom-Boom” Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), the athlete and ladies man, and Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo), the sweet oddball of the group, with the unforgettable laugh. It wasn’t long before John Travolta became the breakout star. His charisma and swagger that would serve him so well in Grease, Saturday Night Fever and other films is on full display, early in the series run.
While the writing was strong for the first two seasons, relying heavily on Kaplan’s jokes, puns, and Sweathog shenanigans, later seasons saw the show become overly dependent on catchphrases that quickly became stale. It got so bad, that characters would mimic other’s catchphrases. In some cases, a particular character would use their popular catchphrase more than once in an episode. It’s at that point that the phrase is definitely not funny anymore. As ratings sagged in the third season, producers tried the old trick of having the Kotter’s have twin girls and even added a female Sweathog, Angie Grabowski (Melonie Haller), but the show was in deep trouble.
By the start of the fourth season, Travolta had starred in Carrie, Grease, and Saturday Night Fever. Wanting to concentrate on his movie career, he agreed to appear in just eight episodes and was billed as a “special guest star.” At the same time, nearly all the writing staff had been fired and replaced. They changed the tenor of the show with episodes about alcoholism and other serious issues. Gabe Kaplan had a series of disputes with producers and appeared sparingly. The Sweathogs did their best to fill the void, but the show had clearly jumped the shark. They added new Sweathog Beau (Stephen Shortridge) a fellow from the south, but he proved to be annoying, had some of the Sweathogs grow up (marriage!) and Gabe became Vice-Principal as Woodman moved into the top job. No matter, the show, barely a shadow of its former self, was mercifully cancelled after the fourth season.
While it’s sad to see a show that started out so strong burn out so fast. Nonetheless, Welcome Back, Kotter still stands as both one of the better series of the mid-seventies. For a couple of years there, the show bore itself into the national fabric there where lunchboxes, board games (“The ‘Up Your Nose with a Rubber Hose’ Game”) and John Travolta launched a career as a pop star (“Let Her In,” peaked at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in July 1976). While it’s true that Kotter’s rather light comedy banter between student/teacher/principal wouldn’t pass muster today, it’s wonderful to be able to watch these episodes and go back to what seemed like a simpler time.
The 95 episodes that make up the four seasons of Welcome Back, Kotter are spread over 16 DVDs (four per season). The keepcases are packed in a sturdy slipcase, which also holds a 28-page booklet (designed like a spiral notebook). The full-frame transfers are rather clean, though they do have the video appearance of the era. The image itself is rather soft, a bit dull and void of any real detail. The colors exhibit a decent level of saturation, but nothing remarkable. Considering the age of the series, there are no real complaints to be had. There are no compression issues to speak of.
The episodes are presented with Dolby Digital 1.0 tracks, which are clear and strong; reproducing what was likely heard when the show first aired. There are no audio options, though closed captioning is included.
The following extras, originally included on the 2007 Season One release, are available:
- Only a Few Degrees from a Sweathog (23:26) Hosted by Marcia Strassman, this retrospective featurette has interviews with Kaplan, Hegyes, Palillo and Hilton-Jacobs. They acknowledge that John Sylvester White died in 1988 and as you might expect, Travolta is M.I.A. With Hegyes and Palillo passing away in 2012, additional features were likely not possible, but it’s nice to have this included.
- Original Screen Tests (11:22) for Travolta, Hegyes, Palillo, Hilton-Jacobs and Strassman.
- Episode Guide: The 28-page booklet provides episode titles, descriptions and airdates for all episodes and stills from the series.
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