Welcome Back, Kotter: Season 1
June 28, 2007
Ah, simpler times. Watching the first season of Welcome Back, Kotter and hearing the strains of John Sebastian’s theme music after all these years, takes one back to a time when John Travolta was just starting out (before Grease and Saturday Night Fever made him a superstar). The success of the show made him a star and you can see it in his performance – he steals practically every scene he’s in. However, the show was co-created by Gabriel Kaplan and based largely on real people he knew growing up in Brooklyn and would riff on in his stand-up routines before being discovered.
Gabe Kotter (Kaplan) returns to James Buchanan High School, where he was a student for four years, as a new teacher. He immediately crosses paths with his old nemesis, Vice-Principal Woodman (White) and is banished to the remedial class where he has to deal with the infamous Sweathogs, a group of ne’er do well students that he was once a part of himself. There’s Vinnie Barbarino (Travolta), the good-looking Italian-American leader; the tough Juan Epstein (Hegyes), a Jewish Puerto Rican; the hip Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington (Hilton-Jacobs), an African American basketball fan; and the geeky Arnold Horshack (Palillo) with a distinctive wheezy laugh.
Usually, there is one or two class clowns but all of these guys are jokers. They’re jaded kids who think they know and have seen it all. To his credit, Mr. Kotter gives as good as he gets because he’s been there. He too was a Sweathog and knows all the tricks and tactics that they throw at him. At first, he thinks that he’s failed to reach them but they surprise him at his apartment. He realizes that they do care and they do want him to teach them (and they steal his television set before leaving…only to give it back).
Mr. Kotter and his wife, Julie (Strassman) live modestly (he’s a struggling new teacher after all) in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn with a sofa bed which gives this sitcom a touch of realism that was popular in the 1970s (see All in the Family). Each episode is bookended by Gabe telling Julie a funny story about a member of his family that feels like a stand-up bit complete with a cheesy punch-line that takes us to the opening or closing credits. The attention to realism continues in the classroom with grimy walls adorned with graffiti – exactly as you would expect a tough, Brooklyn high school classroom would be. It is a sharp contrast to the silliness of the storylines and escapades of the Sweathogs.
The classroom banter is full of smart-ass dialogue as Kotter and the Sweathogs make Mr. Woodman’s life a living hell. They also make other classes lives hellish as evident in “The Great Debate” episode which features a very young James Woods as the school’s drama teacher while also sporting some of the worst ‘70s fashion sense ever (nice ascot!). He challenges Mr. Kotter and the Sweathogs to a debate with the predictable chaotic results.
The show has one of the catchiest theme songs in the history of T.V. It was composed and performed by John B. Sebastian (formerly of The Lovin’ Spoonful). It is simple yet effective with riffs and lyrics that stick in your head in such a way that it is impossible not to find yourself humming it hours afterwards.
Welcome Back, Kotter would go on to influence future sitcoms like Head of the Class that ended up replacing the Sweathogs with brainiac kids and softened any edges to reflect the conservative 1980s. More recently, one only has to look at Ashton Kutcher’s Kelso in That ‘70s Show to see him basically playing a Vinnie Barbarino for the New Millennium.
The first disc includes a retrospective featurette entitled, “Only a Few Degrees from a Sweathog” hosted by Marcia Strassman. There are new interviews with all of the Sweathogs minus Travolta (big surprise, there), Strassman and Kaplan (time has not been kind to him…ouch!). Co-creator Alan Sacks talks about the genesis of the show with Kaplan chiming in about how he was an up-and-coming stand-up comedian who was approached by Sacks. They pitched a show based on Kaplan’s high school experiences. The Sweathogs actors talk about the quick success of the show, how they were cast and some of their experiences on it. However, this featurette lacks the depth and the dirt dished on the two-hour E! True Hollywood Story that aired several years ago. Hopefully, this will be included on a future release.
The third disc includes the original screen tests for all the Sweathogs and Strassman. It’s pretty obvious why these actors were cast as they all nail their respective characters by inhabiting them so well. Interestingly, Robert Hegyes tried out for Barbarino but he just doesn’t do it the kind of justice that Travolta did.