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.
If you loved it as a kid…you won’t mind being held back a grade to watch it all over again.
By Paul Mavis
A few semesters back, Warner Bros. released Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete First Season (recently, Shout! Factory came out with a complete series set) of the smash ABC sitcom’s premiere 1975-1976 season. I don’t think I had watched this since my eldest daughter became infatuated with the series when it was rerun on TV Land some twenty years ago or more (she’ll deny it now…but she cried when they changed its timeslot and she couldn’t stay up to watch it). Surprisingly, it’s 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.
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Based on the stand-up comedy of Gabe Kaplan, Welcome Back, Kotter tells the story of Gabe Kotter (Kaplan), a newly-licensed teacher assigned to return to his old high school, James Buchanan High, in Brooklyn (“the 4th largest city in America”). Kaplan, a former “Sweathog” (a term used for the remedial students), dreads going back, 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 the old crank is 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 still 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 strident militancy of the late 1960s and early 1970s counterculture finally started to fade away in the mid-70s (and since that zeitgeist was largely a bust on network TV, anyway), there was room for a show like Welcome Back, Kotter, 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.
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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 these early 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. That’s pretty much the level of realism in an average Welcome Back, Kotter episode. 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, harmless laughs.
Not that we kids cared. 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.
At the center of the show—at least until John Travolta’s career took off into the stratosphere in 1977—is Kaplan’s understanding yet youthfully wacky Mr. Kotter (think Mr. Peepers with a felony rap). 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 acting 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.
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 (the bar-setter there is Saved by the Bell). 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.
Along with terrific performers, the scripts for Welcome Back, Kotter are genuinely funny. Now, even as a kid, I remember groaning at some of the clunkers found in later seasons, and there are a few here, too (particularly 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 (unless of course it’s aimed at Whites…) flies all over the place, and nobody is spared a ribbing—the key to having such ethnic 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 forty-five years.
For the 1975-1976 season, Welcome Back, Kotter initially premiered on Tuesday nights, occupying the 8:30PM sweet spot right after rising megahit Happy Days (11th for the 1975-1976 season). It was moved, however, to make room for executive producer Garry Marshall’s Happy Days spin-off, Laverne & Shirley, with Welcome Back, Kotter positioned over to Thursday nights at 8pm. It was a canny bit of counterprogramming from new ABC network prez, Fred “The Man with the Golden Gut” Silverman, who thought CBS megahit The Waltons had peaked, and would be vulnerable to younger demo-skewing competition. He was right. The Waltons, which had been the 8th most popular show on television the year before, dropped to 14th against the red-hot Sweathogs, who managed a more-than-respectable 18th most-popular Nielsen rating for the year—a terrific showing for a new sitcom (I may have been the only one, but I must confess being torn at the time between two of my favorite shows…and poor NBC’s Grady spin-off. Whitman Mayo was hilarious). The Nielsens would be even more impressive for Welcome Back, Kotter‘s sophomore year….
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.
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3 thoughts on “‘Welcome Back, Kotter’ (Season 1): It’s back to school—70s style”
As a teen In the all- white, rural Midwest, the urban and ethnic humor escaped me. But, watched it. Would have done so exclusively, and waited impatiently, for the all too brief appearances of Marcia Strassman. Look at that photo above. Perfection.
Always found the overall aesthetic kind of scary. (Darn, dingy wall. Lots of dented lockers, litter strewn about). As a young kid I feared that this IS what high school would be like. Didn’t realize this was filmed at the time when NYC almost filed for bankruptcy and was likely an attempt at some sort of social commentary.