Created by comedian Gabriel Kaplan and Alan Sacks, Welcome Back, Kotter was the show that introduced the term "Sweathogs" to the American viewing public and also set a then fairly unknown John Travolta onto a path as a teen idol and movie star - he'd do Saturday Night Fever and Grease mere years after this premiered in 1975.
My first exposure to remedial teacher Kotter (Kaplan) and his gang of wacky students came when I discovered the show one afternoon after grade school. At the age of ten the show's brand of mild slapstick and goofiness made enough of an impression to make it a staple of my after school diet that year - of course it helped that the superior Linda Lavin sitcom Alice followed it.
A fairly popular stand-up comedian in the mid-70's, Kaplan was given the offer to helm a weekly sitcom and decided to use his past experiences as a teacher for the basis of a comedy about a wisecracking young teach called Gabe Kotter who returns to the high school he was a rebel rouser in only to be assigned the homeroom teacher to the school's newest group of troublemakers (dubbed the "Sweathogs").
And what a group they are with the main focus being on swagger-filled womanizer Vinnie Barbarino (Travolta), the sarcastic Freddie "Boom Boom" Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), the thug with a heart of gold Epstein (Robert Hegyes) and the geeky head case Horshack (Ron Palillo). They're pranksters and at times uncouth but are still a generally okay bunch. Of course, this being the 70's, they don't get much more stereotypical than here as we get the Italian, African-American, Latino, and scrawny white boy (Hell, even Kaplan's character is Jewish - and, yes, they make jokes about it) but thanks to the game ensemble cast the show mostly manages to rise above such obvious clichés.
But, really, that's what the show is all about: clichés. There's nothing much original here, the jokes get recycled often and there's way too many enthusiastic "gimme five!" moments going on. Each episode opens with a monologue from Kaplan that usually involved a funny "story" about one of his relatives before settling into a day in the lives of Kotter and his Sweathogs and while the show would try to tackle some serious subjects (one episode, "Whodunnit?" is about teen pregnancy - it's also the worst episode here) it was mostly Kotter being the calm amongst the storm that is the Sweathogs. It was as simple a premise as possible and they actually managed to ride it out for four seasons before the show ended in 1979.
Released previously by Warner as a six-episode "Television Favourites" compilation, Welcome Back, Kotter is finally getting released as season box sets. This first season contains the first twenty-two episodes of the series run and gives us a chance to see the show get its footing and settle into the, admittedly thin, formula it wouldn't chance much in future shows. If it wasn't for the likeable cast (Palillo somehow steals most of his scenes as the constantly snorting Horshack) and generally goofy tone of the show this wouldn't be worth watching at all. It's not quite funny enough to demand repeat viewings and it's only best taken one or two episodes at a time. It's also not aged too well, but it is amusing seeing all the fashions and hearing the popular insults of the 70's (the most famous being "up your nose with a rubber hose"). Plus it has a killer theme song by John B. Sebastian, a former member of musical group The Lovin' Spoonful.
It's recently been announced that the show is being made into a motion picture that's set to star gangsta rapper-turned-mediocre actor Ice Cube in the lead - it's almost as bad an idea as 2004's Fat Albert was. (Chris Hartley, 6/22/07)
Created By: Gabriel Kaplan, Alan Sacks.
Starring: Gabriel Kaplan, John Travolta, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Robert Hegyes.
Warner - June 12, 2007
Picture Ratio: Full Frame.
Picture Quality: A low-budget televison show shot on videotape from the 70's, Welcome Back, Kotter is obviously not going to look like a million bucks. In fact, the picture here is often soft and has some print flaws, but considering its age it looks alright. It looks a bit better than if you were to watch it in repeats and that's good enough for me.
Extras: There's not a heck of a lot here for the show's fanbase as we get the original screen tests for the cast as well as a retrospective featurette that has interviews and looks back at the show by almost the entire cast as well as co-creator Sacks. Travolta is absent for it but, really, that's to be expected. It's an okay look back at the show, but I'm sure the fans would've liked a bit more content for their buck.