|Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete First Season (1975)
Starring: Gabriel Kaplan, John Travolta, Robert Hegyes, Ron Palillo, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Marcia Strassman, John Sylvester White
Director: Dave Wilson
Gabe Kotter: Did I ever tell you what happened to my uncle in Miami?
Julie Kotter: No!
Gabe Kotter: He went there, y’know, big convention, he had his secretary with him, and he got to the hotel late. The clerk says, “Mr. Kotter, you were supposed to be here this afternoon. Now, we gave your rooms away; we only have one room left. If you want us to, we can install twin beds for you and your secretary.”
Julie Kotter: What did he say?
Gabe Kotter: What could they do? They had to take the twin beds! In the middle of the night, the secretary gets up and goes, “Pssst! Mr. Kotter? Mr. Kotter, could you get up and shut the window? I’m a little chilly!” He says, “Well, if you’re chilly, would you like to pretend that you’re Mrs. Kotter tonight?” She goes, “Mr. Kotter! I’d love to!” He says, “Good! Get up and shut the window yourself!”
That joke opened the very first episode of “Welcome Back, Kotter” when the show premiered on ABC on Sept. 9, 1975, but it’s fair to say that it’s been around for a hell of a lot longer than that. Still, when I put on Disc 1 of “Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete First Season,” I was surprised to find myself laugh out loud at the punch line. In retrospect, I really shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, when the series originated, it wasn’t perceived as “The John Travolta Show,” it was all about Gabe Kaplan.
“Welcome Back, Kotter” originated as a comedic vehicle for Kaplan to utilize his stand-up comedy, specifically his jokes about how tough it was being a high school student in New York. As the show came together, however, it became evident that the only role for Kaplan in the series was that of the teacher, Mr. Kotter, who’d been a problem student when he’d originally attended James Buchanan High and was now coming back as a teacher. The school’s vice principal, stern disciplinarian Mr. Woodman (John Sylvester White), remembers the trouble Kotter caused as a student. So, as a gesture of payback, he assigns him to teach the latest generation of problem students, a group who still bear the same name as they did in his day: the Sweathogs.
Surely we all remember the fab four of the Sweathogs, given that they were pop culture icons in their day, but let’s go through them just for the fun of it:
- Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta), the stud of the bunch who likes to show off his heritage by occasionally drifting into Italian when he’s pissed off. Key catchphrase: “Who? What? Where?”
- Juan Epstein (Robert Heyges), the Puerto Rican Jew (or is he a Jewish Puerto Rican?) who often plays the Chico to Mr. Kotter’s Groucho. Key catchphrase: “I got a note.”
- Freddie “Boom-Boom” Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), the African-American member of the contingent, who, following the standard TV stereotype, is good at basketball and better with the ladies. Key catchphrase: “Hi, there.”
- Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo), whose inimitable laugh made him the easiest for kids in the ‘70s to imitate, and who makes up for his naiveté with sweetness. Key catchphrase: “Ooo! OOO!”
There were, of course, other members of the Sweathogs: additional first-season regulars included “Hotsie” Totsie (Debralee Scott) and Vernajean Williams (Vernee Watson). Travolta might’ve ended up being the heartthrob of the group, but in these early episodes, before his star had fully risen, you can see how the foursome got a pretty even amount of screen time. The show’s at its best when there’s an even mixture between Kaplan’s wisecracks and the Sweathogs’ camaraderie; it’s hard to believe what rapport the bunch of them had from the get-go. Kaplan’s stand-up comedy background worked well for him in his role as a schoolteacher, since, basically, he’s getting in front of an audience and reeling off his jokes. There really isn’t a huge amount of chemistry between him and Marcia Strassman, but you get over it, mostly because Julie Kotter accepts the unique relationship between her husband and the Sweathogs.
Warner Brothers tested the waters for a “Welcome Back, Kotter” set a while ago, releasing one of those single-disc best-of collections, and, obviously, it must’ve done pretty well. Frankly, it seems like releasing the show in a full-season set would’ve been a given from the word “go.” The series might not have been as spectacular in later years, but in this, its first season, it’s at an all-time high. The jokes aren’t drop-dead hilarious, but the delivery of the cast -- yes, the whole cast -- is what makes the show a ‘70s classic and allows it to hold up even now.
Special Features: Well, you can’t say the set’s loaded with special features, but to give credit where credit is due, the stuff that’s here is great. First, you get “Only A Few Degrees from a Sweathog,” a new retrospective featurette that’s hosted by Strassman and includes new interviews with Kaplan, Hegyes, Palillo and Hilton-Jacobs. Acknowledging that White died in 1988, we’re left with only one cast member who’s MIA; and, of course, it’s precisely the one you’d expect. Come on, Travolta, you couldn’t spare five minutes? Oh, well, at least we end up seeing Johnnyboy before the special features are over -- the other bonus is the inclusion of the original screen tests for Travolta, Hegyes, Palillo, Hilton-Jacobs and Strassman.