It has been years since I last saw “Welcome Back, Kotter.” It is a real treat to see it coming out on DVD. No one could have imagined the break out star John Travolta would become, trading in his tight t-shirt for a white leisure suit, as Gabe Kaplan fights to hold his own against an unruly class of “Sweathogs,” who fall below the curve of Buchanan High School. This was the first high school comedy to capture a gritty urban feel. Room 222 had its moments but was sticky sweet by comparison. Gabe Kaplan drew on his life experiences, which had been the fodder of his stand-up routines, to capture a lively classroom of remedial kids led by Vinnie Barbarino. They manage to stay one step ahead of Vice Principal Woodman (John Sylvester White), but Kotter knows the tricks all too well, having been a sweathog himself in his youth. Robert Hegyes, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (who enjoyed a brief celebrity of his own) and Ron Palillo round out the motley crew, representative of the racial diversity of the school. Marcia Strassman is wonderful as Kotter’s wife, Julie, who has to listen to his daily accounts each evening, reminiscent of the bed conversations between Bob and Emily Newhart. The show had a good run of 4 seasons, which is appropriate given that it was a high school comedy. And, don’t forget the wonderful theme song by John Sebastian.
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If you want to laugh and keep laughing, this is the DVD box set for you
Welcome Back Kotter was a cross between the Blackboard Jungle mixed with the Marx Brothers and Burns & Allen. The jokes were recycled Marx Brother msterial, but Gabe Kaplan (who created this show with Alan Sacks, based this on his stand up act) and crew made this stuff work.
And by crew, I mean actors John Travolta (pre Saturday Night Fever/Grease), Robert Hegyes, Lawrence Hilton Jacobs and Ron Palillo (as his students-the Sweathogs), Marcia Strassman (as Julie Kotter) and John Slyvester White (as Mr. Woodman). These actors keep this pace fun and well timed
A friend remarked I have not laughed that hard in years..and so will you. This perfect Family fare for all ages. It may be from 1975, but you could run it today and everyone would still enjoy it, GREAT STUFF
Bennet Pomerantz AUDIOWORLD
Let’s face it, “Welcome Back Kotter” was the REAL “That 70′s Show” – the inner city urban version. You may not remember, but originally the pilot is shown as the third episode of the season, so hopefully that confusing situation will be remedied on the DVD. I can’t remember the last time I even saw this show in syndication on channels such as Nick at Nite that specialize in dusting off old sitcoms unseen for years. The comic premise of the show is that Gabe Kotter, newly graduated from college and certified to teach, has returned to teach the same remedial class of high school misfits of which he was a member ten years earlier. Vice Principal Woodman, who was the object of Gabe’s torments and jokes ten years earlier, is still employed at the high school and gives Gabe this job as the ultimate irony and revenge for what Gabe had put him through. Of course, this show is sugar-coated compared to the real problems and issues of a New York City public school in a poor neighborhood, but it had to be since this was a sitcom, not a drama. The show had a great cast playing great characters – there was Horshack, the class nerd with the nasal laugh; Barbarino, the cool maverick who was a little slow on the uptake; Epstein with the mixed Latino/Jewish heritage and the great excused absence notes signed by “Epstein’s mother”, and last but not least, Washington. There was a great common enemy in Mr. Woodman, who you couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for. Finally, the show had a great location in Brooklyn and a memorable theme song by John Sebastian that you are much more likely to hear today than see the show from whence it came. For three wonderful seasons from 1975 to 1978 it was a comedy classic. But, alas, all things must come to an end.
After John Travolta starred in the back-to-back hits of “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease”, he would hardly return anyone’s phone calls, much less show up for work on a regular basis. Thus the fourth season not only jumped the shark, it pretty much made it over the Gulf of Mexico. What was really going on behind the scenes in 1978, if I remember correctly, was a bruising battle of the egos catalyzed by Travolta’s new-found superstar status. To compensate for all the turmoil and in-fighting among the cast, Kotter is made vice-principal to explain all of Gabe Kaplan’s absences, then the show added Stephen Shortridge as an entirely inadequate placeholder for Travolta. The final straw was when the show seemed to be endorsing the marriage of two high-schoolers – Horshack and Mary – and then Horshack began drinking heavily afterwards.
The irony is that the stardom status for everyone involved instantaneously evaporated after the show that their egos destroyed was cancelled in 1979. The only one to ever recover their stardom was Travolta, and then it took ten years before he could even land a job playing straight man to a talking baby (“Look Who’s Talking”). I hate to sound bitter, but it’s hard not to be considering what a great show it was during the first three seasons of its all too-brief four season run.
Of course, the issue of the RIAA and copyrighted music comes up once again. Shall we hear the classic “Welcome Back” theme song in the opening of each episode, or shall tinny sounding synthesizer music replace it? I hope they don’t ruin this DVD like they did with the Bonanza set I bought in which every trace of David Rose’s original theme and background music had been erased from the DVD. There’s nothing quite like the sight of Little Joe riding into the sunset to the Sound of Muzak, and I can’t imagine Welcome Back Kotter without John Sebastian’s award winning song opening and closing each episode.