Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete First Season (DVD)

Kotter is definitely welcomed back.

When it debuted in 1975, Welcome Back, Kotter became an instant pop culture phenomenon. It was a ratings smash, spawned merchandise galore, and many of its memorable catch phrases are still familiar with viewers today, not to mention the toe-tapping theme song. Plus, female viewers swooned everywhere to a young newcomer named John Travolta, what with his luscious long hair, his chin divot, and his rock-solid butt given form in remarkably tight jeans.

But that was then. Now that the first season is out on DVD, many will return to it for nostalgia, while many others are about to discover the show for the first time. So the big question here is, “How does it hold up?”

Meet Mr. Kotter (Gabriel Kaplan, High Stakes Poker), the newest teacher at Buchanan High School, located in inner-city New York. He’s sacrificed a lot to become a teacher, sharing a one-room apartment with his wife Julie (Marcia Strassman, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids). At school, Vice Principal Mr. Woodman (John Sylvester White, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) doesn’t fully approve of Kotter’s unconventional teaching style, so he assigns Kotter to teach the remedial students, which includes a bunch of troublemakers known as the Sweathogs.

Sweathog roll call:

• Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta, Battlefield Earth), Italian superhunk and de facto leader of the Sweathogs.

• Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington, (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Sublime), basketball star and suave ladies’ man.

• Juan Luis Pedro Phillipo de Huevos Epstein, or “Epstein” for short (Robert Hegyes, Underground Aces), a Puerto Rican Jew and all-around tough guy.

• Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo, Celebrity Boxing 2), an awkward misfit and spouter of non sequiturs.

This rowdy group is in for a surprise, though, as they soon learn that Kotter went to Buchanan when he was a teen, and that he was once a Sweathog himself. The other Sweathogs welcome him back, giving him a chance to do something more than teach—make a positive difference in their lives.

I’ve heard all the criticisms—that the show is dated, that it’s just the same couple of jokes over and over, that a lot of the jokes are corny, etc., so I prepared myself for the worst. Instead, Welcome, Back Kotter really surprised me with how much it made me laugh. Yes, comedy is subjective, so your mileage might vary. All I can do is shrug and tell you that, yes, this first season kept me in stitches.

Is the show dated? Yes and no. The clothes and hair certainly are. James Woods (Videodrome) guest stars in one episode as a pretentious debate teacher, and just check out the bright blue plaid pants he’s wearing. Yee-ikes! On the other hand, I have to wonder if Mr. Kotter would still be the same character without the moustache and the hair that’s so big it has its own ozone layer. His “look” is a major part of what establishes him as a beloved TV icon, like Fonzie with his leather jacket, Agent Mulder with his cell phone, or Jack from Lost with his white shirt that never gets dirty even though he’s on a deserted island. Also, unlike the preceding sentence, Welcome Back, Kotter rarely relies on pop culture references for laughs, which gives the writing a more “timeless” feel than some other dated shows.

Is it the same couple of jokes over and over? Yes and no. As I’ll discuss below, some of the show’s famous catch phrases and running gags were established sooner than others. I’m guessing that some of them were intended to be runners from the start, while others just came about naturally through the scripts and the performers. Although it’s true that the scripts are very simplistic, the writers are sharp enough to know when to use the catch phrases for maximum effect. Instead of just having Washington walk through a door and say “Hi there” for maximum applause, the writers instead work “Hi there” into the regular dialogue, so that it’s a well-placed joke every time. Also, the writers knew when to take these running gags and mess with them. One episode on this set, for example, has Kotter pretending to be Horshack, and doing all of Horshack’s regular gags for him. This would continue even more throughout the second and third seasons, in which the running jokes would get tweaked more and more often.

Are a lot of the jokes corny? Yes and no. Every episode begins and ends with Kotter telling a joke to his wife. These are old-timey vaudevillian jokes, with a simple set-up and punchline structure, like the riddles you’d find in a little kid’s joke book. They blur the line between “cute” and “embarrassingly stale.” These were allegedly taken from Kaplan’s standup routine, where he had achieved considerable fame before coming to this series, though, so maybe he knew what he was doing. Other humor throughout the series struck me as more genuinely funny. Because the action rarely leaves Kotter’s classroom, we only hear about the Sweathogs’ home lives or their various misadventures outside of school through the dialogue, and this gave the writers freedom to be as silly and exaggerative as they liked. For as hard as their lives are sometimes, the world of the Sweathogs is an over-the-top cartoony world; if cynical viewers approach the show as if watching a cartoon, perhaps they might enjoy it more.

This set is, obviously, the first season, with 22 episodes spread out across four discs. Watching from the beginning, it’s been interesting tracking the origin and follow-through of the show’s popular catch phrases:

• Horshack begins saying “Ooh! Ooh!” when he raises his hand starting in episode six, during a scene in which Mr. Woodman takes over teaching and Kotter is sitting with his students. My guess is that the powers that be liked this, and made it a recurring bit from there on.

• Horshack’s honking laugh, however, makes its debut the first episode, and appears in practically every one since.

• Barbarino’s “What? Where?” questions exist in an early form during the first episode, but wouldn’t become the back-and-forth banter it’s famous for (“What?” “The TV.” “Where?” “Right in front of you.” “What?” “The TV!!!”) until a few episodes later.

• Washington’s deep-voiced “Hi There” is first heard in episode two, when he’s pretending to be interviewed by a sportscaster. I suspect that the producers saw humor in this and then turned it into a running gag later on.

• “Up your nose with a rubber hose” has a curious origin. See, there are actually two first episodes. The pilot, introducing us to all the characters aired third, while the first aired episode was also written with the intent of introducing us to all the characters. In the first aired episode, Barbarino says “Up your nose with a garden hose,” to which I replied, “garden?!?” Then, in the third episode (a.k.a. the pilot), the same saying is back to the classic “rubber hose.” It appears to my eyes that this phrase was created to become a catch phrase, but which version? Either way, the writers had great fun with this, conjuring up endless variations of it: “Up your (name of body part) with a (something from that week’s plot that rhymes with the body part).”

• Horshack’s iconic hat and scarf don’t appear until episode 12. I guess they were still aboard the T.A.R.D.I.S. for the previous 11 episodes. Episode 12 also has the first big John Travolta dance scene.

• The Sweathogs’ preoccupation with dressing up in crazy costumes starts in episode seven, when they all show up, one by one, at Kotter’s apartment in a series of increasingly ridiculous “incognito” disguises. The show’s creators got a lot of sight gag mileage out of dressing up the guys in silly outfits.

• The notes from Epstein’s mother, which usually end with, “Signed, Epstein’s mother,” make their first appearance in the second episode. But, by the next time we see them, in the 11th episode, the writers have already come up with a twist for them. Not only is it signed, “Epstein’s mother’s doctor,” but he has a copy of the note for each of his classes.

Yes, it made me laugh. But, I’ll admit that this isn’t the most sophisticated writing. Each episode’s plot is thinner than most sitcoms usually are. The plot is usually set up early on, such as the Sweathogs deciding to hold a sit-in to protest the crappy cafeteria food. This is then followed by a series of gags for each character, such as how, during the sit-in, we get to see how each Sweathog gets ready for bed. Then, this is wrapped up in a convenient manner with the boys getting through to Mr. Woodman, followed by a few (mercifully brief) words from Mr. Kotter about how they can accomplish anything if they stick to it. A lot of the individual gags are good ones, but if you prefer a series with more depth and better structure, you might want to look elsewhere.

The full-frame picture on these discs is adequate. There’s really no hiding the recorded-on-1970s-videotape look, so the visuals tend to be fairly flat and hazy. Still, there are no scratches, grain, or other such defects to be seen. The 1.0 mono is simple enough, and without any major flaws. Still, I can’t help but wonder how the classic theme song might have sounded in a remastered 5.1 track. There’s a very nice featurette included, in which the producers and most of the actors are interviewed. They all have fond reminisces about the series, and they’re still in awe over its success. The actors’ original screen tests are on this set as well, showing that even at the audition stage, they all really “got” their characters. And no, the E! True Hollywood Story episode about the series, which was surprisingly comprehensive for a show that is usually tabloid sleaze, is not on this set. Sure, most fans have seen it already, but here’s hoping a deal can be worked out to include it on future season DVD sets.

So, you don’t like this show, huh? You think it’s childish and sloppily made, do you? Well, I say it’s a bona fide comedy classic, and viewers not familiar with it owe it to themselves to check out this set. You still don’t agree? Okay, looks like we’ll have to have a rumble. Bad news for you: the Sweathogs are on my side.

“Up your shoe with this DVD review.”

“Smash your toe with a fun, nostalgic show.”

“In your knee with a cool DVD.”

OK, I’ll stop now.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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