We tease him a lot, ’cause we got him on the spot.
It might be hard to believe, but there was a time when Welcome Back Kotter was one of the hottest shows on TV. It was huge in the ratings, spawned its own merchandising empire, and introduced the world to teen heartthrob John Travolta. The second season is now here on this long-awaited four-disc DVD set from the pop culture connoisseurs of Shout! Factory.
Gabe Kotter (Gabriel Kaplan, High Stakes Poker) has returned to his childhood Brooklyn neighborhood to be a high school teacher. His students include the troublemakers known as Sweathogs, but that’s OK because Kotter was once a Sweathog himself.
Sweathog roll call:
* Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta, Battlefield Earth), dim-witted ladies’ man.
* Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington (Laurence Hilton-Jacobs, Sublime), smooth-talking basketball star
* Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes, Underground Aces), half Puerto Rican/half Jew tough guy.
* Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo, Celebrity Boxing 2), goose-honking social misfit.
Most if not all TV shows rely on formula. This is what keeps viewers returning week after week. We know that Kramer will also burst through Jerry’s door, Homer will always say “D’oh,” and Skeletor will always be a jerk to his underlings. Welcome Back Kotter is all about formula. The show’s legacy is its catch phrases and running gags. Anyone who knows TV knows these runners: “Up your nose with a rubber hose.” “Hi there.” “Ooh! Ooh!” “Signed, Epstein’s mother.” “What? Where?” “Did I ever tell you about my Uncle Morty?” And so on. Oh, and John Travolta dancing. Always, always John Travolta dancing. The good thing — the smart thing — is how the writers don’t just rely on repeating the catch phrases over and over. Instead, they keep dreaming up new ways to use them, tweaking them to fit into each week’s plot.
The scripts are simple, but deceptively smart. Welcome Back Kotter is situation comedy in the truest sense, in that any given episode begins with the characters put into a new situation, and the humor being them reacting to and figuring out this new situation. With this simplistic of setups — the Sweathogs join the school newspaper, the Sweathogs have a mock trial in class, the Sweathogs are accidentally locked inside a museum during a field trip — and from these most basic of premises, the writers concoct all sorts of gags and slapstick beats.
Even if the writing follows formula, the cast elevates it to a great degree. The four Sweathogs continue to have excellent chemistry so that, as outrageous as they are, you really believe that the four of them are friends with only one another to rely on. In every episode, each Sweathog is given at least one moment in the spotlight to do his shtick, but the funniest bits are when the four of them are generating laughs as a group, tossing quips back and forth among each other, dressing in crazy outfits (another running gag) and engaging in Marx Brothers-like slapstick.
At the center of it all, beneath his mustache and gigantic hair, is Gabe Kaplan as Mr. Kotter. His set-up/punch-line jokes are as old-fashioned as jokes get, but the writers play around with this part of the formula from time to time, as well. Some might call Kaplan’s performance flat or one-note, especially as he often comes across as speaking only in one-liners. When Kotter talks about how much he loves his wife, or how he sees potential in the Sweathogs, it comes across as genuine and heartfelt, even when surrounded by goofy jokes. It’s true that Marcia Strassman (Booker) spends most of the season as Kaplan’s “straight man,” but she’s nonetheless likable and gets in a few zings of her own here and there.
Stealth pilots! This is when networks use a popular show to generate interest in a new series by having the characters in both cross over and meet each other. This season, Pat Morita (The Karate Kid) sets the “wacky” meter to maximum when he guest stars as Mr. Takahashi, his character from the short-lived Mr. T and Tina. One episode introduces us to Horshack’s family in hopes of creating a Horshack spinoff, which never happened. Legendary comedian George Carlin (Dogma) appears as a popular disc jockey with Fred Grandy (Gopher from The Love Boat!) as his sidekick. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that this was a stealth pilot as well. It’s a delight, by the way, to see Carlin, Grandy, and Kaplan tossing barbs around, considering they were three comedians with three very different styles.
All 26 episodes of the second season are on this four-disc set. Audio and video are pretty rough. The picture is soft and occasionally blurry. The sound is equally soft, so you have to turn the volume way up sometimes to make out what folks are saying. No extras, which is too bad.
The ultimate in “comfort food” TV. It’s so adherent to formula that you know exactly what you’re getting in any given episode of Welcome Back Kotter. Fortunately, when the formula works and the results are as funny as this, then it’s welcome, indeed.
“Up your bunny with a show that’s funny.”
“Up your wheeze with this nostalgic cheese.”
“Up your sect with a not guilty verdict.”
OK, I’ll stop now.