Welcome Back, Kotter, arguably the defining sitcom of the mid- to late-1970s, starred popular stand-up comedian Gabe Kaplan as a teacher who returns to a tough Brooklyn high school to teach a class of delinquent remedial students. Kotter, it turns out, belonged to that class back in the day, and was part of the gang who gave it the deathless "sweathogs" nickname. After some initial reluctance, he wins over the class and becomes a friend and mentor to the students.
Specifically, Kotter becomes a friend and mentor to four students: Barbarino, Epstein, Washington, and the immortal Horshack, who inspired Skippy, Urkel, and several generations of sitcom nerds. Vinnie Barbarino was played by some guy named Travolta, and I find myself wondering whether he ever lived up to his potential. The four primary sweathogs were all great (who can forget Epstein's excuse notes from home?) but I wish they would have done something with the other students, who fade into the background in every episode.
Welcome Back, Kotter is probably most fondly remembered for the corny jokes with which Kotter tortured his wife (the adorable, and sadly underused, Marcia Strassman) at the beginning of each episode, and the stories about his fictional relatives with which he tortures her at the end. In contrast with another '70s show I reviewed the other day, The Ghost Busters, the moldy gags in Kotter were funny because the title character thought they were funny, not because they were amusing in themselves. Kaplan was no great actor, but he looked like he was enjoying himself.
So, the show was pretty good. Unfortunately, the first-season DVD set is a bit light on special features – pre-production screen tests, and a twenty-minute "making-of" documentary hosted by Strassman (who has aged very well) and featuring most of the non-Travolta cast members (who have not aged very well). But there are no audio commentaries, deleted scenes, vintage ads or outtakes. I even wish they'd included a feature about John Sebastian's classic theme song, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1976.
Am I being a little picky, in demanding more special features? As Barbarino would have said, "get off my case, toilet face."