Written by Hombre Divertido
Long before Jerry Seinfeld and Ray Romano were sought after by the networks to build sitcoms around their material, a stand-up comedian by the name of Gabe Kaplan had great success with a little show called Welcome Back, Kotter (ABC 1975-79).
Based on Kaplan’s material and the characters from his time in high school, Welcome Back, Kotter follows the exploits of Gabe Kotter (Kaplan) a teacher who returns to his alma mater to teach a group underachievers known as the “sweathogs,” of which he was once a member.
Kaplan was surrounded by a group of talented young actors including: Ron Palillo as the class oddball Arnold Horshack, Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs as the class smooth talker Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington, Robert Hegyes as the class tough guy Juan Epstein, and of course, John Travolta as the super-cool leader of the group Vinnie Barbarino. This ensemble had great chemistry and created some quality comedy for its time.
As was common in the seventies the shows have a very theatrical feel due to the way they were filmed and the limited sets consisting of the Kotter's one-room apartment shared by Gabe and his wife Julie (Marcia Strassman), and the classroom at the school. One cannot help but get the feel of watching a play as we are introduced into the world of Buchanan High School. The reoccurring bit of Kaplan closing each show with old school jokes only reinforces that theatrical feel, as his bits are reminiscent of vaudeville.
Though the writing is typical seventies sitcom set-up punch, and the far-fetched scripts establish the characters as a comedy team rather than a teacher and students, it works, especially in season one. In these first twenty-two episodes we get to watch our characters develop and grow, and it makes for very enjoyable viewing. Eventually Travolta’s Barbarino will be the breakout star before we even knew who Fonzie was, and the stories will begin to focus far too much on him. That is not the case in season one, as each character gets the spotlight.
This set is packaged in memory-inducing fashion, but only contains two extras. The first being what has become standard when bringing back shows from the seventies: a short documentary of the show hosted by someone from the cast, in this case Strassman, which often appears thrown together. This effort is not completely worthless as it does contain some interesting facts, but certainly could have been longer and gone into more detail. The second is the original screen tests of the four sweathogs and Strassman. It sounds far more intriguing than it turned out to be, and will most likely be boring to the non-thespian viewers. The unadvertised extra of seeing award winning actor James Woods as a geeky teacher in the first episode makes up for the others.
Recommendation: It’s a must-have for the fans of the show as it remains as much fun to watch now as it was then. For those not familiar with the show, it’s got a young John Travolta, and is a quality sitcom that makes for good watching 30 years later.