DVD Review: Welcome Back, Kotter (The Complete Series)

A short time after The Brady Bunch was canceled, America braced itself for a major youth shock in the Fall of 1975. ABC was daring to unleash four school kids that weren’t clean cut munchkins eager to sing and dance. The Sweathogs were from the rough inner city known as Brooklyn. They were ethnic. This was not a carbon copy of Happy Days. Stations initially refused to air a show that glamorized juvenile delinquents. Of course it only took one episode of Welcome Back, Kotter for the nation to discover that the Sweathogs were as threatening as the motorcycle gang from Beach Party. Their high school antics made the series a ratings sensation. Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete Series delivers the four seasons that show the show soar to the top of pop culture and fizzle out in the end.

“Welcome Back” sets up the show to not be the traditional tale of an inspirational teacher going the blackboard jungle school to teach the savages. Gabe Kotter (Gabe Kaplan) doesn’t want to go to Buchanan High School. He’s not chicken so much as he fears this is punishment for his time there as a school troublemaker. His wife, Julie (Marcia Strassman), swears it can’t be that bad. Gabe pays for his sins by being stuck teaching the school’s top gang: The Sweathogs. The four bad students are led by Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta), a dopy hunk. Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes) is an angry man with notes from his mother. Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo) is the goofball with an irritating laugh. Freddie “Boom-Boom” Washington (Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs) is the suave member. Vice Principal Woodman (John Sylvester White) has no sympathy for his old student. The gang goes after Kotter with a vengeance that would send the average teacher running to the private sector. He does his best to verbally spar with the kids. He handles their “Up your nose with a rubber hose” threat. After the bell rings, Gabe has no desire to return to the school for another round. He returns to his cramped studio apartment to lick his wounds with his wife. The Sweathogs are the ones that want him back. Why? Because Gabe’s a past member of the Sweathogs.

The show had a solid formula that allowed Gabe to exploit the two elements that comprised his stand up act. Each show opened with him telling his wife a joke about a relative. This was followed by his comic adventure with the Sweathogs. He really went to school with guys like the characters. He had plenty of routines about his old pals in his comedy routines. The show wrapped up with him telling another joke to Julie. “The Great Debate” had Gabe helping the Sweathogs verbally joust with the school’s smart kids led by teacher James Woods (Casino). “The Telethon” has Barbarino arrive in a golden outfit to raise money by slightly singing and dancing. Was this his audition for Grease?

Second season starts with “Career Day.” Amongst the people talking about their occupation is an inventor played by Pat Morita (Karate Kid). He’s so impressed by Gabe that he offers him an amazing job. But the Sweathogs don’t want him to go. This episode introduced Morita’s character that would go on to star in the short-lived Mr. T and Tina. There were a lot of internal struggles with the Sweathogs. “Inherit the Halibut” makes it look like Washington has dipped into the gang’s treasury. “The Fight” has them squabbling more. “A Love Story” pits Epstein against Barbarino over a sister. “Radio Free Freddie” makes Washington want to quit school to be a DJ. George Carlin provides the temptation. The season ends with the Gabe and Julie expecting a baby.

The third season has twice the surprise since Julie delivers twins. How are they all going to fit in Gabe’s apartment. That place is smaller that Ralph Kramden’s flat on The Honeymooners. “The Deprogramming of Arnold Horshack” involves him joining a religious cult. Things do change as Gabe gets a bigger apartment and entertains moving up to be vice principal. “There’s No Business….” has Gabe’s real story come into the show. He’s discovered at an open mic comedy night. His new manager wants him to tell tales of the Sweathogs on stage. Can the guys live with him becoming a star based on their personalities? There are strange troubles for the boys as the season progresses. “Goodbye Mr. Kripps” has Barbarino responsible for the death of a teacher. “What Goes Up” gets Washington hooked on drugs. “The Return of Hotsy Totsy” turns a former student into a single mom stripper. Yet there were more laughs here than on Scared Straight.

The fourth season is a textbook in complete self-destruction. The one element the producers couldn’t control was John Travolta becoming a movie star. He struck double box office success in Saturday Night Fever and Grease. He wasn’t too excited about getting paid $2,000 a week to do a TV show. He made a deal to only appear in 8 episodes. This might have be fine except Gabe Kaplan wanted to redo his contract. This lead to him also no showing for several episodes. Gabe wasn’t too happy that executive producer James Komack replaced the entire writing staff. Komack also decided to bring on a new Sweathog with Beau De LaBarre (Stephen Shortridge). The suave misfit relocated from New Orleans. He looks like Ted McGinley’s older brother. Beau didn’t make people forget about Barbarino. The biggest killer was moving their time slot. The fans didn’t follow. The episodes delve into teenage suicide, weddings and Sweathogs getting real work. It’s interesting to watch how the wheels fall off the moneytrain.

Even with the screwed up final season, Welcome Back, Kotter remains an entertaining show. There was amazing talent in that mediocre classroom. Kaplan created the role that defined his career. Travolta escaped his character to become a massive movie star with numerous comebacks over the decades. It is odd to think how people in 1975 feared that the Sweathogs would make kids become evil at school. How bad could they be if they enjoy impersonating the Marx Brothers? If the worst kids at high schools were like Barbarino, there would be no need for metal detectors at the entrance.

The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The show was shot on standard definition videotape. The transfers are fine. The audio is Dolby Digital mono. You’ll hear all of Horshack’s oooooo’s. The episodes are Closed Captioned.

Only A Few Degrees From A Sweathog (23:26) is a documentary about the show although it has the feel of on infomercial minus that number to call. Marcia Strassman hosts from a recreated classroom. Gabe Kaplan and Alan Sacks discuss how they came up with the show’s concept at the Comedy Store. Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs, Robert Hegyes and Ron Palillo discuss their instant stardom.

Actor’s Original Screen Tests (11:23) has Travolta audition for Eddie Barbarini. Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs works with an off-camera Kaplan. Kaplan works with Strassman to see their chemistry. Hegyes thinks he’s going to be Barbarini. Palillo gives the world his first version of Horshack.

Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete Series brings all the glory of the Sweethogs in one boxset. The show was a sensation when it debuted. If you need an excuse to watch this show, Epstein’s mother will write you a note.

Shout! Factory presents Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete Series. Starring: Gabe Kaplan, John Travolta, Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs, Robert Hegyes and Ron Palillo. Boxset Contents: 95 episodes on 16 DVDs. Released: August 26, 2014.

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