Sixteen years ago I walked into a classroom on West 109th Street in Manhattan. I was terrified, I was excited, I was confused as hell; I had just been hired as the social studies teacher in a brand-new alternative public junior high school, on about two weeks’ notice, with neither an education degree nor any classroom teaching experience. (Provisional teaching licenses were the jam — that’s why they no longer exist.) A great scam, considering I was an unemployed former youth counselor…but how was I gonna pull this one off?
I walked around the room, brushing dust and filth off the desks and bookshelves. Our school was located on the long-abandoned fifth floor of a massive elementary school building, and my room’s previous tenants had been a lot of tough New York City pigeons, but most of the bird shit had been cleared away by the intrepid janitorial staff. The shelves were all empty (we later fixed that by salvaging aged textbooks from another school that was being de-asbestosized), but the graffiti on my new desk wasn’t too bad, I had full access to six (6!) roll-down maps, and there was a brand-new box of white chalk in the tray.
I walked over to the heavily barred window, looked through the wavy August heat down to the roof below, and realized suddenly that I had begun this journey when I was only nine years old.
Welcome Back, Kotter debuted on ABC in September, 1975, with an episode called “The Great Debate”. It was not an especially innovative situation comedy — the laugh track was laid pretty thickly on top of the “live studio audience” response, and it had the same three-act structure that had been laid out in dozens of other sitcoms. (This, of course, isn’t counting the corny “Did I ever tell you about my uncle Max?” jokes that framed every episode.)
But this show betrayed some weird wrinkles from the very beginning. The lead character was Gabe Kotter, a charismatic schlub of a teacher played by schlubby standup comedian Gabriel Kaplan. The show, based on Kaplan’s act, posits that former ne’er-do-well Kotter becomes a high school teacher and returns to his old high school to teach. His assignment: the same remedial class in which he was once enrolled. These students are still called “the Sweathogs”, and Kotter has to use his humor and his empathy to try to teach them.
So far, so boring. But the first thing we noticed when we watched this show was that the Sweathogs were pretty cool. There was the lovable nebbish, Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo); the Puerto Rican / Jewish hoodlum, Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes); the cool smooth black guy, Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs); and, famously, the good-looking but dumb leader, Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta, in his first real role). These characters fit all the stock sitcom stereotypes; on paper, there wasn’t really much to them.
But television shows are not made on paper, and it soon became clear that these young actors were being allowed a lot of latitude in developing their characters. Not only did they have great rapport with Kaplan, but they were the cuddliest bunch of delinquent burnouts that America had ever seen. They seemed to be improvising a lot of their business and little routines, and leapt off the screen like no one ever had before.
Well, at least to me and my nine-year-old friends. We watched this show religiously, all picking our favorite Sweathogs. The cool kids all grabbed Barbarino and went around imitating his signature bits: “What?” they would answer when questioned about anything, followed by the inevitable “Who?” and “When?” when faced with any kind of explanation. The even cooler kids went with Washington; Andy C. got booted out of class by Sister Maria James when he came in late, smiled at her, and intoned “Hi there!” in Boom Boom’s signature deep purr.
Personally, I favored Epstein, who was supposed to be an ass-kicking degenerate but was also prone to lapsing into Yiddish or a Harpo Marx impersonation at the drop of a hat. He also had famously disgusting gym socks and a series of notes from his mother signed “Epstein’s Mother”. (I am proud of the fact that one of my cats is named Juan Epstein, making my wife Epstein’s Mother every time she brings the cats in for their checkups.) No one really wanted to be Horshack, but everyone loved doing his awkward seagull laugh or his “Hi, how ahh ya?” bit.
This was borne out by the American public, proving once again that the average TV viewer has the mentality of a nine-year-old boy. The Sweathogs became superstars overnight. In the interview included in this DVD, the actors describe how they were mobbed by fans in LA after the show’s first episode; Hegyes remembers turning to Palillo and saying “We’re the Beatles!” That might have been going a bit too far, although Travolta went very quickly from flavor of the month to flavor of the year once Saturday Night Fever jumped off. But every single week, we had new routines and new catchphrases. (Andy C. got kicked out of class again for telling Sister “Up your nose with a rubber hose.” Okay, she didn’t actually hear him say it.)
Secretly, though, I always thought Mr. Kotter was kind of a groovy guy. Not only did I think he was kind of brave and admirable for coming back to try to teach these students, but he was funny (unlike Sister Maria James, who was neither). He used humor to help his students learn and to deflect the ancient, toxic vice-principal Mr. Woodman (John Sylvester White). I began to think that maybe being a teacher would be kind of an excellent job. I also saw that a funny-looking dude could score a hot babe like Mrs. Julie Kotter (Marcia Strassman), thereby giving me hope that my whole “be funny and people will like you” strategy might pay off someday.
As the first season of Welcome Back, Kotter progressed, these characters were clearly more important than the plots of the episodes. Yet, re-watching them now, there is a surprising amount of darkness to them. All of the students love their little womb-like classroom, and the biggest threat to any of them is that they might have to leave it. In “Arrivederci, Arnold”, Horshack gets promoted out of the Sweathog classroom, which breaks up the party something fierce. In the two-part “Follow the Leader”, Barbarino loses out to Washington in a Sweathog election and drops out of school, crashing with the Kotters just in time to intersect with Julie leaving Gabe for a night because of his obsession with his job. These plotlines are treated like life-threatening tragedies, which is a little silly. On the other hand, we are talking about high school kids in Brooklyn in the ’70s — the implication is that Kotter is the only factor keeping them from dropping out and turning to the streets.
There are also some pretty empowering things here, plotlines that would never feature in today’s sitcoms. In “Whodunit?”, supposed class slut Rosalie “Hotsy” Totzie (the great Debralee Scott) announces that she is pregnant, and forces all the class “studs” to admit that they’ve never slept with her. This jaw-dropper aired after only one month — could you imagine any other show with this plotline, even in these supposedly more “advanced” times? In another episode, Kotter is suspended for refusing to teach from the school’s outmoded textbooks. This is even less likely today, as Scholastic and McGraw Hill and Scott Foresman would spike that episode in the blink of an eye.
But that’s not the stuff one remembers from this show. No, it was all about the interactions of some very talented actors. As revealed in another interview I once saw, the Sweathogs modeled themselves after the Marx Brothers and other classic comedy teams so they wouldn’t seem like actual threatening delinquents, and were allowed more and more latitude as the show progressed. No one would ever claim that Kaplan was one of the greats — he often looks pretty clueless onscreen. But he fit the corduroy suit (with elbow patches!), and he knew how to get out of the way of the others. And his acting gets better after the first few shows; his personality switch with Woodman in “No More Mister Nice Guy” is pretty hilarious stuff, indeed. And it’s not just me who thinks so, either; my kids, who watch a lot of sitcoms, agree that Welcome Back, Kotter is pretty funny.
The 22 episodes in this set are really good, and almost kind of stand up now, even though the sitcom has become a lot more “sophisticated” over the years. Extra bonus stuff here is limited to a (pretty good) documentary about the show’s genesis and the screen tests of most of the principal actors. (The latter feature is not very illuminating, although it turns out that both Travolta and Hegyes read for the character “Eddie Barbarini”, and Horshack was somewhat of a sex pervert.) I wish there was more, but you take what you can get, y’know?
The show went on for four seasons. I remember the second year being just as funny as the first, the third starting to turn a bit (although still featuring events like the birth of the Kotters’ twins), and then the disastrous fourth, which no one really watched due to aberrations like Kotter becoming a vice-principal, Julie starting to work at the school, Horshack getting married, and the arrival of Beau De LaBarre, the “Southern Sweathog”. (But will I seek out these DVDs when they finally arrive? Uh, yes. In a heartbeat.)
After the show was cancelled, I moved on in my life. It wasn’t like I really thought in my head, “Man, someday I’m gonna move to New York and be a teacher”; I was all about becoming some kind of Great American Writer or something. (Ha ha, it is to laugh.) But there I was, years later, in my very own classroom, awaiting the arrival of my very own Sweathogs.
The day my students arrived, it was a disaster. Rain was pouring outside and my classroom turned out to be kind of porous, ceiling-wise. One of the Anglo-American moms pulled a very public freakout about the drip-buckets in the school (the subtext being the high diversity level of the students), and threatened to pull her son and put him in a private school.
I looked at her son, who clearly wanted to stay, and the rest of the class, who were looking to me to defuse the potentially disastrous situation, and thought fast. Suddenly, I plunged headlong into full Mr. Kotter mode. Before I knew it, I had the mom laughing at my lame-oid jokes, and had enlisted her, her son, and the whole classroom into the whole “we’ll pull together and fix this” mindset.
That “What Would Mr. Kotter Do?” way of thinking saved my bacon on several occasions in the next three years, both inside the classroom and out. I won’t pretend that I was a great teacher, but I do know that my social studies class was fun and interesting during all three years, and that just about all our kids graduated from high school. At least one of them is a lawyer, and another is finishing her Ph.D. program. Others are rappers, actors, investigators, community activists, city employees, journalists, librarians, business owners…you know, New York City people.
But you don’t need to have been a teacher to enjoy these shows on DVD; you might not even have had to be a student. All you need is a sense of humor, with a very high tolerance for corny vaudeville jokes and tuna casserole gags.