Judy Borden: I'm an honor student! In my whole life I've never even gotten a "B."
Arnold Horshack: Neither have I.
I never really watched this one. Now and then, if nothing else in the world was happening. It experienced a brief resurgence in the 1990s but, honestly, it's not that funny. Never mind. Seventies television proves a strange thing, and Kotter, ripe for its time and place, became a hit, produced significant amounts of merchandise and far too many catchphrases, almost hosted the final appearance of Groucho Marx, sent one dubious superstar into the world, and then, after four seasons, plunged in popularity and folded. With the exception of John Travolta, none its stars ever rose above the c-list again.
Blame Fonzie. Or Gabe Kaplan.
Without the wild success of Happy Days and its breakaway character, Arthur Fonzerelli, no one would have green-lighted a show about tough under-achievers in Brooklyn. And without Gabe Kaplan, this particular revisiting of the Dead End Kids could never have existed at all.
Kaplan, a mediocre comedian with a massive 'fro, pitched a series1 about a teacher who returns to his alma mater, fictional James Buchanan High, to teach social studies and history to academically troubled students. Gabe Kotter, Kaplan's alter-ego on the show, had himself been a remedial student, many years ago, but he eventually achieved academic success. He hopes to inspire others. The show also featured John Sylvester White as Mr. Woodman, a vice-principal who didn't like Kotter when he was a student and only gradually gives him grudging respect. Marcia Strassman played Kotter's wife, Julie. Strassman complained about her character's limited role and, in later seasons, publicly pilloried Kaplan. Julie Kotter later becomes a mother and then takes a job at James Buchanan High, in an effort to give the actress more to do.
The theme song, "Welcome Back" by John Sebastian, became a #1 hit; in the credit sequence, it plays over actual footage of Brooklyn. The rougher, edgier look of the sequence suits the pilot episode, which presents the students a little more realistically than the series would. Concerns about glamorizing juvenile delinquency (they worried about such things, back then) led to the network toning down the characters and mining them for comic potential. The Sweathogs, as everyone in the show called the remedial kids, are more silly than street, and the comedic chemistry among the cast helps the show along.
Kaplan's background as a stand-up comedian carried into ...Kotter. Most episodes start and close with his character telling someone a joke, usually involving an eccentric uncle. During his lessons he frequently launches into an impersonation of his comic idol, Groucho Marx.
In his stand-up routine, Kaplan often spun tales about his Brooklyn youth. He peopled this bit with such characters as cool but dim-witted lady's man Eddie Lacarri, athletic Freddy "Furdy" Peyton, tough guy "the Animal," and moronic loser Arnold Horshack. They became the backbone of the Sweathogs, Welcome Back, Kotter's crew of remedial kids. Lacarri became Vinny Barbarino, played by John Travolta, a less-intelligent, 70s take on the Fonz. Peyton was now Freddy "Boom-Boom" Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), a more intelligent, basketball-obsessed attempt to market cool. The Animal partially inspired Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes), a tough guy of mixed Jewish and Puerto Rican ancestry. Arnold Horshack (Ron Pallilo) remained the same, a braying idiot who delighted the show's legion of kiddie fans.
A number of recurring characters came and went. Most notable is Rosalee "Hotsie" Totsie (Debralee Scott), the rebellious, oversexed daughter of a minister. Her reputation for promiscuity proves to be as much bravado and Sweathog rumour as reality. She appears several times in the first season, and then disappears (Scott had taken a role on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) until the third. In the wake of that season's Christmas clip episode, she reappears in one of the show's few memorable stories—one that, if memory serves me correctly, actually came with some version of a parental warning. The guys, now expressly identified as seniors, head out to a strip club, only to see their old classmate on the stage. It turns out she left school because she became pregnant, and she took the stripper job to support her child. The Sweathogs help her get a more respectable job, after which she vanishes from the show for good.2
Judy Borden (Helaine Lembeck) appears throughout the first three seasons. A bright girl, she serves variously as antagonist and tutor to the Sweathogs. For a time, she has a crush and a quasi-dating relationship with Barbarino. Carvelli (Charlies Fleischer) has a recurring role as a gang member from a rival school. Bambi (Susan Lanier) appears in two first season episodes. The blonde bombshell lies about her life to get attention, but then comes clean. Despite the character's popularity with young male viewers, she never became a regular. In the difficult final season, the show added new regulars: Beauregarde De Labarre (Stephen Shortridge) a loquacious Southern replacement for the now-absent Barbarino, and Angie Globagoski (Melonie Haller), a genuine female Sweathog characterized by more than her sexuality. Neither achieved much presence in the popgeist.
Your dreams were your ticket out.
Episodes revolve around Kotter's attempts to help his students achieve and the Sweathogs own wild, implausible antics. Usually, everyone learns some homespun moral by the time closing credits roll around. Despite the tough-school setting, Welcome Back, Kotter remains very much a typical sitcom. Occasionally the show tries to address real-world issues—such as street drugs. These very special episodes struggle against the otherwise comic tone and silly sitcom-reality.
Catchphrases gained inexplicable popularity in the 1970s; you couldn’t do a sitcom without them. ...Kotter has more than I care to list. "Up your nose with a rubber hose" actually gained some currency in the popular culture, as did Horshack's annoying laugh, Washington's car-salesman-like "Hi, there," Epstein's formulaic forged notes, and Barbarino's "You can't do this to me! I'm Vinnie Barbarino!"
The final season saw Woodman become principal and Kotter, VP, though he maintained some teaching duties. By then, Kaplan had become embroiled in feuds with Marcia Strassman and the show's producers. He appears less frequently, as the series focuses on the increasingly un-teenage-looking students. With the success of Saturday Night Fever and Grease, Travolta turned to his movie career. Barbarino leaves school for a job as an orderly, reappearing occasionally in order to fulfill Travolta's contract with the network.
Horshack, apparently, got some respect. Early in the season, he cheers up a depressed girl, Mary (Irene Arrange). They gradually fall in love and marry in the finale.
The show's rating had fallen into a falcon-dive, and none of these efforts resulted in a final upward swoop. Welcome Back, Kotter never saw a fifth season.
Circumstances also cheated the show of what should have been its most memorable moment. In the second season, comedy legend Groucho Marx agreed to do a cameo for the episode "Sadie Hawkins Day." He would appear briefly to critique Kotter's Groucho shtick. He arrived on the set in ill health—too ill to proceed. Marx died within a year; had he been able to perform, the appearance would have been his last.
Merchandise and Spin-offs
The Sweathogs achieved something like the breakaway success of Fonzie, at least during their early seasons. Mattel manufactured action figures of Kotter and his four favourite students. Ideal briefly offered an "Up Your Nose with a Rubber Hose" board game. Other licensees offered Sweathog novels, lunchboxes, and collectible cards. MPC marketed a customized 1971 Pontiac Grand Prix scale model kit as the "Sweathogs Dream Machine." All four core Sweathogs appear on the box-- though I don't believe any of them owned such a vehicle in the series.3 DC Comics ran ten issues of a Welcome Back, Kotter comic. Although the characters experienced wilder adventures than the show allowed (an escaped elephant figures in one, and a runaway helicopter, in another), DC never expressly tied them into their larger DC Universe.4
Successful 70s shows birthed spin-offs: All in the Family and Happy Days produced more than most people can easily recall (including, of course, spin-offs of spin-offs). Welcome Back, Kotter tried, with little success. Pat Morita’s short-lived Mr. T and Tina received its pilot in an episode of Kotter. I have no memory of the show, which apparently lasted five episodes. It holds some status as the first American show to feature an Asian-American lead and as the series that starred the other Mr. T. Another embedded pilot introduced us to Horshack's family. Producers hoped for a show about Arnold, but the network (wisely, I suspect) did not back the concept. In the 1990s, with reruns of the show getting some notice, Robert Hegyes pitched a new series about the adult Sweathogs. It never even made the pilot stage. No one should be surprised. If All in the Family became more of a conventional sitcom after its groundbreaking, brilliant early years, and Happy Days, more a human cartoon after its first two, both series at least started with memorable characters. Kotter's cast rarely showed more than one or two dimensions. Its premise has potential, but its execution simply gave too little to develop.
Nevertheless, in 2005, Ice Cube announced that he would be remaking the series as a movie. He himself would play Mr. Kotter. Thus far, the reinvention has stalled in production.
Popular culture touches our lives in weird ways. The first season of Welcome Back, Kotter came to its conclusion as I eagerly awaited the end of sixth grade. The eighth-grade French class had been assigned the task of writing original scripts, en français, for their favourite shows. These they casted, memorized, blocked, and performed for the school. One group developed an original episode of Happy Days, in which Fonzie and Arnold challenge each other to a fight in order to settle some dispute. The other group did a fairly literal adaptation of Welcome Back, Kotter's first "Bambi" episode, complete with scantily-clad blonde girl. Like I said, it was a show I watched now and then, but never followed. Reflecting on that performance, however, in the school gymnasium— the steel plant bellowing smoke and fire a few blocks away-- I understand Kotter's appeal.
Some of those grade-eight actors weren't far from the character types they played. Television may have done an inadequate job, but someone, at least, tried to make a kid-friendly sitcom that said our lives were interesting—and that thoughtful guidance and worthwhile dreams could make a difference to those lives.
1. Kaplan co-created the show with Alan Sacks, who also grew up in Brookyln.
2. Scott, best remembered for her 70s roles, including a small part in American Graffiti, continued as a bit-part actor throughout the 1980s. Her partner, a police officer, died in the 9/11 terrorist attack. In 2005, she lapsed into a coma. She recovered and appeared healthy, but shortly thereafter died of undetermined causes.
3. Apparently, a fourth-season episode, "The Sweatmobile," involves the Sweathogs trying to buy a car, but this episode comes along a couple years after the plastic model, and I can find no reference to the car's make.
4. Pity. "Batman meets the Sweat Hogs" would have been a laugh riot.
"Debralee Scott." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debralee_Scott
Mike Voiles. Mike's Amazing World of DC Comics. http://www.dcindexes.com/
"Welcome Back, Kotter." The Imdb. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0072582/
"Welcome Back, Kotter." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welcome_Back,_Kotter
"Welcome Back, Kotter Board Game." Board Games, A-Z. http://www.trollandtoad.com/p294668.html?PHPSESSID=
"Welcome Back, Kotter Episode Guide." epguides. http://epguides.com/WelcomeBackKotter/