Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete Series shoots its paper airplanes onto DVD in this comprehensive set from Shout Factory. The release, which has officially gone on sale this week, presents all four seasons and 95 episodes of the classic sitcom in standard definition. A pair of special features are carried over from the 2007 release of Season 1. The transfers being used for this release are from the same source as the earlier DVDs – and they’re mostly serviceable copies of the videotape presentation viewers will remember from their original airdates. Not all the episodes look that great – some show distracting pixilation here and there. The real find here is to have the full collection of this fun series in one place, and to finally have someone complete a series release that was begun over 7+ years ago. For sheer nostalgia, this DVD set is Recommended for purchase.
Studio: Warner Brothers
Distributed By: Shout! Factory
Video Resolution and Encode: 480P/MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: English 1.0 DD (Mono)
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 38 Hrs
Package Includes: DVD
Disc Type: DVD-9 (dual layer)
Release Date: 08/26/2014
The Production Rating: 3.5/5
Your dreams were your ticket out
To that same old place that you laughed about
Well the names have all changed since you hung around
But those dreams have remained and they've turned around
Who'd have thought they'd lead ya
(who'd have thought they'd lead ya)
Back here where we need ya
(back here where we need ya)
Yeah, we tease him a lot 'cause we got him on the spot
Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back
- “Welcome Back” by John Sebastian
It’s a real trip into the past to once again be watching Welcome Back, Kotter. It’s absolutely a classic American sitcom, and a great time capsule of the mid-late 1970s, as well as a showcase for the comic stylings of Gabe Kaplan. And it’s the show that catapulted John Travolta into stardom. The premise is a solid one for a situation comedy: Gabe Kotter (played by Kaplan) is a social studies teacher who finds himself working at the Brooklyn high school he attended years before. Not only is he to be a teacher there, but he’s assigned to teach the same “slow class” he was part of as a teenager. The kids in this class are the most difficult, most combative and most problematic students in the high school – known familiarly as the “Sweathogs”. Leading the pack of kids is Vinnie Barbarino (Travolta), a young Italian-American completely full of himself and a few other things. Also included is Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), a black student whose signature line is the smooth “Hi there!” And there’s Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes), a Puerto-Rican student whose written excuses from home are not to be trusted. And of course, there’s Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo), seemingly the slowest and oddest of the Sweathogs but very possibly their smartest member.
Taken on their own, any of these characters would not likely have been that interesting to watch – with the exception of Travolta’s Barbarino, who practically explodes off the screen. But seen as a group, working with each other and with Kaplan, this ensemble really plays in a satisfying way. Watching episodes nearly 40 years after they aired, I still found myself laughing out loud at various points. Yes, it’s dated. Yes, a lot of the jokes in this show are pure cornball. But there’s still a few that will catch the viewer off-guard today. And the show is a genuinely sweet experience. The pilot and the first episodes try to portray the Sweathogs as tough kids from the wrong side of the tracks, but the performances simply never go to that place. Instead, what we see are a funny group of class clowns – more likely to throw paper airplanes and say “Up your nose with a rubber hose!” than anything more threatening. Even the television the kids steal from Kotter in the pilot episode is sheepishly returned less than two minutes later. So the experience of watching this bunch of guys (and Marcia Strassman as Kotter’s understanding wife Julie) is a disarmingly pleasant one. For the first three years, every show would start and end with Kotter telling a silly joke about his family to his wife. And after every act of the show, you could hear the soothing refrain of John Sebastian’s theme song. So getting the chance to visit with these characters again has been a happy one.
HISTORY: Welcome Back, Kotter began its life as a stand-up comedy routine by Gabe Kaplan called “Holes and Mello Rolls”, which had fun with the guys he knew in a class like this in his high school years. Realizing he could do something interesting with these characters, Kaplan worked with writer Alan Sacks to develop the idea into the template for a school comedy. Of course, he couldn’t exactly use the language of the original routine as it was a bit salty for 1970s television. But he could find appropriate substitutes. The real Arnold Horshack’s trademark putdown of “Up your hole with a Mello Roll!” became “Up your nose with a rubber hose!” (Curious readers might look up the ice cream treat “Mello Roll” if they want to figure out how that insult worked…) The real danger of the Epstein character in the routine was lightened up a bit, although the initial episodes still retained Kaplan’s original joke that Epstein had been voted “Most Likely to Kill Someone”. Overall, watching the pilot, it’s striking just how much of the original comedy routine found its way into the show – including close variations on all the names, the whole concept of how the school worked, and even the “ranking” contests. (We could also call these “the dozens” – it’s the usual mutual insult festival when you get two class clowns next to each other…) If anything, one can see plenty of the bones of Kaplan’s routine serving as the basic skeleton of the series – in much the same way that Bill Cosby’s parenting routines from Bill Cosby: Himself would form the backbone of The Cosby Show in the mid-80s.
MORE HISTORY: For the show’s initial two seasons between 1975 and 1977, the series did quite well, pulling in a large audience in its initial berth right after Happy Days on Tuesday nights, and then settling into a solid rating pattern on Thursday nights. Each week would see the Sweathogs and/or Kotter get themselves into a problem at the school, only to see everything resolved with too much fuss (other than a few insults) within thirty minutes of a viewer’s time. (And these episodes mostly still hold up today – they’re simple situations, played out against the fun of the ensemble with a gentle push or a poke here and there.) Unfortunately, time would not be kind to the series. Going into the third season of the show, several factors began to pull at the fabric of the series, leading to its inevitable decline. The primary issue, as noted by Kaplan himself, was the fact that the cast was clearly becoming too old to be convincing as high school students. This is of course a problem that all school series have to face – which is the conflict between the needs of a television series to keep all conditions of the show constant and the reality that these guys should be graduating at some point. (M*A*S*H is perhaps the one series that was able to conquer this problem, albeit by changing the cast over repeatedly, but even then it wound up creating an alternate universe where the Korean War went on for over ten years…) So there was an issue of the cast no longer being as fresh as when things started. And there was the burgeoning career of John Travolta, who would skyrocket with the blockbuster Saturday Night Fever in late 1977 and do it again with Grease in 1978. Keeping Travolta on the series would prove difficult with movie stardom beckoning at his door.
STILL MORE HISTORY: To their credit, Kaplan and the writers tried to find ways to freshen up the series, as well as to begin laying the groundwork for eventual change. One plot strand involved having Kotter and Julie have twin babies, to shake things up. A female Sweathog, Angie (Melonie Haller) was added to the ranks. The ratings for the series still fell off, and more drastic changes were made. There’s a part of me that would like to have seen Kaplan’s idea for a solution happen – he wanted to have the series acknowledge the actors’ ages and reset itself in a community college in Brooklyn – with the Sweathogs graduating high school only to land in another “slow class” with Kotter elsewhere. But this was not to be. Instead, executive producer James Komack opted to keep the Sweathogs in high school and just try to go with a new writing staff as the series entered its fourth season in 1978. The problems between Komack and Kaplan played out in a strange way onscreen. Kotter himself disappeared from many of the episodes of the fourth season, appearing in a total of 8 episodes out of the 23 of that year, and many times only for a few minutes in those episodes. Which meant that the center of the series had effectively disappeared. (From what I can tell, Kaplan spent his time working on the feature film Fast Break, as his appearance in the last couple of episodes lines up with how he looked in that movie.) Adding to the same problem, John Travolta also limited his appearances, with his character being removed from the high school situation to work as a hospital orderly. His place would be taken by the new character Beau (Stephen Shortridge), who had the misfortune to be asked to fill Travolta’s shoes. Anyone watching the series by this point could see it was on its last legs. One could argue that the loss of two major pieces of the show’s ensemble, together with the issue that none of these characters were getting younger, together with the strange choice of having Kotter’s wife Julie come to work at the school, meant that the series simply lost itself in that final year. Watching those episodes today, one is filled with a sense of watching the show slowly spiral downward – and the infrequent appearances by a bearded, uninterested Kaplan don’t help things at all.) After the end of the fourth year, with the ratings having dropped off even farther, ABC mercifully cancelled the series. Sadly, no final episode was ever produced – the series simply drops off in mid-sentence.
Revisiting the series today, I am struck by the fun of the first couple of years of the show. It’s breathtaking to see John Travolta in his very early 20s literally take over the set of a new sitcom. It’s amazing to see how young this cast really was when the show was happening. And it’s still sad to see how the series declines along the way – most particularly in the final batch of episodes where it’s clear that the wheels are coming off the wagon. Even then, however, there’s still an essential sweetness to the characters and a sense of warmth to the whole show. Maybe it’s my own sentimentality. Maybe it’s just the comforting tones of John Sebastian’s friendly song fooling me. Welcome Back, Kotter isn’t M*A*SH, and it isn’t All in the Family, but it still remains a fun, positive show that for more than two years, showed a lot of freshness and energy while never losing its heart. Maybe those dreams really will lead viewers back to that same old place that they laughed about nearly forty years ago.
In 2006, Warner Home Video released a few episodes of Welcome Back, Kotter on DVD as a kind of sampler platter. Good response led to their issuing the first season of the series in early 2007. Along with the episodes, a featurette called “Only a Few Degrees from a Sweathog” and a few screen tests were included in the set. And that was all anyone heard about this series on DVD until the current release from Shout Factory. The new set contains the complete series, with each season being held within its own internal DVD pack. (As a nice touch, the pack for each season is personalized as a textbook for one of the Sweathogs, with that character’s face gracing the cover.) Also included in the overall package is a complete episode guide for the entire series, broken up in disc order, with a generous selection of color and black & white photos. There are no further special features past what WHV prepared for the 2007 release, but perhaps that’s for the best. The picture quality of the episodes varies from acceptable to problematic, but this is the best we’re going to get and there really isn’t much point in carping about it. Given my own emotional reaction to the series, and the genuine fun Welcome Back Kotter provides, I Recommend this series set for purchase.
Welcome Back Kotter: The Complete Series is presented in a collection of 1.33:1 4x3 transfers that are probably right from the syndication masters. The first season is almost certainly identical to what WHV released in 2007, so the transfers aren’t any better or worse. It’s unfortunate to see pixilation or breakup happen here and there, but that’s the condition of the materials. And with video, there really isn’t anything to be done – like the seasons of SNL that I’ve reviewed here in the past, these episodes do show their age when it comes to the PQ.
Video Rating: 2.5/5 3D Rating: NA
Welcome Back Kotter: The Complete Series is presented in English Digital 1.0 Mono (@ 192 kbps) which cleanly presents the dialogue and John Sebastian’s signature song.
Audio Rating: 3/5
As I have done with earlier TV season sets, I’ll break down the ingredients on a disc by disc basis. The series set is broken up into four multi-disc holders, each containing all the episodes of that season. As noted earlier, each season's disc-holder is identified both by the season and by one of the signature Sweathog members. The only special features per se can be found on the fourth disc of the first season, and they are directly ported from the 2007 WHV release.
Special Features Rating: 3/5
SEASON ONE: The first season consists of 22 episodes, including the series pilot. The special features from the WHV set can be found on the fourth disc. The first season's disc holder celebrates Vinnie Barbarino.
SEASON ONE, DISC 1:
Welcome Back (Pilot) – Here’s the original pilot for the series. Strangely enough, it actually aired THIRD when the series was first put on the air.
The Great Debate – The Sweathogs debate the school’s official debating team. A shockingly young James Woods plays the prissy teacher of the “A” students.
Basket Case – Boom Boom makes the varsity basketball team.
Whodunit? – “Hotsy” Totsy says she’s pregnant.
No More Mister Nice Guy
SEASON ONE, DISC 2:
One of Our Sweathogs is Missing
Mr. Kotter, Teacher
SEASON ONE, DISC 3:
The Longest Weekend
Follow the Leader, pt 1
Follow the Leader, pt 2
Dr. Epstein, I Presume
SEASON ONE, DISC 4:
One Flu Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Kotter Makes Good
Disc 4 contains the only special features to be found in the collection. Both are drawn directly from the 2007 WHV Season One DVD set:
“Only A Few Degrees From a Sweathog” – (23:27, 4x3) – This featurette, hosted by Marcia Strassman, includes interviews with Alan Sacks and most of the cast involved with the series. John Travolta is notably absent, but the other Sweathogs are more than happy to talk about their time in the classroom here. This is a fairly upbeat discussion that really just covers the creation of the series – which is appropriate as it was designed for inclusion on the first season set. Robert Hegyes notes that he initially thought he’d been cast as Barbarino rather than Epstein. Ron Palillo notes that he’s still able to do the Horshack laugh, thirty years after the fact.
Actors’ Original Screen Tests – (11:23, 4x3) – The original 1975 screen tests for most of the cast are shown here, usually ending with Gabe Kaplan coming onstage with them for a visual comparison. Robert Hegyes’ audition is indeed for Barbarino.
SEASON TWO: The second season consists of 23 episodes, which aired in the 1976 to 1977 TV season. This year could be considered the peak for the series. The Season Two disc holder celebrates Arnold Horshack.
SEASON TWO, DISC 1:
Career Day – The second season opener features guest star Pat Morita, whose character would briefly get a spinoff of his own called Mr T. and Tina. Contrary to popular belief, this spinoff did not feature the eponymous Mr. T., but instead starred Morita as the title character.
Inherit the Halibut
The Museum – John Astin guests in this segment about the Sweathogs’ ill-fated trip to the museum.
Gabe Under Pressure
SEASON TWO, DISC 2:
Sweathog, Nebraska Style
Sadie Hawkins Day – Dinah Manoff guests in this episode about Barbarino somehow not having a date for the school dance.
Hello Ms. Chips
Horshack vs. Carvelli – This episode, dealing with Horshack boxing against the toughest kid from another school, was written by Garry Shandling.
Sweathog Clinic for the Cure of Smoking
Hark, the Sweat Kings
SEASON TWO, DISC 3:
A Love Story
Kotter and Son
Chicken a la Kotter - Okay, this would be the episode where Kotter gets a second job, dressing up as a chicken for a restaurant chain. You knew this had to happen at least once during this series.
SEASON TWO, DISC 4:
Whatever Happened to Arnold, pt 1
Whatever Happened to Arnold, pt 2
The Littlest Sweathog
Radio Free Freddie – This episode deals with Boom Boom Washington becoming a disc jockey. George Carlin appears.
I’m Having Their Baby
I Wonder Who’s Kissing Gabe Now?
SEASON THREE: The third season consists of 27 episodes, which aired in the 1977 to 1978 TV season. Here’s where you can see the Kotters having the twins, a new female Sweathog joining up, and the inevitable slide begin… The Season 3 disc holder celebrates Freddie "Boom Boom" Washington.
SEASON THREE, DISC 1:
Sweathog Back-to-School Special – The third season opens with a clip show, where everyone reminisces about the funnier earlier episodes...
And Baby Makes Four, pt 1
And Baby Makes Four, pt 2 – Julie delivers the new twin babies.
The Visit – Gabe Kaplan wrote this episode, which centers on Julie and the new twin babies coming home from the hospital.
Buddy, Can You Spare a Million?
The Deprogramming of Arnold Horshack – Here’s the usual episode for sitcoms where someone gets taken in by a cult. In this case, it’s Horshack. At least he doesn’t fall for a head of lettuce named Ralph…
SEASON THREE, DISC 2:
What a Move!
A Novel Idea
Barbarino in Love, pt 1
Barbarino in Love, pt 2
Kotter for Vice Principal – Kotter has a dream about the year 2050...
Swine and Punishment
SEASON THREE, DISC 3:
Sweathog Christmas Special
Sweatwork – This episode provides good reasoning why the Sweathogs should never be given their own radio station…
Meet Your New Teacher: Batteries Not Included
Angie – This episode introduces Angie, the new female Sweathog, played by Melonie Haller.
Epstein’s Term Paper
There’s No Business…, pt 1 – This two-parter gives Kotter a chance to become a stand-up comedian. This was, of course, written by Gabe Kaplan.
There’s No Business…, pt 2
SEASON THREE, DISC 4:
What Goes Up – Here’s the inevitable drug episode, with Boom Boom getting hooked on pills.
Goodbye Mr. Kripps
Horshack and Madame X
The Return of Hotsy Totsy – This episode features the return of Hotsy Totsy from the first season. This time she really did get pregnant, as she’s now a mother and a stripper. Gabe Kaplan wrote this episode.
Class Encounters of the Carvelli Kind – Robert Hegyes directed this episode, which obviously riffs off a movie that might have come out in late 1977…
SEASON FOUR: The fourth season consists of 23 episodes, which aired in the 1978 to 1979 TV season. Due to his blooming career, John Travolta appears in ten episodes as a major guest star. Due to behind-the-scenes unhappiness, Gabe Kaplan only appears in eight of the episodes, and increasingly just for a quick cameo. Stephen Shortridge joins the cast as Beau, the replacement character for Barbarino. Marcia Strassman’s Julie inexplicably gets a job at the school. To make things as clear as possible, I will indicate if Travolta or Kaplan is in the episode at hand. If not specifically indicated, they do not appear. The Season 4 disc holder celebrates Juan Epstein, complete with one of Epstein's suspicious notes from home included, in a way, on the backside write-up.
SEASON FOUR, DISC 1:
The Drop-Ins, pt 1 – The fourth season begins with the Sweathogs coming back from summer vacation to find that Kotter has been promoted to Vice Principal. John Travolta only turns up at the very end of the episode, for Barbarino to announce he’s quit school and got a job. Gabe Kaplan is in most of the episode, as his character transitions to his new position.
The Drop-Ins, pt 2 – John Travolta is featured in this episode, about Barbarino’s new hospital job. Gabe Kaplan turns up for a scene to try to counsel Barbarino out of this idea.
Beau’s Jest – This episode introduces the new Sweathog Beau (Stephen Shortridge). Gabe Kaplan pops up at the beginning and end, but is otherwise absent. Most of the time is spent trying to give Shortridge room to interact with everyone.
Don’t Come Up And See Me Sometime – John Travolta returns for this episode, in which Barbarino gets his own apartment and alienates the other Sweathogs. Gabe Kaplan turns up for two scenes.
Once Upon A Ledge – This episode introduces Irene Arranga as Mary Johnson, a new student at the school who will become important for Horshack.
The Sweatmobile – Gabe Kaplan is listed on IMDB as making an appearance in this episode about the Sweathogs buying a car. In fact, he’s not in the episode. But John Travolta is very much in it, with much of the action taking place at the hospital.
SEASON FOUR, DISC 2:
Barbarino’s Boo-Boo – John Travolta is featured in an episode about orderly Barbarino misplacing Mr. Woodman in the hospital. This time, Gabe Kaplan shows up as well.
The Barbarino Blues – Here’s another John Travolta episode.
Washington’s Clone – John Travolta makes a cameo appearance in this episode about Boom Boom dealing with a copycat student. He's not listed by IMDB, but there you have it...
Frog Day Afternoon – Gabe Kaplan is listed by IMDB as making an appearance in this episode about Horshack having big problems with dissecting a frog in biology class, but he actually isn’t. The characters mention that Kotter is on a flight from Canada and unavailable to help Horshack with his issues.
A Little Fright Music – Gabe Kaplan is in a fair amount of this episode, about Boom Boom Washington improving the school’s anthem.
SEASON FOUR, DISC 3:
A Winter’s Coat Tail – Here’s another John Travolta episode.
Bride and Gloom – John Travolta is featured in this episode about Barbarino’s impending marriage.
Barbarino’s Baby – John Travolta is featured in this episode about the Sweathogs delivering a baby in an elevator. This episode marks Travolta’s final appearance in the series.
The Goodbye Guy
Come Back, Little Arnold – This is the inevitable “don’t drink” episode, where Horshack starts boozing it up to impress Mary. Della Reese guests in this one.
The Sweat Smell of Success
SEASON FOUR, DISC 4:
The Gang Show
Oo-Oo, I Do, pt 1 – This two-parter has Horshack getting married to Mary Johnson.
Oo-Oo, I Do, pt 2 – Horshack’s marriage includes a very brief cameo by Gabe Kaplan.
I’m Okay, But You’re Not
The Breadwinners – Gabe Kaplan makes a very brief cameo in the final episode of the series, in which Epstein and Boom Boom compete for a job.
The packaging includes a handy booklet that summarizes all 95 episodes of the series and includes generous selection of color and black & white photos.
There are no subtitles included in this release.
Welcome Back, Kotter remains a funny situation comedy, now almost 40 years after it originally appeared on television screens. The good chemistry of the ensemble and the generally sweet nature of the show continue to make this a pleasant experience. The first two seasons are still the strongest, and the final year of the series definitely shows the enterprise running out of steam, but there’s still plenty of goodness to be found here. Shout Factory ‘s presentation provides mostly decent video of the episodes as they’ve been seen over the years, along with the pair of special features from the WHV Season One release of 2007. For those who are interested in a fun bit of nostalgia, as well as a good look at how John Travolta catapulted to fame, this release is Recommended for purchase.
Overall Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewed By: Kevin EK
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