If you're not familiar with Welcome Back, Kotter, it's about a man named Gabe Kotter, played by Gabe Kaplan, who returns to his high school alma mater to teach social studies to a group of rowdy remedial students known as the Sweathogs, so-called because their classes were restricted to the top floor of the building. The school administration, in the person of Assistant Principal Woodman (John Sylvester White), believes the young hoodlums to be beyond redemption, and their job merely to go through the motions of teaching them until they were old enough to drop out and pursue a life of crime. However, Kotter, like Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier before him, sees promise in these students, believes they're worth saving, and sets about teaching them not just facts from a book, but life lessons as well.
Sounds like anything but crap, huh? Ah, but it's all in the execution. The show was based on Kaplan's own high school experiences, and while his own goals for the show may have been noble enough, I suspect that the other producers and network execs involved never saw it as anything more than a quick advertising buck. Everything about that show reeked of cheap. Cheap sets, cheap jokes, cheap expectations. The cheapness may have been exacerbated by being shot on videotape, common--in more than one sense of the word--for sitcoms in the 1970s. Videotape worked well for some shows like All in the Family, but most others suffered because of it. For whatever reasons, tape, as opposed to film, made a set look like a set instead of a living room, office, or classroom. Worse still was the hallway outside of Kotter's classroom. I was never convinced it led to a gym, lunchroom, other classrooms or Principal's office. I always knew if you walked far enough down, you'd come to a bunch of stage hands using crude gestures to describe what they did that weekend as they waited for a cue from the director.
The executive producer of Kotter was James Komack, whose first show was The Courtship of Eddie's Father. This was a beautifully filmed, well-produced show that, while not laugh out loud funny, told its stories well. The switch to videotape, first with the crummy Chico and the Man, and then Kotter, seemed to have eroded Mr. Komack's storytelling abilities. And here is where we come to the real problem with the show: shoddy writing. Welcome Back, Kotter relied entirely too much on a series of catchphrases--"What? Where? Why?" "Ooh-ooh-ooooh!" "Hi there" "Hey, Mr. Kot-taire." "I got a note" "They're not people!" "I'm so confused!" and "Up your nose with a rubber hose."--that were arguably funny the first time you heard them, but not so funny, or intelligible, once they replaced such things as narrative structure, exposition, and character development. Or fresh jokes.
James Buchanan High School must have been located across the street from a costume shop, as the Sweathogs played dress-up quite a bit, depending on that particular episode's story. Epstein dates a girl from the Midwest, so the rest of the gang dress up like stereotypical farmers. At Christmas they're reindeer. Helping a hamster give birth, they're in surgical gowns and masks. Another episode has them entering a room as window washers. Much of this was just them clowning around, but there's a couple of episodes where they're actually wearing disguises so people won't recogize them. Some punk steal cars. Others snatch purses. These punks lift harebrain schemes from I Love Lucy.
The Sweathogs are supposedly four teenage miscreants bored by school. You would think they'd cut class a lot. Just the opposite. These teenage miscreants must have had the best attendance record in history. They were often shown in class, or at least in the classroom, when Mr Kotter wasn't even there. When there were no other students there. When it wasn't entirely clear school was even in session. They were just there. Why hang out at some street corner, they must have reasoned, when they could be sitting at some nice comfortable wooden desks?
Welcome Back, Kotter also had a lot of "message" episodes, warning of the dangers of smoking or pill popping or unprotected sex, but these topics were tackled much more intelligently by the Afterschool Specials of the era. On Kotter, however, a show where the cast gets locked in an Egyptian tomb in one episode and a Japanese inventor shows off his battery-operated musical underwear in another, these messages seem motivated less by the desire to make the world a better place and more by the need to mollify parent-teacher groups who might otherwise complain about the sitcom's glorification of juvenile delinquency.
Now that I've made my disdain for Welcome Back, Kotter perfectly clear, why should I care at all about Robert Hegyes and Ron Palillo's earthly cancellations? Truth be told, at one time or another, both of these fellows made me laugh.
As did John Travolta, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, White, and Kaplan (as well he should; the man was a stand-up comedian.) Even Marcia Strassman, who played Julie, Kotter's wife, made me laugh, usually when she wasn't laughing at her husband's "uncle" jokes that opened and closed the show. Whatever its flaws, Kotter was extremely well cast.
None more so than the four young talented comic actors who played the Sweathogs. Well, talented at the broadest of broad comedy. Could they have been as talented doing a more subtle, more gentler form of humor, such as that which could be found on The Mary Tyler Moore Show? For that matter, could they have done The Courtship of Eddie's Father? It's now apparent that Travolta has a decent range as an actor, but as for the other three, I don't know. I can't recall ever seeing them on anything after Welcome Back, Kotter went off the air. And now two of them are dead. For those two, and possibly the third Sweathog who didn't become a superstar, Kotter is their legacy.
Borscht Belt Dead End Kid often got the best lines ("best lines" being a relative term on a show like this.)
There you have it. Four funny guys. As funny as they may have been individually, though, they were even more so as a group. As others have pointed out, they resembled the Marx Brothers. A Night in the Blackboard Jungle. A Day in Room 222. But where as Minnie's boys undermined and subverted the sensibilities of opera impresarios and high society matrons, the Sweathogs targets were closer to homeroom: rules, books, and teachers (except for Kotter) with dirty looks. This was tremendously appealing to the average 14-year old kid in 1976, who, after all, isn't going to care about any of the stuff I was complaining about earlier, such as poor production values or scripts with holes in them. In fact, I didn't even care at 14. It was only decades later, when I watched Welcome Back, Kotter again on cable that I noticed those things. That's what happens when you get older. You notice things.
The Marx Brothers relied on such talented writers as George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind for material. The Sweathogs got crap from hacks. The four remedial students made the hilarious most out of that crap, and for that they deserve a passing grade.