Where Saturday Night Live offered audiences a chance to hang out with the Manhattan cool kids, Welcome Back, Kotter—which debuted the same year—afforded them a lively half-hour with four of Brooklyn's most loveable troublemakers. Both shows quickly became iconic, catchphrase-driven pop-culture phenomena, thriving on young, appealing ensembles that played off each other with the relaxed ease of a veteran jazz quartet. Kotter wasn't exactly gritty, but it was refreshingly non-slick. The schoolroom set was cheap and drab, but that just made it look like a real rundown public high school ruled by apathy and inertia. The show's big-hearted hoodlums were nevertheless cleaned up for mainstream consumption; as someone wryly comments on the DVD documentary, they were types who'd steal your television but always bring it back. And though they spent much of the show insulting each other, the catchphrase "Up your nose with a rubber hose!" was about as vicious as it got. Along with an appealing dose of pre-Giuliani New York atmosphere, Kotter sold an appealing high-school fantasy world where even the resident geek was lovingly embraced as one of the guys, and the teacher was just a big kid prone to playing the dozens.
Based on Gabe Kaplan's memories of growing up with a multi-ethnic gang of pals, the show cast Kaplan as a former hooligan who returns to his old high school to teach history to a remedial class of toughs dubbed "The Sweathogs," a clique he helped found in his student days. As the Sweathogs' dreamboat leader, John Travolta shows off the goofy charisma that would make him a star. Robert Hegyes plays the resident Puerto Rican Jewish tough guy, while Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs plays a long-limbed super-soul brother. Ron Palillo rounds out the gang as a nasal-voiced space cadet.
With his Groucho Marx and W.C Fields impersonations and cornball opening and closing jokes, Kaplan was a real throwback, and the show, too, had faith in the power of the old-school setup/punchline template. Kotter had little interest in reinventing the sitcom, because its conventions served it so well. Today, it stands as an irresistible time capsule that made hanging with the juvenile delinquents in the slow class fun.
Key features: Nifty original screen tests join the obligatory making-of doc.