The highschool classroom was never made so cool by the underdog as it was with the Sweathogs and Mr. Kotter in Welcome Back Kotter.
The idea of comedian Gabe Kaplan, this tv sitcom was launched on ABC TV in September 1975, based on Kaplan’s highschool experiences in Brooklyn, NY.
As Mr. Kotter, he returns to his roots in Brooklyn at fictional James Buchanan Highschool to teach the remedial class, populated by the Sweathogs, so-named as the classroom was on the top floor.
A former Sweathog, Kotter knows that everyone has written off the students, but he believes in them, unlike the grouchy vice-principal Mr. Woodman.
Starring John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino, Ron Pallilo as Arnold Horshack, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs as Freddie “Boom-Boom” Washington and Robert Hegyes as Juan Epstein, these four students were the core of the class, each with their own quirky personalities and immediately become very close to Mr. Kotter.
Each half hour dealt with the realities of school life, as the world of the students, coupled with crazy schemes, odd happenings, girls and of course, plenty of humour. Each character became known for certain catchphrases, that became their trademark for the series.
Barbarino was always saying “What? Where? Why?” as well as a the insult “Up your nose with a rubber hose!”, while Horshack, who routinely knew the answer in class was shown to yell “Oh! Oh! Oh!”. Washington was all about his distinct delivery with “Hi there” and “Hello Mr. Kot taire”, while Epstein was always trying to get out of any commitment with his “Hey Mr. Kotter I got a note!”.
For four seasons, the series did well, garnering good ratings and plenty of laughs – but it was Travolta’s star that rose, with his film projects (Grease, Saturday Night Fever, Carrie) which led him to leave the series and then came the show’s downfall in the ratings.
Kaplan tried to introduce other characters and a different premise by moving the series to community college, as the actors were all hitting their late 20s, with Travolta the youngest actor.
For me, I saw this series as a kid as just plain funny, thinking of these older kids as comedians and how one asserted oneself in highschool. Of course, my life would be far from this reality, but I appreciated the distinct slang and the world of Mr. Kotter’s highschool.
Ending its run in 1979, Welcome Back Kotter showed a funny view of highschool, but also celebrated the underdog, and the tough road for those students in highschool.