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Series / Welcome Back, Kotter

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MAD's Jack Davis is drawing us for the TV Guide cover? Very impressive, Mr. Kot-tair!

"Hey, Julie.... did I ever tell you about my Uncle Fremont Kotter.....?"

Long before Jerry Seinfeld wondered about airline peanuts, before Tim Allen said his first "Arrr arrr arrr!", before Roseanne became a Domestic Goddess, there was Gabriel "Gabe" Kaplan, one of the very first stand-up comedians to successfully turn his comedy routines into a hit TV sitcom. Welcome Back, Kotter ran on ABC from 1975–79. The series was based on Kaplan's own high school experiences with remedial education and his memories of a teacher who cared dearly for her students.

The premise: Gabe Kotter returns to Brooklyn's James Buchanan High School as a teacher and is assigned the remedial class of "Sweathogs" to which he once belonged. Mr. Kotter is an involved and caring teacher, which one would have to be in dealing with a certain four students in his class, who end up in trouble on a regular basis: ladies' man Vinnie Barbarino (played by breakout star John Travolta), the always cool Freddie "Boom-Boom" Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), the tough Juan Luis Pedro Phillipo de Huevos Epstein (Robert Hegyes), and the sheepish Arnold Dingfelder Horshack (Ron Palillo). Kotter frequently finds himself butting heads with cantankerous vice principal Mr. Woodman (John Sylvester White), who dismisses the Sweathogs as a lost cause, and tries to juggle his teaching life and his home life with his wife Julie (Marcia Strassman).


Changes on the show: Gabe Kaplan was absent from much of the fourth season due to creative differences with executive producer James Komack, whom Kaplan openly felt was not serving the show's best interests. Kotter was made vice principal, and thus was seen considerably less frequently. John Travolta, of course, found his own place as a celebrity, leaving the show around the same time Gabe Kaplan did (returning every so often as a "special guest star"). The replacement for Barbarino was Beau, who didn't help things much. By now the show had essentially lost its two biggest stars.


Welcome Back, Kotter contains examples of:

  • And Starring: John Travota's billing during his last season on the show.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Julie gives birth to twin girls.
  • Batman Gambit: The Sweathogs pull off a successful one in "The Great Debate" when they go up against Mr. Welles's more studious group. The Sweathogs are supposed to be arguing that humans are naturally aggressive, but they don't take it seriously; they just repeatedly goof around and antagonize the opposing team. It gets to the point when Todd Ludlow screams and threatens to attack them, which prompts the Sweathogs to say he just proved their side of the argument.
  • Berserk Button: Don't say anything bad about Barbarino's mother.
    Barbarino: Hey! NOT my mother. That woman's completely holy!
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: Juan Epstein.
    Epstein: I don't have to stay here and be ignored! I have nine brothers and sisters. If I want to be ignored, I'll just go home.
  • Can't Get in Trouble for Nuthin': Beau DeLebarre tries to prove he's not an ass-kisser by playing a prank on Mr. Woodman, but Mr. Woodman refuses to believe it was him and yells at the Sweathogs instead. Luckily, he does manage when he admits to Woodman he read his student file, which is forbidden.
  • Catchphrase:
    • "Up your nose with a rubber hose" (everyone)
    • "Hi, there" (Washington)
    • "Heyyyy Misssster Kotttaire!" (Washington)
    • "I don't happen to have my homework... handy." (Washington, when failing to bring his homework to school)
    • "What?" "Where?" "When"? (Barbarino)
    • "Heh, heh, heh, heh!" (Horshack)
    • "I'm so confused!" (Barbarino)
    • "Oooh! Ohh, ooh ooh!" (Horshack)
    • "Very impressive, Mr. Kotter!" (Horshack)
    • "Ba-ba-ba, Bar-Bar-ino!" with some dancing moves added for good measure (Barbarino)
    • "Right you are, Mr. Kotter!" (Horshack)
    • "Please excuse Juan from class today... [insert excuse of the week]... Signed: Juan Epstein's mother." (Epstein)
  • Celebrity Paradox: In "A Little Fright Music", Mr. Woodman sings "Staying Alive", which came from a film starring one of the Sweathogs.
  • Cerebus Syndrome: A few Season 3 episodes have shades of this, as Vinnie struggled with getting Mr. Kotter to convince Mr. Woodman to allow him to take a make-up test so he wouldn't be held back in his sophomore year and falling for one of the competitors during a talent show, Washington getting hooked on painkillers, and Horshack getting brainwashed into joining a cult. By Season 4, the Sweathogs find that Mr. Kotter is taking a more serious approach to their pranks since his promotion to vice-principal, a mix-up involving a porno flick and a G-rated sex ed film which almost costs Julie her teaching job, the Sweathogs considering dropping out of Buchanan, and Barbarino moving into his own apartment and getting a part-time job as a hospital orderly while dealing with break-ups. Even Horshack has his share of dilemmas, including talking Mary Johnson out of jumping off a ledge, taking a stand against dissecting a frog, struggling with teenage alcoholism, and deciding to remain in Brooklyn and finish school alongside his classmates when his mother plans to move to a new town.
  • Character Development: Most notably Horshack (went from the Tagalong Kid to a young man willing to stand up for what he believed in and the first Sweathog to marry), Julie (went from Gabe's mildly frustrated but mostly supporting wife to a major presence at the school) and Barbarino (went from a directionless skirt-chaser to working as a hospital orderly).
  • Christmas Episode:
    • "Hark, the Sweatkings": The Sweathogs try to help a homeless man they've previously made fun of.
    • "Sweathog Christmas Special": While Gabe and Julie decorate their apartment, the Sweathogs (what else?) drop by. Doubles as a Clip Show.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Charlie Piper, the eccentric science teacher who appears in "Mr. Kotter, Teacher", is never seen or heard from again.
  • Clip Show: Season 3 starts off with the "Sweathog Back to School Special", featuring the show's funniest moments from the first two seasons.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Everyone had their moments, but Horshack is the definitive example.
  • Commuting on a Bus: Mr. Kotter's appearances in the last season were very sporadic, as Kaplan had become discontent with the direction of the show. Mrs. Kotter becomes the new mentor of the Sweathogs.
  • Cool Teacher: Gabe Kotter tells jokes and believes in the Sweathogs when other teachers would dismiss them as a lost cause.
  • Cousin Oliver: Angie Grabowski, who joins the Sweathogs in the second half of the third season for several episodes and then is never heard from again.
    • Beau De Labarre, who joins the cast in Season 4, to help fill the gap left by Gabe's partial absence due to contractual disputes, and Vinnie, with John Travolta focusing more on his rising movie career.
  • Dean Bitterman: Mr. Woodman
  • Distaff Counterpart: Arnold has a one-episode friend named Goldie who acts and laughs quite a bit like him.
  • Dustbin School: The "Sweathogs" was the nickname of a class like this at James Buchanan High in Brooklyn. Gabe Kotter had graduated from this class and gone on to become a teacher. He volunteered to return to his old high school and teach this class, hoping to help kids who were in the same position he had been in in high school. They are viewed as a lost cause by Woodman.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: In the pilot, Horshack is implied to be a Covert Pervert who apparently wasn't allowed to talk unless Barbarino told him to. Barbarino also seemed to have a regular sweathog-girlfriend. The Sweathogs were actually a tad more intimidating.
    • Epstein was known as the toughest student in the school, and voted "most likely to take a life". As time went on this trait was phased out and he was more of a smartass.
  • End-of-Episode Silliness: Formerly the Trope Namer when it was called "Uncle Herbie".
  • Enter Stage Window: The Sweathogs routinely drop in on their favorite teacher via his living room window. Doesn't bother him any, but his wife doesn't like it.
  • Every Episode Ending: Gabe tells Julie an amusing anecdote about one of his many relatives at the end of every episode, with occasional exceptions when the first episode of a two-part story ends with a "To Be Continued" ending.
  • Fake Guest Star: John Travolta during the final 1978-1979 season, due to becoming a movie star with leading roles in Carrie, Saturday Night Fever, and Grease, still managed to reprise his role as Vinnie Barbarino on a part-time basis.
  • Foil: Mr. Woodman, to Mr. Kotter.
  • Foreshadowing: In Season 3's "Kotter for Vice-Principal", the Sweathogs start a petition campaign for Mr. Kotter to be vice-principal, only for the deadline to run out. In the two-part "The Drop-Ins" at the start of Season 4, as soon as Principal Lazarus retires, Woodman becomes the head principal, while Mr. Kotter moves up to vice-principal.
    • In Season 1's "Whodunit?" Rosalie claims one of the Sweathogs got her pregnant and she wants the father to come forward and take responsibility, only for Rosalie to reveal that she was never pregnant. In Season 3's "The Return of Hotsy Totsy", it is revealed that Rosalie has dropped out of Buchanan High, had a child out of wedlock, and is working at a strip club, with the Sweathogs coming to help her finish high school and get a better job.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: Kotter (phlegmatic/sanguine), Washington (sanguine), Barbarino (choleric), Principal Woodman (choleric/melancholic), Julie (melancholic), Horshack (phlegmatic), and Epstein (leukine).
  • G-Rated Drug: In the episode "What Goes Up ... ", Freddie becomes addicted to painkillers (to heal a basketball injury); a naive Horshack takes Freddie at his word that said pills are "vitamins," while the others are well-aware that Freddie is becoming dependent on them.
  • George Carlin: Guest starring as radio DJ Wally the Wow, and as Wally the Weasel, a former Kotter-era Sweathog.
  • The Ghost: Principal Lazarus.
  • Ice-Cream Koan: The mantra of the cult which Horshack temporarily joins while in pursuit of a girl who can really fill out a sheet.
    What is, is. What was, will be. What will be was but will be again.
  • Insult Backfire: When they have to debate Mr. Welles's group of students, the Sweathogs dress up for the occasion. Mr. Welles ridicules their questionable attire, until they say they got the clothes from the last school play he directed.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Julie points out in "Swine and Punishment" that Gabe doesn't know any actual people, just joke people. Gabe proceeds to tell her about a relative of one of the joke people he just talked about.
  • Lethal Chef: Julie, with her tuna casserole.
  • Mirror Routine: Parodied in "Arrivederci, Arnold", when Mr. Kotter puts on a skit to convince Mr. Woodman to let Arnold back into the Sweathogs; Arnold looks at Kotter, wearing an identical hat, scarf, and coat, with identical lunch boxes, and they both do a few wheezy laughs, with several "Ooh-ooh-ooh!"s, and then Arnold says "Wait a minute: I don't got no mustache..."
  • Morality Pet: Horshack, to the rest of the Sweathogs.
  • Never Win the Lottery: In one episode Kotter chips in a quarter for the Sweathogs' weekly lottery ticket when one of them comes up short. When the ticket then wins, the Sweathogs try to just give Kotter back his 25 cents instead of a share of the winnings.
  • Nobody Touches the Hair: Barbarino is like this.
  • Once an Episode: Kotter tells a joke about one of his relatives.
  • The One Who Made It Out: Gabriel.
  • Parental Neglect: Epstein due to the large number of siblings. One time Epstein went missing for days and no one noticed. His mother also didn't seem to know his name, saying she identifies her kids by a given number.
  • Parental Substitute: Gabe often acted like this for the guys, especially Arnold.
  • Personality Swap: Occurs with Kotter and Woodman in Season 1's "No More Mr. Nice Guy", when Woodman briefly resumes teaching and becomes a Cool Old Guy for a day, even briefly becoming more popular than Kotter, while Mr. Kotter turns grumpy and loses his cool, ordering the Sweathogs to return the stolen chalk back to Mr. Woodman.
  • Poorly Disguised Pilot: Part 2 of "Whatever Happened to Arnold?" focuses on Horshack's family.
    • "Career Day" with Pat Morita as Taro Takahashi for the short-lived spinoff ''Mr. T. and Tina".
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: One two-part episode had Kotter trying to start a stand up career.
  • Referenced by...: Howard Gabriel, a disgruntled teacher who loses his cool after the students taunt him in the "Tunnel" episode of Barney Miller.
  • Running Gag: Epstein's never ending supply of excuse notes, almost always signed "Epstein's Mother".
    • Horshack's very enthusiastic hand-raising in class: "Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Mr. Kotter!"
    • Barbarino's "What?" "When?" "Where?" when Kotter or Woodman is looking for answers to a situation.
    • Whenever Mr. Kotter has just gotten the class in order, he'll say "I don't want any more interruptions", and Mr. Woodman will come into the classroom, saying "Sorry to interrupt you, Kotter" before making an announcement.
    • Julie's infamous tuna casserole.
  • Santa Claus: Appears at the end of both Christmas episodes. Both times Gabe tells him a story about one of his relatives.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: Vinnie had some of this with Judy Borden in the early seasons, even dating for a short time.
  • Signature Laugh: Horshack's asthmatic laugh.
  • Sorry to Interrupt: Whenever Kotter tells the Sweathogs he doesn't want any more interruptions, Woodman will come in on cue and say this before reading the announcements.
  • Studio Audience: " "Welcome Back, Kotter" was recorded live before a studio audience."
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Beau De Lebarre as Vinnie's replacement.
  • Thematic Theme Tune: In fact, the producers of what was originally going to be called Kotter thought John Sebastian's "Welcome Back" captured the tone of the show so well they renamed the show after it.
  • Theme Tune Extended: "Welcome Back" was originally just one verse. DJs suggested recording a full-length version to Sebastian. He did, and it became a #1 hit.
  • Transatlantic Equivalent: The UK sitcom Please Sir!, which predated this one. Some British viewers believe Welcome Back, Kotter is in fact an uncredited remake, but while the shows have similar premises, no one's ever been able to prove plagiarism.
  • Translation Matchmaking: In Italy it's known as I Ragazzi del Sabato Sera (Saturday Night Guys), after Saturday Night Fever.
  • Twofer Token Minority: Puerto-Rican Jew Juan Epstein.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Gabe and Julie, though Gabe is more plain/quirky-looking than ugly.
  • Very Special Episode: "What Goes Up," the Season 3 episode where Boom Boom got addicted to painkillers to heal a basketball injury. Boom Boom is in deep denial, and so is a shaken Horshack – who naively believes Boom Boom's explanation that the pills are "vitamins." The others aren't so fooled and eventually get Boom Boom to realize what he's doing. In the final season, "Come Back, Little Arnold" has Horshack using booze to boost his courage when asking out a new love interest. He snaps out of it after he accidentally punches her out while aiming for one of the guys. Both of them are back to normal by the following episodes.
  • Whole Plot Reference: "Sweatwork" is a spoof of Network, with Horshack in the Howard Beale role.
  • Written-In Absence: As explained above, Kotter was promoted to vice principal in season 4 and appeared less frequently due to Kaplan's feud with executive producer James Komack.


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