There is one obvious reason to attempt a revival of Welcome Back, Kotter, as Nick at Nite is doing by adding the sitcom to its prime-time schedule: The show’s breakout star, John Travolta, is now more popular than ever, thanks to his recent Oscar-nominated turn in Pulp Fiction. But when Welcome Back, Kotter debuted in 1975, the focus wasn’t on Travolta but on Gabe Kaplan, a stand-up comic who had parlayed a few of his most beloved routines — wry tales of his Brooklyn street youth — into the premise for Kotter.
Kaplan was an unlikely fellow to anchor a sitcom. Throughout Kotter’s four-season stint, his primary facial expression was a fixed smirk. This worked fine for stand-up — it was a signal to the audience that they were in on all the jokes — but as a comedic actor, he was as stiff as the bristly mustache that almost hid the smirk. Lest we forget Kaplan’s roots, Kotter had the star doing bits from his stand-up act in nearly every episode, the material either awkwardly worked into the plot or used as stand-alone scenes to begin and end an episode. As a result of all this, Kaplan looks noticeably ill at ease; it’s no wonder that he opted out of television once the series went off the air.
These days, what with the success of Roseanne, Tim Allen, and Ellen DeGeneres, the notion of a relatively young comic with little acting experience carrying a television show isn’t anything new. But in the mid-’70s, it was still a bit of a novelty. Kotter’s immediate predecessor was Chico and the Man, which had premiered a season earlier and turned young comedian Freddie Prinze into an instant TV star. Chico was executive-produced by James Komack, and Komack saw Gabe Kaplan as his next big meal ticket. What neither Komack nor Kaplan had anticipated was just how much America would love the Sweathogs.
The premise of Kotter — Brooklyn guy comes back to his old neighborhood to teach and encounters a new generation of hoodlums — served as a showcase for a motley quartet: Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino, Ron Palillo as whiny Arnold Horshack, Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs as smoothy Freddie ”Boom Boom” Washington, and Robert Hegyes as dim-bulb Juan Epstein. It was sort of West Side Story meets the Marx Brothers. Indeed, Hegyes had Harpo’s nimbus of hair and inflected his lines like Chico.
Watch Kotter on Nick at Nite and you’ll immediately realize that the Sweathogs have since served as the models for everything from the feather-brained students of Saved by the Bell to (in the case of Horshack) the ultranerdiness of Family Matters’ Steve Urkel. There’s also the added pleasure of nostalgia in viewing Kotter now: You’re as likely to guffaw at the idea of bell-bottoms and mood-ring jokes as you are at the punchlines the scriptwriters intended. But the chief pleasure of Kotter in the mid-’90s is what made all the girls in the studio audience scream in the mid-’70s: Travolta. Sure, a lot of the goodwill a modern viewer has toward Vinnie Barbarino now is because it’s a kick to know what this good-looking, shaggy-haired kid did post-Kotter: became a pop-culture fixture in Saturday Night Fever, proved his legit acting credentials in Brian De Palma’s underrated Blow Out, and embodied the ultimate Sweathog’s nightmare in Pulp Fiction.
Nonetheless, Travolta steals every second of Kotter. (If you don’t think so, check out the late episodes that featured alternative heartthrob Stephen Shortridge.) Travolta’s Brooklyn accent is more convincing than that of anyone else in the cast, and, alone among his costars, he exudes a friendliness and vulnerability that makes the machine-gun pace of the jokes bearable. In his time, Barbarino was Fonzie with a soul; seen now, he’s Travolta on a roll. B-