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10 episodes that show how Welcome Back, Kotter was like a class in comedy history

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about—without having to watch the whole thing.

Gabe Kaplan started doing stand-up when he was still a teenager, inspired by the comics who passed through the hotel where he worked part-time in the early 1960s. Kaplan’s act featured a lot of impressions and corny old jokes—very much like what his character Gabe Kotter would later do on the hit ABC sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter—but when trends in comedy changed, Kaplan’s schtick changed along with them. By the late 1960s, following the lead of comedians like Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby, Kaplan started telling long stories onstage, mostly drawn from his own life and observations. Then in 1974 Kaplan recorded the album Holes And Mello-Rolls, featuring the title routine, all about the underachieving kids called “Sweathogs” from his old Brooklyn high school.

“Holes And Mello-Rolls” (named after the ice-cream treat that Kaplan talks about in the bit) introduced a lot of the characters and humor that Kaplan and producers Alan Sacks and James Komack would bring to ABC in the fall of 1975. Kaplan’s stand-up act was a little bluer. He talked about his socially inept classmate “Arnold Horseshit,” and the Sweathogs’ go-to insult, “up your hole with a Mello-Roll,” would be softened on Welcome Back, Kotter to “up your nose with a rubber hose.” But otherwise, the main difference between “Holes And Mello-Rolls” and Welcome Back, Kotter is that Kaplan’s stage presence was looser and more relaxed than the loud, broad, catchphrase-heavy sitcom that he’d anchor for four seasons.

It’s hard sometimes to separate the phenomenon that Welcome Back, Kotter became—and how quickly and publicly it all cratered—from the show’s actual quality, which for a time was much higher than its ultimate reputation. Welcome Back, Kotter is sometimes lumped in with all the pandering sitcoms that helped end the early 1970s era of quality TV; and at its worst, the show could be lazy and crass, introducing one slim crisis per episode and then having each actor chew the scenery for a few minutes in over-reaction to it. But right from the start, and all through its first three seasons, Welcome Back, Kotter sported a comic precision that shouldn’t be underrated. Though awards are no arbiter, Welcome Back, Kotter did earn an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series in 1976—and it was well deserved.

Welcome Back, Kotter’s polish was all the more impressive given that the cast was mostly made up of TV newcomers, Kaplan included. Kaplan played Kotter, a former Sweathog who returned to Brooklyn to teach social studies in the special education program of his old high school, Buchanan. There he’d butt heads with the conservative, Sweathog-hating vice principal Mr. Woodman (John Sylvester White) and would become a hero and mentor to the next generation of slackers and pranksters: Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo), a nasal-voiced nerd with a childlike disposition; Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), a tall, super-cool charmer; Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes), a “Puerto Rican Jew” and street-savvy hustler; and Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta), a dimwitted ladies’ man who was the Sweathogs’ team captain.

The first season occasionally featured a lady Sweathog, Rosalie “Hotsy” Totsy (Debralee Scott), who had a reputation for being “fast.” But for the most part the female perspective on Welcome Back, Kotter was represented by Kotter’s wife, Julie, a kind-hearted Nebraskan adjusting to life in a crumbling, crime-ridden 1970s New York. Marcia Strassman, who played Julie—and who died recently—was Welcome Back, Kotter’s unsung hero, because even though Julie’s main job in each episode was to listen to Kotter’s endless jokes and stories about his seemingly unlimited supply of “uncles,” Strassman found new ways to laugh convincingly and show affection, helping to give a foundation to the show’s overarching fantasy. Though it was set in a realistically impoverished Brooklyn, Welcome Back, Kotter trafficked in ideals: the perfect teacher, the ultimate set of best friends, and a loving marriage that could survive a tiny apartment with a fold-out bed and faulty heat. By the middle of the first season, the gentle lilt of John Sebastian’s theme song “Welcome Back” had become an actual welcome, inviting viewers in to a comfortable space.

Behind the scenes, things weren’t so cozy. Kaplan was reportedly so temperamental that by the third season he and Strassman were barely speaking to each other. Meanwhile, Travolta was being courted by the movies, Kaplan’s stand-up act was more popular than ever, and the usual 1970s temptations of drugs and sex were driving wedges between what had been a tight unit when the series began. Welcome Back, Kotter’s decline became most obvious in the fourth and final season, when Travolta and Kaplan no longer appeared in every episode, and the producers awkwardly tried to introduce a new heartthrob: sweet-talking southerner Beau De LaBarre (Stephen Shortridge).

But a certain complacency had set in even in the third season, which features some of the series’ most memorable episodes, but also has many, many examples of the Kotter writers just repeating the same jokes from week to week. The show’s well-worn catch-phrases—like “I got a note,” “Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!,” “Hi there!,” and Barbarino saying “What?” or “Where?” in answer to every question—sprung from the audience’s reactions. If fans liked a line, there was a good chance they’d hear it again. And again. And again. Over time, the gags dulled from repetition. Barbarino seemed to get dumber from year to year, Mr. Woodman became less crotchety and started telling his own bad jokes, and the Sweathogs lost their underclass juvenile delinquent edge, becoming merely genial misfits (with remarkably easy access to props and costumes for their stunts).

Again though, even at its most creatively bankrupt, Welcome Back, Kotter had a rare comedic energy. Kaplan’s stand-up act may have been aping Cosby, but his sitcom was reaching back further, to The Bowery Boys and The Marx Brothers. Kotter and the Sweathogs alike would imitate Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, George Burns, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, W.C. Fields, Jimmy Durante, and The Three Stooges. The whole show was like an encyclopedia of Golden Age Hollywood comedy, and the young cast was surprisingly adept at all of the old moves. All they had to do was walk into a room, exaggeratedly stooped over, and sit down on a sofa in unison, and the studio audience would erupt.

That was the X-factor that Kaplan couldn’t have anticipated when he sold his Sweathogs routine to ABC: how the cast would bring these characters from Kaplan’s own childhood to life, in their own way. Shout! Factory’s Welcome Back, Kotter complete series DVD box set contains a featurette called “Only A Few Degrees From A Sweathog,” in which Hilton-Jacobs says that he knew the show was a hit even before the first episode aired, because the crowd at the tapings was so large and so enthusiastic. Hegyes says he knew they were onto something during the pilot, when each actor introduced his character, establishing the riffs they’d do variations on for the next four years. Hegyes watched everyone do their bit, and smiled and nodded to himself, saying, “These cats can play.”

“The Great Debate” (season one, episode two): In just the second episode of Welcome Back, Kotter—but the first one that ABC aired—the cast is already clicking, and the writers are already making sure that every Sweathog gets a showcase. When Buchanan’s drama teacher/debate coach (played by James Woods) insults Kotter’s crew, Kotter inspires his class to challenge the debate team by doing his best Music Man patter. The “debate” amounts to each Sweathog in turn standing up and running through his or her usual schtick—including Hotsy Totsy, who plays the sexy cheerleader—culminating in Washington doing some hilariously fiery oration, just the way he learned it in church. As would happen frequently in the early days of Welcome Back, Kotter, Kaplan can barely keep a straight face in Kotter’s reaction shots, clearly enjoying the show his younger castmates are putting on. The result is an episode that’s plenty amusing even before it ends with a frustrated Woods sputtering, “In your socks with a pound of lox!”

“Arrivederci, Arnold” (season one, episode 13): The eternal contradiction of Welcome Back, Kotter is that Kotter’s job is to get through to these kids and raise their grades, but if he does too well they’ll be promoted out of special education, and won’t be Sweathogs any more. (And the whole point of Welcome Back, Kotter is that it’s good to be a Sweathog.) In “Arrivederci, Arnold,” Horshack gets called up to the normal classes, which sparks an existential crisis. Kotter wants the Sweathogs to give Horshack the space to succeed in his new world, but the effect of their shutting him out is that Arnold feels isolated and depressed. The trick then is to find a way to bring their old friend back into the fold, by putting on a sketch for Mr. Woodman to illustrate that Horshack will be a smarter student if he stays with the “dumb” kids.

“Kotter Makes Good” (season one, episode 21): A classic bit of turnabout farce ensues when Mr. Woodman discovers that there’s no record of Kotter having ever taken his final exams at Buchanan. The Sweathogs come to the Kotters’ apartment to force him to study, and he decides to give them a taste of what it’s like to be their teacher, imitating all of their worst habits. (Kaplan’s “What?”-off with Travolta is a particular highlight.) It’s Kotter who learns the real lesson though, remembering what a hassle it is to be a teenager, not being able to spend his Saturday playing basketball and watching cartoons because he has to bury his face in an algebra book to try and remember what “integers” are.

“Caruso’s Way” (season two, episode 14): These days, “teacher hits a student” would be the plot of a Very Special Episode, but Welcome Back, Kotter takes a different approach with “Caruso’s Way.” When a gym coach gets sick of Barbarino’s wisecracks and slaps him across the face, Kotter questions Coach Caruso’s methods, mainly because he knows Barbarino has his pride and his position, and is going to have to retaliate. Welcome Back, Kotter wasn’t averse to tackling issues—Washington gets hooked on pills in one episode, and in another Horshack joins a religious cult—but the show was more interested in exploring the characters and their culture than in making statements.

“Has Anyone Seen Arnold” (season two, episodes 18-19): The best showcase for Welcome Back, Kotter’s broadest character (a show that didn’t lack for broadness), this episode begins with Horshack getting the lead in Buchanan’s production of Cyrano De Bergerac, and then having to drop out of the play to get a part-time job so he can take care of his family after his mom’s latest husband dies. The premise here is simple—“What if the most immature Sweathog had to grow up?”—but Palillo is especially sweet and funny in these episodes, which were intended as a backdoor pilot for a possible spinoff series. As Horshack tries to get his younger siblings and his Ma to take him seriously, his mix of optimism and desperation is genuinely affecting.

“Brother, Can You Spare A Million?” (season three, episode five): Welcome Back, Kotter’s crumbling, graffiti-covered sets made sure that no one could forget where these characters lived, and what they lacked. But money is a bigger factor than usual in “Brother, Can You Spare A Million?” When Kotter kicks a quarter into a lottery pool on behalf of an absent Barbarino, the two wrangle over who should get the share of the $1,000 winnings—money that Kotter could use, since he and Julie have newborn twin daughters. Also of interest in this episode: Barbarino’s hospitalization for tonsillitis, which has him spending time on the pediatrics ward. Welcome Back, Kotter always asked for a lot of suspension of disbelief from the audience vis-a-vis actors in their mid-20s playing high school sophomores, but here the writers openly acknowledge the ridiculousness of someone who looks like John Travolta being treated in the children’s wing by a curvy nurse (whom he means to seduce).

“Epstein’s Madonna” (season three, episode 14): When Epstein paints a nude mural as an art-class assignment, the whole school—or at least the parts that were on the show every week—debate whether the painting is art or smut. Complicating Kotter’s opinion? The face of the nude woman was inspired by Julie. (“She’s the only girl I know that don’t have zits,” Epstein shrugs.) It’s a difficult dilemma for Kotter, who wants to encourage one his most persistently problematic students, but can’t deny his embarrassment over what Epstein has done, in one of the third season’s liveliest episodes.

“There’s No Business” (season three, episodes 20-21): The behind-the-scenes conflicts at Welcome Back, Kotter spill over into this quasi-meta two-parter, which sees Kotter getting a shot at being a successful stand-up comedian, using material he’s written about the Sweathogs. Just as Kaplan’s own showbiz ambitions were reportedly making him harder to work with, so this episode has Kotter arguing with Julie and disappointing his students, who can’t understand why he’s so eager to leave them behind. With post-Kotter opportunities popping up for a lot of the cast—especially Kaplan and Travolta—“There’s No Business” asked a question that many people involved with the show were asking. Did they all still need each other?

“The Return Of Hotsy Totsy” (season three, episode 26): Debralee Scott and her character Hotsy Totsy left the show after season one, which robbed Welcome Back, Kotter of the chance to explore the life of a female Sweathog—and how a “bad reputation” means something different for girls. But Scott came back for an episode written by Kaplan, in which the boys go to a strip club in Manhattan and are shocked to find Hotsy dancing there, just trying to make a living as a divorced mother with no high school degree. “The Return Of Hotsy Totsy” is refreshingly open about the Sweathogs’ double-standards. They patronize an exotic dancing establishment, but look down on the dancers; and it takes some scolding from Kotter and Horshack for them to welcome Hotsy Totsy back.

“Washington’s Clone” (season four, episode 10): Each of the multi-ethnic Sweathogs made jokes about race from time to time, but the show was rarely about race. In “Washington’s Clone”—one of the fourth-season episodes with no Kotter, almost no Barbarino, and a few superfluous bits of Beau—a black honors student named Arthur starts imitating Washington, which causes Boom Boom to question what really makes him “bad.” Washington and Arthur never talk about the racial component of their respective identities, but it’s hard for the audience to miss, as Washington worries if his carefully crafted image is giving a smart kid the wrong idea.

And if you liked those, try these: “Whodunit?” (season one, episode 4); “Hello Ms. Chips” (season two, episode nine); “Hark, The Sweatkings” (season two, episode 12); “The Deprogramming Of Arnold Horshack” (season three, episode seven); “Kotter For Vice Principal” (season three, episode 12); “Angie” (season three, episode 18); “What Goes Up” (season three, episode 22); “Don’t Come Up And See Me Sometime” (season four, episode four); “X-Rated Education” (season four, episode eight); “A Little Fright Music” (season four, episode 12)

Availability: Shout! Factory has released a complete series set of Welcome Back, Kotter on DVD; and a “best of” collection of episodes is available from Amazon Instant Video and iTunes. The show also airs on Thursday nights on MeTV.