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Welcome back, to the same old place we laughed about

The `Kotter' set teaches us that the '70s sitcom can be just as funny today. Class dismissed.

July 10, 2007|Jen Chaney | Washington Post

More than 30 years after the Sweathogs burst onto America's TV screens, are they still funny? You bet that rubber hose up your nose they are.

Fans of "Welcome Back Kotter" -- the '70s sitcom that catapulted John Travolta into the teen-idol stratosphere, gave John Sebastian a hit song and launched myriad infantile catchphrases -- have been waiting patiently for a full season of the show on DVD. They've finally gotten their wish, thanks to the recent release of a four-disc set (retail price: $29.98) packed with all 22 installments from the Buchanan High School crew's first season.

The first thing that struck me as I reviewed such classic episodes as "Father Vinnie" and "The Telethon": The Sweathogs were pretty tame. Juan Epstein, Vinnie Barbarino, Arnold Horshack and Freddie "Boom Boom" Washington were supposed to be juvenile delinquents, but each of them is about as threatening as a Teletubby.

Still, the four actors who played them remain likable, as evidenced by their original screen tests, one of only two extras that appear on this boxed set. Travolta exudes nothing but charisma as he reads for the part of Barbarino (original name: Eddie Barbarini), while Robert Hegyes (Juan), Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs (Freddy) and future "Celebrity Boxing" contender Ron Palillo (Arnold) project pure, youthful confidence during their auditions.

All eventually outshined the show's co-creator and alleged star, Gabe Kaplan, whose lame jokes about his relatives are exactly as groan-inducing as you remember.

The biggest disappointment about this "Kotter" collection is that aforementioned lack of bonus material. In addition to the screen tests, the DVD delivers a decent featurette that includes recent interviews with the cast. But commentary tracks, outtakes or a more in-depth look at the "Kotter" craze are palpably missed.

Also, while it's not surprising, Travolta is the only Sweathog who doesn't show up in the featurette. And for that absence, I just have this to say to Mr. Barbarino: In your ear with a can of beer.

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