When “Welcome Back, Kotter” debuted on September 9, 1975, on ABC, viewers were charmed by the sitcom and its endearing group of unruly high school students.
That is, unless those viewers were in Boston. In a controversy that’s become an unforgettable part of the sitcom’s history, Boston’s ABC affiliate initially wouldn’t let the now-classic comedy on its air.
At the time, the city was facing a school busing crisis, one that began in 1974 with a court order to desegregate its public schools. By September 1975, Boston’s ABC station, WCVB, feared that “Welcome Back, Kotter” in prime time would make an already violent situation worse.
Set in Brooklyn, “Welcome Back, Kotter” starred comedian Gabe Kaplan as “Gabe Kotter,” a teacher who returns to his alma mater and leads a multiracial class of wise-cracking troublemakers known as the Sweathogs.
“‘Welcome Back, Kotter’ was not trying to make a statement about integration,” co-star Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs says in a bonus scene from CNN Original Series “History of the Sitcom.” “It just showed you it as a norm.”
But it was far enough from the norm in Boston to put the ABC station’s leadership on edge. In an interview, Kaplan called the station’s decision “the worst kind of censorship,” adding that “there’s really nothing controversial about (the series),” as New Jersey’s Courier-Post printed at the time.
The affiliate was unmoved. “The people who produce the show have said we aren’t carrying it because the show is controversial. That’s not the case at all,” a press rep for the station said in the 1975 interview. “We don’t consider the program offensive in any way. (Station vice president and general manager Robert) Bennett acted independently because of our school situation here.”
While it couldn’t be seen on the Boston station, the new sitcom was a hit elsewhere. “When we came on — on a Tuesday at 8:30 — we got the most insane ratings,” Hilton-Jacobs recalls.
And it wasn’t long before Gabe Kotter’s classroom was welcomed onto WCVB’s schedule, too. By the following school year, the affiliate was also playing the latest high jinks from the Sweathogs.
“Welcome Back, Kotter” didn’t last very long — four years in total, almost as if it were an actual high school class — but its impact during an era of pivotal 1970s comedies has endured.
To Hilton-Jacobs’ point, part of its legacy is the way the show handled diversity.
“You had this racially diverse cast and yet they didn’t make a big deal out of it,” TV historian and Syracuse professor Robert Thompson said in a Los Angeles Times interview in 2012. “They were integrated as something that was natural and at the time not even worthy of comment. That was a pretty progressive thing to do.”
“Kotter’s” success also showed the value of something else: targeting sitcoms toward a younger, teenaged demographic.
“Suddenly ABC attracted this audience that had been so underserved by prime time TV,” Variety TV editor Michael Schneider explains in “History of the Sitcom.” “The kids, the teens, the young people — (‘Kotter’ showed) there’s room for them, for a new kind of show.”
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