Welcome Back, Barney Miller

I’ve got a new routine in the morning. Since I’m usually up really early, thanks to my dear wife (who thinks setting the alarm clock before 5 AM is a good idea), I’ll grab a cup of coffee and settle down on the couch to watch an old sitcom. By “old sitcom” I mean one of my favorites from the 1970s. Lately I’ve been on a Barney Miller and Welcome Back, Kotter kick.

I love those shows!

Growing up, both were childhood favorites. I liked the gritty realism of Barney Miller and the way the show mixed quick, often subtle wit with genuine issues of the day. And the fact that most episodes took place solely in the squad room is testament to the likability of the actors. The show never relied on different sets; it was all about the actors’ timing, and the ability to draw you into the story. Wojo, Harris, Yemana, Dietrich – they were all so personable and funny it was hard to pick a favorite. And of course, let’s not forget Fish. Long live Abe Vigoda! Who, as of this morning, is still alive. Plus, that show had the funkiest theme song ever.

Screenshot 2014-05-29 08.53.08

Speaking of great theme songs, Welcome Back, Kotter had one of the catchiest. There’s a reason John Sebastian’s tune reached #1 on the Billboard charts in May, 1976: it’s irresistible. So is the show. How could you not love the Sweathogs? Vinnie Barbarino proved John Travolta was a star in the making, adding several popular phrases to the American lexicon (“up your nose with a rubber hose,” “in your ear with a can of beer”). But Epstein, Horshack, and Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington all had their charms, as well. And of course, Gabe Kaplan was an expert at delivering one-liners. His jokes may have been corny, but then again, the whole premise was corny. But that didn’t detract from the fun of the show. It was pretty forward-thinking at the time, featuring an Italian, a Jew, a Puerto Rican, and an African American all coexisting peacefully. And it didn’t shy away from hot button issues of the day such as alcoholism and drug addiction.

Both shows are obviously dated, but the retroholic in me finds that appealing. They both take place in New York City during the 70s, when the Big Apple was a lot grittier than it is today. Times Square was a place you could catch a peep show or get mugged, rather than duck into the Disney Store or catch a Cup O’ Noodles ad on the Jumbotron. I was there in 1976, with my parents and aunt/uncle/cousin. We rode the subway, which was graffiti-strewn and full of shady characters. I kind of loved it. A recent episode of Barney Miller featured a gay couple and they couldn’t have been more stereotypically effeminate, but that just represented a more innocent (if less enlightened) era. It actually magnifies the humor today, because you’re not laughing at the joke so much as you are the backwards attitudes. The show made up for this later on in its run when one of the precinct officers “came out;” this was the first gay story arc in American television history.

The best thing is, I have gotten Audrey hooked on these shows. She marvels over the “white guy with an afro” (welcome to the 70s, my daughter) and the live studio audience and the opening/closing credits where the cars looked like boats and the Twin Towers still stood proudly. In a sense, it’s like opening up a time capsule. I’m glad she’s getting to experience some of the classics I grew up with.

Hmm. I wonder what she’d think of the hash slingers over at Mel’s Diner…?

Barney Miller cast


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Published by Mark Petruska

I'm a professional writer and editor living my best life in south central Wisconsin.

21 thoughts on “Welcome Back, Barney Miller

  1. “The show never relied on different sets; it was all about the actors’ timing, and the ability to draw you into the story.”

    Mark, you are spot on about that! What a GREAT show that was! As well as Welcome Back Kotter! And hey, it was so cool to view that opening theme song clip because just from the hearing the music, I had a total flashback to when I would watch it!

    And I totally agree with you about NYC in the ’70’s, which is when I lived there.

    “The Big Apple was a lot grittier than it is today. The subway, which was graffiti-strewn and full of shady characters.”

    Yup…I loved all that as well!

    Fun post, buddy! And yeah…I’m a retroholic too!


    1. I sometimes think New York City today is more like one giant theme park ride, right down to the jostling crowds and overpriced food. I liked the edginess that was so rampant in the 70s.


  2. I haven’t seen these shows, but I’m already for them as Abe Vigoda was the grandpa in Look Who’s Talking. That’s just wonderful. *feeling content…and wanting to watch Look Who’s Talking*


  3. I have never seen the shows you mention but I remember when I was still going to school I used to watch “Laverne and Shirley” and “Threes Company” every morning. I was hooked. Sure the shows were dated but the jokes were still just as funny and I appreciated humor that didnt rely on shock value and overt mention of sex. It was a nice change from TV today.


  4. Well, you are speaking my language here! I watched those shows religiously as a kid. Of course, our only choices were ABC, NBC, and CBS. Sometimes PBS, if you turned the bunny ears just right. I remember buying my brother The Barney Miller board game for $5 at KMart for Christmas. And Alice was a fabulous show, too.


    1. Ahh, yes. I remember when HBO and The Movie Channel first came out. That was such a novel concept! I had no idea they made a Barney Miller board game. Maybe I’ll get lucky and find it in a vintage store one of these days.


  5. I used to watch all these shows back in the day & recently caught a re-run of Barney Miller. It didn’t make me laugh like it used to but it was interesting to see what was funny, what was in fashion, etc. from those days!


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