For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity. This entry covers Full House, which ran for eight seasons and 193 episodes between 1987 and 1995.
On April 21, Netflix announced that it had picked up Fuller House, a sequel to ABC’s fondly remembered family sitcom Full House. Rumors of a potential follow-up had previously raced across social media, sped along by users who’d grown up with the exploits of the Tanner sisters and their three live-in father figures. They didn’t have to wait long for confirmation: Prior to Netflix’s official, for-immediate-release word, Full House star John Stamos served as a human Fuller House press release on Jimmy Kimmel Live! The placement of the announcement couldn’t have been unintentional: Full House reunion fever took root in late-night in 2014, and Kimmel’s talk show airs on ABC, the same network that broadcast Full House for the better part of a decade. Netflix and its Fuller House producer-star knew exactly who they were speaking to from that couch.
For a show that proves there’s life after death, Full House sure is stubborn about taking its own big sleep. The show has been a constant TV presence since 1987, when it introduced family-hour viewers to the oversized Tanner brood: recently widowed Danny (Bob Saget), his eldest daughter D.J. (Candace Cameron-Bure), sarcastic middle child Stephanie (Jodie Sweetin), and infant Michelle (Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen). With Danny’s brother-in-law (Stamos as Jesse Katsopolis) and best friend (Dave Coulier as Joey Gladstone) moving in to help raise the girls, Full House solidified as a comedy cornerstone on ABC. The series was one of the most popular sitcoms of its era, a Top 30 program for its last seven seasons—peaking at No. 7 in 1992, ahead of Murder, She Wrote; Monday Night Football; and the final season of The Cosby Show.
A merchandise-spawning sensation among young viewers during its original run, the show remains a demographic hit 28 years later: As noted by Vulture’s Josef Adalian, Full House repeats on Nick At Nite frequently “draw more female viewers ages 18 to 34 than new broadcast and cable shows airing at the same time.” The youngest viewers in that demo were born two years after Full House ended, but the show began just as their older counterparts were acclimating to the classroom and the playground—much like Stephanie in the series’ third episode, “The First Day Of School.”
The adults gave Full House its hook—the neat freak (Saget), the comedian (Coulier), and the rocker (Stamos) playing a three-headed Mr. Mom—but the kids saved the show’s bacon. Two of them in particular: Despite Full House’s slow start in the ratings, ABC execs supposedly couldn’t bear the thought of firing Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Even before the character could talk, Michelle stole scenes, scoring laughs whenever the twins’ saucer-like eyes pierced a prickly grown-up exterior. Among the kiddie cast, Sweetin was the most natural with a punchline, and Stephanie’s precocious honesty and built-in catchphrase (“How rude!”) positioned her to be the series’ breakout. But the Olsens eventually toddled to the head of the ensemble, and the show responded in kind, placing a greater emphasis on Michelle storylines as the twins’ vocabulary expanded.
Such a mid-series priority shift was customary for two parts of the Full House core. Though they’re branded on the brains of a generation, the names Thomas L. Miller and Robert L. Boyett won’t be remembered for technical or creative achievements in television. The pair had an eye for on-screen talent—their work on Bosom Buddies and Mork & Mindy helped elevate Tom Hanks and Robin Williams to star status—and they produced an impressive string of hits during their partnership: Laverne & Shirley, Perfect Strangers, and Family Matters among them. But the success of a Miller-Boyett production was not determined by the number of critical accolades received or awards won. Like their associate Garry Marshall, Miller and Boyett’s No. 1 priority was keeping a show on the air, no matter what.
Miller-Boyett shows were extensively retooled until they became ratings smashes: Before he was the pratfalls-and-“Did I do that?” nexus of Family Matters, Steve Urkel was just a one-off guest character on a show about the home life of Perfect Strangers elevator operator Harriette Winslow. In one of the production company’s more notorious moves, it responded to a contract dispute with Valerie Harper by firing the actress from her namesake show. The Harper-less version of Valerie would soldier on for four more seasons, changing titles twice (first Valerie’s Family, then The Hogan Family) and networks once. But it stayed alive, reaching the syndication benchmark and adding to Miller-Boyett’s already-bursting coffers of rerun cash.
Battling a beloved TV star in the tabloids and the courtroom didn’t paint a cuddly picture of Miller and Boyett, but the duo was nonetheless poised to become the name in wholesome, family-friendly programming in the fall of 1987. As that legal drama heated up and Harper’s character met an offscreen, automobile-related demise, Miller, Boyett, and creator Jeff Franklin were putting the finishing touches on Full House. In a bit of morbidly inconvenient timing with the Hogan Family shakeup, Franklin’s Full House pilot also played out in the wake of a fatal car wreck—not that it kept the chipper theme sequence from kicking off with the image of a baby in a car seat.
Before viewers first heard vocalist Jesse Frederick asking for the whereabouts of the milkman, the paperboy, and evening TV, Full House was acquainted with a lack of predictability. What made it to air departed from Franklin’s initial concept: In the middle of the mid-’80s stand-up boom, he’d envisioned the show as the story of three comedians living under one roof. Later, it was suggested that he add kids to the mix. Reflecting on the change in DVD commentary, Franklin cites a cinematic hit whose release coincided with Full House’s debut. “I knew that Three Men And A Baby was going to be coming out soon, so I thought, ‘Well, let’s make one of the little girls a baby.”
Three kids didn’t quite square with three comedians, so Franklin scrapped that aspect of his premise, despite the pair of rising stand-ups—Saget and Coulier—joining General Hospital hunk Stamos as the male leads. House Of Comics, as Franklin had once called his show, was now Full House.
That artistic elasticity carried over to the complete run of Full House, which could be a completely different show week-to-week—or scene-to-scene. Tonal clash was the series’ primary gear, the average episode synthesized from other popular formats: a heartwarming household (à la The Cosby Show or Family Ties) opening its doors to kid-com high jinks, Who’s The Boss-style mixed-family squabbling, and “very special episode” lessons. Whatever happens in the first two acts—Stephanie and D.J. wrestling over the lead role in a cereal commercial, or Michelle running away from home because Jesse caught her playing with his musical equipment—the third act always culminates in a heart-to-heart, a warm embrace, and, if the show did its job, an audible “aww” from the studio audience. In a move that’s one part ingenious, two parts diabolical, composers Jesse Frederick and Bennett Salvay set the stage for these dramatic intrusions with drippy guitar noodling and schmaltzy synth strings, sounds that signaled an oncoming moral as clearly as Saget dropping his voice into a sober, fatherly register.
The very first of these so-called “hug moments” arrives in the second scene of the premiere episode. While introducing his brother-in-law to his new living quarters, Danny, overwhelmed by Jesse and Joey’s generous gesture, wraps the wannabe rocker in a big bear hug. As leather-jacketed, motorcycle-riding types are wont to do, Jesse bristles at the display of affection. “I’m sorry, I’m an emotional guy,” Danny responds. Saget takes a beat, then delivers the kicker. “Okay, let’s face it: I’m a lean, mean, hugging machine.” As the next 190-plus episodes would demonstrate, so is Full House, a tendency eventually spoofed in the series’ two-part finale. Sneaking a little sunshine into a memory-loss plot, an amnesiac Michelle exclaims, “Is it me, or does this family hug an awful lot?”
“It has to do with who we are,” Boyett told the L.A. Times in 1990.
We don’t set out to say what can we do to get a warm moment in this show, but Tom and I aren’t very cynical. We love families and we love building families. We even build [the crew of] each show like a family. We want a certain amount of nurturing people, a certain amount of women and older people. We want a great happy family of people there.
The Tanner-Gladstone-Katsopolis clan did more than hug: They went to new schools together and changed jobs constantly. (Among the many ways Joey and/or Jesse financially supplemented their creative endeavors: cat-food jingles, audio engineering, youth-oriented talk radio, puppet-enhanced children’s television.) They taught each other how to ride bikes and say goodbye to best friends, then opened up not-so-subtle dialogues about make-out parties, teen smoking, and eating disorders. The tradition of ABC sitcoms sending their casts on paid (and filmed) vacations to Walt Disney World begins with Full House’s sixth-season finale, “The House Meets The Mouse.” The show never found a consistent tone, and its characters were never more than quirks and catchphrases (“Have mercy!” “Cut. It. Out!” “You got it, dude”). But Franklin, and his showrunning successors, Dennis Rinsler and Marc Warren, still knew how to craft episode premises that stuck in an audience’s head. Before Friends made “the one with…” a titling convention, Full House put out episodes that viewers could readily recall or catalog as “The One Where Stephanie Loses Mr. Bear,” “The One Where The Tanners Go To Hawaii,” or “The One Where Jesse Opens A Rock Club And Winds Up Locked In A Closet With Kimmy Gibler (Featuring Special Guest Stars Ben Stein And The Del Rubio Triplets).”
Full House didn’t have a formula so much as it had a blueprint with several distinct, interchangeable parts, the versatility of which increased with the age of the Tanner daughters, the length of the call sheet, and the number of writers working with Franklin or Rinsler and Warren. The ensemble ballooned to 12 regulars at its season-seven peak, a casting katamari whose additions included Lori Loughlin as Danny’s co-worker/Jesse’s wife Rebecca Katsopolis (née Donaldson). Andrea Barber jumped to regular status as D.J.’s best friend Kimmy Gibler. Originating as an Eddie Haskell-like foil for the eldest Tanner daughter, Kimmy later devolved into a collection of irritating quirks, retina-scarring fashions, and bizarrely specific odors, the depth of which directly correlated with the rising popularity of Steve Urkel.
Of course, there is no Urkel without Full House. Miller-Boyett got back into family-friendly programming at ABC thanks to Perfect Strangers, but it was the production company’s next effort for the network that established its Friday-night foothold. With Full House ascending alongside Balki and Cousin Larry in the strike-shortened 1988-89 season, the network gave the go-ahead to a full two-hour block of sitcoms with strong youth appeal and hearty moral fiber. In the same time period where viewers had gathered with the Nelsons, the Flintstones, the Addams, and the Bradys, ABC carved out a franchise that would outlast Full House’s original run by five years: TGIF. In TGIF’s premiere season, three of its four series were produced by Miller-Boyett; with the addition of the short-lived Going Places in 1990, Miller-Boyett colonized the entire block.
For better and for worse, Full House’s success as an ABC flagship program influenced a full decade of comedy development at the network. Whereas its half-hour offerings took adventurous new trajectories in the mid-to-late ’80s—the gonzo cop comedy Sledge Hammer! in ’86; the tender coming-of-age period piece The Wonder Years in ’88—Full House and its TGIF brethren presented an appealing, easily replicable template that made big money for the network in the following decade. Promos for another success story of the ’89-’90 season, Twin Peaks, touted that “ABC is starting to look more and more like the network of the ’90s.” With exceptions like Boy Meets World and Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, ABC’s ’90s actually wound up looking more and more like Full House—especially when it came to the theme sequences.
Despite its association with TGIF, Full House only spent two seasons in the block. The show finished its run on Tuesdays, where it moved in 1991 to help cut a path for the next standard bearer of the ABC family sitcom: Home Improvement. The scheduling vaulted the freshman show into a fourth-place Nielsen tie with Cheers, and ABC continued pursuing this strategy through the end of Full House’s run—with diminishing returns. The last three shows slotted behind Full House—Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper (also created by Franklin), Phenom, and Me And The Boys—all cracked the Top 30, but only Mr. Cooper lasted longer than a season.
Fuller House—which catches up with D.J., Stephanie, and Kimmy as they form their own parental triumverate around widowed D.J.’s kids—isn’t the first late-in-the-game attempt to revive Full House. Efforts to keep the series in production began just before it was canceled by ABC: As a Hail Mary pass, Miller-Boyett and the show’s studio, Warner Bros., pitched a ninth season of Full House to Warners’ fledgling broadcast outlet, The WB. The show ended without The WB’s reprieve, but it never really went away, with reruns working their way through various licensees, winding up once more at a former home of Ozzie And Harriet, The Addams Family, and The Brady Bunch: Nick At Nite.
Like the mid-century kitsch objects that helped Nick At Nite stake its claim for 20 years, Full House stays alive on a diet of reverence and irreverence. For every earnest pre-adolescent memory of hunkering down on the living-room floor to catch the latest installment of TGIF, there’s a Full House Reviewed, a Full House Without Michelle, or an Onion article about “That ‘Full House’ Episode Where They Meet The Beach Boys.” The timing of Fuller House is especially apt given the amount of Full House-inspired satire produced in 2014: BoJack Horseman, Too Many Cooks, and the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon segment with John Stamos, Bob Saget, and Dave Coulier that also reunited Jesse And The Rippers.
The cynical view of the Fallon sketch—conducted on the eve of the host’s Tonight Show transition—is that TGIF raised a generation of adults who can only work through tough decisions with their three imaginary dads. Anyone who delighted in the sketch or the Fuller House news just wants to fight the big, scary changes in the world by hugging their nostalgic favorites tight and pretending like it’s still 1990. But here’s the thing: Love it or hate it (probably some combination of both), Full House has hung on to a portion of its original audience and made new fans along the way. The show never really went away to begin with.
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