On September 22, 1989, ABC launched a revolutionary new block of programming that would eventually become a cornerstone of strategic planning for primetime television. Known as TGIF, or Thank Goodness for Fun (boy howdy!), it was believed to be the first attempt by a network to sell fans of its wholesome family sitcoms on multiple series by having the stars of each show introduce the plots of the other series. Basically, on any given Friday night, we could find ourselves in the living rooms of the Tanner or Winslow families, as well as Cousin Larry Appleton, as the characters we knew and loved filled us in on what to expect from their time slot neighbors that night. It was family stacked on family stacked on giant piles of money, and for the first few years, it was a ratings bonanza.
Obviously, 25 years to the week after the debut of TGIF, the landscape of TV programming has changed considerably (here’s a very interesting read from the perspective of some original TGIF series writers about life after corny family shows). Gone is the idea that the average American family gathers around the boob tube to watch that zany Balki Bartokomous do the Dance of Joy, because Friday night programming is typically where TV shows go to die now. Networks have recognized that today’s families are ready to party on Friday nights and don’t have time to lay on their beanbag chairs to watch fake people do fake things. That’s why NBC wised up in 1993, piggybacked on the TGIF formula and success and made Thursday night the “Must-See” home of the best sitcoms.
But what today’s networks and show runners didn’t take from TGIF was, for starters, the showmanship. Just look at this incredible TGIF promo from 1989, featuring the cast of Just the Ten of Us, which is a show that is sorely underappreciated when it comes to today’s 80s nostalgia.
Oh Wendy Lubbock, how I’d like to blame your flirty ways on the downfall of conservative romance in modern relationships, but darn it all to heck if a Young Burnsy didn’t have a super huge crush on you. My TGIF female character crush rankings saved for another day (Dana Foster was and always will be No. 1 – <3 you 4ever, Staci Keanan), the majesty of the many sitcoms that would air on TGIF, at least through the initial run that lasted from 1989 to 2000, remained in the opening credits of each series. I’m not saying that the intros were fun and campy in a corny, “Haha, I can’t believe the guy from Kickboxer who was like a low-rent Keanu Reeves agreed to do that” kind of way.
No, these intros were works of art, as they took the catchy songs of 80s classics like Growing Pains (“Show me that smile again…” good luck getting that out of your heads) and Facts of Life, and combined them with adorable and unintentionally hilarious actor intros that immortalized their characters in our brains and hearts. No show did that better than Perfect Strangers, which week after week retold the story of how both Balki and Cousin Larry found their ways to Chicago and each other, all while set to one of the best TV anthems ever recorded.
The biggest disappointment about Perfect Stranger’s 8-season run from 1986-1993 (with three years as the 9 PM centerpiece of TGIF) was that Balki’s Myposian tuxedo never took off as a classic fashion staple. Also, not that it’s important to the issue at hand, but it’s still semi-relevant to an earlier point – Jennifer Lyons (Melanie Wilson) is No. 3 on the list. But I digress…
When people talk about TGIF, though, the first show that comes to mind if obviously Full House, especially because of the recent overwhelming nostalgia for the series brought about by John Stamos’s desire to become filthy stinking rich by bringing the Tanner family back for new adventures (possibly on Netflix) and probably also a renewed syndication run, which would, again, line his pockets with more green than Snoop Dogg’s bong. Like all successful sitcoms about families, Full House’s cast grew up in front of our eyes, and the opening credits occasionally changed to recognize that. Fortunately, someone went ahead and mashed all of those up for us, and, if anything, this is a great reminder of not only how awesome this theme song has always been, but what a monumental goober Uncle Jesse was.
But damn it, John Stamos sure could pull off the “Hey, check me out, I’m jamming on this guitar” look. Have mercy, you legendary womanizing D-bag. Also, I’d love to investigate a new theory that I have that the Olsen twins were stored in jars of formaldehyde between seasons.
Unfortunately and unfairly crammed into the 9:30 slot for the first two years of the TGIF block was Just the Ten of Us, which was a spin-off of Growing Pains (… “don’t waste another minute on your crying”…) and focused on Coach Graham Lubbock uprooting his huge family (there were 10 of them, in case you didn’t understand the title) and moving from New York to California. While I think the premise was mostly that no matter how many mouths there are to feed under one roof, all a family really needs is love, what remains is the story of a sweatpants-loving dad who would die 30 years too soon because of how much “The Lubbock Babes” stressed him out.
Fun fact: Despite being a typically irritating and therefore very punchable sitcom kid brother, actor Matt Shakman went on to make a hell of a name for himself as a TV director. Some of his most notable and wonderful credits include Childrens Hospital, Happy Endings, New Girl, House, Mad Men, Psych, The Good Wife, Revenge, You’re the Worst, and most impressively 37 episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Speaking of fun facts, the other day as I was chatting with my colleague Isaac at the UPROXX water cooler (it’s actually a Jager machine that hasn’t been cleaned in three years), he revealed that he never realized that Family Matters was a spin-off of Perfect Strangers. Naturally, I snorted and pushed up my costume eyeglasses, because that kind of info is locked away in the “Um, no duh, bro” file cabinet in my useless trivia-filled brain. Family Matters also turned 25 years old on Monday, but it flew under the radar, because pop culture nerds love to pretend that Friends was such a better show.
Truth be told, Family Matters deserves its own feature, filled with the necessary praise that it deserves for being one of the best family sitcoms ever created. Sure, it had its flaws – most specifically, the inclusion of two overly quirky characters in Steve Urkel and Waldo – but Carl Winslow and his family were arguably the best in the TV game, which is why they were on TV for nine seasons.
(I chose the later-season intro, because it’s an incredible reminder of the insane ideas that this series tried to pass off to remain relevant once the well of tropes had dried up. And I’m not saying that as a bad thing; it was downright impressive.)
If I’m drafting a fantasy 80s/90s sitcom family, I’d be hard-pressed to find better picks for TV dad, TV mom and sassy TV grandma than Family Matters. This show had it all, and the lack of retrospectives this week is shameful. We can do better, nostalgic Internet.
Step by Step lasted for seven seasons, and like Family Matters, it switched over to CBS for one forgettable season once ABC was done with it. As far as a show that we should celebrate, I won’t pretend that this one deserves to be showered with praise, mainly because it was a really transparent knock-off of The Brady Bunch. Family Matters might have hid behind the plot device that Frank and Carol met while on vacation, and they just decided to get married first and then worry about how it would affect their children (three each, of course) later, but it was The Brady Bunch. We’re not stupid, ABC.
But where Step by Step let us down in creativity, it more than made up for in really killing it with the character intros in the opening theme. The way that each of them does the “stand and smile” routine is amazing. You can enroll in every acting school in the world and learn from the greatest thespians that have ever lived, and you will never be able to transition from an action to staring at something in the distance and smiling the way that the actors on this show did. Sasha Mitchell, who was sort of shoehorned into the show as “something for the ladies,” was not a good actor by any means, but look at this –
Speaking of topics that could have their own features, Brandon Call’s high-and-tight fade in that intro is so 90s that slap bracelets suddenly appear on my arms when I look directly at it. Never forget: Call was the original Hobie Buchanon on Baywatch before Jeremy Jackson came along. We should feel blessed that David Hasselhoff let him go so he could bring his bro-next-door charm to TGIF.
Unfortunately, not every show that found its way into the carousel of series on TGIF was a guaranteed hit. In 1990, Miller-Boyett Productions, which was basically ABC’s version of Chuck Lorre, served up its next family sitcom in Going Places, which was about young TV writers trying to make it in show business. It’s amazing that this show never caught on, at least because the cast included Heather Locklear at the top of her game and Alan Ruck of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off fame. But if I had to guess based on the opening credits alone, this show failed because of its own over-the-top hubris.
That’s just way too busy to follow. It’s like they took all of the other opening credits that had been made for TGIF to this point, wrapped them up into one and injected them with a steroid that targets clichés and turns them into the Incredible Hulk. Also, in my unofficial ranking of 80s sidekicks, Jerry Levine (AKA Stiles from Teen Wolf) is definitely in my Top 3 of most punchable A-holes. Having been an average American TV viewer for such a long part of my life, I have to assume that the rest of my fellow average American TV viewers agreed, and that’s why Going Places got the boot after one season. However, what followed wasn’t much better.
Baby Talk, loosely-based on Look Who’s Talking, was television’s version of diaper rash for the eyes. If TV executives did anything well in the late 80s and early 90s, it was not adapting popular movies as sitcoms. Ferris Bueller and Clueless (also a TGIF series) are two off the top of my head, but Baby Talk is all anyone should ever need as an example. How they could make a series that had Scott Baio and young George Clooney with that classic 90s hair and not make it about two bachelors living a life of chasing babes and learning lessons is beyond me. Like Going Places, ABC called for Baby Talk to be overhauled, but no amount of changes would ever save this terrible idea.
Once Full House became a megahit and was moved to Tuesday nights and Perfect Strangers ended in 1993, the beloved Boy Meets World moved into the 8:30 spot, while Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper took over at 9:30, leaving Family Matters as the powerful lead-in series and Step by Step as the anchor at 9. Boy Meets World’s intro took the standard TGIF theme, with the boy next door charm of Ben Savage, and combined it with the day’s hottest graphic design, taking advantage of every last image that was conveniently available in the extended Print Shop catalog.
Some would say that the sitcom intro game changed forever, though, with the debut of Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper on September 22, 1992, as the show brought in the musical star power of En Vogue to help let us know just how awesome of a guy Mr. Cooper actually was. The show switched theme songs for each of the three seasons, but I won’t recognize either of the other versions, because they did not involve En Vogue.
By the time that TGIF’s first run was winding down in 2000, Boy Meets World was still carrying the lineup on its back, while the rest of the series around it were moved around like banged up movie posters on a freshman’s dorm wall. Sabrina, the Teenage Witch started in the 8:30 spot and then moved to the 8 and 9 spots over the final four seasons, and by 1997, the lack of quality and effort in the show’s opening credits was overwhelmingly hard to watch.
It’s almost depressing to go back and watch that Perfect Strangers intro and then follow it with Melissa Joan Hart playing magical dress-up. But that’s the good thing about nostalgia and revisionist pop culture history, as we can pick and choose what we like, instead of letting this story of catchy songs and corny smiles wind down like a Martin Scorsese film. So on this week of the 25th anniversary of ABC’s classic TGIF programming block, I say that we should all stand tall, perhaps on the wings of our dreams, and remember these sitcoms not for their characters, stories or morals, but for the songs that still get stuck in our heads more than two decades later.
After all, we’re nowhere near the end, the best is ready to beginnnnnnnnnnnnn. Seriously, it has been stuck in my head all damn day.