Thank goodness! An oral history of ABC's TGIF
Time-travel back to the most wholesome, wackiest, family-friendliest TV lineup of the '90s
Starting Sept. 29, more than 800 hours of TGIF programming will hit Hulu for the first time. Revisit the iconic '90s staple with our exclusive oral history…
Once a week on ABC, America comes together for the Shondaland Thursday trifecta of sex, murders, and scandals. But there was a time, far more innocent, when the country settled in for an evening of family, friendship, life lessons, and probably a little too much studio laughter.
Before TGIT, there was TGIF.
TGIF, or Thank Goodness It's Funny, was a Friday-night block of comedies featuring some of the most iconic, innocuous pop-culture touchstones from the late '80s into the '90s. Full House. Family Matters. Step by Step. Boy Meets World. It was an era when nerds were heartthrobs, wholesome was wholly acceptable, and the only danger came from forgetting to turn off the TV before 20/20 started. These shows helped raise a generation of millennials, whose social-media appetites for the '90s has fueled reboots of Boy Meets World (Girl Meets World debuted last year on Disney Channel) and Full House (coming to Netflix in February: Fuller House). With America fast approaching peak nostalgia levels, EW revisited that lost era to tell the story of a TV golden age from the actors, producers, and network executives who brought it to life.
When current Disney CEO Bob Iger became president of ABC Entertainment back in the spring of 1989, he inherited a lineup of Friday prime-time comedies, including two established shows executive-produced by Happy Days vets Thomas L. Miller and Robert L. Boyett. Both programs had moved from other nights: Full House, a sweet family sitcom about a widowed newscaster who raises his three daughters with the help of his brother-in-law and best friend, and Perfect Strangers, a buddy comedy about a Chicago bachelor whose Mediterranean shepherd cousin shows up unannounced at his doorstep. Assuming the reins of a network at a time when audience viewing habits were becoming increasingly fragmented, Iger saw an opportunity on what had become one of the lowest-watched nights of the week, pairing Full House and Perfect Strangers with sitcoms Family Matters (featuring Reginal VelJohnson as a blue-collar cop patriarch) and Just the Ten of Us (the Growing Pains spin-off centered on Bill Kirchenbauer's Coach Lubbock).
BOB IGER: A lot of families weren't watching TV together as much as when I was growing up. But I thought, "If we could program shows where parents and kids could watch together, we'd be better off from a ratings perspective."
TED HARBERT, then-exec VP, ABC Entertainment: As soon as they can get out of the house, teens leave on Friday nights. You're left with parents and their kids, and that was the original concept behind the Friday-night comedies that became TGIF.
IGER: I noticed in looking at our Friday nights that the other networks had dramas. So I said, "Let's push the fact that we're the only ones that are funny on that night."
ROBERT L. BOYETT, executive producer: We were just looking for a promotional hook for multiple shows on Friday, a bridge to get from one show to the other and keep people watching. At the time we came up with it, we didn't know how long this schedule would stay the same, and whether it would even be our shows or other people's shows. Nobody anticipated the phenomenon it would become.
Who exactly came up with the idea of co-opting — and reinventing — the acronym that spelled end-of-the-week relief? That depends on whom you talk to and how well they remember a few meetings in the late 1980s.
BOYETT: If anybody brings up TGIF, my first thought is how it came about because I personally created that phrase. In an office sitting with the people from Warner Brothers promotion and publicity, I said, "Oh, why don't we do like something like TGIF?"
HARBERT: We sitting in a marketing meeting and it was Bob [Iger] that said, "Let's call it TGIF," and then we were off to races.
STUART BLOOMBERG, then-exec VP of ABC Entertainment: My memory is that the whole phrase TGIF was really out of on-air [promotion] and Jim.
Under the direction of then-ABC Entertainment vice president of marketing Stu Brower, on-air promo writer-producer Jim Janicek had been tasked with branding Friday night's comedies.
STUART BROWER, then-VP of on-air promotion, ABC Entertainment: Jim was working on this night of programming so we were talking about the best way to do that. I'm pretty sure the notion of TGIF was his.
JIM JANICEK, executive producer of TGIF: We had 10,000 different names. … Friday Night Funnies, Fresh New Funnies, Friday Fun Club, Friday Laugh Factory, Friday Night Laughtacular, Time for Fun — [that last one] became part of the first theme song. … TGIF was on there; however, there was an existing restaurant chain, and there also was the existing phrase, "Thank God It's Friday," so part of me was concerned that we would not get through our title clearance side. I wasn't really betting on that being the name.
MARK ZAKARIN, then-senior VP of marketing, ABC Entertainment: Jim and Stu sent over five or six titles, and when I talked the titles over with Stu, he said, "We could call it TGIF, but we'd probably run into broadcast standards problems." I said, "In my mind, the best one is TGIF because it's not just a silly name, it's actually an emotion. And it's a phrase that people recognize. You're not trying to sell a new axiom." There was some sensitivity that you could never use the word God. And I said, "TGIF doesn't have to be Thank God It's Friday — it could be some variation, it could be Thank Goodness It's Friday." I thought that probably would get by broadcast standards.
IGER: I said, "How about calling it ‘Thank Goodness It's Funny'?" We didn't want to use God. … It's so funny because even to this day people say, "Well, ‘Thank God It's Friday' really worked," and I said, "It was ‘Thank Goodness It's Funny.' I don't think anybody even remembers that. Part of it was the result that I was an inveterate punster. I did have the idea to promote the night as though it was funny because of the dramas on the other networks. Then the TGIF thing hit me, which was such a double entendre. Anyway, I'm just bad at humor but I'm good at corniness.
There was no lack of corniness when TGIF officially launched on Sept. 22, 1989 with the Full House/Family Matters/Perfect Strangers/Just the Ten of Us slate.
IGER: It took off very quickly. We kind of knew right away. It turned out to be a phenomenal counterprogramming strategy.
ZAKARIN: The research department would let us know what percentage of the audience from the 8 o'clock show would flow into the 8:30 show, what percentage from the 8:30 show would flow into the 9 o'clock show, and so on. And as those numbers were reaching 90 percent or greater, we went, "Whoa. It's working." It went from an experiment to an institution.
A chord was clearly struck with viewers, in part due to the earnest family formula mastered by Miller and Boyett, who produced three of the night's four shows.
BOYETT: There were two basic elements that we felt were important: One was to give every show some moment of real human connection. That's what Tom and I called it; today they call it heart. The second thing was, we tried to fulfill the fantasy where a dad would sit on the sofa and say, "What's the problem, son? Let's talk." We never avoided that scene. In fact, because it was born with Tom Miller, the writers referred to it as "Miller Time."
BOB SAGET, Full House: The idea was, everybody's problems are getting listened to. That formula made it so special for families and kids. And they followed through with the other TGIF shows. … Every character got served. Everybody had a story.
CANDACE CAMERON BURE, Full House: As a kid, I didn't realize how cheesy some of the moments were. I loved it. I only knew it was sugary-sweet because people would say it was. In the moment, I thought they were sweet and heartfelt. I thought, "Well, this is what a sitcom is all about."
BOYETT: The other thing the audience was getting from Miller-Boyett shows was a consistency. They'd get physical comedy, which was not in a lot of family shows and still isn't today. We believed in doing physical comedy, and it got a lot of laughs. A typical half-hour of ours gave you more laughs than a two-hour movie you went to see at the theater. You got a lot of bang for your buck.
HARBERT: I would have to put Tom and Bob up in the same pantheon as Aaron Spelling and others, in terms of having influence over television in that era. The thing I like about those guys is that they were very respectful to the process. They weren't saying, "Here's your next show. You're putting it on." They went through the developing process with Stu Bloomberg. They went through the casting process. We did cancel shows of theirs. We went through mostly great times, but there were some tough times, and when you're a producer of their stature, getting cancellation calls from the network is never easy. That was relatively rare. I was proud of them that they wanted to have all four half-hours.
IGER: Interestingly enough, Full House had not established itself as that much of a success when it was tried in different time slots earlier in the week. And it was Friday night and putting it as the anchor of TGIF that really gave it the lift.
JEFF FRANKLIN, creator, Full House: I think it was extremely smart of ABC to brand the night, to package those shows and try to create a two-hour event that kids would look forward to. I think it benefited ABC immensely. I'm not sure that the ratings for Full House would have been any different, whether TGIF existed or not.
Early on, there was at least one faith-testing moment. Viewers were responding to the night, but not necessarily in the way that everyone expected.
JANICEK: It was probably about eight months in that the research department at ABC started running Qs — recognizability factors where they hold up a card and say, "Who's this?" I think it was [a picture of] someone from Full House, and what was happening was people were saying, "Oh, that's the guy from TGIF." As I recall, it sent shudders down the network, where people were like "Oh my gosh, we've gotta get rid of this thing, TGIF, because it's confusing people." And Bob Iger was adamant. He said, "This is a brand. We have something here and suddenly the whole is greater than the sum of the parts."
IGER: I don't remember whether it was Tom Miller or Bob Boyett that freaked out, or if it was our executives, or both. Freaking out might be too strong a word — there was trepidation. I said it didn't really matter. We were onto something big and we should milk it for what it was worth. I was looking at more than a glass half full at the time.
One vital part of TGIF's success would emerge during the first season of Family Matters, a show which had struggled to find its footing, having primarily been pitched simply as a response to The Cosby Show. About halfway through its first season, a character would be introduced who would not only define the show and the lineup, but make television history.
MICHAEL WARREN, co-creator, Family Matters: Family Matters was probably the weakest pilot we'd ever written. We were in this trap of having to do a different pilot every week [hoping we'd] find out what the show was. And then, around episode 12, we introduced the character Steve Urkel, who was never meant to be a series regular. He was cast just for this episode. And it was one of those moments you dream of in television.
JALEEL WHITE, Family Matters: I was just a black kid doing a bad Ed Grimley. For my first taping, a frat showed up. Any scene that I wasn't in, they were chanting, "Urkel! Urkel! Urkel!" Like, "We don't want to watch this s—, bring the nerd back." I'm coming out between scenes and waving at them, and I'm not a star in the least — as a matter of a fact, I walked with them to their cars because we were all parked in the same structure.
WARREN: Tom and Bob and Bill and I met in a corner of the room and said collectively, let's sign this kid up immediately. And in fact, we started shooting scenes with him to be put into episodes that we had already shot so we could get him on the air sooner.
WHITE: I felt I'd entertained those guys, more than I've entertained anybody, ever. We taped it on Friday, and on Monday, I was at school and I was called out of class — they signed a deal for me to come back for the rest of the season.
BLOOMBERG: Family Matters took off with Urkel. He blasted out of there. It might be the child in me but as soon as they created that character and he said, "Got any cheese?" you just knew. The big glasses, the nerd, how he was so strong and could go up against Reggie [VelJohnson]. It was great. I got it.
HARBERT: I said, "What the hell is Steve Urkel?" It's the craziest character I've ever seen, yet the ratings don't lie. Kids thought he was hilarious. A 12-or 13-year-old boy saying, "Did I do that?" People said, "Ted, shut up — it's working."
WHITE: Tom and Bob's real gift is that they just knew who people would watch, whether it was Cody on Step by Step or me or, man, did America love Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Whatever spiritual, cosmic connection they made with audiences, Tom and Bob knew how to pick those babies out of a crowd.
IGER: The biggest surprise was how big a success Family Matters became. I was watching a basketball game with my sons last night, and there was a car commercial with Jaleel White in it. And I said to my boys who are 17 and 13, "I put that guy on TV!" And they said, "You did?"
Urkel became a national sensation (eat: Urkel-Os; wear: Urkel backpacks; play: Do the Urkel! board game). In the spring of 1991, ABC unveiled another breakout character and a key addition to the lineup: the live-action fantasy Dinosaurs, from a pitch by the late Jim Henson and his son Brian.
MICHAEL JACOBS, executive producer, Dinosaurs: Brian was pitching Jim's idea that dinosaurs had domesticated and started families, and I said there was one more element we should consider: "What if that was the reason they went extinct?" We wanted Dinosaurs to be a little more biting in its satire. We went after the oil companies. We went after corporate America. I don't think [the network] knew it's what we were doing in the beginning. I think you're allowed to do anything on television as long as they don't understand what you're doing until it airs.
BLOOMBERG: Dinosaurs was a blast. The characters, the subversiveness of it. It was not just an animated kids show. At all. I mean, it was dark. It was a worthy, worthy gamble. And then when Baby was created, we really thought that could be the homerun.
JACOBS: We were missing a narrator, and I said, "What if a baby hatched right out of the egg and started talking?" And [co-creator] Bob Young immediately said, "Not the mama." We suddenly stopped talking about the rest of the characters. The Baby changed everything. And then I remember going into the Creature Shop where we had designed Earl Sinclair as this eight-foot-tall barroom bully with this great, jutting, formidable chin. And once we introduced the Baby and realized this father would be at odds with this child, we had to make him a much more put-upon, everyman dinosaur. I remember this fellow took this tiny toothpick-sized instrument and started to shave the chin a millimeter. I went across to the wall and I picked up a shovel.
HARBERT: I always struggled, frankly, with the 9:30 show. We didn't get 9:30 always right. We did Going Places and Baby Talk and Dinosaurs, which I loved and was hoping it would catch on more. I thought Michael did a fantastic job making a very different show. I actually thought Dinosaurs had a bigger shot because I thought it worked on so many levels, a cute little baby that said, "Not the mama." I thought was great, and it had adult appeal.
JEFF BADER, then-scheduling/programming exec, ABC Entertainment: When Dinosaurs premiered, we were shocked. It did a 72 share of kids in its premiere and I remember we were saying, "We will never see that again." It was so enormous.
JACOBS: Dinosaurs was called the next big thing, and every other possible thing that could kill a television show. Telling the audience how good it was in advance certainly hurt us. The show did well on Friday night, and when it was moved to Wednesday, we ran solidly if not spectacularly for another four seasons. If we were kept on Friday nights, the show might still be running.
Indeed, something special was happening on Fridays. TGIF wasn't just a slogan slapped across the night: it was also a carefully orchestrated and ambitious promotional strategy built around interstitials that were threaded throughout the evening. Developed by Janicek, these segments, which included an animated mice intro and theme song, featured the actors fostering a sense of community from their shows' living room sets, goofing around and teasing the action to come that night. The shows' running times were even trimmed to accommodate the interstitials.
JANICEK: I grew up in the Midwest, and every Sunday we as a family would sit down on the couch and watch Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom and Disney Sunday Movie. I remember the feeling, and as a kid I was so fond of that, and I really wanted that again.
IGER: I'd always wanted to do this — it was the equivalent of welcoming viewers into our homes to watch TV with the cast. [We had] the cast members of each of the four shows shoot interstitials from the living rooms of their fictional homes, as though they were getting ready to watch TGIF with popcorn and blankets.
BLOOMBERG: I don't know anybody else who was doing it. And a two-hour block where you didn't tune out at the half hours? Brilliant.
BROWER: On this night all of our comedies were all families, even though they were different kinds of families. Full House was certainly not a traditional one. All of the research on TGIF was that it was a really strong co-viewing situation where the parents watched with their kids, whether the kids brought the parents to the set for the earlier-in-the-night shows and the kids hung out with the parents for the later shows. We thought [the interstitials] were a good way to have the parents and the kids on the shows interacting directly with the parents and the kids who were watching.
ZAKARIN: Doing something that's a little innovative, which this was, means you have to bring a lot of the elements of the network together. Miller-Boyett had to carve out some time [from their shows]. The production costs were minimal and mostly borne by Miller-Boyett because they would use their sets and bring their talent and we would call it promos, so there wasn't any talent payment for it. … It never, ever would have happened without Miller-Boyett. They recognized the audience flow value of trying to establish this branded element.
Perfect Strangers stars Bronson Pinchot and Mark Linn-Baker also saw the value in reinforcing this brand, gamely emceeing some of the earliest TGIF segments.
MARK LINN-BAKER, Perfect Strangers: All of these shows — we were already a really big family. It wasn't hard to put that frame around something that already sort of felt like it had that frame. We're all on the same lot, working next to each other and creating shows that were all airing on ABC. To host this evening with all these shows together made sense.
BRONSON PINCHOT, Perfect Strangers: It's probably where Mark and I forged the friendship that's still going strong because we used to pride ourselves on getting so high on performance adrenaline and doing the show in basically one take. So that really took a toll on us and we were just ragbags at the end. Then we would do hours, hundreds and hundreds, of those interstitials, and nobody outside of that strange duo that persists to this day could have talked us up and said, "This is why this is good for you." We did it for each other.
LINN-BAKER: We would shoot them after a show, so we were tired, a little loopy, and I remember it being fun. It was fun for the first hour then we'd get really tired. And then it would get really fun again.
PINCHOT: We played little games. We were both afraid of losing our hair so we made up a Russian roulette game, while the cameras were there, we would wrap masking tape around our hands and then you would stick it on the other person's, the back of his head where the hair was getting loose and just pull it off, and however many hairs pulled off was how many punches you got. We used to say that we reminded each other of two trolls that were hiding under a bridge laying in wait for passersby so we could reach up and grab them because we had so many private jokes nobody could even understand us.
KAREN MILLER, coordinating producer, Miller-Boyett Productions: Those were the moments where [the TGIF actors] would be in character and they would be dressed in character, but often times you had them out of character by virtue of the ad-lib. You caught them in the moment at the end of the day, when they were probably in some cases a little crankier, a little funnier. And I think that was part of the charm of it. It'll be interesting if someone tells you, "Boy, those things were a pain in the ass to do because everybody was always making us stay late."
WHITE: They were a complete pain in the ass, and we didn't even get any extra money for that.
FRANKLIN: Even though they seemed like no big deal, they required extra work to be cute and entertaining little pieces. We had to carve time out of our day and make sure that they were fun. They were our characters, they were in character, they were on our set — I wanted to make sure that they were as good as they could be. We were good soldiers, but [neither] the cast nor I was super excited to be doing those promos, and it linked us with shows that in some cases were not great shows. Nobody was thrilled about that, to be honest.
BEN SAVAGE, Boy Meets World: Those were fun! I always liked them. They would center them around, like, the holidays, so it'd be a Halloween or Thanksgiving or Christmas night. I think it was fun because it made it this familiar family night and brought the whole night together and put a ribbon on it.
The spots would expand beyond the living room sets, filming at SeaWorld, by the space shuttle, and even at a U2 concert …
JANICEK: We took Danielle Fishel from Boy Meets World to U2's launch of the Pop Tour in Vegas. We had made an agreement to get Bono and the Edge on camera with us during TGIF. We had people standing by in New York and L.A. [to] put it on the air. We're standing there in the green room with Winona Ryder next to us, and we meet Bono and Edge and then they tell us, "We're so nervous about what we have to do with the show that we can't do this with you right now." And we were like "What?" We had promoted it and we're like, "We're gonna look like we got our pants down here." So, Danielle and I and our camera crews ran to the top of the stadium, turned around the cameras and filmed back down [on] this huge massive stadium of a crowd and Danielle goes, "I'm here at the U2 Pop concert launch!" and did this live bit from that. It turned out fine and we got to meet Bono and we got some great seats, but watching the concert we're like, "Hey, you were supposed to be on our show!"
TGIF synergy wasn't only found in interstitials, but also in the episodes themselves. There were theme nights and crossovers, some of which were even used to helped lift off entirely new shows.
PATRICK DUFFY, Step by Step: They launched our series with Urkel, wearing a rocket pack, taking off from his show and landing in our backyard. When they did that, I thought, "These guys are gods of television. They can do anything they want."
WHITE: Nobody would've asked Rachel to be on Seinfeld at NBC, but it was a very organic request to say, "We need Urkel on Full House."
BOYETT: We tried not to overdo it. This was long before the phrase "jump the shark" was invented, but we honestly did try not to jump the shark.
WARREN: Everybody was looking for ways to use an existing show to promote a new show. There was a [Family Matters episode] where Urkel and Carl go to some kind of policeman's conference — I don't even remember why in the world Urkel would go with him. But they're going to Chicago and they get lost and wind up in the Step by Step household, which to me is even more absurd than his rocket pack landing him there. Oh boy, those were the days.
Full House eventually moved to Tuesdays, the network's biggest night. ("Friday night was kiddieland," says Full House boss Franklin. "It was the crowning achievement of Full House to make that move and be in a lineup with Roseanne.") It was replaced with Step by Step, which was a blended-family comedy with a slight twist to the Brady Bunch premise: The kids fought, a slacker (Sasha Mitchell's Cody) lived in a van in their driveway, and the parents dared to have a sex drive. It boasted an established sitcom star, Three's Company's Suzanne Somers, and a not-so-established one: Patrick Duffy.
DUFFY: When I was going to leave Dallas the first time, my producer [Leonard Katzman] told Bob and Tom that one of the Dallas cast was leaving and would be very good in a comedy. They, in unison, said, "Larry Hagman's leaving Dallas?" And he said, "No, Patrick Duffy's leaving Dallas." They said, "He's not funny." Leonard said, "He's the funniest guy on the entire set!" He gave Tom, Bob, and [Step by Step creator] Bill Bickley outtakes from Dallas. Based on that, they brought me in. … Everything was tabled for another five years. … And then as soon as Dallas was canceled, I started working on Step by Step.
WARREN: Step by Step was about how Patrick and Suzanne fall in love, but their kids hate each other. It was an ongoing battle with ABC — we kept getting notes like "Why do these kids have to be so antagonistic towards each other?" And we said, "Well, that's kind of the premise."
HARBERT: Step by Step was really nothing but a redo of Brady Bunch. Yet, they did good casting — attractive adults with funny kids.
BADER: There was a running joke that during our testing, Step by Step was exceptionally below average. By all signs it shouldn't have worked, and how long was that show on for? Kids loved it and families loved it.
DUFFY: It was fun to play a mature doofus character who still had a whole sex drive that Tom, Bob, Bill, and Michael Warren recognized and wrote to. Suzanne and I always thought it was very giving of them to not make us just this Dagwood and Blondie kind of parenting, but we had our own life, and half the time the kids got in the way. It was really a nice take on married life.
By all measures, TGIF was a family force to be reckoned with. Twenty million viewers were tuning in every week in the 1991–92 season, laughing along at those ubiquitous catchphrases like Baby Sinclair's "Not the Mama," Urkel's "Did I do that?," and Michelle Tanner's "You got it, dude!" (delivered with maximum cutesiness by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen). Advertisers were paying a premium for this unique audience, as children and their parents were watching in big numbers — and making global commodities of its stars.
SAGET: I was in Paris, and somebody started saying [the French title] La Fête à la Maison to me, which means "party in the house." And then I found out that my voice in it was very high-pitched, almost like a little puppet. It made me feel kind of cool, but also ashamed.
PINCHOT: I was in South Africa at a huge banquet for Nelson Mandela, and his assistant came over with a note [from him] that said, "I'm dying to meet you, but if I go to your table I have to go to everyone's table. But I wanted you to know that I know my cousin is here." That's what it said: "I know my cousin is here." Nelson Mandela. Winnie Mandela introduced me to all the chieftains, and she gave me such a hug that I still think I've got some broken ribs.
BADER: Every kid was watching it. It was a cultural phenomenon. I remember bringing scripts for all the TGIF shows to the elementary school that I went to for the language arts program to use in their reading programs, because everybody was infatuated with it.
PINCHOT: I was in an airport going somewhere and there was a big hullabaloo. Someone famous was getting off a plane and everybody's looking and of course I craned to see who it was too. And the man next to me — a nice, big, paunchy middle-American man with his kids — elbowed me very, very affectionately in the ribs and said, "Balki, look! It's Gregory Hines!" Somebody did something right, because we were part of the family and other people were actors.
FRANKLIN: The first time it really hit me that we had become part of the pop culture was when Mad magazine put us on their cover and did a whole spoof on Full House. All of a sudden, not only are we on the cover of TV Guide every other week, but people are starting to do jokes on The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live.
CAMERON BURE: The Internet had just started and one of the first interactive fan clubs that popped up online was a site called Celebrity Sightings, and a bunch of us teenagers on these TGIF shows were [on it]. We had events — me, Jodie [Sweetin], Andrea [Barber], Christine Lakin, the Savage brothers, Danielle Fishel, Ryder Strong. There would be parties every so often. The Internet wasn't as developed as what's easy for us to do now [on social media]; we actually had to gather together in a building and manually take pictures to say, "Hey, we're here."
WHITE: Michael Jordan brought his kids to see Family Matters shoot while he was doing Space Jam. We didn't have selfies then, but there would have been 200,000 likes.
TGIF pleased the people, but very few of them were critics — and even fewer were Emmy voters.
HARBERT: There was plenty of eye-rolling. One thing that's interesting when you're a network exec is to watch how much you're frustrating critics. They don't understand why ratings are that high, and it kind of pisses them off. There was always a small joy in that, because we're here for the viewers.
DUFFY: On Dallas, Hagman would always say, "Forget the awards, go for the money." You just never cleared out any mantel space when you were on a TGIF show. It just wasn't going to get any attention or that kind of validation within the industry. I learned that on Dallas, so it didn't really bother me, but I could see how hard everybody worked and how talented our cast was, how brilliant Sasha was, how brilliant Staci Keanan was — probably one of the most gifted actresses I've ever worked with — [and] Suzanne's provenance is unquestionable. Everything was so good that every once in awhile, I would think, "Gosh, it would be nice if so-and-so would be recognized." But I would rather have had my seven years on Step than three years on another show and an Emmy.
PINCHOT: When The Sound of Music came out, the critics panned it, but everybody went to see it and Oscar Hammerstein's famous and very witty line was, "Nobody likes it except people."
SAGET: Critics just hated it. It was just beat to crap, and we didn't care. It's made for 12-year-old girls. We need more 12-year-old girls being critics. So that show and Small Wonder would've won the Emmy.
PINCHOT: Variety always said dismissive things about it, but Charles Shultz and Lucille Ball thought it was awesome, so thank you, but I'll take them.
HARBERT: The affiliates would say sometimes, "What's the deal with these shows?" When TGIF went on and we got some criticism, [there was] nothing like good ratings to make those criticisms go away.
WHITE: I will never have anything bad to say about Tom and Bob because those are some of the most powerful men in all of television, and quite frankly I think there are a lot of people that resented it because they didn't get nominated for any Emmys. Their stuff was not considered of that caliber.
HOLLY ROBINSON PEETE, Hangin' With Mr. Cooper: We were considered super cornball. I remember at the same time, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had a very TGIF-ish vibe but was on NBC. I remember looking at them and going, "Gosh, they get to do a little more." My contemporaries were like, "You're on that family night and you're 20. Don't you wish you were doing something a bit more edgy?
WHITE: Les Moonves once said, "Family Matters is a very beloved show, but it doesn't have much snob appeal." And I never knew that that distinction was made behind our backs. To me, a satisfied crowd is a satisfied crowd. I remember that Claire Danes show, My So-Called Life. They just raved and raved over how great it was, how they were just too smart for television. But I'm going to say callously, that s— got canceled. It didn't connect with audiences, and at the end of the day our job is to connect with audiences.
And sometimes, of course, that connection just didn't happen. R.I.P., 1990's Going Places (which starred Heather Locklear, Holland Taylor and Alan Ruck), 1991's Baby Talk (starring George Clooney), 1992's Camp Wilder, 1996's Aliens in the Family (a Henson production that featured a charming, super-smart infant alien named Bobut), and 1996's Muppets Tonight.
JAY MOHR, Camp Wilder (and 1992 TGIF interstitial host): I met Jerry O'Connell on the show, and Hilary Swank. Also Mary Page Keller, who was on Mad Men, and Jared Leto, who was a guest star. Everybody that was there obviously was supposed to be in show business, because everybody's still working. That's three Oscars on a Friday-night sitcom — and that's a show that didn't make it.
WARREN: Getting By  was an interesting story. We wanted to do a show about these two women, Telma Hopkins and Cindy Williams, who each had two kids and decided to live in the same house for totally economic reasons. And ABC Standards & Practices just hated this show. At the network reading, the head of S&P came up to me and said, "I'm begging you not to put this show on the air because what it says is this black woman can't get by without the help of this white woman." And if you read the script, what you realized was that Cindy Williams was the person who couldn't get by without the help of her African-American friend because Cindy's character was this total ditz. There was just a cloud hanging over it from the get-go.
BADER: I remember we were very surprised that Muppets Tonight didn't work. It has a little relevance for what's going on now. Back then when we did it, it wasn't really something that kids remembered. So it didn't resonate with kids the way we thought it would.
JACOBS: I remember one year they came to me and asked me to do a show about a genie. I said that I would much prefer to do this show spiritually and make it about an angel. They said, "No, we've got Teen Angel and it's going to be on at the same time." I said, "I'm really not talking about Teen Angel. I would like to do It's a Wonderful Life and I would like to do Clarence the angel getting involved in the world of men and women." They looked at me like I was out of my mind and said, "Would you please do a genie?" Eventually, I paid the price for that one.
MOHR: I remember they had a meeting with us because the ratings were low and they said, "We're going to bring in a pet because studies show when there's a dog, the rating goes up exactly one point. But we're not bringing in a dog." They brought in a penguin. So there was a pet penguin on the show for the last few episodes. I think maybe in hindsight they should have just gotten a dog.
Some things were never meant for air anyway. From body parts to bawdy jokes, it wasn't always easy keeping things rated G on the TGIF set.
ROBINSON PEETE: We were like a black, sexy Three's Company before Hangin' With Mr. Cooper moved [from Tuesday to Friday in 1993]. After, the sexual innuendos were out the door. They were there, but they weren't as clever or as sexy. I think we lost a little bit of our edge, but the trade-off was that we would get 100 episodes out of it.
SAGET: In front of the audience, we would do stuff. There were times where Dave [Coulier], John [Stamos], and I would just be laying on top of each other on the couch, replicating a scene from Deliverance. But we weren't doing it so graphically. You heard no pig squealing.
CAMERON BURE: We heard everything. We knew everything. We just played dumb because if we let on, our moms weren't going to let us hang out with them.
FRANKLIN: We were not G-rated people in real life … every week or two, the moms would sit me down and say, "You have to keep an eye on these guys, they're completely inappropriate. These are little girls." And I would [scold] the guys and they'd be good for another hour or two and then go right back to the way it was.
WARREN: There was a lot of on-set funny business on Step by Step. There was no on-set funny business going on on Family Matters. Because we had minors working on all the shows, every show had a profanity can. If you used profanity you had to put a dollar in the can. On show night, they raffled off the money.
DUFFY: One thing that never made it was: We would always do a scene and it would be the typical TGIF, parents-in-bed thing, we would say, "Come here, sweetheart," and you reach up and turn the light off, and then there would be maybe three seconds of darkness. And every time I'd turn the light out, I would go, [emits sensual moan] Ohhhhhh." And they would say, "Patrick, you can't do that." I would do that every single time.
PINCHOT: Somebody used to come and specifically check that every button on my shirt was buttoned up to the neck, because I have a hairy chest and they didn't want to see any hair.
DUFFY: They always had to tape Suzanne's nipples. Whenever we'd have a bed scene, she'd wear a negligee. They had to make sure no little bumps or yahas were showing. I do not mean this as a pun, but that type of titillation was very accepted on Dallas, and very not accepted on TGIF.
Even in the writers' rooms, some of the producers felt the pressure to play it safe.
BOYETT: We always wanted to get edgier, but we were discouraged from being too edgy by the network. They would give us notes when we pitched the story or sent a first draft, and when we did that, they took a lot of that away. They were just nervous. Now, a network wants that edge.
SUSAN LEEPER GERRARD, then-VP of current comedy series, ABC Entertainment: There were some things that they thought they were slipping by and broadcast standards was letting them go because it wasn't as bad as they thought it was. It happened all the time.
HARBERT: The broadcast standards guys were protecting this thing as the bastion of family.
WHITE: I remember [one of our writers] was looking to get a job on Frasier. And his friend was like, "I love you, you've been writing for years, but you can't send [a Family Matters script] over here to get a job." I realized the sacrifice that all of these creatives made. I don't know how knowingly or unknowingly it was made because suddenly they were branded themselves as the family guys that you don't hire to be edgy.
BOYETT: In those days, the networks would have to go down to Washington and testify before the FCC about the quality of what they were putting on television. When [our] network people went down, they would always use our shows as an example of what they were doing that was positive.
WHITE: We did a cancer episode on Family Matters and I actually was not really pleased with the script that week, and I asked Bill Bickley about it. And that was the first time he ever told me outright, a top ABC executive lost a family member to cancer so every episode on TGIF was doing a cancer episode.
SAGET: The most difficult thing to tell was stories that applied to the death of the mother, and that was where I took it very seriously. I'd had a lot of death in my family. Dave lost his sister. When the show was pitched, they were tossing up whether [Danny's wife died] from cancer or a car accident. We ended up doing a show where we referenced that she died in a car accident [after being hit by] a drunk driver. That was a very serious thing to do, and there was no messing around. So, for whatever sense of humor I had, that was very, very serious, and I hear from parents to this moment — literally, I could walk right out my building right now, and you'd find someone that would go, "I lost my mother, and your show really helped me through it."
JACOBS: Teddy [Harbert] called me twice, both TGIF-related. Once, he said, "Over my dead body are you killing that baby dinosaur." I said, "Ted, they went extinct. I didn't do it. If you're going to cancel the show, I'm going to cancel the dinosaurs." The second time he called with that tone in his voice, he said, "Over my dead body am I going to allow you to marry two 19-year-old kids." I said, "Why don't we try running the question on ABC.com: Should Cory and Topanga be married?" He said, "We'll get 10,000 hits and no one will be interested." They put up the question at 8 o'clock and in 20 minutes we had over a quarter-million hits and the thing broke. Out of 250,000 hits, 250,000 answers were positive. Teddy called me the next morning and said, "Could you please marry them in Sweeps?"
WARREN: It was always interesting to me that the network was able to take a stand about something, and then just caved if it proved to be good for ratings. Sometimes [the notes] were just the opposite. We did an episode on Step by Step where Cody confesses he's saving himself for marriage. The network said, "Why don't you make this a safe-sex story?" and we said, "We think it's good to send a message about abstinence for teenagers." They were pretty unhappy, but we got the biggest mail-in response we ever got on any show. ABC came back and said, "Could you do a similar story on Family Matters?"
TGIF, for a time, was all about the teens. If the kids on Step by Step, Full House, and Family Matters hadn't already proven it, the arrival of 1993's coming-of-age dramedy Boy Meets World (from Dinosaurs creator Jacobs) would drive the lesson home.
JACOBS: Dinosaurs was going to leave the air, and I'm walking through the hallways of Disney and they're saying, "What's your next show?" They wanted something for TGIF. So I'm walking and this fellow grabs me and brings me into his office and shows me some charts. … I came out with his advice being that my next show should be very influential to the youngest demographic, which was 2 to 11. I thought of Family Ties and Growing Pains, where you had stories about the oldest male child, and his younger sister would be the comic irritant. I thought, what if I turned it around? What if we did a family show that didn't focus on the oldest child as a series lead? What if we got off it and attracted both sides of the demo because we had a middle child? The story was argued over. The network had never seen something like that before.
SAVAGE: I was a teenager on a television series that was certainly going through my own experiences and upbringing and becoming an adult. I always thought the writers did a nice job of writing to those experiences. As the show grew in popularity, our live studio audiences were pretty wild. That was the most immediate reaction.
JACOBS: At the beginning of the series, Shawn, Feeny, and Topanga all tested higher than Cory Matthews, because these were characters that viewers understood. You understood Shawn immediately. You understood Topanga as odd and lovely and wonderful. Feeny was the authority figure; he tested highest, even with kids. But by the second season, Cory eclipsed everybody. What happened was, the kids wanted to be Shawn and wanted to be Topanga. They don't want to say they want to be what they are. Cory became a hero for being himself, and everybody flocked to the fact that, "Wait, I have potential in just being who I am." And kids were finally honest enough to answer the question correctly: who do you associate with? I am Cory Matthews.
The network's kids were growing up and moving center stage, becoming their own little family unit — one that you didn't read about in the tabloids. (With one exception: Mitchell, 28 at the time, left Step by Step in 1996 after being arrested on charges of domestic abuse.)
SAVAGE: There was a certain camaraderie between us and the other kids on the shows. You're all going through something relatable and there's a certain kinship and an immediate understanding of this unique way to grow up. It was an innocent time. There was no social media.
WHITE: We'd be taping the show and trying to watch TGIF at the same time because we also fell into the same demographic of watching TGIF ourselves. If the show was a really hot episode, everybody would pile into people's dressing rooms to watch.
CAMERON BURE: There aren't a lot of kids out there that can relate to what you're doing. My biggest buddy through all of that was Jaleel White. If we weren't in scenes or had a lunch break, I'd go hang out on their set.
ROBINSON PEETE: We were all in a row on the Warner Bros. lot. Full House was to our left, Step by Step was over to the right, and Family Matters was just down the street. We weren't just lined up on Friday nights but we were lined up next to each other working. There was definitely a sense of the neighborhood.
MELISSA JOAN HART, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch: We weren't all on the same soundstages. Sabrina was at Paramount and we'd see those other shows once a year at the upfront parties. It's not that we were hanging out just because we're on the same network.
WHITE: Darius McCrary drove me on my first date because I couldn't drive. Robin Thicke and I were in a dance battle at Candace Cameron's birthday party. The worst thing that were done, for the most part, was stealing golf carts around the lot. That was the extent of the mischief. Maybe getting out of class time when you're doing promotion in New York. That was it. We were good kids.
PINCHOT: I remember hearing the Olsen twins had suddenly turned a corner and gotten to the point where they didn't want to have their diapers changed in front of anybody.
MILLER: Miller and Boyett allowed the kids to be real kids. If Mary-Kate and Ashley wanted to go to dance school or ride horses, they let that happen. They brought in Bill Nye the Science Guy—we had a trailer outside where they would have science lessons. That was Bob and Tom's thing: Education was important.
JACOBS: Rider Strong came to me in season 5 and said, "I have to leave the series. I have to get my education." And I said, "Rider, do you think we haven't already arranged that this will happen?" He was shocked. Of course Ryder went to school, and Ben went to school, and they did brilliantly and the series never suffered.
SAVAGE: School was a priority. On Boy Meets World I had three teachers and they built a mini high school for the kids. We'd do school for two hours, go to work, then school, then work, then come home and I'd have homework. When I had final exams, they'd make sure to take the week off or schedule production so that I could be at school.
LEEPER GERRARD: Miller and Boyett and all of those guys —Michael Warren — I'm not trying to be pollyannish about this, they really cared about those kids. There was one person who they finally just let go because the child wasn't doing the schoolwork.
ROBINSON PEETE: I really felt for the younger kids, especially Raven-Symoné. I felt obligated to make the set fun for her because she was working so hard. I think our set was really healthy for the kids, but I was always worried and always had my eye on them.
SAGET: We all treated the kids like people. Nobody talked to them like they were little puppets. That's why I'm friends with all of them, and it's real, and I value it. That's the best part of the whole damn thing.
While the kids were balancing schoolwork and showtime, some producers were juggling multiple shows, which upped their workload — and split their attention.
BOYETT: [Sometimes] we had four run-throughs on the same day. It was an incredible mental drain because you're walking onto a new stage with new people, a different story, a different script, different challenges this week. When you had four shows on the air — which was too many shows for anyone, really — you're working so hard, you're not experiencing the height of the joy of it.
ROBINSON PEETE: We were always looking to see who got picked up, who got the most attention from the bosses. Sometimes it felt like a sibling rivalry between shows.
CAMERON BURE: I never felt threatened by any of the other shows because one, I knew how strong our ratings were, and two, I felt like the shows were all so different. Full House wasn't competing with Family Matters. Everyone was just family and the fact that we had the same producers or shared the same wardrobe people was an extra bonus.
BOYETT: It's like having children. You like children for different reasons. You maybe don't like them all the same, but you might have favorites, you might not. We had an affection for shows for different reasons.
Success bred imitation, even from within. ABC attempted to brand other nights of its schedule — including the Wednesday night lineup in 1991 (The Hump) and the Saturday slate in 1992 (I Love Saturday Night) — but they weren't nearly as successful as the TGIF campaign. "Marketing can only reinforce something that already exists, which is natural audience flow," reminds Zakarin. "You can't force these things."
Meanwhile, TGIF — and all of ABC — was about to get a new head of the family, as Disney purchased the network in 1995. NBC exec Jamie Tarses, who had developed Friends, was brought in to help hip things up. The Friday night shows were not cool and, worse yet, they had cooled off — ratings were declining, averaging only 13.8 million viewers in the 1996–97 season, while a much-hyped adaptation of Clueless turned out to be bogus. But ABC conjured up a surprise hit: Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, a live-action sitcom based on the Archie comic that passed Family Matters as the highest-rated show of the night (and inspired the supernatural teen shows You Wish and Teen Angel).
HART: My mom bought the rights to the Archie comic and brought it to Viacom to make a movie. While they were making the movie, she said this needs to be a series. She cut together a trailer, took it to four of the networks, and in the room they were bidding on it. She decided to go with ABC because they were the only ones to commit a time slot. They said, "You can have TGIF."
LEEPER GERRARD: Sabrina was a lot of fun to do … [But] it was show that started out with a really, really terribly amateurish-looking cat. [Laughs] And so there were all kinds of discussions and debates about whether we were going to redo the cat. Was he going to look exactly like a cat? Was his mouth going to move? And of course it was the cat's personality and the voice that made that cat work. You get fixated sometimes on something like that when that's really not what it's all about. It's about this teenage girl who's a witch, and this breakout character was in that case the cat.
HART: Halfway through our second season, we got picked up for a third and fourth season. In television, you don't get that kind of security. They put their money where their mouth was. They took risks and made investments and stuck with shows that they saw potential in. This was a golden age when money was rampant and they'd spent it on stars and development.
WHITE: The worst thing that ever happened to TGIF from a Family Matters-Full House standpoint was Disney's purchase of ABC. That changed so much of the business across the board. Suddenly a show like Boy Meets World that ratings-wise was behind us, promotions-wise became a greater priority to Disney.
HART: I think the cast of Family Matters was a little pissed at us, to be honest. I don't know if we took them off the air, but I remember Jaleel said something funny about us [like], "I'm not worried about that show." But we survived. I don't even think the network expected it.
WARREN: It was obvious to everybody that Disney could do this in a way that ABC couldn't, just from the economics. Disney's business model was completely different. They weren't licensing shows where ownership would revert to the production company; they were the production company.
IGER: I don't recall anything Disney-related that was negative. Nothing.
But Sabrina, for all its success, would be the programming block's last hit. An increase in the number of TV sets in households meant that parents stopped watching as much with their kids, and cable was luring away both demographics. By 1997, Family Matters and Step by Step had run their course and moved to CBS, where they helped launch a new Friday night of family comedies under the slogan CBS Block Party. That fiesta was quickly canceled, but over at ABC, with no new sensation poised to revive the brand, there wasn't much to celebrate, either.
WARREN: Family Matters and Step by Step went to CBS and were on Friday nights, at the same time — and nobody knew we were there. People used to say to me, "Gee, I'm sorry to see that Family Matters and Step by Step went off the air." And I said, "No, they just moved from channel 7 to channel 2." "Oh, I didn't know that."
WHITE: I don't ever think we should've gone to CBS. The track record shows changing networks is terrible, and that was probably the toughest season, and it was just because the times were different. And physically, I could feel myself losing control of what made the character funny.
BOYETT: We came to an end of an era of thinking, "Well, I don't think they want these shows anymore." And frankly, after doing a number of seasons of having four shows, we were ready to take a break.
WARREN: By the mid-to-late ‘90s, we were less involved in these shows. By the time Family Matters went to CBS, our heart really wasn't in it anymore. Perfect Strangers, we did 150 episodes. Family Matters, I think did 210. Step by Step did 165. When you're doing 150 to 200 episodes of a TV show, you should probably leave.
JAMIE TARSES, then-president, ABC Entertainment: TGIF was a network staple, and the plan was to try to replenish it and maintain the branded night. There was some time spent debating if in fact it was worth maintaining TGIF, or if it was a vestige of the past.
JACOBS: I don't think TGIF is a rise and fall. My feeling is that it never ended. My feeling is that it was canceled. One more hit on TGIF would have floated it. I think the network didn't have what they perceived to be the next TGIF hit and realized it was time for the franchise to go. The end of TGIF was simply a numbers-driven ending. I don't think ABC wanted to cancel anything. Unless you have a show in development that you are certain can breathe new life into a franchise, that's the end of the franchise.
HARBERT: The hardest thing with those is the natural life of those shows — the kids grow up and the generations move on. These shows aren't as cool, yet the generation hasn't changed enough to start a whole new audience to replace the kids that have now become teens. You need to replace them with a next generation of 8-year-olds, but if kids are only 4 it doesn't work as well.
BADER: It became neither fish nor fowl. There were shows that were still doing decent numbers with kids, but you weren't getting a decent number of adults with them, so that's when we started having the discussion of: Can we age it up a little bit or do we have to cut it back to an hour? People just started watching TV differently. And I don't know there would be any way to keep the block going with the way audiences were watching TV.
WARREN: Households started getting two TV sets, and mom and dad started saying, "We don't want to watch Family Matters. If you guys want to watch those, you can go to your room and watch your own TV." And when the kids went in the other room, they didn't watch those shows. They watched Friends.
IGER: The shows that had driven all that value had aged, and ultimately we hadn't replaced them with as much success. And then there was further fragmentation of viewing: kids watching alone. Interestingly enough, the concepts of those [TGIF] programs turned out to be a very successful strategy for our Disney Channel, with Lizzie McGuire and Hannah Montana.
FRANKLIN: I don't think the shows were as strong. The networks were less and less interested in family shows. Cable TV had started to rear its head, and they concentrated less on family programming and more on trying to be hip and cool and edgy and all those words. The concept never grew, never went anywhere. It feels like [TGIF] just got tired and ran out of gas, and they put it out of its misery.
ABC pulled the plug in spring 2000. By then the night was averaging only 9 million viewers, less than half of its former draw. Over the next five years the network would attempt to fill the Friday void with adult comedies and game shows, even trotting out the TGIF name for a lackluster 2003–2005 run. But they were competing with the spirit of something gone yet not forgotten: an irretrievable time in pop culture history that once provided safe refuge and a happy place on the couch.
HARBERT: I think it is a major mistake, on all networks, for us to give up this primacy over the family program. Look at Netflix. It has now become a place where parents go. There's [always] going to be a desire for family television, and there's not very much on the networks. Somehow we let it get away.
IGER: I don't think it's ever been given the credit it deserves. They were just really, really enjoyable, entertaining, long-living family comedies on TV. And they were made well for a very special time in television and in American culture. When you think about today, when kids take their mobile phones into bed and look at YouTube, there's something almost quaint about that era. It was an era where families still sat [together] on couches.
BAKER: I have a 13-year-old daughter. When I'm looking for entertainment for my daughter, you've got to do research. You don't know what you're taking them to. [Back then], you knew you could sit down with your children and watch those shows on Friday night, and it would be entertaining and it would not be offensive. You knew what it was going to be.
BLOOMBERG: There's absolutely no reason why TGIF cannot fit in the same universe as thirtysomething, China Beach. That's who we were and I think it's fantastic that we had TGIF. I'm as proud of TGIF as I am of Roseanne and Wonder Years.
HARBERT: It really was a long-term plan to be a well-balanced mixed network. So, TGIF is just as important to that success as anything — as Roseanne and Home Improvement — because we put together a night that kids really looked forward to. I, to this day, remain honored that we were able to put on what in many ways has disappeared from network lineups: a full and balanced schedule with something for everybody.
BROWER: Every year or however often — to retain the ability to have the name still licensed to us — we continue to renew [the name TGIF], in case we ever want to do it again.
SAGET: I want to hear synthesizer music underneath what I'm saying. Our show was about something all the time. It had to have an a story of consequence. "Michelle, you can't have the horse in the living room." "Stephanie, it's really not good to back up a cement truck into the kitchen." But it was more than that. There's bullies. There was a lot of issues that kids go through. It makes me want to go, "Michelle, you don't run away from your problems. Sometimes the best thing to do is just face the thing. The thing that you're the most afraid of is the thing sometimes that you can learn the most from." And that is what the show is, and that when you have people that care about you, Michelle" — and the synthesizer gets a little more strong, more violins — "and they're really there for you, that's about the most you can ask out of life, and then what you get to do is be there for them when they need you, and we'll see you next week. On TGIF."
BOYETT: At one point we were getting 10,000 letters a week. A lot of them would be from parents saying, "I was never able to sit down with my 15-year-old son and talk, but we watched an episode of your show and it opened up the opportunity for us to discuss something which had been on both of our minds but we never really had the breakthrough to talk about." I think that's a very powerful and quite wonderful thing.
JACOBS: We were an innocent island in what was a more innocent world of television.
DUFFY: I pine for that. I miss it. Everybody can immediately pull up TGIF. You're the dad on TGIF. You were that guy on TGIF. Oh, we used to watch TGIF … <iframe height="552" width="100%" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" src="//renderer.qmerce.com/interaction/56ce1e175762585b4531ec6e" class="" allowfullscreen="" resize="0" replace_attributes="1" name=""></iframe>
These interviews have been edited and condensed.
Boy Meets World