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.