history lesson

What Was It Like to Be a Writer on a TGIF Family Sitcom?

42-16645973 Photo: Corbis

Here’s how popular Full House was: Midway through its eight-year run (1987–1995), the ABC sitcom regularly pulled in more than 27 million viewers every Tuesday night — impressive even in a TV universe with no DVRs or myriad cable choices. The show was a massive hit during the era when family comedies flourished on TV, wooing kids (and their parents) with a carefully crafted recipe of broad humor, silly scenarios, and at least one “awwwww” teaching moment. ABC even devoted most of a night to the formula, packaging a four-sitcom block on Fridays that they called “TGIF” as a sort of Must-See TV for kids. And yet, for all of their huge ratings, they were never given the respect of the critical faves, whether then or now: Shows like Cheers or The Larry Sanders Show get detailed oral histories or deluxe DVD collections with insightful commentaries, while TGIF types mostly pop up as nostalgic button-pusher references or punch lines. But it’s time to give these shows their behind-the-scenes due, too. What was it like to work on an ABC family comedy during the eighties and nineties? Vulture tracked down five veteran scribes from the Age of TGIF and asked them to bare their souls.

If you weren’t careful, you could get an inferiority complex.
Unlike today, there weren’t dozens of critically acclaimed cable shows putting network series to shame in the eighties and early nineties, but there was still something of a caste system in the sitcom business.
Must-See TV was a toddler, with Cheers, The Cosby Show, and Family Ties garnering great reviews and ratings (though it took Cheers a bit longer to get big); later, Roseanne and Murphy Brown showed that sitcoms could still be socially relevant post–Norman Lear, while Showtime’s It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. and HBO’s Dream On ushered in the era of quality cable comedies. For those who toiled in the joke-a-second trenches, it would have been easy to develop an inferiority complex. “There was definitely a demarcation between broader comedies and other kinds of shows,” says Cindy Begel, who wrote for Head of the Class and the proto-TGIF comedy Laverne & Shirley; Cheryl Alu, a veteran of Perfect Strangers and L&S, remembers feeling as if she and her colleagues “were always from the wrong side of the comedy tracks.” And Howard Adler, who wrote on Step by Step and Strangers with partner Bob Griffard, adds that while it’s possible he was “imagining” snobbish vibes from some of his writing peers, “There were probably some people who were full of themselves because they were on Cheers. And I would sometimes think, I will never win an Emmy.

Chuck Tatham, currently an executive producer of How I Met Your Mother and a former writer for Arrested Development, says he and his brother Jamie grew up in Canada wanting to write for Seinfeld. Instead, they began their TV careers working on the last few years of Full House, which he calls a “great place to learn” how to be a TV writer. Eventually, though, he wanted to land a different kind of show. “I was aware of the fact that I’d have to break out of the notion that ‘He’s a Full House writer,’” even though, he says, “anyone who knows this business knows there isn’t such a thing as a ‘kids writer.’ There are just people who write for kids. It would be just as absurd to say someone on Cheers couldn’t write for kids.” Nonetheless, having a top-ten TV show on his résumé wasn’t enough. “I wrote a sample Larry Sanders Show script so I could prove to the community that I could write other stuff,” he says. It worked: He snagged gigs on Living Single and Suddenly Susan after Full House ended its run.

But these writers tried not to dwell on what others were doing.
Just like the fictional parents on the shows they wrote, these family writers worked hard to maintain a sunny outlook on their careers and their futures. “I knew that nobody was going to call me up and say, ‘Do you want to write for
Cheers?’” Alu says. “But I knew the next job was always going to be there. One would end, and another opportunity would open up.” Begel says that when critically hailed comedies became more common, they “weren’t even on my radar. I’d see those writers at the [Paramount] commissary and wave. But beyond that, I didn’t think about it.” In fact, Begel actually ended up working on one of those “classy” shows, Jay Tarses’s semi-iconic NBC/Lifetime adult comedy The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. “I respected what Jay ended up doing with it, but when I was writing for it, I missed the old Paramount shows,” she says. “I’d be there in the room thinking, I want to do jokes.” And there were other advantages to working on comedy for the masses. “You’d hear about these ‘quality’ shows whose writers were there until three in the morning trying to be perfect,” Adler says. “But we had a very pleasant life. I had time for family and friends.” (Or, as Tatham recalls, “When you worked with kids, you couldn’t work late. You were home with a cocktail by seven.”)

They did not write down to kiddie viewers.
Even though a big portion of their audience was still in junior high, most of the writers we spoke to say they didn’t try to dumb down their scripts in an attempt to woo the Clearasil crowd. “I never had to throttle down,” Tatham says
. Sometimes you had to change the subject matter, but you had to be on your game … This was a room writing very funny, smart stuff. Much of what I do today, I learned in that room.” Alu echoes Tatham: “There was never a sense of, ‘Let’s do this; the kids will love it’,” she says. “Nobody ever wrote to a specific audience. I’m sure the network suits thought about it all the time. But we didn’t. We wrote to the actors. We were always thinking, How are they going to be funniest? What are we going to give them that plays to their talents?” And like any sitcom writers’ room, scribes on family shows were keen on making their colleagues crack up. “We wanted to make ourselves laugh,” Begel explains. “And the standard was high: These were funny people in the room, so if it made them laugh, it was probably funny.” Still, while family show writers might not have been aiming their comedy specifically toward younger viewers, they were always aware little ones would be watching. Says Tatham: “The directive was … at no time should we present anything so adult in nature that adults would have to explain it to kids.”

The writers’ room could turn blue.
The onscreen subject matter might have been squeaky-clean, but the writers who worked for TGIF-style sitcoms were just as likely as their more “adult” colleagues to visit some very dark places when pitching ideas for the latest adventures of Balki Bartokomous or Jesse Katsopolis*. “It was extremely politically incorrect,” says Alu, who had a Peggy Olson–like transformation from the writers’ secretary at
Laverne & Shirley to one of the gang. “It was a bunch of horny, lonely, and sometimes hideous-looking guys. If you were easily offended or if you were thin-skinned, you’d be unhappy. A lot of comedy comes from the extreme, like, ‘What if Larry and Balki woke up in bed together?’ You then pull back from there.” Begel says she remembers cancer jokes being told in her rooms; Adler says the writers’ room for Step by Step wasn’t “dirty, but you’d sometimes go down a certain road and people would get red-faced.” Still, things could get rowdy enough on Step for penalties to be enforced: “When you went over the line in the room, you’d have to put money in a jar,” Griffard recalls. (Little did the New Girl writers know that the Step by Step writers thought of the Douche Jar first.) Over at Perfect Strangers, there was a more edible solution to writers who told one sick joke too many. “If someone got too crude, we’d throw a dinner roll at them,” Alu laughs. Sadly, none of the writers we talked to could recall any particularly dirty jokes about the fictional characters they spent so much time with. Tatham does recall one humorous mandate from his Full House days, though: “There was one rule: Anyone who steps on one of the twins gets fired.”

There was a formula, and you didn’t mess with it.
You were allowed to write funny on family shows, but the hijinks were always in service of something nearly as important: the Message. If Larry David demanded “no hugging, no learning” from his scribes, the TGIF-esque writers were required to do the exact opposite. “At the end of the show, there was
always that warm moment,” Griffard says. Tatham says the Full House team called it “the ‘heart’ scene. And it was almost always between Michelle and either Danny, Jesse, or Joey. If you hadn’t been paying attention during the rest of the [episode], this was where the lesson was explicitly laid out, usually with guitar music in the background.” Even when kids weren’t part of the equation, like on Perfect Strangers, Alu says the recipe was the same: “Likable characters, the family bond is always there, and the show ends up on a loving note where everyone comes together.” As much love as they expressed for their former jobs, this was the one aspect of family show writing our scribes did not remember fondly. “You sometimes wondered what it would be like not to have to have that moment,” Griffard says. And Tatham says he “had some difficulty participating” in this part of the process. “When it came time to write the ‘heart’ scene, that’s usually when I’d get caught up on the L.A. Times sports section,” he says. “It was an important part of the show, [but] it was as predictable as a Viennese commuter train.” Still, while they now gently mock the formulaic nature of family sitcoms from back in the day, Alu believes it was — and is — unavoidable. “I’d say they stick to it today with Modern Family,” she argues. “The rules still apply … You can be edgy and do other things, but there still needs to be some sort of familial bond.”

The happy ending.
It seems appropriate that, like those great family shows of yesteryear, this story should end on an upbeat note. And it’s this: All of the writers we talked to really, really, really loved their jobs. The pay was good, the hours reasonable, and everyone was constantly laughing. “It couldn’t be any more of a cliché, but it really was a family,” Tatham says. “We were very aware of the significance of the show and of its importance to viewers. I had a sense of awe.” Alu says her time on
Perfect Strangers “was a dream … We were very proud of the work. And it never bothered me it didn’t get the critical acclaim. It ran for eight years, so someone must have liked it.” And even if the broad comedies of the eighties and nineties didn’t get much respect back then, Begel believes history’s verdict will be kinder. “It’s changed to the point that now I think there’s a real respect [for the old family comedies],” she says. “Funny is funny.”

* This post has been updated to correct Uncle Jesse’s last name.

Tales From the TGIF Writers’ Rooms