Inside the secrets, scandals and legacy of ‘Full House’ from creator Jeff Franklin (EXCLUSIVE)
September 22, 1987. Thirty years ago. Ronald Reagan was president, and “Full House” debuted on ABC’s worst night at 8 p.m. Friday, considered to be not a time slot, but rather a “death slot.” We barely made the Top 75. The reviews of the show were terrible — “cheesy, saccharine, mind-numbing” — and that was from the one positive review.
If you had told me I’d be running the same show with the same cast in 2017, I would’ve asked what drugs you were on, and could I please have some? And yet, today, “Full House” has become one of the most beloved, popular and iconic family sitcoms ever. How on earth or any planet is this possible? Here’s how…
My big break happened when Garry Marshall “hired” me for fifty bucks a week to be a “researcher” on “Laverne and Shirley.” He did this with a couple young writers each season — a cheap way to put them on the writing staff and try them out. Eventually, the WGA put a stop to this, but it was a godsend for me. Midway through my second season, I became the showrunner on “Laverne and Shirley,” the no. 1 show on TV watched by 50 million viewers every week. I’m pretty sure that at age 24, I was the youngest showrunner ever (and now I may be the oldest). I was definitely the least experienced. But Garry taught me how to run a sitcom — by example, and personally. His shows featured lovable characters, physical comedy, life lessons and happy endings. And although Garry never worked on “Full House,” I think of “Full House” as a Garry Marshall show.
There is a moment when every sitcom writer first dreams of having their own show. Mine was working on “Bosom Buddies.” Tom Hanks was the star and Bob Saget was the warm-up guy. After a marathon re-write, I walked out of my office and the sun was up. I had worked a 22-hour day. I thought if I was going to work this hard, I should have some profit participation. So during the next three years, I pitched 20 series and got 12 pilot scripts ordered. I shot six pilots, and exactly none of them went to series. I thought this dream was just not in the cards and it was time for something new.
So I started writing movies and my first script became a hit teen comedy, “Summer School,” directed by Carl Reiner. I signed a screenwriting deal with Lorimar, who meanwhile managed to release six bombs in a row and decided to exit the movie business and concentrate on TV. Rather than pay me what they owed me, they asked me to work off my movie deal on the TV side and try to sell a sitcom. I politely explained I was now a “movie guy,” and they politely explained they didn’t care. So, to get my paycheck, instead of a lawsuit, I came up with possibly the laziest idea for a sitcom ever, a show called “House of Comics” about three single guys sharing a house trying to make it as stand-ups. The Lorimar TV guys asked me who are the characters? I said whoever we cast because they will be playing themselves. (Told you it was lazy.) ABC wanted to meet with me, but asked if I could please come in with a family show. So I made one guy a widower with three kids, and thought let’s make one a baby, because hey, that’s one less character to write. The three “dads” morphed into a comic, a sportscaster and a rocker, because I like comedy, sports and rock ’n’ roll. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized my lazy idea had accidentally turned into a very strong premise for a TV comedy.
I named the show “Full House.” Three Mr. Moms raise three little girls, young men explore and embrace their maternal side, creating an oddball family that overcomes the tragic loss of the girls’ mother through the healing power of love, all served up a la Garry Marshall. ABC loved the pitch and ordered a script the next day. I turned in a draft, and they ordered a pilot the next day. Next came the tricky part: casting.
The roles that went to John Stamos, Dave Coulier, Candace Cameron, Jodie Sweetin and the Olsen twins fell into place quickly. But finding the father, Danny Tanner, was problematic. I wanted Paul Reiser or Bob Saget. Paul Reiser opted to star in the other single dad show that season, “My Two Dads.” (Obviously, a hit show needed three dads — not two). Bob Saget was under contract to “The Morning Program” on CBS. So after auditioning hundreds of actors, we ended up casting an unknown [John Posey, father of “Teen Wolf” star Tyler Posey] the day before we started production. At the first table read, I thought Jodie Sweetin was going to be the breakout star. At age five, she had the comedy chops of a young Shirley Temple. But it turned out our seven-month-old baby, played by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, was about to steal the show. The sequence where John Stamos and Dave Coulier discover the baby needed to be changed and then improvised their first diaper change was the highest testing scene for a sitcom ever at the time. ABC ordered 13 episodes.
And then Bob Saget became available. I begged ABC to let me re-cast. They were reluctant to fix a problem they frankly did not see, plus re-shooting the pilot would be expensive. But I knew in my gut that Bob Saget was Danny Tanner. True, he was one of the blue-est comics out there, but I thought he was lovable, hilarious and would be perfect as the show’s straight man. I finally prevailed, and on September 22, 1987 “Full House” went on the air in its death slot, and almost instantly off the air.
After a few weeks, ABC cancelled the sitcom that followed us, “I Married Dora,” a show about a single dad who marries his housekeeper to keep her from being deported. An idea way ahead of tis time. ABC president Brandon Stoddard called a meeting to discuss “Full House’s” future. I explained how we would lean into the show’s family vibe. Fortunately, Brandon liked our show. He gave us a back nine, and paired “Full House” with “Perfect Strangers.” Our numbers ticked up. That summer, Brandon moved “Full House” to Tuesday night behind “Who’s the Boss,” and we were an instant hit. Season 2 was the beginning of TGIF, and “Full House” was suddenly the anchor of a big night on ABC. Meanwhile, “Full House” was turning into something very rare.
The most overused word in Hollywood is “family.” Everybody on every show says they’re family, but they usually drift apart after the project ends. But as time went on, our cast grew closer. The first season ended and we took a vacation together, the first of many. The cast and I all fell madly in love, and it came across on the show. The hugs were real. The love was real. We became the perfectly weird, fun TV family that everyone wanted to be a part of. And when the show ended after eight years, the cameras went away, but our love affair continued. Through good times and bad, marriages, kids, divorces, deaths, the “Full House” family stayed together and grew stronger.
People always ask me why “Full House” is so loved by its audience. Worldwide, over one billion people have watched “Full House.” It has played non-stop around the world for 30 years. The show continues to attract new fans every year, despite how dated the show feels now. No cell phones, no computers, just big shoulder pads and big mullets everywhere you look. In my opinion, the show holds up because of the talent and chemistry of the cast; the stories are funny, relatable and timeless; and in a world that is often dark and confusing, watching “Full House” is nostalgic comfort food that makes you laugh and feel good.
But maybe most important, “Full House” was the first show to actually raise a baby on TV. And not just any baby. Michelle was for many years the most popular character on television, and the Olsen twins were, according to their TV Q-scores, the most popular TV actresses. The heartwarming and hilarious moments we captured were unique to TV comedy, and remain so today. A huge part of the “Full House” magic was Michelle, and it was one of the great pleasures of my life to watch Mary-Kate and Ashley blossom into little actresses before they were even two years old. They fell in love with their fellow actors, they loved doing the show, and it was truly jaw-droppingly wonderful to see the Olsen twins perform in front of a live audience. Go back and watch the episode “Mad Money” from Season 1 and you will see a 16-month old Michelle perform an entire scene of unique comedy that clearly demonstrates why this show is still so adored. We became a trusted brand of family entertainment, safe for all ages and fun for the whole family to watch together. There were lots of family shows back in 1987, but now, very few sitcoms are designed to entertain the whole family. Maybe just “Fuller House.”
I left “Full House” after five seasons and 120 episodes, under unfortunate circumstances I am legally prohibited from discussing. But it was upsetting to watch what happened to the show. When I left, “Full House” was in the Top 3, often hitting no. 1. The following season, I believe the show quickly lost its way. Within three short years, the show lost one-third of its formerly loyal audience, the ratings plummetted, the show dropped into the 30’s and was abruptly cancelled. There wasn’t even a series finale. The last episode of “Full House,” which was built on relatable storytelling, was about an eight-year-old girl who has amnesia. How many eight-year-olds suffer from amnesia? “Full House” should have run for many, many more seasons.
Since its cancellation, it has been my dream to bring “Full House” back, and make things right in the “Full House” universe. Almost 20 years to the day after John Stamos and I first had lunch and he agreed to play Uncle Jesse, we had lunch again, and lamented how family comedies were like dinosaurs. We decided to try to reboot “Full House.” The new show would be a sequel, focusing on DJ, Stephanie and Kimmy Gibbler all grown up with kids of their own. I flipped the original premise, so that this time around three women would be raising three boys. But despite the enduring success of “Full House,” no one stepped up to buy the show. It was puzzling and disappointing. They did not understand the power of the brand. John and I waited several years and took the show out again. And again, none of the likely suspects, including our original home ABC and our current home Nickelodeon, stepped up in any meaningful way. It seemed “Fuller House” was dead.
But suddenly, we were alive. An executive at Nickelodeon, Brian Wright, was now working at Netflix, and they were looking for original family programming. We were invited to pitch. Our three stars, Candace Cameron-Bure, Jodie Sweetin and Andrea Barber, lit up the room. Netflix got it and bought it. It took six months to close the deal with Warner Bros., but finally, miraculously, I was getting my chance to bring “Full House” back, to give the show the series finale it never had, and to bring the show into the 21st century with everyone (except, sadly, the Olsen twins) back on board.
I had no idea if the magic would still be there, but it was. The “Full House” house was lovingly re-created, and it gave everyone goosebumps. So much so that Netflix’s first trailer for “Fuller House” only showed the living room — and got 16 million views. Candace, Jodie and Andrea were amazing from their first moment on stage. Their talent and chemistry blew everyone away. We found incredible new kids, the third generation of the show to be cast. John Stamos, Bob Saget, Dave Coulier and Lori Loughlin graciously signed on to do guest shots, and it was like the old show had never stopped. And it really hadn’t. This wasn’t a reunion for us. We had never been apart. But walking back into that house, watching my friends step back into those characters, and hearing the cheers and laughs from a live audience, brought me to tears. My dream had come true — again. And just like “Full House,” “Fuller House” got the same horrible reviews and was also a big hit. This has never happened in the history of sitcoms. Our successful comeback opened the door for all kinds of nostalgia-driven re-boots and sequels. You’re welcome, or, forgive me.
I know how fortunate I am. I treasure the fact that “Full House” continues to bring joy to millions of viewers around the world everyday. I am, in fact, the least likely person to be the creator of this G-rated family-centric world. I am a lifelong bachelor with no kids. But this make-believe family has become my real family. I truly love this cast. I thank them, my partners Miller-Boyett and Warner Bros, my networks ABC, Nickelodeon and Netflix, and especially our loyal fans, for making all of this happen. Creating, producing and writing “Full House,” and now “Fuller House,” has been an extraordinary gift and the accomplishment I am most proud of. So, happy 30th birthday, “Full House!”
Editor’s note: This piece, as told to Variety’s Elizabeth Wagmeister, has been edited and condensed.