From fifth grade until about the time I could drive, Friday nights were all about one thing: ABC’s “TGIF” lineup, a solid two hours of family-friendly sitcoms that were usually too corny for their own good. I’d diligently plop myself in front of the tube at the end of every week and dial our TV to Channel 7, eagerly awaiting the buffoonery of such lovable characters as Balki Bartokomous, “Uncle” Joey Gladstone, and that high priest of obnoxious Steve Urkel. I took great solace in the fact that, no matter how awful my life seemed, I wasn’t some thirty-six year old idiot living in his best friend’s basement doing Bullwinkle impressions to impress children I wasn’t even related to (at least not yet).
Joey Gladstone: a text book case of Everest-sized failure.
One odd thing struck me about “TGIF” then and now: for the longest time, they could not find a show to anchor the 9:30 slot. During the glory years of this programming block (1988-1993), the first three time slots were always made up of some variation of “Full House,” “Family Matters,” “Perfect Strangers,” and/or “Step By Step.” There was no getting around that. These were “TGIF’s” flagship shows. Yet nothing in that last half hour ever came close to replicating the wild success of a “Full House” or a “Perfect Strangers.” I’d like to examine this phenomenon in great detail right now starting with ABC’s first little show that couldn’t: “Just The Ten Of Us.”
“Just The Ten Of Us” was a spin-off of “Growing Pains,” the Kirk Cameron-based sitcom that predated “TGIF” by a few years and probably had just enough class to avoid ever being sandwiched between Urkel and Patrick Duffy on Friday nights (I’m pretty sure “Growing Pains” aired on Monday or Tuesday). Anyway, “Ten Of Us,” which premiered in April of 1988, centered around the character of Mike Seaver’s gym teacher, one Graham T. Lubbock, who suddenly decides to move his giant family from Long Island to California because the ratings might be better on that side of the country. No, seriously, he got a job at a Catholic school, which is every balding gym teacher’s dream, right?
Lubbock was played by Bill Kirchenbauer, a guy who in all honesty could do “clean” funny better than five Mark Lynn-Bakers or three Dave Couliers. Still, the Kirch wasn’t much to look at. To give “Ten” some youth / sex appeal, the producers loaded the show with Coach Lubbock’s four hot daughters, including Heather Langenkamp of Nightmare On Elm Street fame. They also threw in a snotty young son, a precocious daughter, newborn twins, a cute dog, and Dennis Haysbert. I know what you’re thinking. With all that shit crammed in there, how could “Just The Ten Of Us” miss?
The truth is, it didn’t. According to Wikipedia, “Just The Ten Of Us” racked up impressive ratings and was on its way to cementing itself in that 9:30 slot after just two seasons. Unfortunately for Graham T. Lubbock and his super-sized clan, the suits at ABC decided to be total dicks. The network wanted all four “TGIF” sitcoms to be produced by Miller-Boyett Productions; “Ten Of Us” was produced by someone else (Dan Guntzelman and Steve Marshall, to be exact). Thus, the axe was swung.
Now, I don’t want to go around spreading wild rumors here, but simple logic dictates an embittered Bill Kirchenbauer placed some kind of voodoo curse on “TGIF” and their 9:30 slot a la Billy Sianis. There’s just no other explanation for the years of failure that followed in “Ten’s” wake. I mean, yeah, the shows were generally awful and insipid, but really, when has that hampered TV’s popularity before?
The Lubbock family prepares to meet the Hale-Bop Comet. Note the affable expression on Bill Kirchenbauer’s face; it masks a true evil.
Viewing audiences by and large could relate to the trials of Graham Lubbock trying to make ends meet and maintain his sanity as the head of his healthy brood. What they couldn’t relate to was the story of four television writers sharing a beach house with the kid who played Phil Hartman’s son in CB4. That’s essentially what “Going Places,” the first Miller-Boyett-approved “Just The Ten Of Us” replacement, was; a sitcom about how hard it is to write for television. The cast was impressive—Heather Locklear, Alan Ruck, Jerry Levine (a.k.a. the guy who played Stiles in Teen Wolf)—but America was still smarting over the loss of those irrepressible Lubbocks. Too cold and meta to play in Peoria, “Going Places” would only last twenty-two vacant episodes. No one’s seen Jerry Levine since.
Stepping up to pinch hit for “Going Places” in the Spring of 1991 was something you could almost consider high concept (next to the never-ending mishaps of Balki and Cousin Larry, anyway). “Hi Honey, I’m Home!” detailed the lives of a generic TV family placed in the “Sitcom Relocation Program” after their popular 1950s weekly went off the air. The Nielsen clan (GET IT? HAR HAR) clung steadily to their “Father Knows Best” lifestyle despite the rapidly changing world outside their black and white walls. It was kind of like those “Brady Bunch” movies they made a few years later, although not as deft. “Hi Honey, I’m Home” was not exactly the kind of thing you could shut your brain off for (which is what most TV viewers want to do at 9:30 on a Friday night). The Nielsens were canceled once again after fourteen episodes.
Hey, don’t you just love it when babies talk and act like adults? No, of course you don’t. No one does. That explains the epic fail of “Baby Talk,” the TV adaptation of the Look Who’s Talking movies that crashed and burned in “TGIF’s” 9:30 slot in the Fall of ’91. This show was so bad they couldn’t keep any of the damn actors on it. Julia Duffy, Mary Page Keller, Scott Baio, William Hickey, Polly Bergen, and a very desperate George Clooney all cycled through “Baby Talk.” The only constant was Tony Danza, who voiced the baby. Ugh. Did you feel that? I just shuddered from my tail bone to the top of my head.
One version of the “Baby Talk” cast. Test audiences found the baby’s comically oversized hat to be distracting.
In the Spring of 1992, ABC threw “Billy” into the “TGIF” mix hoping America would go ape for Scottish comedian Billy Connolly as a teacher who marries someone to get his green card. They didn’t. “Billy” (technically a spin-off of “Head Of The Class”) was summarily rejected, which paved the way for “Camp Wilder.” That sunuvabitch saw Mary Page Keller’s triumphant return as a single mother / nurse raising her precocious kid and younger siblings in the house of her dead parents. The combined talents of short-lived “SNL” funnyman Jay Mohr, burgeoning hunk Jerry O’Connell, giant tooth receptacle Hilary Swank, and Tina “Kid From Waterworld” Majorino were not enough to make anyone give a shit about “Camp Wilder.” That shit was off the air by February of ’93.
Now we come to the failed “TGIF” 9:30 sitcom that my mother inexplicably adored: “Where I Live,” a fourth-wall breaking exercise starring Doug E. Doug of Cool Runnings fame. The show was basically just Doug walking around Harlem and saying, “Wow, isn’t my neighborhood wacky?” I remember 90% of it literally taking place on a stoop. I could be mistaken, but how else do you explain “Where I Live’s” brief twenty episode run? I mean, it couldn’t have been that Doug wasn’t sitcom material. You saw him in the That Darn Cat remake with Christina Ricci. The guy is a comedy MACHINE. Who knows. Maybe ABC thought they were getting Doug E. Fresh and there’d be a lot more rapping on the show.
Fall, 1993: a watershed moment in “TGIF” history. ABC moves its somewhat successful 8:30 Tuesday show “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper” to the dreaded 9:30 Friday slot and it manages to thrive there until 1996. That’s an unprecedented three seasons! What was it about this tale of a retired basketball player trying to get his groove on as a substitute teacher in Oakland, California, that helped it survive? I have no friggin’ idea, but I can tell you “Cooper” endured a lot of changes to make it work. First the theme song was by En Vogue, then it was “Soul Man”; they threw Raven-Symoné and Nell Carter up in that shit for maximum yuk potential; hottie Holly Robinson famously left, but then she came back…man, you never knew what the hell was going on with Cooper. I guess the genial charm of Mark Curry is all we were looking for for all those years.
“Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper & Fine-Ass Holly Robinson Who Left The Show But Then Came Back.”
It should be noted that “Perfect Strangers” went off the air around the same time “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper” arrived. I think that helped by lowering the general zany quotient that seemed to be fucking with the rest of “TGIF’s” programming. I mean, the other shows had to resort to some real crazy shit just to keep up with Balki. “Step By Step” introduced a werewolf plot line, “Full House” had the damn Beach Boys on – Jesus, don’t even get me started on Steve and Carl traveling through time and all that shit on “Family Matters.” At one point, they even rocketed Urkel (literally, via jetpack) across all the other “TGIF” shows! That trumped any kind of craziness Balki could pull out his vaguely Greek ass…but just barely.
Submitted for your approval—a number of actual plot summaries from the eight out-of-control seasons of “Perfect Strangers”: Larry and Balki get trapped at a ski resort and must tunnel their way out (Season 2); Larry and Balki get trapped on their boss’s roof trying to take a picture (Season 2); Balki is hypnotized into believing he is Elvis during a tax audit (Season 4); Larry, Balki, and the rest of the show’s primary characters almost all drown in a flooded basement (Season 5); Larry engages in a duel with Balki’s sworn rival Zolton Bauchelitis (Season 6); and, my personal favorite, Balki becomes a hot new rapper named Fresh Young Balki B whose popularity is only due to a Milli Vanilli-style fake-out (Season 6).
God damn, I love the Fresh Young Balki B episode of “Perfect Strangers.” Its climax revolves around Cousin Larry entering a rooftop dressed in neon hip-hop gear while toting a giant ghetto blaster. That imagine was burned into my subconscious the moment I first saw it. If only I could plug a USB port into my brain to show it to you. When I typed “Cousin Larry rapper” into Google Image Search, the following picture was the only usable one that came up:
Oh, this must have been the episode where Larry drank that potion that made him old and Balki was turned into a baby by aliens.
The only period where “TGIF” was truly firing on all cylinders came in the Fall of 1995. That season saw “Family Matters” at 8, “Boy Meets World” (the beloved Ben Savage vehicle that entranced a generation with its “will they, won’t they?” Corey / Topanga plot line) at 8:30, “Step By Step” at 9, and “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper” holdin’ strong at the previously unloved 9:30 spot. It was beautiful, albeit brief; soon, “Cooper” would be gone, “Family Matters” would jump to CBS, “Step By Step” would collapse under the weight of its own sexual innuendo, and ABC would be forced to prop up “Boy Meets World” with complete junk like “Teen Angel” (dead kidz LOL) and an “I Dream Of Jeannie” revamp called “You Wish.” The latter starred Jerry Van Dyke. It was Van Awful.
By the time I was paying actual money to attend (and do terribly in) various academic institutions, “TGIF” was in its death throes. The famed two hour sitcom block unofficially expired sometime in 2001 (an attempt to revive it mid-decade was met with more apathy than Endless Summer 2). I was long removed from the likes of Carl Winslow and Waldo Geraldo Faldo at this point, preferring to spend my TV time watching slightly more mature fare like “Space Ghost: Coast To Coast” or “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” I never forgot those gentle Friday nights, though, and my perceived curse of the 9:30 time slot. Lubbock Babes, I hardly knew ye.
The moral of the story? Don’t ever fucking cross Bill Kirchenbauer. That motherfucker’s got powers. I’m not calling him a witch, I’m just sayin’…powers.