Turning 30 With Danny Tanner: Life Lessons Learned From ‘Full House’

Everywhere you look (Everywhere you look)
There’s a heart (There’s a heart)
A hand to hold onto.
Everywhere you look (Everywhere you look)

There’s a face
Of somebody who needs you.

When you’re lost out there and you’re all alone
A light is waiting to carry you home
Everywhere you look.

Everywhere you lo-o-ok.
Shibidy bop bah-ow.

This siren song of transcendent poetry has been imprinted in my memory since the late 1980s, when it first played over the opening credit sequence for the family-friendliest of television shows, ABC’s Full House.  It will soon return for new episodes of Fuller House, the modern-day revamp of Full House that is set to be released on Netflix this month. If you’re of the generation of Americans who reads personal essays on the internet, then I suspect you’re familiar with Full House, but on the off-chance you were homeschooled, let me set it up for you.

Full House takes place in San Francisco and revolves around the life of straight-laced single dad Danny Tanner, played by Bob Saget. Danny has three daughters: the oldest, DJ (Candace Cameron); middle kid Stephanie (Jodie Sweetin); and the baby, Michelle, played in stereo by Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. In addition to the Tanner girls, two grown men reside in Danny’s house rent-free. The first freeloader is Uncle Jesse, a rad, motorcycle-driving, wannabe rockstar, played by John Stamos and his mullet. The second mooch is Danny’s best friend Joey, a comedian whose edgier material involves impressions of Popeye and Bullwinkle the Moose. Joey is played by Dave Coulier, who plays a fake comedian in real life, too.

The recipe for the Full House aesthetic is a simple one: combine equal parts absurd plotlines (for example, the Beach Boys make a number of inexplicable guest appearances) with saccharine life lessons like these:

  • Episode 113: Upset with her family, 5-year-old Michelle runs away from home, but learns a valuable lesson about family and forgiveness.
  • Episode 84: Stephanie panics when she finds out she needs glasses, but after a pep talk from Steve Urkel (yep), she learns a lesson about not taking herself too seriously.
  • Episode 65: DJ gets caught holding a can of beer at a school dance and learns a very important lesson about Rocky Mountain refreshment.

For eight years, Full House aired every Friday night during ABC’s TGIF lineup, but my hunger for the campy, melodramatic lives of the Tanners couldn’t be satiated with one episode per week. I binged on the show in syndication. I watched it almost every weekday after school, first with an hour block of episodes on TBS, and then a second hour block on WGN.

Although I hadn’t watched Full House since childhood, a few years ago I began been thinking about a specific episode from the first season. That episode is called “The Big Three-Oh.” It takes place on Danny Tanner’s 30th birthday. The episode opens at the Tanner’s kitchen table, where Jesse and Joey each remind the girls not to spoil Danny’s surprise birthday party.

Danny enters.

DANNY: Good morning, everyone!

EVERYONE: Happy Birthday!

DANNY: Okay, it’s been said. Now we can just move on, and forget the fact that I’m… I’m…

JOEY and JESSE: Thirty!

DANNY: Thank you. Okay, anyway I don’t turn… turn…

JOEY and JESSE: Thirty!

DANNY: Thank you. I don’t turn what you just said until 8:15.

DJ: Dad, it’s 8:20

DANNY: Oh my God.

When I saw this episode for the first time, I was no older than nine years old. At that age, I thought about 30 in the same way I thought about outer space—I knew it was out there, but I wasn’t ever going to visit. I continued to think about my 30s in this way throughout my teenage years and well into my twenties, until, on a frigid February day about two years ago, I took one giant leap for mankind and turned 30. As I reflected on what I remembered from this episode of Full House, I felt a kinship with Danny Tanner. Like Danny Tanner, the word “thirty” weighed heavy in my mouth. Like Danny Tanner, I wanted to delay the moment of turning 30 as long as possible. We weren’t so different, Danny Tanner and I.

But the more I thought about Danny Tanner, the more my affinity with him shifted toward a grudge. Danny Tanner owns a massive house in a plush neighborhood in San Francisco. Danny Tanner has three lovely daughters. Danny Tanner has his dream job as an on-air personality for a morning television show. If Danny Tanner had Facebook, he would use the hashtag #blessed. If Danny Tanner had Instagram, he would be the kind of person whose pictures I’d show to others as evidence of the inherent unfairness of a universe where select people were predisposed to lives of picturesque perfection. If Danny Tanner were a real person, he would have the most accomplished life of any 30-year-old I know.

The fact that Danny Tanner is not a real person held no consolation for me. As I took stock of how I measured up to Danny Tanner, my grudge devolved into spite and self-pity. I have a sofa with a bed in it, I thought. I have one full set of matching plates and coffee mugs. At least I have Netflix—Danny Tanner had to take his sorry ass to Blockbuster.

full house bob saget danny tanner lolidk

Courtesy of GIPHY

If you examine the life of any perfect person long enough, eventually you’ll find what you’re looking for. The more I dwelled on Danny Tanner, the more I began to recall the flaws in his character and fractures in his life. Although Danny Tanner appears to have it all, he also has a number of things I wouldn’t want, such as a crippling case of OCD. And a dead wife. Oh, did I forget to mention that? Shortly before the first episode of Full House, Danny Tanner’s wife died in a car accident. Isn’t that the wackiest sitcom setup you’ve ever heard?

It’s a critical and often-forgotten element of the Full House backstory. Critical because it explains why the House is, in fact, “full,” with the likes of Jesse and Joey. And often-forgotten because the characters almost never talk about it. Not Danny, not Uncle Jesse, who is the younger brother of the late Pam Tanner, not even the girls. For example, in the episode that takes place on Danny’s 30th birthday, nobody acknowledges that it’s Danny’s first birthday since his wife died and it might be kind of a difficult day for him. Instead they’re like “Hey, way to be old, grandpa! Hyuk, hyuk.” The show should be called Full House of Denying-Ass People.

I may not have the sweetest house, or the coolest job, but I have been able to make it through 30 years free of real, crippling tragedy. My grandparents are gone now, but they all lived full lives into their 80s and 90s. My parents are still alive and together. I have had no failed marriage of my own, no catastrophic illness or injury. I have not struggled with addiction. My closest friends have all thus far avoided untimely ends. The single saddest day of my life was probably the day my oldest brother left for the army. He stayed in the military for 20 years, and he is, as he once wryly put it to me, “still in one piece.” Even my saddest moment is more bittersweet than tragic, limned with long-term good fortune. None of this made me feel much better about turning 30. Measuring my life in terms of tragedy avoided felt just as hollow as measuring my life against Danny Tanner’s. I needed inspiration. I needed a pep talk. I needed a life lesson. Luckily, I knew where to turn. I googled “Full House Big Three-Oh” and followed a link to a very sketchy video streaming site where I watched the episode in its entirety.

Try to stay with me here, because this episode of Full House gets weird in the way that only sitcoms from the ‘80s and ‘90s get weird. After Danny goes to work at the TV station, Jesse and Joey plan a surprise party for him. Jesse takes off in Danny’s beloved car, a convertible named Bullet, so he can get it fitted for sheepskin seat covers, which we all know is the perfect birthday gift for your dead sister’s husband. While Jesse is inside the shop where he’s buying the seat covers, another vehicle bumps into Bullet, and the car rolls down a hill and into the bay. (This sort of thing happens all the time in San Francisco.) None of this action plays out on-screen. Instead, we only see the car before—polished to a perfect shine, in the Tanner’s backyard, for some reason—and the car after—completely destroyed, the windshield shattered, the front end smashed in. In the Tanner’s backyard. For some reason.

That’s not even the weird part. As Jesse and Joey plan how they will break the news to Danny, again, no one acknowledges that maybe the sight of this mangled vehicle will be extra difficult for Danny to stomach, given the manner in which his beloved wife shuffled off her mortal coil. Instead, everyone’s just like: “Boy, Danny sure loved that car. Womp, womp.” As Uncle Jesse breaks the news to Danny, he puts his hand on Danny’s shoulder, looks him in the eye, and says “Bullet was in an accident.” When Danny asks if Bullet is okay, Uncle Jesse says, “Oh, no,” and there is canned laughter. It is as though they are satirizing the moment that Danny Tanner learned of his wife’s death.

Anyway, by the end of the episode, Jesse and Joey find a replacement Bullet, and order is restored to the Full House universe. In the final scene, Danny makes a heartfelt speech. “Birthdays aren’t about numbers,” he says, his arms stretched around Jesse and Joey, “they’re about the people you spend them with.” That’s supposed to be the life lesson of the episode. It’s the life lesson I would have taken away as a nine-year-old kid, with more birthdays than I could fathom between me and Danny Tanner.

The 30-year-old me found a different, more realistic life lesson. About halfway through the episode, on the morning after Danny sees his destroyed car, Joey finds him in Michelle’s room, reading a book. Joey tries to console Danny. “It’s just a car,” Joey reminds him. Danny responds: “Joey, it’s more than just the car. I’m talking about the big picture. Who are we? Where are we going? Why do we have to get there so fast?” In an episode that is otherwise completely unaware of reality, it’s a moment that feels oddly true. These are the sorts of questions that one asks upon turning 30. Am I where I am supposed to be? Am I doing what I am supposed to be doing? This is where the episode ought to end. Not with the Danny Tanner that’s all smiles and a brand new car and an aw-shucks-it-all-works-out-in-the-end kind of attitude, but with the Danny Tanner sitting in his daughter’s room before anyone else is awake, dealing with the quiet recognition that when you’re lost out there and you’re all alone, a light is not, in fact, waiting to carry you home. You’ve got to make your own way in the dark. That is a life lesson. A real-life lesson. Real-life lessons don’t fit neatly into theme song lyrics. They don’t comfort latchkey nine-year-olds posted in front of the idiot box after school.

Since I turned 30, I’ve stayed at the job that I don’t find fulfilling but pays my bills. My dog died. No life lesson there, that just sucked. I had my first legitimate one-night stand. And my second legitimate one-night stand. Followed by my first legitimate STI screening. I can’t say turning 30 has taught me much, maybe least of all about who I am or what I’m supposed to be doing. And I doubt I’d feel more confident in the answers to these questions even if I did have the house, the job, and the family that Danny Tanner has.

As Full House returns to Netflix as Fuller House, I presume adults like me who once consumed syndicated re-runs in hour-long portions will now binge upon the show until they are overstuffed. I can’t say what Full House fans, whose enthusiasm borders on the evangelical, find appealing about the idea of Fuller House. Perhaps they believe the original cast, most of whom will reprise their roles, will enchant them under their decades-old magic. Maybe they look forward to testing how far they can extend their disbelief before it shatters. Maybe they simply want to revel in the familiar catch phrases (Have mercy! Oh, Mylanta! How rude!). I only hope they’re not longing for the life lessons; they won’t find them, not if they’ve done any real growing up of their own. For my part, I suppose I’ll tune in to Fuller House, at least long enough to hear the only words of wisdom that make sense to me anymore: Shibidy bop bah-ow.

comedy full house flirting bob saget danny tanner

Courtesy of GIPHY

About Willy Nast

Willy Nast lives and writes in Chicago. He co-hosts the live lit show Essay Fiesta and the “completely unpretentious” literary podcast All Write Already! He likes your dog.
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