There’s a lot of Full House nostalgia going on right now (the ’90s are hot!), especially in San Francisco. We embrace it at this blog too. I’m not down on the show by any means. I watched as a kid and remember how neat it was to see my city portrayed on the small screen.
Upon limited rewatching of the Tanner family’s antics in five minute bursts (it’s not the attention holder it was when I was six), I was disappointed to find the show’s San Francisco setting was mostly inconsequential. In addition to shooting in studio (although the opening credits were famously shot in Alamo Square and at other local landmarks), the references to the cultural life of the city are few and far between. Yes, this is a show centered around three men living together in a nationally recognized gay Mecca, so occasionally a very benign reference to the city’s gay culture will pop up (see Uncle Jesse serenading Joey with “Love Me Tender” in the tub for a more general example), but the show could have just as easily been set in another city without a drastic change in tone. Two years after Full House left the airwaves in 1995, ABC again set another sitcom in the City by the Bay, only this time much of the humor and premise were very dependent on the San Francisco locale.
Dharma and Greg was centered around a classic formula: uptight man meets free spirited woman, they fall in love and hilarity ensues. It’s a premise that’s worked before: see most of the screwball comedies of the 1930s (Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn perfectly embody this dynamic) and most of the fantasy/domestic sitcom hybrids of the 1960s (I Dream of Genie is sort of a magical version of Dharma and Greg, if you squint). Handsome college Republican Thomas Gibson played Pacific Heights-bred Greg Montgomery (his main job on the show was to have Darren Stevenseque reactions to his wife’s antics), while Jenna Elfman portrayed Dharma “Freedom” Finkelstein, the bohemian daughter of Summer-of-Loving Marin-ites (Dharma’s raison d’etre was to give Greg something outside his culturally conservative comfort zone to react to). The couple meet on the Muni Metro in the first episode, take an impetuous first date to Reno and are impulsively married by the second commercial break. The minute you meet Dharma and Greg’s families, the show shifts from sitcom to San Francisco specific social satire.
Greg’s parents, Kitty and Edward, are high society stereotypes played by Susan Sullivan and Mitchell Ryan. Both are permanently sucking martinis, talk without ever once unclenching their jaws and are prone to “let them eat cake” social statements. Dharma’s parents, Abbey and Larry, are the Montgomerys old hippie polar opposites. Abbey sees auras and midwives, Larry drives a VW bus and doesn’t trust the government. It’s a culture clash that’s been happening since 1966. Your typical episode went something like this:
Dharma and Greg spend 30-45% of most episodes making out, in bed or sitting on each others’ laps because this conservative lawyer and liberal yoga teacher have mad sexual chemistry! What else could be keeping such wildly different people together? Dharma wants the couple to do something whimsical and risk-taking like paint themselves with vegetable dye and illegally bungee jump off Coit Tower or put on a piece of political theater on a burning barge. Greg objects, he prefers to play it safe. Larry and Abbey side with Dharma. Larry shares a conspiracy theory, is probably stoned. Abbey thinks everything can be cured through vegetarianism and communion with your spirit animal. Edward and Kitty side with Greg. Edward name drops George Shultz, furrows his brow and is probably drunk. Kitty wears Chanel and doesn’t care for Dharma’s taste in furniture. Through misadventure, Greg learns to loosen up and Dharma learns to respect the norms of mainstream society. Dharma and Greg hop back into bed and forget everything they learned about compromise.
For all D & G’s broad comedy, there are a lot of culturally specific notes the sitcom got right when it came to certain San Francisco types and nuances. Here are five qualities Dharma and Greg totally captured about San Francisco in ways Full House never could.
The drastically different parenting styles the Finkelsteins and Montgomerys employed are frequently cause for disagreement between Dharma and Greg early in the show. Greg went to a private day school (we’ve always guessed Town among my friends) and then onto Exeter and Harvard (not unpopular choices in “society” circles). Dharma was home schooled on alternative histories and organic craft making. Greg’s parents were slightly neglectful gala hoppers who forgot to supervise him (although Greg never took the liberties absentee parenting afforded him). Dharma’s parents were touchy feely, “talk about it” types who had elaborate ceremonies for her rites of passage and allowed their daughter to call them by their first names. Most people who grew up or went to school in San Francisco probably knew a handful of kids who were the products of both types of parenting. At my neighborhood Whole Foods, I could probably round up a dozen of each on any given day. The episode where Dharma’s parents reenact her birth in front of a roomful of party guests is especially poignant for me after having sat through a two and a half hour “coming of age ceremony” that ended in much the same way. When cultures clash, the laughs keep coming.
What were probably big laughs in other parts of the world about the strangeness of the hippie food and health values on the show were knowing “ah, I know what wheat grass is!” understanding laughs from kids who grew up with typically health-minded Bay Area parents. Granola, tofu, vegetarianism, locavorism and community farming were all the butts of jokes on the sitcom (as was yoga, meditation, alternative fuels, composting and even recycling), but as these things have been mainstreamed into supermarkets and everyday life, it looks like the organic parents are having the last laugh. It’s quaint now to go back and watch the characters on the show get gently mocked for asking who grew their produce or argue about pesticide in urban gardening.
In a city (and post new age culture) where talking about feelings and sharing were a significant part of most childhoods, there was a constant danger of too few boundaries in regular conversation (“how are you?” potentially had many long answers growing up) and the dreaded over-sharing. Dharma was the 200% percent embodiment of the San Francisco over-share as is evidenced by the above discourse to her parents about Greg and her sex life. I don’t think anyone I knew made an over-share that profound, but such are the dangers of starting children on preventative talk therapy from the age of birth.
Multiculturalism, Inclusivity and “Villages”
The show’s cast of supporting characters was incredibly specific to different San Francisco types. Dharma’s best friend Jane was a Burner meets riot grrl type (this is the late ’90s, remember?) and, in the later seasons, Dharma’s work life teaching yoga at a co-op brings in a cast of alternative lifestyle practitioners including acupuncturists, nutrition consultants and past last regression specialists. There were also some memorable reoccurring guest stars. Dharma’s backingpacking early freegan boyfriend makes an appearance in the first season, and in one episode the couple befriend a Native American who wants to die on his ancestral homestead in the Montgomerys’ SOMA apartment (doesn’t that just sound like a plausible headline?). When Dharma and Greg accidentally almost adopt a baby (as one does), Dharma calls on her “village” to help care for their bundle of joy. Since this is Dharma and Greg, the village is a very San Francisco multicultural mix including a mute performance artist who has taken a vow of silence, a butch lesbian lactation expert, and an African high priest. “Village” is just another way of saying “community,” which remains the buzz word of choice for San Francisco alternative schools.
Larry’s “Memory Problems”
One of the longest running jokes of the series was Larry Finkelstein’s “memory problem,” “oregano plants” and “medication.” Let’s just say it: Larry was the dad that was always stoned. I think most San Franciscans of the dot com boom twilight of the 20th century years knew at least one or two holdouts from the Woodstock era that spent the days more baked than present. If you grew up here, maybe it was even the parents of one of your friends. You know exactly what I’m talking about: so-and-so’s dad had “back issues” and was always off in the back den listening to Pink Floyd and never minded if you had a party so long as you didn’t get into his stash.