Jodie Sweetin's Return to Predictability

The years after 'Full House' were filled with darkness—so why would she go back?

Photography By Elizabeth Weinberg

The first time Jodie Sweetin ever said “how rude” on national television was in the 13th episode of Full House, which aired one week before her sixth birthday, in January 1988.

In the episode, called “Sisterly Love” (which could really be the title of any Full House episode at any time), Sweetin’s spaz-cadet alter ego Stephanie Tanner beats out her big sister DJ for a role on a cereal commercial. She is clearly the cutest kid for the part (That lisp! Those spiral curls! The comic timing of a borscht belt veteran!) but her victory turns into D.J.’s dark night of the soul. For the rest of the episode, D.J.—a weepy Candace Cameron Bure, vying for a Junior Emmy—visits every room of the house to vent to a different male guardian about the many injustices in the world. After earning herself no less than three Very Heartfelt Speeches about handling loss with grace and at least two Healing Group Hugs for her labors, D.J. goes to Stephanie to concede. Lil’ Steph, however, has already taken the high road. She is on the phone with the cereal company, haughtily rescinding her offer for child stardom. When the adult on the other end of the line hangs up (because what else do you do when a five-year-old calls asking for “Mr. Oat Boat?”), Sweetin milks the offense for comedy. She bleats “hello? hellooooo?” into the shiny red receiver until she has wrung every last chortle out of the laugh track, and then, slamming the phone down, hits paydirt: how rude.

It was a throwaway line in the scene, a quick beat to get from here to there. But Sweetin delivered it with such withering disdain, such irrepressible panache, that she sealed her own fate. For as long as she lives, Jodie Sweetin will hear those two words wherever she goes. Someone horrible will probably find a way to work them into her obituary. How rude, indeed.

Sweetin takes center stage in a 1991 episode of 'Full House.' (Image via ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images)

Sweetin’s autobiography begins with a very different two-word phrase. The first line of UnSweetined, which Sweetin wrote (or rather told in bits to a ghostwriter) in 2009, is “fuck it.” She is referring to her attitude right before smoking meth and doing a plateful of cocaine, the night before she was scheduled to give a speech at Marquette University about her commitment to sobriety (she did give that speech in 2007, and she was high the entire time she was on stage). But Sweetin might as well have been referring to the exhausting pressures of forever being Stephanie, frozen in time with a side ponytail and a tooth gap and a close personal friendship with a teddy named Mr. Bear. Full House ended in 1995, but it never truly left television; because of extensive syndication deals, the show is still on, even now, every single day. Every day, somewhere in the world, a new child discovers Stephanie’s unruly sass, her way with an acid scowl. People have heard her say “pin a rose on your nose” thousands of times, in hundreds of dubbed languages, for over two decades.

So: fuck it. With that kind of legacy, the only options seem to be to find God (as Cameron Bure did), find a new identity far away (as the Olsens did), or find drugs. By 14, Sweetin was already an alcoholic. By 25, she had done crack and was regularly spending ten thousand dollars at a time to get high, which she says she bankrolled with Full House residual checks. In 2007, she was once so strung out that she wore a t-shirt to LAX that said “Things You Shouldn’t Take To The Airport” next to pictures of guns and drugs, and then walked through security wearing it while hiding a giant baggie of cocaine in a makeup compact (she wasn’t caught, but she did think to herself, “If I had had that gun my shirt warned against, I probably would have blown my brains out.”). She married three times—first at 20, then again at 25, then again at 30—and divorced three times. She had two daughters: Zoie was born in 2008, before Sweetin got sober for the last time, and Beatrix came in 2010. Sweetin adores and lives for her girls, but separated from both fathers.

Her twenties were—as she presents them—completely chaotic. These were the “fuck it” years, the lost years. Some child stars never survive them (see: Corey Haim, Brad Renfro, Jonathan Brandis, Ashleigh Ashton Moore, River Phoenix). There is something so dangerous about becoming famous so young: you can only do it if you have a unique talent, but then you become a person with a unique talent who has been boxed in for life. It’s the Mouseketeer Paradox; the Snick-22.

“I mean, I was 13 when the
show ended and I wanted nothing more than to
continue doing it.”

But Sweetin made it through, and now she has two new words that she keeps repeating, words that have made the last twenty years of struggling feel worthwhile, words that are bringing her back home again into the group huddle where she belongs: Fuller House.

When Jodie Sweetin talks about Fuller House, the Full House reboot coming to Netflix on Feb. 26, her entire face lights up: “When I walked onto the set, it was like, oh my god, I never thought I would see this place again!”

We are sitting in a cramped office lounge in a corporate complex off of Sunset Boulevard, in a building where the famous Garden of Allah residences used to sit during Hollywood’s Golden Age before someone tore them down (this terrible act apparently inspired Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”; I cannot help but note the irony of us talking about nostalgia in the place where they paved over paradise). Sweetin is surrounded by her glam squad, who are packing her blonde hair with bouncy extensions and suggesting “options” for the photo shoot, including a green bustier that everyone on the squad agrees is “super sexy and chic,” and a shaggy white fur coat that the stylist notes is “just for when you want to get silly.”

Sweetin is thrilled to be back on Fuller House, and not just in that pragmatic way that an actress who hasn’t been able to carve out a path beyond her early work might be to finally have screen time again. She is truly hyped to be on the show. For Sweetin, the return of Full House is a fulfillment of twenty years of wandering and soul-searching, all the while trying to get back to where she started out from. Some stars who grew up on a TV set know that in order to grow, that chapter of their life must close, that they can’t ever go back again (this seems to be the Olsen mentality). Others need that environment to feel whole, especially if the cast becomes a surrogate family, as Sweetin says the Full House tribe has always been for her (Sweetin was adopted by her uncle and his wife as a baby when both of her parents went to jail; she is used to finding love in proxy family situations, fitting into a unit wherever she goes).

“When people are like, ‘Oh you guys kept in touch’ I am like no, we practically live at each other’s houses,” she says of the Full House cast. “I’m doing dinner with Dave [Coulier] and his wife tomorrow night, and that’s normal. Candace has always felt like my sister. We would argue and fight and I wanted to be like her. I grew up as an only child so Candace and Andrea [Barber] were like the closest thing that I had to real sisters. When we all saw the stage together for the first time, which they totally rebuilt to look just like the original, we just took it all in. We were like, ‘Wow you guys, this is really happening for us. And we get to do this together.’ Well, except Mary Kate and Ashley. And that’s fine! They’ve gone off into fashion, that’s their world now.”

Sweetin has always been in favor of a Full House revival. When John Stamos and creator Jeff Franklin were pitching the re-tooled show around town to various networks, she signed on from the very beginning. It’s where she feels happiest. “Cameron and I knew we would come back right away,” she says, trying to stop her eyes from watering as a makeup artist slicks on mascara. “This show is giving me the opportunity to go back and do something I love. I mean, I was thirteen when the show ended and I wanted nothing more than to continue doing it. And more than anything, I think that this is something the fans want, they want us to know what our characters have been doing for the past twenty years. I get so many fan letters from people wondering for twenty years what Stephanie has been up to, and now they get to find out.”

Sweetin alongside Andrea Barber's Kimmy Gibbler and Cameron Candace's D.J. in an 1990 episode of 'Full House'. (Image via ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images)

Here’s the big thing you need to know about Fuller House: it’s not just a reboot. The rebooted show has been done, first with Arrested Development and the X-Files, and soon Twin Peaks and Gilmore Girls. Fuller House is something very different; it refuses to modernize or cater to current trends. Instead, it is a full-on simulacrum of the original series, down to its very bones: same theme song, same set, same showrunner, same writers’ room, same canned laughter, same catchphrases, same San Francisco setting that feels nothing like San Francisco, same vague wash of white privilege.

The only thing that has shifted, slightly to the feminist left, is the cast: while Uncles Jesse and Joey make cameos and Bob Saget waltzes through the frame every now and then, the show now belongs to the women of the house. D.J. is all grown up, works as a veterinarian, and has three sons, whom she is raising without a father after her firefighter husband died a hero. Stephanie is now a jet-setting D.J. (and you thought your DJ Tanner spinning name in college was so original) who has been living in London and Ibiza and has just moved home. Michelle is off somewhere in New York “running a fashion empire,” which is exactly what the Olsens are doing, and why they decided that they did not want to come within 100 feet of the show (nothing is less high fashion than a laugh track). Kimmy Gibbler is a party planner and a single mom with a half-Latina daughter (a rare nod to Bay Area ethnicity) who moves into the attic to help D.J. with her parenting duties. All the adorable kid roles are still there: D.J.’s oldest son is kind but fragile (her doppelganger), her middle child is an epic ham (the young Elias Harger chews through enough scenes to achieve near Stephanie status), and her pumpkin-headed infant is played by twin actors who don’t totally know what they are in for yet.

In other words, Fuller House is like if Encino Man woke up in 2016 after being asleep for twenty years and decided he still preferred 1995—and doesn’t have to change that for anybody. Fuller House feels out of time, like an instant relic—and the fact that it was made last year makes this feeling all the more eerie and fascinating to watch.

“We didn’t want to do a movie. We wanted to bring full house back exactly as it was.”

This complete loyalty to the source material—the same dewy lens, the same warm embraces and moral koan ending every episode, even the same affection for random dance sequences—is what makes Fuller House feel so strange and almost magical. Because you are waiting for the show to be somehow radically different. For there to be some break between 1995 and 2016 that feels jarring, some new world order. But no, the show stays, with few exceptions, exactly the same. Sure, the cast makes a few meta-jokes about Michelle’s whereabouts and John Stamos crows about how good everyone still looks, but after the old-timers leave, the show settles into the familiar rhythms that define every classic Full House episode, only this time with female leads. The references have been slightly modified—Stephanie plays Coachella, the kids have smartphones, there are jokes about Donald Trump and gluten—but the punchlines stay soft, and the plotlines always end with a grandiose speech about family bonding wrapped up with a bow. San Francisco has changed since 1995, but inside the Fuller House house, which must be worth about $25 million by now, things remain very much the same.

Silicon Valley has not invaded the Tanner household except to bring them to new fans via Netflix. Candace Cameron Bure, in a phone interview, tells me that changing the style of the show would doom it. “I don't think a spinoff would work if you changed the style. We've had such a loyal following for 30 years. The original Full House, it was panned the first couple of years. But it resonated with audiences. The fans who have been waiting for this show want what they are already expecting, if it went down a different path of trying to reinvent itself. This is a show that has not been off the air and there is a reason for it. Being on Netflix, we will come back simultaneously in all of these countries at once."

So far, the critics do not seem to understand the point of all this. They are lamenting the show as “self-obsessed,” and too enamored with its own mythology, as if Netflix let a Full House blogger write the entire TV show as fanfic. But what these critics fail to see is that those self-celebratory elements are what makes the Fuller House concept kind of genius. Fuller House is as unapologetic about itself as any undaunted millennial, as auto-referential as a selfie. The cast refuses to act embarrassed about the show’s retro tone, even when they are all doing the running man to “The Right Stuff.” Instead, this is a show that really feels itself. It feels that whatever magic it had back in 1987 (which critics bemoaned as trite pablum at the time as well, by the way), was a timeless, flawless formula. In that way, Fuller House exhibits an entitled swagger that feels extremely modern.

“No one has ever done this before,” Sweetin says of the truly loyal reboot. “We didn’t want to do a movie. We wanted to bring it back exactly as it was. I think if we tried to do some weird dark comedy version of Full House, people would be really disturbed by that. And the thing that I keep saying about Fuller House is that you can jump in and watch it as a standalone show. You don’t necessarily ever have to have seen the original to enjoy this as a really fun sitcom. We’re not relying only on people that have watched the show before.”

Of course, it remains to be seen if Fuller House can attract a new fan base, but it certainly has a lot of Easter Eggs to offer people who were loyal to the original. Kimmy Gibbler finally gets to hug Danny. Joey and Jesse sing “Meet the Flintstones” to a crying baby again, and Stephanie gets to, at long last, fire off a triumphant “how rude” (and it only takes until seven minutes into the first episode to get it). These nuggets for fans may seem to some like pandering, but Sweetin believes that this infusion of the familiar has actually given the cast more freedom to be themselves. Because she is giving fans exactly what they want from her, Sweetin says, she is at peace. And she can return to Fuller House feeling more complete: “They always incorporated a lot of my own personality into Stephanie, and I walked away from Full House as Stephanie; the two people had melded. Now I get to be just Jodie. Just myself. I get to kind of come back and fill in the story for the past twenty years, and how often do you get to do that?”

These days, nostalgia has become something of a dirty concept, something that millennials crave because we cannot concentrate long enough to create something new. Nostalgia is a fad, born out in thousands of GIF listicles and historical pictures on Twitter. But there is a deeper reason for the intense longing that those of us who were children in the nineties feel for a time before the web, a time when you could set a sitcom in San Francisco without acknowledging tech bros. It’s not that it was a simpler time, because no time is simple. It’s that the limited media we were working with led us all to gather around certain cultural ephemera at the same time; it’s why Full House could become a network smash and so quickly enter the pop cultural bloodstream. We met the Tanner family through passive viewing on televisions without DVRs; we were forced to commune with them in all their sappy, saccharine, over-simplified glory. And there will always, no matter what amazing things the Internet hath wrought, be a part of us that feels the lack of that network monoculture, and longs to cozy up again with our ABC families. (“The show gives people the thing they have been missing,” says Sweetin. “The thing that makes them feel all warm and fuzzy inside.”) Fuller House rushes in to fill that lack, but also to highlight that it ever existed. It may make you think about your own mortality more than you might like.

Sweetin in a 1987 'Full House' episode with John Stamos, Dave Coulier, and Bob Saget. (Image via ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images)

People who were born after Full House ended, and who have always had streaming video, may find the Netflix show supremely odd. But if Fuller House has a chance, that’s because it's on Netflix; everyone streams now, everyone Netflix and chills. If there is any place to try to reboot America’s family, it’s there.

And while the Tanners remain as white as ever, there is a stroke of modernity to the current set-up. Women now run the house like a coven. “It’s a girl-power vibe,” says Sweetin, who has swapped her bustier for a cozy cardigan post-shoot. “My daughters all have aunties who help out. It takes a village.”

As for Sweetin, she has no problem being the girl who says “how rude” again, as long as this time the fans allow her to move beyond it. She wants to do darker, dramatic work. She wants to direct (“we need so many more women on that side of the industry”). And she feels that Fuller House is the path forward—perhaps if she does this for her fans, her fans will allow her to move on one day with grace.

“I don’t think I really realized what being an adult and being a real grownup was until I was at least twenty-eight,” she says. “I am just now able to enjoy the person I am, faults and all. I can laugh at the darkest, sort of most upsetting times in my life. Maybe it was becoming a mom and learning to love something so completely outside of myself that none of that matters anymore.”

Sweetin had to go away to come back, to struggle in order to snuggle back into those legendary Tanner family hugs. And now that she is back, she doesn’t ever want to leave. “I want to do this for however long fans are into the show. I’d love to do it for five years,” she says. “And then maybe in twenty years it could come back again, like an amazing dream. We could call it The Fullest House.”

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