It’s a rare condition, this day and age, to read any good news on the newspaper page. At least that’s what the catchy theme song to Family Matters says. Then again, this is the same show that gave us the Urkelbot, Stefan Urquelle, and The Urkel Dance. If you can discern a pattern here, it’s in the shape of a bespectacled, suspender-wearing, nasal-voiced nerd stereotype named Steve Urkel. In fact, this character quickly took over the show: once a relatively down-to-earth sitcom about a middle-class black family living in the suburbs of Chicago eventually became “The Steve Urkel Show” in all but name. But why?
Urkel: not even once.
Let’s go back a bit: originally starting as a spin-off from Perfect Strangers, on which the character Harriet Winslow was an elevator operator, the show centered around Harriet and her police officer husband Carl, their teenage kids Eddie and Laura, young daughter Judy, and Harriet’s mother, who comes to live with the family in the first episode. It was a soft show, like many of the sitcoms that aired on TGIF, that centered around their domestic life. There was a lot of love and learning in every episode, and needless to say it was nearly cancelled by the end of its first season due to low ratings. However, there was one great hope for the show to continue: a recurring nerdy neighbor that was a hit with the audience. The solution? Increase his presence in the show to the point where he eventually became the main character. Such was the case of Steve Urkel. There was honest-to-goodness Urkelmania that swept America, with this increasingly irritating fellow garnering his own cereal (Urkel-o’s), lunch box, talking doll, and board game.
Urkel-Os: It’s Food! (Kind Of)
The show itself came down with a terminal case of Urkelmania as main characters were squeezed out so more time could be spent focusing on Urkel, to the point where supporting characters like Aunt Rachel and her son Richie and, yes, even one of the main Winslow family members, Judy, were simply written off the show at the end of the fourth season. The actress who played Judy later went on to do porn. I would have, too, if I was pushed out of the way to make room for more Urkel.
And when they got the Urkel ball rolling, it never stopped: once his obsessive lust for Laura and love of cheese was firmly established in the cultural zeitgeist, Urkel started having wackier and wackier adventures: he built a fully functional robot version of himself; he built a machine that made him a smooth-talking hipster; he built a goddamn jet pack. This little show that was a hokey look at a suburban African-American family became one of the most ridiculous primetime shows ever produced.
By 1998, after a vaccine was invented, America came out of the collective fog that descended upon the nation as a result of a bad case of Urkelmania and decided enough was enough: the madness must stop. After nine seasons, a network jump (CBS bought both Family Matters and Step By Step in an attempt to counter TGIF’s dominance; it didn’t work) and 215 episodes (which is an insane amount of time, money, and hours dedicated to covering all that was Urkel), Family Matters was put out of its misery.
Why do I write so much about this paper-thin character? Because truth be told, there really wasn’t that much to Family Matters outside of Urkel. It was a genial show about a family and…that’s pretty much it. There’s a reason it was almost cancelled at the end of its first season–it just wasn’t that good of a show. However, we came here to praise Family Matters, not to bury it, and in all fairness I will say that there was an amusing repartee between patriarch Carl and the annoying Urkel. But enough of this preamble: let’s all learn how to do The Urkel! The episode I’ve selected to recap is season 2 episode 18, “Life of the Party,” featuring (you guessed it) Urkel, as said life of the party.
“Life of the Party” – Season 2, Episode 18
We have a cold open where all the Winslows (including the three members that would “disappear” suddenly, never to be mentioned again in a few seasons) are having a sitcom disagreement where everyone talks over each other randomly, and I’m wondering if sitcom writers have actually experienced real life since this kind of thing never happens. Carl gets fed up with this shit so he takes out an air horn that he has for some reason in the closet.
I bet that closet’s full of wacky plot devices.
The whole hubbub is about a week’s vacation that everyone has and where they should go. Wait, are they planning this for the distant future or like next week? And everyone has time off at the same time? Anyway, Harriet says let’s go to NYC and take in some theater, which gets a laugh for some inexplicable reason. Aunt Rachel says I want to go to the beach to catch a dick (in so many words), and soon-to-be-forgotten Judy squeals that she wants to go to Disneyworld. Grandma says they should boogie on down to Graceland (this also gets a laugh for some reason), and Carl says fuck this, let’s go to Lake Geneva. Grandma shits on his idea and they all start arguing again. Air horn time! That shuts their yaps up and Carl says since I’m paying for this fucking thing, we’re going to Lake Geneva. INTRO SONG NOW!
Damn, this is a good theme song. It’s oozing early 90’s cheese and I’m literally tapping my toe to it. It’s even an extended version with an extra verse! Must be my lucky day. Anyway, that’s enough of that goodness because it’s just a theme song so it’s over in 45 seconds.
There’s Laura with one of her nameless friends and they’re planning a party. Aunt Rachel stomps in from the kitchen and we find out nameless girl has a name and it’s Maxine. Turns out Maxine hired Aunt Rachel to cater the party and this must be a new low for Aunt Rachel. And then, because we only have 21 minutes to tell a whole story, we’re at the party. Crikey, sitcoms move fast.
Some awful song about kicking it–kicking it up, out, all over the damn place, who knows–plays while Laura and Maxine jib-jab about their stupid outfits and gawk at the jerkos they go to school with. Waldo and some other dude crashes the party and Aunt Rachel makes a fool of herself in front of these kids. The gals walk over to get some freshness with one of the dudes but the guys are doing something shady. Sure enough, Waldo has a ton of shooters lining his coat and Laura lets them know that drinking’s for losers, but I don’t know, I need a stiff drink to get through this episode and I’m only half a loser. This fresh dude that’s not Waldo says leave us alone to get drunk or I’m taking all the guys with me and we’ll touch our wieners together elsewhere.
After all, Waldo already has a flasher jacket.
FADE IN to the same scene because that’s a really easy way to let the audience know that time has passed and the guys are just drinking their fucking faces off while Laura has a sour puss on. Looks like she could use a drink. Maxine says fucking cool out, lady, let these dudes drink: besides, nothing bad’s happened yet. JUST THEN Steve Urkel shows up and, I swear to God, the audience applauds his entrance like Kramer has just slid through the door. The girls say shit, son, nobody’s dancing, so Urkel says, “Have no fear, the Urk Man is here,” which I think I’m going to get that line put on a t-shirt so I’m beat up much quicker than usual when I go outside.
Urkel goes up to the drunken posse, who insult him immediately, but he throws some sass right back at him. Then he says let’s dance, eh? They turn their back on him like much of the world would in a few short years, and the music is turned up while Urkel literally starts instructing everybody on how to do The Urkel. Indeed, everybody starts doing The Urkel. The song even has the chorus, “Everybody do The Urkel!” and it’s sheer madness. In the corner, Willy (that bad kid’s name) spikes a drink to fuck Urkel’s shit up and Waldo’s I guess a bad guy at this time because later in the series he’s Eddie Winslow’s best friend. I don’t know. The Urkel dance goes on for far too long but thankfully it eventually stops.
Bet this one didn’t land on the choreographer’s resume.
Willy pulls Urkel to the side and says sorry friend-o, have a drink and also I’m not getting my petty revenge against you. Urkel takes the cup without question and takes a sip and is immediately fucked up beyond repair. He’s wavering around like a cartoon drunk from a 1940’s cartoon as everyone laughs and laughs at this fool. Laura comes up with a stink face and asks what’s up with you, worm? Steve gets another spiked drink but immediately dumps it on Waldo. Laura then asks what’s going on to Waldo, and stupid Waldo tells her that they spiked the punch. Urkel gets up on the ledge of this building (oh, the party’s being held on a high-rise rooftop; I didn’t mention it earlier because why would I? It’s a fake party being thrown in a sitcom. Who cares?) and starts walking around like he owns the goddamn building. And then he falls off the ledge, which is actually pretty funny (although it’s not supposed to be). But he’s not dead; he’s just hanging off another ledge fifteen feet down and somehow this immediately didn’t pull his arms out of their sockets.
“Drop! Drop! Drop! Drop!”
Anyway, Aunt Rachel decides to go out and rescue him because it’s not like she has a kid or anything to live for and does a tightrope walk across a clothesline, which is just ri-goddamn-diculous. She gets to the other side and Urkel is just screaming his fool head off, but it’s because she’s stepping on his fingers and wouldn’t that have made him lose his grip? But no and too bad. She saves him and there they are on the ledge and fade out, I guess.
LATER, the cops are now at the rooftop party patting Waldo down and Willy says no worries officer, we’re just having fun, chill out guy. Laura says shut your face, fuckhead: you’re a menace to yourself and everyone else, and for some reason Waldo and Willy are arrested even though there’s no evidence they had any booze on them. But that’s cops and young black men for you.
Back at the Winslow house, since the last time we saw them was waaaay back in the cold open, they’re wrapping up the riveting “Where are we going on vacation this year?” plot. Henrietta tells grandma yeah I booked a week for us at Lake Geneva, won’t Carl be thrilled? Carl rushes through the front door looking like he smelled a delicious sandwich somewhere inside the house and Henrietta says hey Carl, I booked the vacation. He gets all huffy with her, I guess under the delusion that she’s a sneaky bitch that would undermine his wants and gives her a bunch of grief about it. He kind of loses it and is channeling Jackie Gleason at this point. It’s a good performance–too bad it’s not funny. Anyway, this misunderstanding goes on for a while until he shuts his gob and realizes that yeah, she booked the vacation he wanted. So they give him some shit in turn and he shuffles off to the kitchen to shovel food in the part of his mouth that’s not filled with his foot.
CUT TO The Next Day, and Urkel for some reason is in the Winslow kitchen all hung over and loud noises hurt him and he’s in pain and it’s every stereotypical hangover symptom that TV shows use. Carl gives him a story about how he got all fucked up when he graduated the police academy, and Urkel’s laughter at Carl’s misery pains him so there’s at least some karmic justice in this universe. Then he drinks Carl’s hangover cure while Carl eyes him like a pedo. Anyway, Urkel feels better but then he stands up like a dope and immediately runs to the bathroom to…throw up? Poop? It’s unclear. And it’s never going to be cleared up because that’s literally the end of the episode–Urkel running out of the kitchen to hurl or shit his brains out in the Winslow bathroom. How fitting.
I mean, he’s already soiled everything else in this show.
Well, I’ll say this: it was mercifully brief. 21 minutes flew by quickly and without too much pain. The show is facile, but then again that’s kind of the purpose of the show: to be generic, squeaky-clean crap that you take in and then immediately forget. I probably watched this episode when it first aired 25 or so years ago and I can honestly say that I didn’t remember a lick of it. Which is just as well: it’s rather unmemorable.
The Urkel as a dance was unimpressive and the song was also terrible. But it signified The Rise of Urkel as a pop-culture phenomenon. This show is also reflective of the weirdly innocent, family-friendly times of the early 90’s, where something as stupid as Steve Urkel could become a huge hit across the country and nobody batted an eye. Of course, I was but a lad when this was all happening and was largely shielded from the darker, more adult aspects of culture at the time, but then again I couldn’t imagine a show like this airing on a major TV station, on a prime-time block of programming intended for kids and families, and have one of its characters become a major mainstream hit in 2017.
Would I watch this show again voluntarily? Hell, maybe. While watching it, I felt the same kind of comfort that TGIF shows used to bring me as a kid. There’s something so artificial and clean and straightforward about Family Matters and other shows of its ilk that I can’t help but be charmed by it in a way. It reminds me of my youth and of (at least in my perspective) better times. The present’s all well and good, but there’s a reason why people yearn for the past–because it’s exactly that, the past. There’s no uncertainty over events that have already transpired. You already know the ending, and even if you can’t remember it you could probably guess it to a certain degree of accuracy. And maybe–just maybe–we’d all be a little better off if we just took ourselves out of the present every now and then, hitched up our pants, and did The Urkel.
The 1990s: We’ll literally merchandise anything!