His name was Urkel. Steve Urkel. He wore thick glasses. He stalked Laura Winslow. He turned “Did I do that?” into a national catchphrase. No offense to the Winslow family, but Steve Urkel, in essence, was Family Matters. The nerdy neighbor to the Winslows hijacked this family sitcom from under their noses and turned it into an oddball one-man show for his strange, nerdy antics. He is the reason Family Matters still exists in syndication today, and probably forever.
It didn’t start out as one big Urkel-fest. The genesis actually came from TV’s Perfect Strangers, which for a time featured a very memorable elevator operator named Harriette Winslow. When that “new series” time of the year arrived in 1989, Mrs. Winslow found herself whisked onto her very own show, Family Matters. The show was originally about a middle-class African-American family living in Chicago: Harriette, cop husband Carl and their three kids—girl crazy fifteen-year-old Eddie, boy crazy thirteen-year-old Laura and nine-year-old Judy (jus’ plain crazy!). Also living in the house were Carl’s mother Estelle, Harriette’s widowed sister Rachel and Rachel’s son Richie.
So how does everyone’s favorite nerd, Steve Urkel, fit into all of this? Urkel wasn’t introduced until the ninth episode and was never intended to be a recurring character. But a funny thing happened…to many, a very funny thing: the nasal-voiced nuisance, who annoyed the Winslows to no end, was lovingly embraced by the public. It was immediately decided that Urkel—and his crush on Laura—would be a fixture of the show.
Just as Fonzie had gone from being a minor character to being the symbolic embodiment of Happy Days, Steve Urkel soon became the most recognizable character on this otherwise ordinary show. And like the Fonz, who could magically turn on jukeboxes and have a flood of girls at his side at the snap of his fingers, Urkel was not exactly a realistic character. Standing apart from the rest of the cast, Urkel, with his high-waisted pants, large glasses and snorting laugh, was almost like a cartoon character. So dramatic was his effect on the show, that the theme song even changed: “What a Wonderful World” was used for the first season but was soon replaced by the bouncier “As Days Go By.”
During the 1992-93 season, the character playing Rachel, Telma Hopkins, left to star in her own show, Getting By, while the character of her son remained with the Winslows. The family shrunk again when, in another Happy Days move, youngest daughter Judy mysteriously disappeared after four seasons without explanation. But it really didn’t matter, for the strength of Urkel’s appeal was so strong that the entire family could have left and people still would have tuned in week after week. By 1994, Urkel came to realize that Laura would never love him and instead settled for the brainy and beautiful Myra Monkhouse.
So wacky had the shown become that eventually, Urkel could transform himself into a suave ladies’ man (Stefan Urquelle, the object of Laura’s affection), a karate expert (Bruce Lee Urkel) and a musical genius (Elvis Urkel). If that weren’t strange enough, the nosy neighbor eventually created a cloning device, making the suave Urquelle a separate person. Other incarnations of Urkel included Steve’s southern belle cousin Myrtle Urkel and his rapper cousin Original Gangsta Dawg.
But even these ingenious creations couldn’t keep the show going, and in 1997, ABC axed its one-time TGIF star. By the time CBS picked up the series, Jo Marie Payton (Harriette) left and Judyann Elder took over her part. Urkel’s parents—who were never seen—moved to Russia, and perpetual home-crasher Urkel officially moved in with the Winslows. Strangest of all, Laura suddenly decided that she was in love with Steve (not Stefan), and the two got engaged. In the last episode, Urkel had been chosen for a special assignement by NASA, and became lost in space after a satellite hit his space shuttle. Luckily, he somehow repaired the shuttle, and was able to return home to Laura.
It’s a long, long way from middle-class African American sitcom to cloned multiple identities and NASA space missions, but Family Matters had time. Running an impressive nine seasons, it was the second longest-running sitcom featuring an African-American cast, bested only by The Jeffersons’ eleven-season run. And though George and “Weezy” Jefferson were pretty wonderful TV characters, their names just don’t provoke the same kind of gut reaction as one very silly word: Urkel.
USA / ABC – CBS – Warner Bros. TV / x25 minute episodes / Broadcast 22 September 1989 – 8 May 1997 (ABC) and 19 September 1997 – 10 July 1998
Reginald VelJohnson as Carl Otis Winslow
Jo Marie Payton-Noble as Harriette Winslow (1989-97)
Rosetta Le Noire as Estelle Winslow (1989-97)
Darius McCrary as Eddie James Winslow
Kellie Shanygne Williams as Laura Winslow
Jaimee Foxworth as Judy Winslow (1989-93)
Joseph Julius Wright as Richie Crawford (1989-90)
Orlando Brown as 3J (1996-98)
Bryton McClure as Richie (1990-98)
Shawn Harrison as Waldo Geraldo Faldo (1992-96)
Telma Hopkins as Rachel (1989-93)
Michelle Thomas as Myra Monkhouse (1994-98)
Jaleel White as Steven Quincy “Steve” Urkel
Jaleel White as Myrtle Urkel
Jaleel White as Stephan Urquell
Judyann Elder as Harriet Winslow #2 (1998)
Barry Jenner as Lt. Murtaugh (1991-98)
Cherie Johnson as Maxine Johnson (1990-98)
Valerie Jones as Judy Winslow (pilot)
Shavar Ross as Weasel (1993-94)
Ebonie Smith as Penny (1989-90)