In TQI’s Cultural Breakdown,
we take a look at a popular
cultural icon and try to decide,
“Was this actually cool
or were we just being stupid?”
Steven Quincy Urkel
Steve Urkel’s rise to cultural prominence is a tale that brings a small shudder to the hearts of adult actors everywhere. It all began on the 12th episode of Family Matters, a domestic sitcom spinoff of Perfect Strangers, which focused on the home life of Harriette Winslow, the elevator operator at the newspaper where Balki and Cousin Larry worked.
It was meant to be a blue collar version of The Cosby Show, featuring an African-American family that was as loving, if not as well-off as the professional Huxtables. And for the first 11 episodes that was exactly how it played out. But then the show got hit by a lightening bolt no one could have ever expected.
Steve was introduced as an unwanted suitor for Laura Winslow’s affections. Not being the kind of show where subtlety was considered a virtue, he was presented as the very epitome of the nerd archetype–all the better to highlight the hilarity of his unrequited feelings for the pretty young girl. He was meant to be a one-off character, but something about him hit the right note with audiences, so the writers brought him back. Then they brought him back again. And again. Then they made him a series regular. And then, eventually, they made him the star of the show.
Like all breakout characters, Steve came equipped with his own catchphrase (“Did I do that?”) and forever shackled himself to the young actor–Jaleel White–who was both blessed and cursed to play him. There were dolls and merchandise and 203 episodes of his antics captured forever for posterity.
Your feelings about him as an icon–love or loathe–largely depend on who you were between 1989 and 1997. I was already a moody teenager by the time he hit the airwaves and I took a certain pride in never having seen a full episode of a show as saccharinely sweet as Family Matters (I was a real rebel), but even so I couldn’t avoid him or the impressions of him kids at school did that they thought were hilarious.
It was one of those cultural moments that flew past my head–I was aware of it, but I never took part in or evinced a moment of pleasure in it. To me, Steve was a cartoon. A jester without depth. But I admit that my reading could have been biased by my own alienation. Here was an outsider people seemed to love, while I was one everyone seemed to barely tolerate.
What’s your take on the Urkel phenomenon? Did it ever make sense to you? Were you a fan? Or was it something that was just there buzzing in the background like so much cultural noise?
While you think of your answer, take a look at the sketch from Key & Peele that inspired today’s question. It’s pretty damn fantastic.