Family Matters arrived on television in the fall of 1989 as a blue collar alternative to The Cosby Show. It focused on a middle-class African American family living in Chicago where patriarch Carl Winslow worked as a police officer and his wife Harriet was an elevator operator at a newspaper. Their tiny home housed three children, a grandmother, a widowed aunt and her young son. Early plots involved the oldest son dealing with a bad report card, Harriet losing her job and Carl restoring an old police car. A lesson was learned at the every of every episode and the laugh track got a lot of use.
Everything changed in the 12th episode when Laura, the oldest of the Winslow daughters, had to go to a dance with the school nerd. This was a big break for 13-year-old actor Jaleel White, and he gave the character of Steve Urkel everything he had. He hitched his pants high, laughed with a snort, spoke with a high-pitched naval voice and knocked over at least three things before exiting any room. He even had a catchphrase: “Did I do that?”
Urkel’s debut was a huge hit, and he came back just two episodes later. He then took over the entire show as other characters began disappearing. Youngest daughter Judy vanished without a trace after the third season, and Aunt Rachel, Mother Winslow and even Harriet eventually followed. Meanwhile, Urkel dominated nearly every second of the action with increasingly absurd plots, slowly transforming the sitcom into a slapstick science-fiction farce. White played his own Southern belle cousin (Myrtle Urkel), his cool alter-ego (Stefan), a robot doppelgänger (Urkelbot), a kung fu master (Bruce Lee Urkel) and an evil ventriloquist dummy (Stevil.) He had the ability to time travel, shrink down to one-inch tall or teleport himself across the planet. It was absolutely insane, and the subject of one of the all-time great Key and Peele skits.
Urkel mania peaked in the second season. Just weeks after Bart Simpson scored a hit with “Do the Bartman,” Family Matters responded with a song and dance for their own breakout character. At a rooftop party, shortly before drinking spiked punch, Urkel coaxes his classmates to join him in a line dance, complete with choreography and canned backup vocals. Somehow or another, every girl at the party is delighted to “Do the Urkel” with the biggest nerd in school. It pisses off some of the guys though, and soon enough Urkel is clinging for his life after falling off the roof. Everyone then learned a good lesson about the dangers of drinking. Watch the clip above to see what TV was like before the HBO, AMC and Netflix ushered in a new golden age.