Sunday, October 26, 2014

Nostalgia Theater: The Cult of Urkel

A few weeks ago I linked to a Key & Peele sketch that nicely encapsulates the bizarre transmogrification undergone by the sitcom Family Matters (which premiered on ABC in fall of '89) as it metamorphosed from "blue collar Cosby Show" to a weekly showcase for nerdy next-door-neighbor Steve Urkel. With his "Did I do that?" catchphrase and cartoonish appearance, he was a marketer's wet dream, even as he flew in the face of the show's entire aesthetic.

It wasn't long before the character, intended as a one-off guest spot, came to dominate the whole thing, shooting all credibility to the four corners as he and series star Reginald VelJohnson engaged in increasingly outlandish escapades (seriously, that skit was just barely exaggerating). It's easy now, with twenty years of remove, to look back and wonder what the heck they were thinking, but being in the middle of it, actually living through the Cult of Urkel, was another matter again.

For some perspective, here's the intro for Family Matters' first season:

Eventually actress Jaimee Foxworth, who played youngest child Judy, was dropped down the memory hole, never to be mentioned again, but notice who's not even in the credits? The character most closely associated with the show today. Urkel, as played by Jaleel White (much to his eternal regret, I have to think), didn't even show up until twelve episodes in, but pretty soon he siphoned up all the show's oxygen with his storylines moving from sideshow to center stage. Think of him as the nerdy opposite number of the Fonz. Check out this vid compiling Urkel appearances during just the first year:

It didn't stop with Family Matters, though. Nope, pretty soon Urkel was extending his suspender'd reach in all kinds of different directions, even showing up on other ABC shows, like this guest spot on Full House from January of 1991. The Avengers has nothing on this meeting of titans.

Of course, the true measure of a character's pop culture ubiquity, as ever, is in the merch, and for awhile there you couldn't snap a suspender without bumping into some piece of Urkel arcana on the store shelves. To wit, check out this ad for the talking Urkel doll from 1991:

I don't know of anyone who owned (or admitted to owning) that thing, but exist it did. But that wasn't it. Here's a spot for Urkel-Os, a short-lived breakfast cereal put out by Ralston, king of el cheapo licensed breakfast crap, again from 1991:

In case you haven't noticed, 1991 was basically "peak Urkel." Like ALF before him, another marketing-driven sitcom star, America eventually moved on to its next shiny object. But while the Urkel phenomenon faded away, Family Matters kept plugging, plugging, plugging along far past its sell-by date, finally ending in June of '98 (having jumped networks to CBS by then). The final ep, by the way, is called "Lost in Space," and involves Urkel being...well, you know. So much for "blue collar Cosby." Looking back now, I have to think the marketing mavens who first foisted the Cult of Urkel on us look at it all a bit incredulously and ask, "Did I do that?"

One Year Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Sectaurs -- Icky Bug Guys Doing Battle

Two Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Extreme Ghostbusters -- Like Regular Ghostbusters, But Extreme!

Three Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Fake Ghostbusters Edition

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