Let’s Not Forget How Bad Urkelmania Got

Let’s Not Forget How Bad Urkelmania Got

Prime Video has just released a new animated movie starring Jaleel White as Steve Urkel called Urkel Saves Santa. In it, the irrepressible nerd from the TGIF classic Family Matters rescues Santa from a deficit of holiday spirit with his wacky inventions — including the Urkelbot. But before you rent or purchase the movie, I must beg you to reconsider.

When I was a kid, I was a dedicated viewer of Family Matters, watching it simultaneously in syndication as well as new episodes on ABC (and later CBS). I lived through what was commonly known as “Urkelmania,” a pop-culture juggernaut that ruined a perfectly good family show, flooded department stores with Urkel merchandise and even invaded the real world, where Urkel breached the halls of power like a January 6th insurrectionist. It was a fucking nightmare, so before you indulge this new Christmas special — and tempt a new wave of Urkelmania — allow me to remind you just how bad the original wave got.

Family Matters began as a perfectly grounded show about a working-class Black family in Chicago. Then, in the 12th episode of the first season, Steve Urkel showed up as the nerdy date of Laura Winslow. The character was an immediate hit, and he remained a recurring guest star for the rest of the season. Later, when Family Matters entered syndication, they even shot new scenes with Urkel and placed them into earlier episodes, rewriting the show’s history.

Beginning with Season Two, White became a permanent fixture of Family Matters, and before long, he took over the show entirely, ruining its original sense of reality. The show became more and more insane to the point where it basically turned into a science-fiction series. There are episodes where Urkel creates a machine that gives him another “cool” personality. He also transforms other characters into Urkel-like nerds. In one episode, he builds the aforementioned Urkelbot, which went on to make multiple appearances on the show. There’s an episode where an evil Urkel ventriloquist dummy — named “Stevil” — comes to life, too. 

Urkel became such a priority that other characters from the show were eliminated to make room for more of him. The most notable of which was Judy, the youngest Winslow child, who disappeared in the fifth season without explanation. Later, Aunt Rachel, Cousin Richie and the family’s grandmother would leave as well. In the final season, they continued the show with a recast Harriet Winslow, which was stunning since Family Matters began with Jo Marie Payton’s Harriet as a spin-off of Perfect Strangers, where the character first appeared. 

Urkel’s upstaging of everyone else caused some behind-the-scenes consternation, as multiple cast members have expressed difficulty working with White. Payton even said that things got so heated that “there was one time he actually wanted to physically fight me.”

But Urkel’s reign of terror wasn’t confined to just Family Matters. As the character caught on, countless pieces of Urkel merchandise hit store shelves, including Urkel lunchboxesUrkel backpacksUrkel T-shirtsUrkel booksUrkel puzzlesUrkel playing cardsUrkel Colorformstalking Urkel Dollscreepy Urkel Halloween costumes, the Do the Urkel! board game and an Urkel breakfast cereal called Urkel-O’s that featured an “Urkel for Prez” pin as the prize in the box.

Meanwhile, ABC decided to have Urkel crossover with other TGIF shows including Boy Meets WorldStep by Step and Full House, where Urkel had a very cringeworthy scene in which Uncle Jesse teaches him how to be cool.

It didn’t stop there either, as Urkel was featured on the cover of magazines like Disney AdventuresTV Guide and multiple issues of JET. White appeared in character as Urkel at the 1991 American Comedy Awards as well, where genuine comedy royalty Bea Arthur did the “Urkel Dance” with him. 

However, the most stunning moment of Urkelmania came in 1993 when the government hired White to star in a video as Urkel to educate children about how a bill becomes a law. In Steve Urkel and the Urkel Air Bill, Urkel meets prominent politicians such as Senator Bob Dole and Speaker of the House Tom Foley. He even shakes the hand of newly-elected President Bill Clinton. Yes, in his first year in office, Bill Clinton met Urkel. 

Urkelmania did fade eventually. Family Matters sank in the ratings during its ninth and final season, and the show concluded in 1998. However, in recent years our nostalgia-hungry society has been ignoring some very serious warning signs. In 2019, White revived Urkel for a Scooby-Doo special. Then, in 2021, he and Snoop Dogg promoted the cannabis brand “Purple Urkel.” And now, he’s saving Christmas. 

We best be careful, America, lest such an awful history repeats itself.

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