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History of TV: 'Family Matters' Gave Us Wholesome Comedy...And Urkel

January 14, 2021
3 min read time

Family Matters will most likely go down in history for its breakout character Steve Urkel (played by Jaleel White), but it offered plenty more in terms of laughs and screenwriting takeaways for sitcom writers. As one of the longest running American sitcoms with a mainly Black cast, the Friday night staple was part of ABC’s TGIF lineup for an incredible nine-season run from 1989 to 1998 (the final year of which it moved to CBS). Not bad for a spin-off.

Quintessential sitcom structure with a side of Urkel

The Winslows were a middle-class Black family in Chicago, Illinois, and Family Matters covered everything that went along with that: It was a family show with a sitcom structure, covering topics and themes relevant to teenage kids dealing with high school drama, working parents, and what it meant to be a cop in Chicago, handling all of them by zeroing in on the moral lesson therein — with a few laughs on the side.

Family Matters did arguably outlive its funny, rehashing its own hooks — usually in the form of Steve Urkel as Stefan Urquelle or his cousin Myrtle Urkel (yes, they were all played by White) — and was not above sight gags. But it also provided a fun-to-watch blueprint for sitcom structure with escalating complications that would resolve in the third act, usually by way of a heart-to-heart.  

When the series hook takes over: Creating unforgettable characters

Family Matters began its run centered around the heart of the home: Harriette Winslow (played by Jo Marie Payton, and later Judyann Elder), a character featured on another ABC sitcom, Perfect Strangers. Her “great morale” and “quick-witted humor” have been cited as reasons for creating the whole Winslow clan to surround this powerhouse female character. Though she had a job, her role as a mother was most important and the anchor for the show’s “family first” theme.

Overall, the show evolved to play into its biggest hook — Urkel, the ridiculously smart nerd next door in love with the Winslows' eldest (and after season four, only) daughter Laura. What was intended to be a guest role on one episode turned into the series’ biggest moneymaker. Physical comedy underscored every move Urkel made. The takeaway there is don’t underestimate the power of nerds and science (ahem, Big Bang Theory!), or more aptly, crafting layered and phenomenal characterizations for even the smallest roles can have a lasting effect on your story at large.

Handling your show's message with care

While its neighbors on the TGIF programming block dealt with family configurations of all kinds, Family Matters focused on its nuclear members and those it “adopted” organically: the goofy neighbor, the suddenly widowed aunt, an inner-city boy who Urkel mentors. The Winslows solved everything that came at them through “family first.” No matter what that looked like in terms of actual family members, the core of it meant simply being there for one another. Most episodes (like most sitcoms of the time) featured the living room as its epicenter. While it was technically a result of taping in front of a live studio audience, it’s hard not to acknowledge its “family room” meaning as well.

Episode storylines also alternated between light-hearted relationship issues and Urkel debacles, to heavier ones such as race and gun violence — sadly still unavoidable topics today, two decades after the show went off the air. In season five, older brother Eddie (Darius McCrary) is harassed by police after driving through a white neighborhood, and gang violence makes Laura (Kellie Shanygne Williams) consider buying a gun in season six. Heavy topics for TGIF, but relevant with important messaging for its young audience, and thus delivered with care by the show’s writers.

In retrospect

Family Matters can easily be described as wholesome entertainment. It is literally about family matters, delivered with impeccable comedic timing thanks to its talented cast. Yes, it had its quirks: characters were written off without nary a mention again (like an entire younger sibling who was around for four whole seasons), something that probably wouldn’t fly with today’s audiences. But if you were one of the characters lucky enough to make it to the end, and a true fan to stick it out to the final episode, you also got to finally witness — after all those years of shooing him out of the house — Carl telling Urkel, “Welcome home, son” after Urkel returns from his turn as an astronaut (yup, that happened too) and finally gets his girl — and the family that goes with her.

Find episodes of Family Matters on iTunes and read about screenwriting takeaways from its TGIF programming neighbor Sister, Sister here.

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