Family Matters

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Family Matters

The longest running black sitcom in history, Family Matters debuted in 1989 and aired on prime-time television for a total of nine years. Created by William Bickley and Michael Warren, the show featured a multi-generational, working-class black family living under the same roof. Originally a spin-off from Perfect Strangers, in which actress JoMarie Payton-France played an elevator operator, the series placed her character of Harriette Winslow in her own home with her husband, a Chicago police officer (Reginald Vel Johnson), and three children (Kellie Shanygne Williams, Darius McCrary, and Jaimee Foxworth). Other family members were Carl's mother, Estelle Winslow (played by Rosetta LeNoire) and an adult sister (Telma Hopkins).

Much as Henry Winkler's "Fonzie" unexpectedly stole the Happy Days thunder from his co-stars in the 1970s, Family Matters also witnessed the breakout performance of an actor named Jaleel White during its first season. Written into the script as the world's worst blind date—arranged for Laura by her father—12-year-old "Urkel" was a neighborhood goofball who fell instantly in love with the Winslows' daughter.

For his audition, White borrowed a pair of oversized work glasses from his dentist father, hiked his pants up to "flood" length, and proceeded to wheeze and snort his way into a character who would soon become television's most famous nerd. Urkel was an instant hit. In fact, White's performance was so stellar that producers quickly snatched him up as a regular cast member. Bickley claimed that he knew Urkel would be big after overhearing some teenagers imitating him in a shopping mall. As one reviewer put it, kids took to the character like quarters to arcade games. Before long there were Urkel t-shirts, jigsaw puzzles, and even a talking doll that recited favorite Urkel phrases such as, "No sweat, my pet."

In the midst of an otherwise unremarkable series, it was Urkel who drew both the bulk of criticism and praise for the program. Denounced as "cartoonish" by many he was, in many ways, a stereotypical buffoon. Even more insulting to many critics, was the show's cliched portrayal of the Winslow family's matriarch. Whereas her husband was often bumbling and unsure, Harriette Winslow was the sassy decision-maker; the domineering "powerhouse of reality" in the home. It could also be argued, however, that Urkel challenged racial stereotypes. Depicted as the son of a neurosurgeon, he was a studious bookworm with genius-like abilities in math and science; traits that made him a rare representation of black youth for prime-time television.

Nestled between Full House and Perfect Strangers on ABC's Friday night "TGIF" lineup, Family Matters was a black-cast series that found mainstream success among white, American audiences. Although it never won critical praise or Emmy awards, viewers were warmed by the show, which was a consistent favorite in its time slot. Unlike some of the more politicized black series of its era, such as The Cosby Show and A Different World, Family Matters did not emerge from a black sensibility. In fact, the white producing team of Bickley and Warren (who later created On Our Own, another black comedy for ABC) made a conscious effort to fashion a "universal" family, unmarked by racial difference. As actor Reginald Vel Johnson once noted, Family Matters was never nominated for any NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Image Awards. Despite its all-black cast, it was perhaps seen as being "too white … to be considered a black show."

Even after its retirement from prime-time, Family Matters continued to be a hit on cable. After a brief and unsuccessful run on the lily-white CBS, the series migrated to the Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) cable network, where it ranked number nine among cable programs for children in 1997.

—Kristal Brent Zook

Further Reading:

Curry, Jack, and Walter T. Middlebrook. " Family Matters. " USA Today. September 13, 1989, 4D.

McNeil, Alex. Total Television. New York, Viking/Penguin, 1996.