Urkel & Co. to Slip Quietly Off Air
The long-running comedies “Seinfeld” and “Murphy Brown” received huge, highly hyped send-offs last May. That isn’t the case for CBS’ “Family Matters,” which is quietly leaving the network airwaves tonight after nine seasons.
The sitcom that gave the world--for better or worse--the ultimate nerd Urkel didn’t even get a chance to shoot a series finale. In fact, star Reginald VelJohnson was told the show was canceled when he received a call to clean out his dressing room.
“I hold no bitterness against anybody,” says VelJohnson, who plays Urkel’s exasperated foil, Carl Winslow. “I sincerely want to take away the good memories. I don’t have a bad word to say about anybody.”
Still, VelJohnson says, he wishes the cast had gotten the opportunity to say goodbye.
“More so for the fans,” he says. “When they come up to me in the street and say, ‘Oh God, we heard your show is over. How come they didn’t have a big final episode?’ I thought we should have had one, the fans thought we should have had one, but the powers that be didn’t. That’s the sad thing about it. But you dwell on it for a second or two and then you press on.”
Created by William Bickley and Michael Warren, “Family Matters” was actually a spinoff of the then-popular ABC comedy “Perfect Strangers,” in which Carl’s wife, Harriet (JoMarie Payton-Noble) was an elevator operator.
“Family Matters,” which premiered in September 1989, revolved around the loving, middle-class Winslow family, which included Harriet, Carl and their children (Darius McCrary and Kellie Shanygne Williams). Though the series came out of the starting gate slowly, it was a winner by the end of the first season after the addition of Jaleel White as the Winslows’ nasally voiced neighbor, Urkel.
A top ratings performer as part of ABC’s “TGIF” Friday family night, the series moved to CBS in its last season as part of the network’s plan to build its own Friday night family lineup. The ratings, though, plummeted. During the 1996-97 season, “Family Matters” was No. 50 with an average of 13.73 million viewers. On CBS, the comedy only attracted 8.82 million viewers, placing a dismal 108th.
“We had a show that we felt at best at ABC was only in it for another year,” explains Tony Jonas, president of Warner Bros. Television.
“Looking at what we could do to protect what we knew was a great show, CBS rolled the dice with us and gave us a great shot at trying to keep the show alive. We had no intention of producing the show for one year. We wanted to keep that thing going for as long as we could.”
Jonas says it was a combination of elements that caused the series’ demise.
“The on-air promo at CBS was terrific, but there were no kids watching CBS to begin with to even know that the promos were there to talk about the show,” he says.
He agrees it would have been nice if “Family Matters” had gotten a big send-off. “I can certainly tell you it’s a show that deserves it, but the show didn’t find the audience we all hoped it would. So it really wasn’t a platform for giving a great, big send-off. It was sort of vanishing into the sunset with numbers that were, unfortunately, quite low.”
Though “Family Matters” never won Emmys nor was a critics’ darling, audiences loved it, says VelJohnson, because “we weren’t a black family or a white family, we were a family. Families are universal. Everyone compared us to ‘The Cosby Show’ [saying] we were the blue-collar version and wouldn’t last very long.”
But what people found in “Family Matters” that they didn’t find in “Cosby,” VelJohnson says, “was a special warmth that was rare. There were a lot of secondary plots as opposed to Urkel [stories] which were special to a lot of people. A lot of people came up to me and said, ‘We love the way you handle your son.’ It actually taught things--every week you got a little, warm lesson. It was like a chocolate sundae. We were easy to take. We were pleasant and we went down easy.”
“It’s absolutely unbelievable the kind of things that this show did in terms of its physical comedy,” Jonas adds. “There was a high level of energy that was generated by the cast, and it was a fun set to be on. It was a family of people that stuck together. Most of them were on the show for the entire time. You look at all the elements and it’s a prescription for success. It doesn’t happen that often.”
VelJohnson has kept busy since the series stopped shooting. He’s currently appearing in the musical “Purlie” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and has written a two-hour movie, “Alive in Las Vegas,” for producer Fred Silverman, which may become a series.
Still, he says, “I will never have an experience like ‘Family Matters’ again. It was my first TV show. I grew up on that show.”
* The final episode of “Family Matters” airs tonight at 9 on CBS.
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