'Do the Urkel' at 30: Jaleel White looks back at his iconic 'Family Matters' dance

Ethan Alter
·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·4 min read

On the evening of Feb. 8, 1991, America witnessed the birth of a dance craze that put the Cabbage Patch and the Roger Rabbit to shame. That's the night that super-geek Steve Urkel showed the nation how to hitch up their pants, bend their knees and stick out their pelvis (we're telling you, folks, it's better than Elvis) in order to "Do the Urkel" — the centerpiece sequence of a classic Season 2 episode of Family Matters. At that point in its run, the ABC family sitcom was already a hit, but "Life of the Party" pushed the series — and Jaleel White's breakout character — into a new realm of pop culture dominance.

"Holy smokes," White says when Yahoo Entertainment reminds him of the momentous 30th anniversary of "Do the Urkel," adding that neither he, nor the rest of the cast, had any expectation that "Life of the Party" would make viewers want to get up and dance. "It was just another episode to do, and choreography to get down. Any long-term thought that we were going to have the whole country or kids doing this — you didn't think like that. In 1991, you didn't try to go viral!" (Watch our video interview above.)

Jaleel White prepares to 'Do the Urkel' on a classic episode of 'Family Matters' (Photo: Warner Bros./Hulu)

Jaleel White prepares to "Do the Urkel" on a classic episode of Family Matters. (Photo: Warner Bros./Hulu)

On the timeline of '90s TV dances, "Do the Urkel" debuted months after Fox's still-new animated comedy The Simpsons went supernova with the music video for "Do the Bartman" — the hit Bart Simpson-sung single off of the 1990 album, The Simpsons Sing the Blues. Looking back, White isn't sure if the Family Matters writers were directly inspired by Bart's example — although the names of the two dances certainly suggest they were. "I would read the script like anybody the night before, so I don't know a lot of the motivations." But White can boast about The Urkel preceding The Carlton: Alfonso Ribeiro didn't debut his signature Fresh Prince of Bel-Air dance until a 1992 episode. "I had no realization until now that Alfonso ripped off my attempt to go viral back in 1991," White jokes.

Behind the scenes on "Life of the Party," White remembers that he and the rest of the cast were dance-battling each other to '90s "cool kid" music in between takes of doing the Urkel under the direction of choreographer Gary Manteer, who also directed the episode. "Gary was a former Broadway dancer, and he was one of our rotation directors. So he came up with the choreography," White remembers. "That would just be totally corny to do as an episode now. You're suspending reality when you're doing an episode like that — that everybody at this party just jumps in sync to this dance with no prior practice. We have a different way of storytelling now."

White leads the cast in doing the Urkel in a classic 1991 episode of 'Family Matters' (Photo: Warner Bros./Hulu)

White leads the cast in doing the Urkel dance in a classic 1991 episode of Family Matters. (Photo: Warner Bros./Hulu)

Even as sitcom storytelling has changed, Family Matters remains a sentimental favorite for audiences who watched it at the time, and those who are discovering it today on Hulu, where all nine seasons are currently streaming. And like other sentimental favorites from that era — think Saved by the Bell and Punky BrewsterFamily Matters could soon get the reboot treatment. "I have some things I would love to do with the legacy," White says. "I think the safest place to start with would be an adequate reunion, if one were to be arranged." (Not for nothing, but Family Matters is owned by Warner Bros. Television, which also owns The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and recently organized a widely-watched Fresh Prince reunion for HBO Max.)

Watch our full interview with Jaleel White on YouTube:

The bigger question surrounding a Family Matters revival would be deciding who the modern-day equivalent of Steve Urkel might be, considering that geeks have gone from zeroes to heroes since the 1990s. "I personally don't believe there's a modern-day Urkel," White says. "That's like saying there's a modern-day Pee-wee Herman or a modern-day Ed Grimley. Those characters are just burned in time. I don't want to see it explored for what it could be now — I would prefer to see it explored for what it was in the '90s, to give you a hint of what I'd like to do. I want to enjoy the nostalgia like anybody else: I want to go back and see Circuit City and Blockbuster Video in the background. That's what I'd like to watch." It goes without saying that background also has to include multiple dance crews doing the Urkel.

Family Matters is currently streaming on Hulu.

— Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by Leese Katsnelson

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