All Eyes on the Weirdo: Depicting Beloved Outcasts on 90s Sitcoms

Curator's Note

It's almost standard to have at least one weird character on a television show whose actions or internal logic are incomprehensible to others. However, it seems that in many cases, particularly on TGIF, these characters became the true stars of their shows. Audiences found themselves rooting not just for underdogs, but for insufferable goofballs. We weren't laughing at them, we were laughing with them, these endearing knuckleheads who pratfalled their way across our television screens.

A world where Steve Urkel is king, after all, could be a world where our intense learned embarrassment about our own clumsiness and ineptitude would hold no water. A world where Cody from Step by Step is revered would be a safe place for those who blindly trust in the goodness of humanity. Like Minkus, we could raise our hand overeagerly for every teacher's question; like young Topanga, we could dance without self-consciousnessness; like Balki, we could eagerly embrace a new and alien world without judgment.

Around the same time that these programs were airing, David Foster Wallace published the essay “E Unibus Pluram,” addressing the prevalence of irony in both television and modern fiction. Wallace talked about the trend toward hip and self-conscious detachment, and he argued that the coming age of writers should avoid the trap of such “coolness” and deal openly and earnestly with the seemingly banal reality of human emotions. Face, and embrace, our infantile need for inclusion and acceptance. I included a condensed quote from the end of his essay, because I believe that on a subtle and preliminary level, the adoration expressed towards characters like Urkel represented a small step towards this endorsement of vulnerability in modern culture.

All clips, while belonging to their original conglomerate copyright holders, were gathered from fair use compilations on Youtube, thanks to the following users: Baret1xxx, annamarievids, BrandonX, TLKnDisneyfreaK, dmace81, and Jreese432. The backing music is an altered selection from the Loose Fur song "Elegant Transaction," from their self-titled album.



A few things came to mind when ruminating on this post. If the weirdo was so ingrained into these shows, then why would producers feel the need to shift them? For example, why would Urkel need to turn into Stefan to get Laura if the message was encoded that weird is cool? Why would they shift Topanga into the love interest after she is sexualized? Another thought I had was the impact these characters had on modern TV shows, such as Big Bang Theory. That show seems more of a shift into that "endorsement of vulnerability." When did it become cool to be the weirdo, and did these sitcoms play that big of a role?

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