We've invited Steve Earle — the singer songwriter behind classic country western tunes such as "Hillbilly Highway" and "The Devil's Right Hand" — to answer three questions about Steve Urkel, the beloved uber-nerd from the 1990s sitcom Family Matters.
PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now the game where we invite people to join us for just about as long as we expect them to want to be here. Steve Earle is the singer-songwriter that other singer-songwriters want to be. He came out of the honky-tonks in Texas and then to Nashville, where he wrote classic country western tunes like "Hillbilly Highway" and "The Devil's Right Hand." So no, this is not easy listening. He has a new album out now. Steve Earle, welcome to WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.
SAGAL: Let's get one thing right. Country - is that your genre? Is that accurate?
STEVE EARLE: Look; I've been called country singer, country rock singer and folk singer in The New York Times crossword puzzle. So I think I qualify...
SAGAL: Oh, really?
PETER GROSZ: Wow.
SAGAL: Oh, yeah. You have one of those great names with a vowel at the beginning and end. You're all set.
EARLE: My dad - I'm in there a lot. My dad thought I'd finally made it when I made it to The New York Times crossword puzzle...
GROSZ: That's really great.
EARLE: ...Because he reads it every week.
SAGAL: Well, congratulations.
EARLE: Thank you.
SAGAL: You got your start really early. You knew what you wanted to do from a very young age, right?
EARLE: Yeah. I - you know, I didn't finish school because - I regret that now. But I just didn't see how they were going to teach me anything more about what I wanted to do. And my parents were incredibly supportive. I finally dropped out when I was 16 and I started playing coffeehouses. And I met all these guys that have been playing folk music for a lot longer than I had. And that's where I first heard of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. And my new record is a record of songs written by Guy Clark because I made a record of Townes songs 10 years ago. And I do not want to run into Guy on the other side having made the Townes record...
SAGAL: Yeah. I understand. He wouldn't like that. Yeah. I - we read that you were such a fan of Townes Van Zandt that you actually, like, went to where he was and tracked him down.
EARLE: I did that. I did the same thing with Guy. I tracked Townes down in Houston. And he turns up at my gig. There's about four people there, you know, including Townes.
EARLE: And the second set, when I go down for my set - you know, the first set - the most eventful thing was the club owner's dog fell in love right in front of the stage.
EARLE: And then the second set, I finally come down and here's Townes sitting in the front row. He's pretty - he drank a little.
EARLE: And he was pretty lit. And he was sitting there. And he did not make a sound while I was actually singing. But between every song, he'd lean back. And he'd go, play the "Wabash Cannonball."
EARLE: And I'm like - so I'd play another song. Great, I'm being heckled by my heroes.
EARLE: So I get - trudge along and then get to the - play the "Wabash Cannonball." I finally had to admit I don't know the "Wabash Cannonball."
SAGAL: Yeah, well...
EARLE: So - and he'd - then he said, you call yourself a folk singer, and you don't know the "Wabash Cannonball" And I'm like - so I played this song called "Mr. Mudd And Mr. Gold," a song of his that has about a million words. And then he shut up.
SAGAL: Yeah, well...
EARLE: And we introduced ourselves afterwards. And he became a teacher for...
SAGAL: Oh, wow.
EARLE: ...Some time.
SAGAL: That's really amazing.
SAGAL: You've been through a lot. I mean...
SAGAL: ...If you read a little bit about you, you find out - I mean, like, for example, you played a recovering addict in "The Wire."
EARLE: I did.
SAGAL: And apparently...
SAGAL: ...It was not a stretch for you, isn't it?
EARLE: David Simon had the idea for me to - I was offered acting roles when I was a lot younger and a lot better looking than I am now.
EARLE: And I hated it when actors made records, so I just always turned them down and didn't think it was something I wanted to do. But David's a big music fan. And he called my manager. He says, I've got this character, and I think Steve could do it and would he'd like to read for it? And I read for it on, you know - just on the - made a tape in a studio. And, you know, it was - I played a redneck recovering addict. So like you said, I didn't have to really act so...
SAGAL: Yeah. We were reading that you live in New York. And the most amazing thing we read is that your enthusiasms in New York are yoga and Broadway musicals.
EARLE: That's pretty much it. Yeah.
EARLE: And baseball.
SAGAL: And baseball.
EARLE: Yoga was just a thing that was sort of a - I fish with a fly rod. And I get - I travel places where that's fun to do. And I fell in a river for the first time, you know, and I was just getting back in the boat, floating down to the next spot and talking to a friend of mine. And I just said, man, my core strength is just going. And he said, well, you know, I've been taking yoga a couple of times a week, a guy comes. And I thought, I spend money on dumber stuff than that. But...
EARLE: So started as that - as dealing with a physical issue. But I'm - the way I'm still here is 12-step programs. And, you know, that's - it's a spiritual program.
EARLE: And one of the things you're supposed to do in 12-step programs is get to a place where you pray or meditate every day. And that was the only thing that I didn't do. And I'm kind of an old hippie anyway. And so I've known about these things all my life. But through that association, I met a yoga teacher in New York. And I started studying with her. I'm on blocks and, you know, a lot of cheating going on because...
EARLE: ...I started when I was 60.
SAGAL: Yeah, I understand that. You've been married six times? Seven times? Six times?
EARLE: Seven times, six wives.
SAGAL: Right. So...
EARLE: And I have to correct the - for the record, seven divorces.
SAGAL: Oh, excuse me.
EARLE: I'm single at the moment.
SAGAL: You're - oh, excuse me. OK.
SAGAL: Now, when people talk about people who've been married a lot, we often joke about, you know, hope over experience and, you know, they just think this time it's going work out and we talk about people's optimism. What I was thinking about in your case is how do you - if you meet a woman and the woman knows you've been married, say - let's pick middle - five times before, how do you convince her, like, no really...
SAGAL: ...It was always their fault?
EARLE: Well, wait a minute - no. Here's the real question is if you've been married six times and you meet a woman that's willing to marry you...
SAGAL: That's what I mean. Yeah.
EARLE: Yeah. What, you know, it's a - yeah, that should give you pause and, you know...
EARLE: I'm finally starting to get it.
ROXANNE ROBERTS: OK. So let me ask a question. Elizabeth Taylor was married so many times because she liked being married.
ROBERTS: Do you like being married?
EARLE: I played 200 shows last year. That's shows - that's nights that I actually performed. So whoever was married to me probably didn't like it all that much because I was gone about half the time. And I didn't really know what really being married was like the way that most people do it because I got my own room for over half of my life.
GROSZ: Steve, have you met Roxanne?
EARLE: I did meet Roxanne.
SAGAL: Yeah, I know. Yeah. Well, Steve Earle, we've invited you here to play a game we're calling...
BILL KURTIS: Steve Earle, meet Steve Urkel.
SAGAL: As I'm sure you remember, you've been around.
SAGAL: Uber nerd Steve Urkel...
SAGAL: ...Was one of the most popular TV characters of the 1990s in the show "Family Matters." I'm guessing you didn't have a lot of time to watch TV in the 1990s.
EARLE: You know what? I think - I don't think I've ever seen a complete episode of "Family Matters."
SAGAL: That's great.
EARLE: You got that part right.
SAGAL: Because that's the whole principle...
EARLE: I know.
SAGAL: ...That you're not supposed to know anything. Knowledge hurts.
EARLE: I was hoping you guys would mess this part up.
SAGAL: We're going to ask you three questions about that icon in the flood pants and suspenders. If you get two right, you'll win our prize for one of our listeners - the voice of their choice in their answering machine. Bill, who is Steve Earle playing for?
KURTIS: Brian Heinz of Pleasant View, Tenn.
SAGAL: All right.
SAGAL: You ready?
SAGAL: Here's your first question. Now, the popularity of the character of Steve Urkel was great for the actor and the TV show but bad for whom? A, the actual Steve Urkel for whom the character was named, who spent a decade enduring jokes and disappointment that he didn't talk funny; B, the belt industry as Urkel suspenders caused a 40 percent decrease in sales; or C, speech therapists, who had to deal with people trying to talk like Urkel.
EARLE: Oh, let's say B.
SAGAL: You're going to go for B, the belt industry. People stopped buying belts because suspenders were so sexy.
SAGAL: No. It's actually the real Steve Urkel.
EARLE: The real Steve Urkel. OK.
SAGAL: There was a real guy named Steve Urkel who the character was named for. And he did not enjoy it after a very short while. Two more chances. Here's your next question. Urkel's popularity led to a number of branded products, including which of these? A, Steve Urkel nerd glasses with masking tape pre-applied; B, Urkel-O's breakfast cereal; or C, an automated chess player called the Mechanical Urk.
EARLE: Breakfast cereal I guess.
SAGAL: It is the...
KURTIS: Yay (laughter).
SAGAL: ...Breakfast cereal.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: Last one for the - all the marbles. Jaleel White, the actor who played Urkel, went on to have the usual struggles of an actor associated with one role. He tried appearing on "Dancing With The Stars," but what happened? A, asked to dance in flood-high pants and suspenders, he swore and stomped off the set; B, he was so obnoxious to other participants, he became known as Jerkel (ph).
SAGAL: Or C, he insisted on doing his own choreography for the jitterbug section and broke a hip.
EARLE: Oh, let's see - B.
SAGAL: B. It is B.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
EARLE: OK, good.
SAGAL: He, by the way - he denied the rumors that he was unpopular and said he got along great with everybody. He was still voted off the show, though. Bill, how did Steve Earle do?
KURTIS: What a smart guy.
KURTIS: He got two out of three.
KURTIS: So you won.
SAGAL: Congratulations, Steve.
SAGAL: Steve Earle's new album is called "Guy." It's out now wherever you listen to music. Steve Earle, thank you so much for joining us here at WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.
EARLE: Thanks, Peter.
SAGAL: Steve Earle, everybody.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DUBLIN BLUES")
EARLE: (Singing) I wish I was in Austin in the Chili Parlor bar, drinking Mad Dog margaritas and not caring where you are. And here I sit in Dublin...
SAGAL: In just a minute, if this lily pad is rockin', don't come knockin' in the Listener Limerick Challenge. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT to join us on the air. We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.