Urkel of 'Family Matters' is now a national matter

April 21, 1991|By New York Times News Service

He's so unhip that now he's cool: Steve Urkel, a regular in-your-face kind of guy. When he laughs, he snorts. When he talks, he whines in a nasal, grating voice.

When he arrives, he intrudes, with his pants riding up his skinny waist and his mouth working overtime, popping out sassy, if not annoying, rejoinders.

Who, you may wonder, is Steve Urkel and why should anyone care? Played by the 14-year-old actor Jhaleel White, Steve Urkel is the geek-next-door who has grabbed the public fancy and catapulted "Family Matters," the ABC Friday night sitcom about a black police officer and his extended family, into a hit that ranks frequently among the top five shows in prime time.

"Snookums!" Urkel cries out, casting his bespectacled eyes upon Laura Winslow, the girl he has a crush on but who thinks he's a complete dweeb.

He tries to woo her by confiding that he's thinking of changing his style of underwear, from boxers to bikini briefs. Getting nowhere, he laughs a little too hard at a not very funny joke, warning, "Another one like that and I'll wet my boxers."

Urkel is the quintessential nerd: brainy and scrawny and in love with bugs, cheese and his computer. From his oversized glasses and dimples to his suspenders and sardonic grin, he brings to mind a cross between Peewee Herman and Spike Lee.

His very name, which sounds like a combination of irksome and (( heckle, has become part of the lexicon. Even David Letterman's one-liners in recent weeks have become peppered with Urkelisms.

When he is not the centerpiece of "Family Matters," Urkel pops up on other shows. On "Full House" (produced by Tom Miller and Bob Boyette, who also created "Family Matters"), Urkel jetted into town to explain to Stephanie that wearing glasses is not such a bad thing.

He showed up on Johnny Carson as a guest, in the form of Mr. White (sans glasses and irritating voice). On the "American Comedy Awards," Mr. White taught Bea Arthur how to do the Urkel, a very nerdy dance.

By now, the story of how Mr. White nabbed the role of Urkel borders on Hollywood legend. He walked into the audition wearing a pair of oversized protective goggles that he had borrowed from his father, a dentist. He was initially hired to make occasional appearances on the show. But as the ratings TC increased, so did Urkel's screen time.

Now Mr. White is feeling the pinch of celebrityhood. It's not just press requests, which his mother is shunting aside until June, when he's finished with school.

But the tabloids have taken to camping out on the street in front of his house. And the influx of mail he has received has required Mr. White's family to get a second post office box.

But the Urkel phenomenon is also more than a joke or the latest trend of the network ratings game. The fact is that Urkel has

become one of America's most popular black television characters.

That he is a nerd lends that popularity a curious distinction, one that some say could be more significant than the show's producers ever intended.

"Urkel is a very refreshing character," said Sandra Evers-Manly, the president of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood chapter of the NAACP. "He shows the diversity within the African-American community rarely seen on TV."

"It's unusual they are portraying a black kid as a nerd," said Alvin Poussaint, associate professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, who is also a script consultant on "The Cosby Show" and "A Different World."

Usually, he continued, black males are not portrayed as intellectual. "He's the kind of kid black kids would not want to be and would also accuse of trying to be white -- not being hip," Dr. Poussaint said.

"He's not up on street talk, not a dancing, bopping kind of kid." But, he said, "The fact that he's a nerd and very bright may be a step forward -- accepting that a black kid can be bright and precocious and might end up in an Ivy League school."

On the other hand, Urkel can also be a buffoon. With stooped posture, pursed lips and raised eyebrows, he often takes on the hammy persona of a fool who is completely impervious to insult.

For Bill Bickley, co-executive producer of "Family Matters," the question of how his show fits in with the evolution of black images on television is of less consequence than whether it is entertaining.

"I never thought the situation comedy was of any historic importance," he said. 'We're just trying to have fun."

Originally the Urkel character was conceived of as a minor one on a single episode in which Laura gets stuck with "the last person on earth she'd want to go out with on a blind date," explained Mr. Bickley, who likens Urkel's breakout status to that of Fonzie, played by Henry Winkler, on "Happy Days," another show he wrote with his partner, Michael Warren.

Mr. Bickley, who said that half the show's writers are white, as are all of the producers, added, "I don't personally have a black perspective. We approach the show from a more universal point of view."

"We don't see him as being a realistic character in the same way the other characters are realistic," Mr. Bickley continued. "What [we] do try to make realistic are his concerns and principles.

"The fact that he's in love with this girl and will never give up is a caricature of human qualities. We don't look to make them accurate. We write about the good, realistic side of human nature."

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