Comedic character evades limits set by Image Police

July 19, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

THAT SEGMENT of Afro-Americana incessantly obsessed with the Image of Black Folks can rest easy now. After nine seasons on the sitcom "Family Matters," the character of Steven Quincy Urkel bade his farewell Friday night.

The Urkel character was played by Jaleel White. During his nine years, he played the nerdish Urkel of the squeaky voice, snortish laugh, high-water pants and suspenders. Urkel's bumbling pratfalls and clumsiness put him in a category with such lovable clowns as Lou Costello and Red Skelton.

But White played other characters: the smooth and suave Stefan Urquelle, Urkel's alter ego; and Myrtle Urkel, a cousin of Steve's who was funnier in drag than Flip Wilson's stereotypical Geraldine character and Martin Lawrence's even more stereotypical Shenehneh character.

Add to those White's Elvis and Bruce Lee impersonations and you have someone who -- if he weren't black -- would be called a gifted comedy actor. But it's White's own people who refuse to give him his propers. Many African-Americans have said that the Urkel character was buffoonish, yet another stereotypical albatross around the necks of black America.

The buffoon charge leveled at blacks who play in sitcoms has always baffled me. Sitcoms are, after all, comedies. A bit of buffoonery is to be expected. Jerry Lewis made a career of playing a buffoon. His portrayal didn't seem to do Jewish Americans any particular harm. Costello also played the buffoon. Italian- Americans seem to have survived it. But for some African- Americans, blacks playing buffoons is a crisis ranking right up there with Plessy vs. Ferguson.

Not once do those protesting the image of a Steve Urkel consider that blacks protesting his image might be worse for our image than Steve Urkel's image. In short, the Urkelphobes make themselves look more nincompoopish than the Urkel character.

If the Urkelphobes and those other blacks who need to get reacquainted with the concept of humor mean there are too many black sitcoms on the networks and not enough black dramas, they're absolutely right. But before we launch into one of our ofay-bashing tirades and blame white Hollywood producers and executives, let's consider a hypothetical situation.

Let's say that "Beauty Shop" -- a black comedic play by Shelly Garrett -- and August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson" -- a black drama -- were playing at adjoining theaters. Let's say both were given equal budgets for promotion and advertising. Every black person in America not prone to self-deception knows "Beauty Shop" would do record business while "The Piano Lesson" would struggle for patrons, most of whom would probably be white.

So blacks don't support black dramas -- at least not in the numbers we should -- and rail against characters such as Steve Urkel for being damaging to our "image." But what's the real gripe with the Urkel character? White, perhaps unwittingly, shed some light on it in a recent TV Guide interview.

"To me, Urkel was wonderful. And I never tired of playing him. He defied stereotypes. He was an African-American who listens to Wayne Newton albums, enjoys wearing plaid and loves polkas. And he made people laugh just by walking into the room. How many African-American performers have a character like that who crossed all racial lines?"

Not many. But that may be just the problem Afro-America's Image Police have with the character of Steve Urkel: He's a threat. He's the very antithesis of the herd mentality that afflicts Afro-Americana today. He's dangerous to the notion that all blacks must like the same music or they're not really black; that we all must be liberal and support liberal causes or we're not really black; that we all must unwaveringly support affirmative action or we're traitors to the race.

With characters such as Urkel around, some blacks might start harboring the disloyal notion that they're individuals first and blacks second. Why, such thoughts are downright treasonous. Traditional liberal black leadership can neither afford nor abide them. They can't afford to have blacks abandoning the herd mentality. Not when they're driving the herd. Before you know it, there'll be a mess of mavericks breaking loose and not donating money to traditional black liberal organizations.

And then there's the biggest Urkel threat of all: He might challenge the self-esteem con that black liberals -- who love to vTC claim black children were practically born with low self-esteem -- have been running on America for years. In one episode of "Family Matters," Urkel's love interest Laura Winslow -- played by Kellie Williams -- asks Urkel if it bothers him that he's unpopular and other kids consider him a nerd.

"No," Urkel replies. "I like myself." Here's one man who loved Jaleel White's portrayal of Steve Urkel for the past nine years and bids him a fond farewell.

Pub Date: 7/19/98

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