September 8, 1997 in Features

Adorable Nerd Jaleel White Endears Himself To ‘Family Matters’ Viewers In His Distinctive Role As Steve Urkel

Richard Sandomir New York Times
 

To sitcom wonks steeped in the lofty pedagogy of Archie Bunker, Mary Richards, Heathcliff Huxtable, Ralph Kramden and Lucy Ricardo, the name Steve Urkel arouses serious heebie-jeebies.

Highbrows easily dismiss Urkel (played by Jaleel White) as the high-I.Q. geek in ABC’s “Family Matters” who speaks in a falsetto that has grown falser as White has aged from 12 to 20 during the series’ run and wears oversize red-framed glasses, plaid shirts, saddle shoes and denims hiked to his nipples to reveal long expanses of white socks.

Elitists are appalled that his name evokes the oral historian Studs Terkel, whose oeuvre rarely crosses into Urkel’s demographic.

Yet Urkel is something more than an irksome character whom a vaunted comedic pantheon can sneer at as unworthy of them, a creation as low as the mother reincarnated as Jerry Van Dyke’s 1928 Porter or one as alien as “Alf.”

More likely, he is the lineal comedic descendant of Dennis the Menace, the Three Wise Vermont Bumpkins (Larry, Darryl and Darryl of “Newhart”) and the Orkian Mork. All are quirky oddballs who crave inclusion in worlds not made for them.

And following a crash 21-episode course in Urkel-watching, I can say - and may Ed Norton drown me in a Bensonhurst sewer if I am wrong - that Urkel merits our serious attention, if only because CBS has snared his vehicle from ABC after an incredible eight-year run, which is longer than “Family Ties,” “Taxi” or “Sanford and Son.”

What makes Urkel run (or at least walk peculiarly in a bent-kneed crouch)? He wasn’t even supposed to last beyond a guest shot in 1989, but they kept bringing him back as the eccentric foil to the loving nuclear Winslow family.

Very quickly - almost from the day young Urkel said, “Did I mention my dad knows Wayne Newton?” - his entrances have made audiences yowl for joy. Without the comic imbalance created by White’s idiosyncratic portrayal, the show would have died long ago as inconsequential family piffle.

To comprehend Urkel, you must watch him embrace nerdhood. He revels in his intelligence, his bugs, his cheese, his lab coat, his pocket protector, his arcane vocabulary and his inventive gadgetry. He is no dweeb plotting the overthrow of loutish jocks, but a sage seeker of acceptance for his odd ilk.

“You a serious little nerd,” cracks an insolent cousin visiting the Winslows.

“No, I am a serious little nerd,” Urkel replies. “I use verbs. Verbs are our friends. They move along our sentences.”

Yes, he may be a tiresome pest and moral scold whose attention-getting antics - and use of the word “yowser” - would compel a real-life family to seek counseling. But his sitcom accomplishments peg him as a dream child for sitcom parents with underachieving progeny. Ward and June Cleaver seriously downplayed their profound anguish over their younger son, Beaver’s, very soul, but Ma and Pa Urkel have nothing to fret about but their boy’s penchant for cross-dressing as Myrtle, his cousin from Biloxi, Miss.

He is a gentle man-child who tutors the football team in fractions; cheats on a test to help Eddie, the Winslows’ dim son; helps Carl (Reginald VelJohnson), the Winslow patriarch, overcome acrophobia by confiding how he overcame his fear of nudity; and swaps a mint Mickey Mantle rookie card for the singing services of a teen idol adored by Laura, the Winslow daughter. He asks for merely a kiss in return.

Urkel may not be the kind of son Steve Douglas would have adopted (he adopted Ernie, who joined his biological sons Chip and Robbie after the oldest son, Mike, married and moved away), but he is as fine and loyal as the sainted Edith Bunker.

Urkel’s unrequited, over-the-top passion for the sassy Laura (Kellie Shanygne Williams) wrests the impractical side from him. She is his blind spot, his constant rejection slip, despite his best efforts: serenading her with his accordion while warbling “Feelings,” penning an 84-stanza poem or bestowing on her the gift of a necklace made of his dental retainer.

On one of the 572 Web sites that mention Urkel, a devotee wrote, “So, fellow Urkels out there, keep caring, keep trying, don’t stalk and become a stupid psychopath.” Opie Taylor never fanned such flames, even after he became Richie Cunningham.

Another fan designed elaborate Laura-and-Urkel wedding invitations for a wedding that never occurred.

Yet if Laura is his hormones’ desire, her family represents Urkel’s deepest need. Each Friday, Urkel walks into the Winslows’ unlocked home unannounced and insinuates himself into their lives, especially Carl’s, Eddie’s and Laura’s. His needs are as profound as those expressed by Cosmo Kramer, who similarly walks weekly into the unlocked Seinfeld apartment without warning.

Urkel craves the Winslows’ stable nuclear family. We never see his own parents, and his references to them are disturbing, like Norm Peterson’s insults about his never-seen wife, Vera, a disquieting reminder of a life ruined by booze.

The Urkels once emptied their house of furniture in the hope that Steve would think they had moved. He is a disappointment to his brain surgeon father, who wants him to follow in what Urkel feels would be an unchallenging career. His parents get cranky if he does not have dinner prepared each night on time.

And he has reported that his mother said he came from the stork, “but I’ve seen the contract from the in-vitro fertilization clinic.”


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