On the Inexplicable Urkel Phenomenon

Jaleel White was born this day in 1976.

The name may not ring an immediate bell in and of itself, but perhaps a light will dawn if I mention that he was the child actor who played the part of “Urkel” on the sit-com Family Matters from 1989 to 1998. If Jo Marie Payton doesn’t resent him, she’s a saint! The show was originally devised with her at the center, to showcase her funny, wisecracking elevator operator character from Perfect Strangers. As originally constituted it was a nice, somewhat bland family sitcom in a landscape that already had The Cosby Show, 227, and Amen, and would soon have The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Martin, and Roc, all of which were vastly more distinctive, smart and funny. It might not have survived long (as opposed to the record-setting decade of popularity it eventually enjoyed) if not for the arrival, a few weeks into its first season, of a twelve year old neighbor boy, who for some reason made a hit with audiences.

Jaleel White had previously guested on shows like The Jeffersons and Mr. Belvedere, and been a regular on Flip Wilson’s short-lived Charlie & Company. He was clearly a talented kid, destined for something. What he did turn out to contribute to pop culture no one, including himself, could have foreseen. His character, Steve Urkel, was in the glasses-wearing nerd tradition, a phenomenon that was many decades old by then, traceable to such previous characters as Charles Martin Smith’s “Toad” in American Graffiti and Wally Cox as Mr. Peepers, all the way back to innumerable characters in silent movies. By the 1980s, with things like Devo and the Revenge of the Nerds films it had become codified, ossified, and exhausted. It was by then a Halloween costume you could buy at the store. White played the character about as broadly as that, and when audiences responded favorably, he was encouraged to exaggerate it to clownish proportions, with hiked-up pants and suspenders, shirts buttoned all the way up to the top, cardigan sweaters, etc, the full iconography. It was now in a league with Pee Wee Herman and Martin Short’s Ed Grimley, at least in terms of outlandishness.

Having praised Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer for doing much the same thing 90 years earlier, I’d be a hypocrite for condemning the character strictly in those terms. But there was something about what transpired that was gratuitous, not to say monstrous, and just as dumb as dumb could be. White’s characterization was cute initially, in the way children can be cute. If he was cavorting around a friend’s living room cutting up that way, I’m sure I would bust a gut and say “That kid should be on TV!” But when such a thing actually happened, with such a broad, untrammeled characterization, the result turned out to be mortifying. Not to everyone, obviously. The thing caught on like wildfire. Urkel was a national fad on the order of the Fonz or Horshack, and it was the same kind of thing. You’d be watching Family Matters, a fairly ordinary TV sit-com, and then this character would drop in from an another planet, and the audience would erupt at his every movement like he was David Copperfield doing magic tricks or an Olympic gymnast earning a 10.0 from the judges, for a performance that might be charming in the Junior High talent show, but was beyond eye-rolling on national television. People loved it, obviously. It kept that show on the air for ten seasons! There was Urkel merch, and he even had his onw TV special in 1992 with guest stars like Little Richard and Vanessa Williams. By the time the whole thing wound down Jaleel White was 21 years old and was sprouting a mustache, still doing the same schtick. But honestly, during that period when it aired, I’d have much preferred to have watched any of the other shows I mentioned, or, even better, In Living Color.

In fact, White himself grew to hate the character and vowed never to play him again, although he did fall off the wagon a couple of times. He seems like a smart guy and he no longer needs horn-rimmed glasses to telegraph it. He went to UCLA and starred in later shows such as Grown-Ups (1999-2000) and Me Myself and I (2017). He’s been in movies like Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris (2018) and Hustle (2022) with Adam Sandler, and guested on such TV shows as Boston Legal, Psych, House, CSI, Atlanta, Bones, etc and has also done voice over work on shows like Scooby Doo, Duck Tales, Teen Titans Go, and was the voice of Sonic the Hedgehog.

I wish him all the happiness in the world as a recovering Urkel.