Today in Tedium: Plenty of people will look at a show like Family Matters as a form of low art, but it was a hugely important show for its time, even if it perhaps isn’t seen with the kind of rose-colored glasses that the similar Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is today. It was a comedy about a Black family that loved one another, but it had been somewhat consumed by a side character who became the focal point—Steve Urkel. Played by Jaleel White, the character’s trajectory parallels many similar characters of its period like Bart Simpson and Pee-Wee Herman—kid-friendly characters that quickly became overexposed. But let’s take a step back and break down the parts. Today’s Tedium ponders what happens when a 12-year-old invents a persona that actors twice his age couldn’t pull off. — Ernie @ Tedium
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We don’t talk enough about how how hard it is to be one of these all-encompassing comic characters
Recently, Dana Carvey posted a video that is perhaps one of the greatest things Saturday Night Live has ever created. It is an immensely subtle work, a work of satire that tries for something far deeper than most SNL sketches do.
So, of course, it sank. It never saw the light of day until Bob Odenkirk referenced the sketch on a podcast and Carvey then posted it.
The sketch starts like this: Phil Hartman plays the host of an old American Movie Classics-style retrospective show on Charlie Chaplin, where he highlights one of Chaplin’s lost performances. The performance, which features Carvey playing Chaplin, shows him entering a bar and trying to get a drink. A side character, played by Jon Lovitz, is dressed up similarly to Chaplin’s famed Tramp character.
Hartman, as host, noted that Chaplin had a tendency to do many takes of a scene. And in this particular scene, he kept asking for additional takes—and then taking elements of this random side character’s style. By the end of the sketch, Chaplin has completely stolen this guy’s identity—and Hartman is hailing him as a comic genius, not a thief.
Very subtle. Very tongue in cheek. Amazing, but not an amazing fit for SNL. No wonder it sank, unfortunately. (It would have worked better on Odenkirk’s Mr. Show, which basked in the glow of subtle sketches like this.)
It touches upon a deeper mystery about comedy: Where do some of our best ideas come from? In the case of Chaplin, if the sketch is to be believed, it’s active theft. But other cases might highlight a truly inventive mind, one where the comic persona is so effective that it makes you forget that there’s an actor behind it.
These kind of comic personas are hard to develop and hard to perfect, and they can completely shape your life. Shades of Chaplin’s Tramp character bled down to contemporaries like The Three Stooges, along with later comic creations like Pee-Wee Herman (a character, played by Paul Reubens, that Hartman played a fundamental role in shaping), Thema “Mama” Harper (a role Vicki Lawrence played for decades), Ernest P. Worrell, and more recently, Sheldon Cooper. These characters became so deeply associated with these actors that it was hard to separate them from the people who played them.
Jaleel White, as Steve Urkel, successfully did this. But unlike the actors listed above, White successfully pulled this off, with the comic timing of a pro, when he was just 12 years old.
Now, to be clear, kids can have amazing comic timing in their own right—Nickelodeon has numerous comic franchises over its four-decade history that prove it, most notably You Can’t Do That On Television and All That—but White’s creation, a famously annoying kid with a high-pitched voice and a distinctive appearance that you can see from a mile away, felt much more fully-formed than similar comedy creations inhabited by kids.
And that is perhaps why White became an indelible part of 1990s culture.
Admittedly, there were reasons why White’s presence was controversial, at least internally. Essentially, White, whose creation was intended as a one-and-done character, had upstaged a family comedy that aimed to simply present a Black family as themselves. It was not meant as a wild, out-there comedic enterprise—rather, it inhabited the same space as other ABC comedies of the era, like Full House and Just the Ten Of Us.
One can imagine being the adult stars of a comedy of this nature and feeling totally upstaged in this context—Reginald VelJohnson, Telma Hopkins, and Jo Marie Payton thought they were going to be the stars, after all. As we’ll get into later, this created some on-set tension that has played out in the decades since.
It was not the first time this happened in television history, and not even the first time it happened on ABC. Just six years before Steve Urkel made his debut, ABC took a comedy about married socialites that had been developed for a real-life husband and wife team—former NFL great Alex Karras and his Porky’s co-star, Susan Clark—and, at the last minute, forced the producer to add a rising child star to the show before he grew too tall.
That child star, Emmanuel Lewis, became immortalized as Webster, and the show faced lots of internal drama because of this casting decision, which essentially broke the romantic-comedy vibe of the show and turned it into a Diff’rent Strokes ripoff, but also ensured that it likely is better remembered in television history as a result.
Steve Urkel’s first appearance on Family Matters, about halfway through the first season.
Steve Urkel was in some ways a happy accident—a recurring character who came to dominate the series—but once producers found him, he became the central focus of Family Matters, even above the family the show was named after. Infamously, the show wrote Jaimee Foxworth, who played the daughter Judy Winslow, off the show without even mentioning it, a decision that, years later, was a factor in Payton’s own departure from the series. (Foxworth, notably, was left out of a 2017 Entertainment Weekly magazine reunion, like an early member of a band in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.)
Urkel, love him or hate him, turned what might have been a forgotten show into a phenomenon that far outlasted many of its contemporaries.
Just imagine what that must have been like for the 12-year-old who developed the persona.
“There’s no special line for Steve Urkel.”
— Jaleel White, in a 1992 interview in the magazine Disney Adventures. White, then 15, had been a major star for about two years at this point, but the piece noted that he still got cut in the lunch line at school. White ended up moving into entertainment on the recommendation of a preschool teacher.
Jaleel White was once seen as such a creative force, he was given his own variety special
The addition of White, as Steve Urkel, took a show, destined for a middling showing at best, into the Nielsen top 20, becoming an anchor of ABC’s TGIF lineup for most of the 1990s.
While there may have been some blowups behind the scenes, White nonetheless was the wagon upon which TGIF hitched its fortunes. While in the long run the Olsen Twins would turn out to be the biggest stars from the TGIF block over time thanks to some shrewd managerial execution that expanded their presence into the home-video market, White got a lot of attention while his show was still on the air.
And by 1992, he was given a surprising showcase of his work. In a great example of lost media that may possibly resurface at some point, White received a one-hour variety special intended to highlight his capabilities beyond Steve Urkel—after all, if he could create a comic persona that was this effective, just imagine what he could do as a regular actor.
As someone who watched a lot of Family Matters as a kid, I’m sure I saw this—though video of it is scarce. (Isn’t this what Disney+ is for?)
But this did in fact happen, even if the full show doesn’t exist in the wild. There are a number of promotional photos on Getty Images, including of costars Vanessa Williams, Little Richard, Nell Carter, and Tatiana Ali.
I’m sure it seemed like a smart calculation to highlight that, hey, this kid could really act! But there is, of course, the Urkel-ness of it all, as highlighted by Los Angeles Times reviewer Chris Willman.
“Young viewers have taken in a big way to this hyper-articulate, irrepressible little pest who talks like a cross between Alvin the chipmunk and Pat the hermaphrodite, and who wears his pants as if planning a walk through the Sepulveda basin,” Willman wrote.
In this variety show, White dressed up as Urkel, of course. But he was also himself, and, fittingly at one point dresses up as The Tramp, which honestly kind of says it all as far as how he was being framed up as a creative force.
How many people do you know that get their own variety show showcases, let alone at the age of 15? The expectations must have been pressing.
“I didn’t understand it was going to be this big hit. Didn’t realize it would run, or that I would be important to it. I was this kid. My mother never even told me for years how much money I was making.”
— White, speaking to Parade Magazine in 1997, around the time that Family Matters moved to CBS. (Per one estimate I found, CBS paid something like $1.7 million per episode to pick up the long-running series from ABC.) In case you’re wondering how much money he did make, the best clue I can find is from the admittedly thinly sourced Celebrity Net Worth: $180,000 per episode at the peak, or $4 million per year.
At some point, Family Matters—evolving into a showcase for Jaleel White—got really weird
If you’re someone who watched Family Matters most of the way through, you saw a show that went further and further afield of its original mission.
By season 5, White was frequently doing double or triple character duty on the show, with alter-egos such as the suave Stefan Urquelle and the gangsta persona Cornelius Eugene Urkel emerging. There is an irony in the fact that producers couldn’t make room for every member of the Winslow family, but the show had room for three separate Jaleel White characters in a single episode.
From a character standpoint, it was a surprising level of versatility for a young kid whose only early direction was “nerd hopelessly in love with his next-door neighbor.” (A small moment of silence for the long-suffering Laura Winslow, who rejected Steve Urkel’s advances hundreds of times in the span of this series, only to spoiler alert end up with him in the end.)
For a family comedy, though, it got pretty weird, taking on cartoonish elements at times comparable to The Simpsons, though with lower-quality writing. Like Homer Simpson, Steve Urkel ended up in space at one point.
Sometimes, the vibe was almost science fiction in nature—often, these personas would show themselves because Urkel had developed serums that would change him into different types of people. Example: Did you know that there was once a story arc for White where he played a Bruce Lee-like character?
And then there were those times where Urkel developed time machines, or built atomic bombs, or cloned himself.
Long story short, it was Family Matters in name only for a large chunk of its run, and that created lots of tension within the cast.
A few years ago, in an interview with TV One, White touched upon how his increasingly diverse array of characters became a problem with the older cast members. Myrtle Urkel, a Southern belle character he portrayed starting in season 2, particularly drove a wedge between him and leads Jo Marie Payton and Reginald VelJohnson, who objected to the cross-dressing because of its use as a common trope for Black actors. (In other words, their issue was not truly with White, but the writers and producers, but ultimately, White was the one wearing the dress.)
White, then 13, embraced the character, but the pressure of the criticism created serious problems. White said his father had to get involved, defending his son on the set.
“I felt like a girl playing Myrtle Urkel, but I cried like a baby at the end of that taping,” White said during the interview.
Near the end of the show, there was rumor of things nearly coming to blows between White, by then a 22-year-old adult, and Payton, who left the show with just a few episodes left in the run, necessitating a replacement actor.
“During that time, working with him was a challenge,” VelJohnson recalled in an interview last year. “There were some moments when he was a little difficult.”
At some point, one wonders if the show would have been better served with Steve Urkel removed from it—or if Steve Urkel needed another venue than the one he was given.
If Urkel was the 1990s take on The Tramp, a family sitcom maybe didn’t make the most sense for the character, or White, to evolve. The sci-fi plots that dominated the series near the end seem to suggest that as well.
One wonders if the character might have worked better in a format similar to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, for example.
Ultimately, though, Urkel was retired around the end of Family Matters, and White went on to other work. Though it was at one point rumored that he might appear during the Fuller House run, his only appearance since his TGIF heyday has been as an animated character in an episode of Scooby-Doo and Guess Who?, about five years ago.
I don’t think the world is clamoring for more Steve Urkel, but it would be interesting to see what an adult version of this character might look like—to see if he might have the staying power of The Tramp.
“Michelle Thomas became a very special person … I literally cannot say her name or I’ll cry.”
— White, speaking in 2021 about Michelle Thomas, who played Myra Monkhouse, a love interest of Steve’s on Family Matters. (The joke, for those who haven’t seen the show lately: Myra was as obsessed with Steve as Steve was with Laura.) Thomas died of a rare stomach cancer in 1998, less than six months after the show ended. White said he had a big-sister relationship with Thomas, who was nearly a decade older than he was, and that his family tried to help her after her diagnosis.
At some point, you can understand why actors want a break from personas like these.
The late, great Paul Reubens was already planning to hang up his bowtie before a high-profile arrest forced his hand. And presumably, The Big Bang Theory would still be on the air, drawing 20 million viewers a week, if Jim Parsons had been willing to play Sheldon Cooper into his 50s.
Personas like these can be a trap, a one-way route to permanent typecasting, and can even stunt your personal life. A contemporary of White with a similar career arc, Saved By The Bell star Dustin Diamond, ended up becoming one of a long line of examples of a child star who struggled to make the transition into adulthood. Diamond, born a little more than a month after White, found himself at odds with his castmates as an adult and frequently in trouble with the law.
Diamond, who was about three years younger than the next-youngest member of the main cast, faced similar issues as White did with maintaining relationships with his castmates, and was on record as saying the actor playing his onscreen best friend, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, had not stayed close with him, a sentiment Gosselaar agreed with. (He was still friendly with Mario Lopez into the modern day, however.)
In the ultimate sign of disrespect, NBC did not bring him back for the recent revival series, despite the fact that his character Screech had starred in every version of the show up to that point and was arguably the most popular character. Soon after, Diamond was diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer, dying within weeks of the diagnosis, further putting an exclamation on that point—though Gosselaar claims there were plans to bring him into the revival, he ended up getting sick before that could happen.
White, in comparison, has steadily worked, getting guest-starring roles and even occasionally showing up as a regular in network sitcoms. He’s about to take a leap into one of his most high-profile roles in quite some time—as a character in a Star Wars spinoff show on Disney+ that also stars Oscar nominees Jude Law and Kerry Condon.
Even so, the shadow of the acting work he did as a 12-year-old presumably will loom large no matter what he does next. Signs of that will keep emerging no matter what.
Last month, for example, there seemed to be some lingering tension playing out at a convention where many of White’s former castmates appeared, but where White was nowhere to be seen.
“I love you, Jaleel,” VelJohnson said. “You’re wonderful. Sorry you’re not here. We miss you.”
When the light shines too brightly on you, too soon, it can be hard to find your way back to normalcy.
And Steve Urkel, who came to dominate a family comedy and pushed it into an accidental sci-fi direction, was anything but normal.
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