It’s not easy being Urkel.
Take the pants. These are not your average high-waters. No, these things ride so far up the calf they would have kept Noah dry for the entire 40 days. So imagine how it feels to squeeze into them every week, as does Jaleel White, who plays Steve Urkel, the polka-loving, squeaky-voiced math whiz on ABC’s Family Matters. ”The older I get, the tighter the pants get,” says White, now 18 and 5 foot 10. ”By the time I take them off, I’ve got one hell of a wedgie.”
Still, White has no plans to hang up his suspenders anytime soon (ABC just renewed the sitcom for its seventh season). Which is lucky for us. The übergeek known as Urkel is a true American phenomenon — akin to Twinkies or velvet Elvis paintings — and possibly the most intriguing prime-time character since Goober on Mayberry R.F.D. In short, he’s our most underappreciated comic genius.
The Urkel influence is everywhere. Addressing why Friends is so funny, actor Matthew Perry recently cited the vibe of Urkel (Family Matters shoots on the same Burbank lot). NBA star Patrick Ewing has written Urkel a fan letter. Urkel look-alike contests are held across America, complete with white and female Urkels. Store shelves have sagged with nearly 80 Urkel products — everything from talking dolls to Urkel-Os sugar cereal. And darned if Urkel wasn’t nerding out long before the Internet and Bill Gates became synonyms for cool.
”Urkel is the master,” says stand-up comedian Dana Gould. ”There’s not a comic alive who pulls his pants up to his nipples who doesn’t know where he gets it from.”
It wasn’t supposed to last this long. When Family Matters debuted in 1989, the sitcom followed the lives of an Urkel-free African-American family called the Winslows. Then, within the first year, came White, appearing in a bit part as a 12-year-old five-foot-tall prom date for Laura Winslow. Entranced, a cluster of frat boys in the audience began chanting ”Urkel, Urkel, Urkel!” The writers brought him back, and he’s been hoisting trou ever since.
Pants aside, there are other challenges to being Urkel. The unwieldy glasses, for one: horn-rimmed and big as Texarkana. And the voice, an impossibly twangy noise that makes Pee-wee Herman sound like a basso profundo. ”When I was younger, it took nothing,” says White, who abstains from throat-clogging dairy products before shooting days. ”Now it’s like a car. I gotta get warmed up first.”
But White’s not complaining. ”For an African-American male to be able to play a character that’s revered as intelligent is something I’m proud to do,” says the UCLA freshman, who hopes to be a screenwriter. Besides, the role is growing all the time. In an homage to The Nutty Professor (a movie that stars one of White’s heroes, Jerry Lewis), the show’s writers have developed an alter ego for Urkel, an ultra-suave dude named Stefan Urquelle who emerged after a trip to a ”transformation chamber.” What’s more, next season, Urkel’s pants might — gasp! — lengthen. ”Just three-quarters of an inch,” assures supervising producer Fred Fox Jr. Phew!