Someday they’ll do a book about this. They’ll call it The History of Sidekicks and Nutty Neighbors, about the secondary characters who often become more popular than a show’s original stars.
We all know the names. So, come on, let’s say them together. There’s Gomer Pyle, Rhoda Morgenstern, Maynard G. Krebs, and the Right Rev. Jim Ignatowski. There’s Lenny and Squiggy, and Larry, Darryl, and Darryl. Of course, there’s the Fonz and, oh yeah, Steve Urkel.
You heard me. Steve Urkel, Hollywood’s latest and strangest candidate for the Wacky Neighbor Hall of Fame, a whiny-voiced, pratfall-prone seventh-grader, a poster child for post-nasal drip.
Urkel first wheezed his way into prime-time last December, 12 episodes into the debut season of Family Matters, part of ABC’s Friday-night situation comedy lineup. The show revolves around the trials of the Winslows, a middle-class black family in Chicago. The character of Steve Urkel was supposed to be a one-time guest shot, an annoyingly nerdy kid with a lifelong crush on Laura, the Winslows’ 13-year-old daughter. No one intended for him to be a running character.
But that was before 13-year-old Jaleel White auditioned for the role. Jaleel came to the casting session in full nerd regalia, with a pocketful of pens, huge strapped-on eyeglasses, a crooked bow tie, and pulled-up pants that barely reached his ankles. It was Pee-wee Herman meets Mars Blackmon, junior- high flashback edition.
”I just decided to take it all the way,” says Jaleel, who has been acting (mostly in commercials) since he was 3 years old. ”There was one other guy who was up for the Urkel part and when I walked in the room he goes, ‘Hey, look at that nerd.’ And I said, ‘And you aren’t?’
”The funny thing is, before this happened, I was getting tired of acting. I’d signed this card and given it to my mother that said at the end of my eighth-grade year I was going to quit, that I just wanted to go out for JV basketball. Well, my eighth-grade year ends in June. I don’t think I’ll be quitting now.”
After just one rehearsal, Family Matters executive producer Thomas L. Miller already was trying to sign Jaleel as a recurring cast member.
”At his first reading with the regular cast, he got an extraordinary scream with the first line out of his mouth. And it wasn’t that the line itself was necessarily one of his funniest lines. It was just the way he did it. I leaned over to my partner (executive producer Robert L. Boyett) right then and said, ‘This kid is major. We’ve got to sign
When Urkel’s debut episode was filmed, Miller says, his first scene almost caused a riot in the studio, the kind of spontaneous audience combustion that writers and producers dream about, a commotion the likes of which Miller hadn’t heard on a sitcom soundstage since that fateful night when Fonzie first said, ”Whoa.”
”They were chanting his name after just one scene,” Miller says, re-enacting the moment: ”Urkel, Urkel, Urkel.”
The chants, it turned out, were coming from about 50 fraternity kids who just happened to be in the audience that night. But the crowd reaction left the producers with no doubt that in Steve Urkel they’d found the kind of hot-ticket character that can make all the difference to a sitcom’s success.
”Every new series, every episode is a work in progress,” Miller says. ”You’re constantly trying to find out what works and what doesn’t, what the actors’ strengths are. And every once in a while you do need to make a noise with somebody, something they’ll be talking about in school the next day. What’s great is that you never know who or what that element will be.
”Sometimes you get the perfect combination of the actor you choose and the character they’re playing. When those two elements have the magic, as Henry Winkler did when he played Fonzie, that’s when something special happens.”
Miller should know. Along with Edward Milkis and Garry Marshall, he was executive producer of Happy Days and all the spin-offs that followed.
His partnership with Boyett has provided ABC with another slew of hits — Perfect Strangers, Full House, and now, it appears, Family Matters, which has just been renewed for a second season.
Since the audience seems to have taken a liking to Urkel, the challenge for the writers and producers is to figure out what to do with him. And when you get an outrageous character like this, how much is too much?
”One of the things you don’t do is you don’t make him the whole show,” says co-executive producer Michael Warren, who along with partner William Bickley created the series and wrote the episode in which Urkel first appeared. ”There’s always a temptation when something works to say, ‘Let’s do that again.’
”But this show is still about the Winslow family. So we want to experiment with Jaleel, to see how Steve Urkel works with the other characters. But you don’t want him to take over.”
It is, Miller says, the same problem they faced when it became clear that Arthur Fonzarelli — not Richie Cunningham — was becoming the biggest draw on Happy Days. Working in new characters, particularly outrageous ones like Urkel, requires a delicate balance.
”It’s real important when you find someone who is an original but who will also complement the ensemble,” Miller says. ”So that you’ll not only be entertained by the new personality but you’ll also get to see how the whole cast reacts to that character. Hopefully he becomes a catalyst who helps an audience understand your regulars better.
”That’s why we never did a show called The Fonz, and believe me, ABC wanted us to do one. But all of us, including Henry Winkler, felt that it was Fonzie’s relationship with the Cunninghams that made the show work. You have to have elements that work well together.”
Meanwhile, Bickley and Warren have another tightrope to walk. When they created the Urkel character, they didn’t expect him to become a central cast member. So they made him as irritating as possible, a kid obsessed with his own bodily fluids and prone to say things like ”Mucus, it comes in so many colors.”
”We want to keep him slightly bigger-than-life,” Bickley explains, ”as opposed to the Winslows, who we write as a very real family. He’s a character who can come in and do very quickly perceived jokes. It’s the same role that the Ted Knight character filled on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
”Our problem now is to keep him irritating but keep him likable at the same time,” Warren says. ”If he’s not somewhat irritating, then he loses a lot of what makes him funny.”
And, inevitably, there are the concerns of the original cast members, the actors who thought they were the stars until Urkel, this scene-stealing adenoid case, came on board, flipping into playpens, tossing himself down bowling alleys, having frat kids chant his name.