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Nerd Power : Is Uncool Urkel the '90s Answer to the Fonz?

January 04, 1991|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The ingredients were carefully selected.

First, ABC asked William Bickley and Michael Warren, executive producers of the ABC comedy hit "Perfect Strangers," to create another series under the banner of Miller/Boyett Productions--the uncannily successful family comedy mill that spawned "Perfect Strangers," "Full House" and "The Hogan Family," among others.

Second, Bickley and Warren came up with the idea of exploring the relationships of a multi-generational, working-class black family all living under the same roof--a tried-and-true TV premise.

Third, to portray the couple at the head of the Winslow household, they chose JoMarie Payton-France and Reggie VelJohnson, who were already known to viewers as minor characters on "Perfect Strangers."

Steve Urkel was not part of the mix.

Yet it is this Super Nerd character that has elevated "Family Matters" from little more than a moderately successful Friday-night bridge between two established ABC programs, "Full House" and "Perfect Strangers," to a bona-fide hit. "Family Matters" is the most popular show in its 8:30 p.m. time period, regularly snaring 25% of the available TV viewers. And last week, among a blitz of holiday specials, the show ranked 5th among prime time programs, cracking the Top Five for the first time.

Who can take credit for the Urkel Effect? The producers sheepishly admit that the most successful element of their hit recipe resulted from dumb luck.

It came last year, midway through the show's first season. One episode called for the Winslow father (VelJohnson) to arrange for daughter Laura (Kellie Shanygne Williams) to be taken to a party by a boy who turned out to be the world's worst date. Bickley and Warren already had the idea for such a character in their files, and had already named him after Warren's friend, producer Steve Urkel.

"I think the only person who is not a fan of 'Family Matters' is my friend Steve Urkel," sighed Warren. "It has terribly affected his life."

At an audition, Jaleel White whined out his first Urkel words while wearing a huge pair of glasses borrowed from his dentist father (used to keep particles from flying into his eyes)--and spun a transcendently nerdy magic. He was hired on the spot as an occasional character.

As the ratings increased, so did Urkel's screen time; now, by producer's mandate, every script must contain at least a little Urkel.

The same accidental lightning has struck this creative team before--on a much larger scale. Could anyone who was conscious during the 1970s forget the Fonz?

In 1974, Miller/Boyett's Tom Miller teamed with Garry Marshall and Edward Milkis to create "Happy Days" for Paramount; Bickley and Warren were on the writing staff. Although the '50s comedy originally focused on Ron Howard as Richie Cunningham, Henry Winkler's leather-jacketed college drop-out, Arthur Fonzarelli, soon stole the show.

"I don't know that it's something you can plan so much," Warren mused during an interview at Lorimar Studios, where "Family Matters" is produced. "If you try to write it, it usually doesn't work."

That's why producers of family shows, he said, usually create three or four kids' roles, in hopes that one of them will catch on. In "Happy Days," that "kid" was the Fonz. "The original Fonzie was a character who very seldom spoke," Warren said. "In the 'Happy Days' pilot, the surprise was that toward the end of the pilot, Fonzie spoke."

Once the Fonz began to speak, kids began to imitate him. Bickley said that he began to sense the same potential for Urkel when, after one or two appearances, he discovered some children "Urkelizing" at a shopping mall.

"(Adding Urkel) wasn't an attempt to fix a show that had big problems," said Bickley. "But then this kid comes along and it's like having, if you will, a Fonzie, who is almost an alien to the original premise. It sort of bumps the comedy up to a whole different level."

"He gave us a lot of good dynamics in the show because he's not in the family," Warren added. "So he can be as off-the-wall and bizarre as you want to make him."

Both producers acknowledge that, while each show needed an alien, the Fonz and Urkel come from entirely different planets.

The Fonz--like today's anti-hero, Bart Simpson--was an underachiever and proud of it. He enchanted kids with his slicked-back cool. Urkel, a neurosurgeon's son whose pants are as high as his I.Q, celebrates the fine art of not being cool--filling his days with science projects, his bug collection, a weird passion for cheese and mice, and his unrequited love for Laura Winslow.

White, 13, began his career 10 years ago in commercials and had his first regular role in the ill-fated Flip Wilson/Gladys Knight series "Charlie & Company." He said he doesn't quite know how he created the distinctive voice, walk and snorting laugh that constitute the Urkel mystique during his audition. "I was temporarily possessed," he said.

He and the producers agree that Urkel's popularity rests in the fact that he's no ordinary nerd.

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