It wasn’t that long ago that we were discussing in comments the career of Jaleel White, still best-known as Steve Urkel from Family Matters. It turns out I can deliver the best possible answer to the question, “Where is he now?” – he’s hosting Total Blackout on Syfy (the new season premieres tonight at 10:30 p.m.). In this new competition show, contestants enter a completely pitch-black room, where they must touch unfamiliar objects (some of which are live animals and/or paid actors) and face their fears of the dark.
I was offered the chance to talk to Jaleel…but first, I had to brave the darkness myself at a live audition for the show at upscale L.A. mall The Grove.
That photo above is taken in night vision. Unable to see anything but a red dot that was presumably the camera, I was told to walk across the room with my shoes off. The catch? The floor would be covered in mousetraps, and if I walked in a straight line I was guaranteed to step on one. You can see for yourself what was actually going on – two people were crouched down making snapping sounds.
I’m used to being in the dark, though (I grew up with power outages a common occurrence in winter-time), so I’m afraid I wasn’t as dramatic a screamer as they were looking for. I rather quickly felt with my feet that there were barriers on each side of me, so I followed them to the end and that was it. On the actual show, though, they eliminate contestants round by round by having them jump blindly onto a trap door that may or may not open. I don’t mind admitting that that would bother me a lot.
Talking to Jaleel, however, didn’t bother me at all, as we discussed Total Blackout, fan fiction, Sonic the Hedgehog, Urkel merchandise and more. Read on…
Luke Y. Thompson: So how did you get this gig in the first place? Was it Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus?
Jaleel White: It probably was! While you’re bullshitting, it probably was! (laughs) We got some good ratings off of that! My manager laughs, “Jaleel, that’s the movie I wanted you to do!” It’s funny – you’ve got to put yourself on people’s radar, and that’s really what that movie was about.
I’m happy to be a part of the Syfy family now. Fremantle considered me as a host, and when my manager called me and told me what the concept of the show was, I immediately loved it, because I just knew people would watch it. It’s one thing to host a show; it’s another thing to host a show that you know in your heart people will watch, and 9 out of 10 people who watch the show, they love it. It’s just like some peanuts over there, you grab a handful on the way out, and you’re like “I don’t know why I ate those, but they were there!” (laughs)
LYT: Did you ever try out any of the tests yourself?
JW: I know too much about the show to really get completely spooked out by it. There are probably one or two challenges that I don’t like. I don’t like being in the plexiglass tunnels with the mice and the cheese, and gathering eggs with the chickens around, and stuff like that, but I’ve held a tarantula now, it’s no big deal. Really, what you start to realize is that the game is really just a test of how fast can you get past your texture issues. We’re not trying to kill you, so some people, they may never get past it. Some people, it may take one challenge, and you can see it in their eyes – they’re pumped, “Whatever I gotta touch, whatever I gotta guess, I’m going to blaze through it.”
Evans Vestal Ward Photo
LYT: Now that it’s been on for a season, and people know that it’s not as dangerous as they may think, is there a challenge in upping the ante on that?
JW: Always! There’s definitely a challenge in upping the ante. We can make the games bigger, we can turn games upside down, that people think they know. Especially even these live versions – I’d love to see versions like this permanently at Universal for people to enjoy. I think it’s the ultimate haunted house! After you go through something like this, then some guy just jumps out at you with a bloody mask, you just kind of laugh at him.
LYT: They had a Clive Barker maze a couple of years back that was more designed to disorient you than actually scare you, and it really worked.
JW: Exactly! Disorienting and all that is really what haunted experiences are becoming, and this is it.
LYT: I saw you had a balance beam in the promo. As soon as I shut my eyes, I lose my balance.
JW: (laughs) Right? But there’s a trick to it! And some people kind of figure it out. I’m not going to say what it is, I can’t say it, but there is an actual trick to managing yourself on a balance beam in complete dark.
LYT: For me, the scariest thing is the elimination round, where you take that blind leap of faith. Is it a deep dark secret, or can you tell me how deep it goes?
JW: People always ask about that! I’m not saying anything about it now! It’s not as bad as people think. We actually had a contestant who said “No, I want to see it!” Like, “I’m not doing it till I see it!” She just refused, until she saw where she was going to go. It’s a respectable drop, I’ll say that!
LYT: Did you ever have blind people try to trick you into becoming contestants?
JW: That is hilarious! I bullshit you not, I don’t mean to sound cruel, I don’t want to get in trouble with anybody’s organization, but it would be funny to have an actual blind person on the show and nobody is told that the person is blind, and see how they do on the show! (laughs)
LYT: I have to ask because we are a nerd site; you were classically the voice of Sonic the Hedgehog. Do you still feel a certain affection or affiliation with that character every time you still see him going?
JW: You know what’s so funny, and your question is so timely: a fan film was released, as a matter of fact, this guy contacted my manager, and had me do the voice of Sonic again, which I hadn’t done in years, but his vision for his fan film seemed so legitimate that it was cool, and he released it yesterday, so I want to blow it up. It’s just fun.
LYT: Have you ever read any Sonic fan fiction, and has any of it been particularly disturbing?
JW: I don’t go too deep into Planet Mobius, you know what I’m saying? I stick to being Sonic and I let everything exist around me. (laughs)
LYT: In Ghostbusters, Sigourney Weaver insults Bill Murray by comparing him to a game show host, but nowadays it’s respectable and cool. You’ve got Drew Carey doing it, you’ve got Wayne Brady doing it, you’re doing it – when did being a game show host become cool again?
JW: I think the criteria for hit television has changed. What people will watch is what matters. Not necessarily the genre, you know what I mean? Nobody had any respect for reality television 5 years ago, and now you go to TCAs and half the people there talking to the critics are reality stars. So the fact of the matter is, anything that attracts eyeballs is going to pick up some street cred. That’s why with Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus, I don’t even run from that! People are like “You were really in that?” And I’m like “Yeah! We got good numbers!” It is what it is. Some of those scenes are absolutely ridiculous – I know! But we got great numbers, and people love laughing at it.
LYT: Is there anything you personally nerd out about today?
JW: I nerd out about my daughter, man, that’s it. I’m a dad-geek – I like getting everything perfect when it comes to her. I literally planned her birthday party myself, from top to bottom. It was like “OK, the kids are going to be in here for 45 minutes, and then after that they’re going to have a 15 minute break where they’re going to have these Doritos!” I kind of geek out about my daughter’s life experience – nothing’s ever perfect enough.
Evans Vestal Ward Photo
LYT: Have you saved any of your old [Urkel] toys for her to play with?
JW: You know what? The best part of being a dad for me right now is all this new stuff that I’m doing; it continues to drive home the point that life is generational. So my daughter has no idea that I played this nerd character on television; my daughter actually thinks I’m a dancer. I B.S. you not! She’s seen me in the CeeLo Green video, she’s seen me on Dancing with the Stars, she came to the set, and then she’s also come to the Total Blackout set also. Of all the jobs I’ve had, those are the ones that she’s come to, and my daughter says “Daddy dances, and he wears a microphone on his shirt at work.” And that’s all she knows, and I think that is the coolest thing in the world, because it puts any past opinions into perspective. It really is about what she thinks.
LYT: But did you save any of your old merchandise?
JW: I did. It’s in a trunk. I don’t get any particular thrill with my daughter playing with me – I prefer she just stick to her Barbies and Legos.
LYT: So what’s next for you? Is Total Blackout the main thing, are there other acting gigs coming up?
JW: I’ve always got acting gigs coming up, but I let those drop when they drop. The problem with acting gigs, these days especially, is when you do them you don’t know when they’re going to come out, so it’s better to almost not speak about them until they happen, it’s like, okay, I can speak. I just did an episode of something that’s really, really funny, but [my manager]went and popped my bubble and told me it’s not going to come out until June! It’s like, “Aww, crap! I can’t talk about that right now!” I’m always going to act, I’m going to stay acting, but acting is like my surprise now, I promote this kind of stuff, and when things pop up, they pop up. I’m like, “Oh yeah! I guess I did do that!”
Total Blackout’s new season begins tonight at 10:30 p.m. on Syfy.