Steve Harvey: 'Hollywood Is More Racist Than America'

Steve Harvey on the set of his talk show
Steve Harvey on the set of his talk show
 Tim Klein

The black talk show host, who has outlasted Jeff Probst and Ricki Lake, is gaining fast on Katie Couric and has managed to achieve the multicultural golden mean in audience. Could he be the next Oprah?

"He's reacting to the contestants' answers and turning it into a stand-up routine," says Mort Marcus, co-president with Ira Bernstein of Debmar-Mercury, which distributes Family Feud.

In one episode, Harvey posed a question to a female contestant: "We asked 100 men, name a part of your body that's bigger now than it was when you were 16." She blurted, "Penis." The studio audience erupted into laughter as Harvey stopped cold and sank to one knee in a wobbly pose of supplication as if to say, "Lord, help me!"

“Every night I get asthma in the studio because it is so funny and I am laughing so hard,” says Feud executive producer Gaby Johnston. “And we’re very careful to save every single moment of that comedy. Because we’re never going to work with somebody this talented again, at least I won’t.”

That Harvey could dramatically turn the fortunes of Feud and succeed in daytime where failure is the default -- and the fact that the average African-American spends close to 47 hours a week watching live TV, more than the U.S. average (34 hours), Hispanics (28 hours) and Asians (21 hours), according to Nielsen -- has spurred industry players to say they are on the hunt for "someone like Steve Harvey" to front their latest programming pitch. Or, in other, less coded words, "We need a black host."

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"To say Steve Harvey is succeeding because he's black is just racist," says Bernstein. "He's an extraordinary talent. Feud is not successful because Steve Harvey is black."

None of this is a surprise to Harvey.

"Hollywood is still very racist," he says. "Hollywood is more racist than America is. They put things on TV that they think the masses will like. Well, the masses have changed. The election of President Obama should prove that. And television should look entirely different. [Scandal star] Kerry Washington should not be the first African-American female to head up a drama series in 40 years. In 40 years! That's crazy."

It's been nearly 20 years since Harvey fronted his first network series. In 1994, after seven years on the stand-up circuit, he landed his own sitcom, Me and the Boys, on ABC. It lasted one season. By 1996, he was on the then-fledgling WB Network with The Steve Harvey Show, a sitcom that co-starred Cedric the Entertainer and ran for six years.

For Harvey, it was an education in the thinly veiled ghettoization of network television. At the time, he says, a high-ranking WB executive explained to him that new networks invest in shows starring African-Americans because they bring a guaranteed audience. "But as they build the network and get more eyeballs, they slowly start phasing them out," explains Harvey, and the networks try to woo higher-income brackets with a less diverse slate of programming that is perceived as more palatable to the mainstream.

The racial divide in America was a hallmark of the Kings of Comedy tour, the successful stand-up comedy road show featuring Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hughley and Bernie Mac. But in the late 1990s, when they attempted to drum up interest in a film version, they had no takers.

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"We could not sell this idea to Hollywood," recalls Cedric. "For the top executives who are making those decisions, your ideas come in through a filter where it's mainly about economics, not about a feeling, not about, 'Oh, this means something to me, this reminds me of my childhood.' " Then they approached Spike Lee to direct. "He brought a certain cachet that the industry understood." The resulting film, 2000's The Original Kings of Comedy, is the second-highest-grossing stand-up concert film ever. It made household names of some of Harvey's co-stars (Mac, who died in 2008, scored a sitcom deal with Fox shortly after). But Harvey already had spent seven years as host of NBC's Showtime at the Apollo, and he still was headlining his WB comedy when he made the at-the-time controversial decision to scale back his stand-up to do a radio show, The Steve Harvey Morning Show.

"Everybody criticized us because he was so hot with Kings of Comedy, and it looked like he was just putting his career on the back burner," says McDonald. "But we knew that by going into radio, we could control our voice."

It was a carefully plotted career move that helped launch Harvey into his current incarnation as advice guru; a significant component of his four-hour show was devoted to dispensing tips to the lovelorn.

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