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Steve Harvey: 'Hollywood Is More Racist Than America'

This story first appeared in the March 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Steve Harvey commands a room with the natural grace of a Southern Baptist preacher -- though he's a product of a Midwestern Rust Belt upbringing. It is mid-September, early in the run of his daytime talk show, and the comedian, best-selling author and dispenser of advice to the relationship-impaired is holding forth before an audience in his second-floor studio in Chicago's NBC Tower.

"My mother was a Sunday school teacher," he tells the rapt audience of about 160 people, there to bask in the firm-but-loving aura of Steve Harvey. "So I am a byproduct of prayer. My mom just kept on praying for her son. My mom passed, so she didn't get to see this. This show is about empowering people. But it's also entertainment. Because look, you've got enough problems. CNN, Headline News, Fox News -- they give you the bad news. I don't have none of that fer ya. We gonna laugh at some stuff, we gonna tackle some issues. But listen, everything ain't life or death."

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The TV studio is on the same floor where he now tapes his nationally syndicated Clear Channel radio show that pulls in more than 6 million listeners. For Harvey, the sight before him -- an audience, cheering for him, on his own show -- is one that the 56-year-old methodically has worked toward for nearly 30 years since giving up a dead-end job at the Ford plant in Cleveland and setting off on a quixotic quest to become a professional funnyman.

"So far, so good. Ratings are really good," continues Harvey as the audience begins to cheer. "The network is happy, so that means, you know, we keep working. Keeps the checks coming."

Harvey's success in daytime comes as the ax already has fallen on fellow freshman talkers hosted by Ricki Lake and Jeff Probst, while Anderson Cooper's Anderson Live has been canceled in its second season.

Harvey also has checks coming in from the radio show, a hosting gig on Family Feud and best-selling books. His 2009 advice tome, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, has sold more than 3 million copies and in 2012 became the hit movie Think Like a Man, which has grossed $96 million worldwide -- on a production budget of $12 million.

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An anthropological examination of Harvey's success in the Darwinian terrain of daytime syndication -- so far this year, his show has inched past Katie Couric's to become the top-rated freshman entry among the women 25-to-54 demographic -- must begin with his innate comedic instincts and unwavering sense of self.

"He has a gift because he's able to spin anything that's happening around him into a funny situation," says producer Stan Lathan, who first put Harvey on Def Comedy Jam in 1990. "He's got this magnetic kind of energy that people respond to. Audiences just totally love him."

That connection was apparent to executives at Endemol -- a company known for such reality shows as Big Brother and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition -- who spent two years wooing Harvey for its very first daytime talk show.

Recalls Harvey, "It was such a cluttered field, and all I was getting in the beginning was, 'What's going to set you apart? What makes you think you can make it?' " It's a few months later, and Harvey is backstage at NBC's Today after completing a President's Day guest-hosting stint with Savannah Guthrie and Carl Quintanilla. "So I said, I'm just going to be me, I'm going to be real. I'm going to be forthright. And I'm going to be funny."

This approach -- practical advice delivered with humor instead of a reliance on celebrity guests and newsmaker interviews -- fits Harvey's current station in life. "His advice is all from his life experience; having kids, having marriages that didn’t work, being poor," explains executive producer Alex Duda.  

But it also lets Harvey and his producers avoid the booking wars and the ratings peaks and valleys that plague other shows.

"He was very adamant about not wanting to do a celebrity-based show," says Endemol North America chairman and CEO David Goldberg. "And that's an indication about where he is in his life. He felt he had things to talk about that were important. He had a point of view on life."

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Goldberg first approached Harvey in 2010 after Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man became a surprise hit. At that time, Harvey was doing his radio show and contemplating a move into late night, a natural home for comedians, and was about to begin hosting Fremantle's Family Feud.

"I was leery about Family Feud," admits Rushion McDonald, Harvey's manager and longtime friend (the former stand-up comic met Harvey in 1985 when they were both playing the Hyatt Regency in Houston; Harvey was opening for McDonald). "We never wanted him to be a game show traffic cop. But they said they'd allow him to be him."

Harvey's effect on the musty game show -- which had cycled through several hosts after Richard Dawson left the show in 1995 -- has been transformative. Ratings have jumped 155 percent to nearly 7 million viewers and from a 1.8 household rating when Harvey took over to a 4.6 so far this season, with the show regularly among first-run syndication's top five.

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"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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"Steve is a father figure in a way," says Lathan, who produced Harvey's WB sitcom. "He's somebody that you believe. Some comedians, you don't really take them seriously. But there's something about Steve that reminds me of people in my family; people who were wise, elders. He's got a real homespun credibility."

Harvey followed Act Like a Lady with 2010's Straight Talk, No Chaser: How to Find, Keep, and Understand a Man, which became another New York Times best-seller. "I never mention color in my books," says Harvey. "My show is not an African-American show." In fact, more than half of Harvey's daytime audience is white. "I'm not beating people over the head; I'm black, we black! And that's how I look at it," he continues. "I'm not going to let them put me in a box and pigeonhole me."

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Harvey grew up poor in Cleveland. His father, Jesse, worked manual jobs (construction in Cleveland, coal mines in West Virginia) and occasionally ran numbers for Don King. Harvey's father was devoted to his mother, Eloise, a homemaker and Sunday school teacher who never learned to drive and instilled in Harvey his faith. "She did not walk for anything," he notes. "My father took my mother everywhere: grocery store, beauty salon, church."

Asked whether he thinks the media is hostile to religion, Harvey says: "I don't think that they care for that to be your explanation. When they ask me, ‘Steve, how do you explain your success?’ And I tell them that it’s prayer. It’s like, ‘Well, I mean really, who’s your agent, who’s your manager?’ I don't think it's cool for people to say, 'You shouldn't reference God because I don't believe that, and I don't want to hear it.' Well, there's a lot of stuff I don't believe that I still gotta hear. I don't believe in the Ku Klux Klan, but they exist. I don't care for the Confederate flag at all. But they're on state buildings down South."

And it was partly his faith that gave him the fortitude to buck convention and pursue his dream to become a comedian. His grades at Kent State University -- where he admits he only went to avoid having a summer job working construction become his permanent job -- were awful. "But when I flunked out of college, I ended up working at Ford Motor Co. Now, I'm right back to where I wanted to get away from."

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Harvey's epiphany came Oct. 8, 1985, when he won $50 at an open-mic night at Hilarities Comedy Club in Cleveland. He was 27. The next day, he had 500 business cards printed up that read: Steve Harvey, Comedian and included his phone number. Then he went to work at the Ford plant, where he was making $13.75 an hour on the assembly line; after his shift, he put his belongings into a box and quit. His boss told him he wasn't funny. Recalls Harvey: "He said, 'Take that stuff in your box and put it back, and we'll forget this ever happened.' I said: 'I'm leaving. I'm going to go be a comedian. I'm going to be a star one day.' "

That day did not come right away. He crisscrossed Middle America in his car, taking any gig he was offered. He would duck into five-star hotels because bathrooms there offered hot towels and had stall doors that reached the floor so he could clean up in private. "I did three years of that. Every now and then, a comedy club gave me a condo or a hotel room for a few nights. But right after that, I'm back in that car."

All the while, his first wife, Marcia, was at home with their twin toddler daughters, Karli and Brandi. In the late '80s, as he was headed out on yet another drive, she gave him an ultimatum. "It was an 'if you leave, don't come back' kind of conversation," says Harvey, quietly. "I mean, how do you support a guy who comes in the house and says, 'I'm going to tell jokes?' " They eventually divorced in 1994. Today, his twins are 30. "And they're very well off because of their dad," he says. His vast business empire -- which includes best-selling books, movies (including backend profit participation on Think Like a Man), Family Feud (including a ratings bonus structure), a long-term deal with Clear Channel radio and an ownership stake in his daytime talk show -- is worth in excess of $40 million.

Adds Harvey, laughing, "Yeah, them jokes paid."

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That first open-mic night is long in the distance. Feud, which films during the summer months in Atlanta, where Harvey lives when he's not in Chicago taping his talk show, has been renewed through the 2014-15 season. On Jan. 10, Steve Harvey distributor NBCUniversal Domestic TV announced a second-season pickup for the talk show. Five days later, Clear Channel Media, which distributes Harvey's radio show, signed him to a new five-year deal that includes the international expansion of his radio program, development of new programming, a spokesperson role and charitable events. (Harvey and his third wife, Marjorie, whom he married in 2007, administer a charitable foundation that includes camps for boys growing up without fathers. They have seven children between them -- she has three, and he has four, including the twins and Steve Jr. with Marcia and Wynton with his second wife, Mary -- ranging in age from 15 to 30.)

As he sits backstage at Today, Harvey muses that he's going to "start getting rid of some jobs." He famously retired from the stand-up circuit in August but says he'd like to do the daytime show for 10 years, five more years on the radio, a few more on Feud. If he stops doing Feud, he reasons, he can have the summers off to travel with Marjorie. "We're going to go see a lot of places that we've never been able to see. Egypt. Israel. I want to see the Holy Land."

But not yet. The pull to entertain audiences is too strong. Comedy, he says, "is a gift that you have to be born with," he says. "There is no school for this. I mean, for me, not to be funny … it would be like I'm not breathing."