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Steve Harvey on Returning to Stand-Up, Ambitious TV Plans and (Why Not?) Launching an Organic Food Empire

From a talk show to five unscripted series, The Hollywood Reporter's Unscripted TV Player of the Year is putting his unique creative stamp — and yes, that mustache — on an ever-wider (and more lucrative) range of programs and Products. Just how big can Harvey's brand get?

Look for the building with the big mustache on it,” instructs the security guard, gesturing over his right shoulder. “Can’t miss it.” There’s little subtlety to Steve Harvey’s new presence on the Universal Studios lot. The 61-year-old comedian, media giant and seemingly ubiquitous TV host fully relocated to Los Angeles from Chicago in 2017 to relaunch his popular daytime talk show (now with an ownership stake and backed by WME) inside the San Fernando Valley complex — and while his many unscripted gigs may take him all over the map, from West Hollywood (Little Big Shots) to Harlem (Showtime at the Apollo), this mustache-branded studio and office is the unofficial base of operations for a portfolio that can’t stop growing.

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“I don’t know that there’s anything that I want to do anymore,” says Harvey, between sips from a crystal tumbler of LaCroix. “I want to produce to give other people some shots. It’s sort of crazy to say, but I probably have a better idea about what viewers like than most of the people who make the decisions out here.”

It’s tough to imagine The Hollywood Reporter‘s Unscripted TV Player of the Year — who has five alternative series and a radio show on top of daytime talker Steve — finding time for anything else. The Cleveland native, whose hometown named a street after him in 2015, is the only person in Hollywood starring on shows on three of the big four broadcast networks — game show Big Shots and spinoff Forever Young on NBC, ABC’s Celebrity Family Feud, and Showtime at the Apollo at Fox — while syndicated mainstay Family Feud averages more than 10 million viewers daily.

His massive output (which perhaps explains the internal memo that leaked last year with some blunt demands from Harvey, sick of being “ambushed” by staffers) helped Harvey pull in a reported $42.5 million in 2017, and that number only stands to grow. On deck: a potential return to the stand-up scene, building what he says will be the biggest TV production outfit in Hollywood and (why not?) launching an organic food empire.

What’s the show where you feel most yourself?

Showtime at the Apollo. That was the first place I was on national TV, as a stand-up, and I eventually became the longest-running host. Nothing would make me walk away from the Apollo. It’s a special place. It requires the greatest skill set, [with] the Apollo audience, to maintain some civility in that room.

How has the room evolved since you first performed there?

A lot more whites live in Harlem now than used to. The audience on Thursday night is 50-50. But Saturday, Sunday, Friday night, it’s more 70-30 black. The whites in that audience are taught by the blacks that this is how this is. I had a lady on the front row, who was white, and I was saying, “Ma’am, you didn’t boo.” “I can’t! That’s so rude to boo!” I looked at her, and the dude in her row stood up and said, “That’s what the fuck we do!” The next act that got booed, she was standing up, booing, pointing them off the stage. She got caught up in the swell of it. This audience is not as vicious as it used to be, because it was crazy. But it’s still enough Harlemites there. They do not let the tradition go.

Does an outlet like the Apollo scratch the stand-up itch since you retired in 2012 — or do you think about getting back out there?

I’m gonna be honest with you, man. I’ve been really seriously thinking about it. I got a special in me that’s so funny. It’s just about my life, the stuff that I’ve been quiet about on social media. I’ve been quiet about the beating I took about my divorce, which was in 2005 and has been ongoing in social media because somebody just won’t let it go. I’ve been quiet about the visit to [Donald] Trump. I kept my mouth shut about the Miss Universe thing [Harvey mistakenly announced the wrong winner at the 2015 pageant]. I kept my mouth shut about the memo that got out in Chicago. I just kept it all. Well, I may have kept it long enough. But I’m only looking for business opportunities now. I don’t need a one-off. I probably want to do what Rodney Dangerfield did, introduce a lot of really, really tough comedians that I know around the country.

These Netflix deals for stand-up specials are huge. Would you be able to even make that over a year of touring?

It would be hard to make that in a year. I was selling out, but I wasn’t selling out $40 million. The Kings of Comedy made that kind of money, but it was four of us [Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac]. We was doin’ $58 to $62 mil a year. The Kings was huge. But you know how many times we had to go out to get that? [Jerry] Seinfeld, [Chris] Rock, [Dave] Chappelle all got big deals, and I’m very happy for them, but I don’t know, man, if I want to do a one-off. And I gotta spend that three hours before the show feeling like I’m fit to vomit. I don’t miss that part of it. Then, I’ve got to go out there and sweat like a mule from the neck down to my drawers — ’cause that’s where I sweat — and, for an hour and a half, dump myself into this audience. When I walk off the stage, I’m completely done. There’s nothing left in me except to go to my hotel room, take a shower and go to bed.

Did you ever get to a point where it didn’t make you so anxious?

Oh, no. No, no, no, no. That never goes away. Every night, man, it was that knot. Every night, it’s a moment where you go, “I can’t do this.” It’s a sickening feeling. I never could shake it. I think it’s a healthy nervous. It makes you respect the audience. Guys that sit around and just BS right till they go up? No. Come on, man, where’s your focus?

What’s the last thing that really made you laugh?

Dave Chappelle’s special on Netflix [The Bird Revelation]. I was screaming. I was sitting in my house, throwing stuff at the TV. (Laughs.) Dave, you can’t do that. You can’t apologize to people and make it worse. That’s not an apology. But he knows that. He is a brilliant guy. We were all standin’ in the White House — Chappelle, Rock and me — when Obama was doing his last party there. But we had to leave our cameras downstairs. And we were sitting there going, “I need this picture. When am I gonna see y’all again?” They took our fucking cameras.

When people are so easily offended now, does it make comedy harder?

That’s the one hesitancy I have with going back to stand-up. I’m in a sponsor-driven business, and they keep moving the line of political correctness. It keeps getting closer and closer to where you can’t open your mouth negatively. Throw away freedom of speech. That’s out the window now. The Ku Klux Klan and the skinheads can get a permit to walk down the street to bash Jews, gays, blacks, immigrants, anybody. But if I tell a joke, Procter & Gamble pulls. Once Procter & Gamble pulls, Mercedes gotta pull. Then Kool-Aid. That’s an ugly place to be in. But you can get a permit and put a hood on your head to walk down the street. Really? Regardless as to what our president said, there’s not good people on both sides.

Being outside the stand-up community, do you see the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements having a lasting effect on that world?

It’s something that needed some light to be shined on it because so many people, so many women were suffering without being able to say it. The sad part is there are people who are jumping on the bandwagon with fake stories. It messes us up for the women who really have issues. It’s funny, though. In the political climate, if you get an accusation, you get a congressional hearing. In this business, you out. Donald Trump is the president. Billy Bush outta work. I heard the tape. Why Billy is outta work is beyond me. But why Donald Trump is in the White House is beyond me, too. (Laughs.)

What’s been the biggest lesson in relaunching the talk show?

Moving the show out here, the intent was to bring on a bunch of celebrities and have a late-night feel. But the daytime audience is totally different. They just like what they like, cooking segments and makeovers. We got a second year pickup, so we’ve already started changing it more into what people have grown to expect from me. I’m a die-hard believer in reinvention. But sometimes you just have to leave the wheel alone, and let it roll down the hill. They have this thing in television called “research.” (Laughs.) It’s a dangerous thing, because research keeps you married to stuff. If a segment rates well, they go, “Well, why would you change that?” My thought is to try for something that could rate better, but they don’t like that. You have to listen to that, because I don’t own any TV stations. You’ve got to play the game.

Even with the six shows, do you ever feel like you’re being underestimated by the industry?

Success makes it a little simpler for you. There’s probably not a meeting I can’t get out here rather quickly. But I am keenly aware that if this success wanes, them calls don’t get answers so quick. I’m very much aware of that.

What talent would you like to be in business with right now?

I like Jay Pharoah, Chico Bean and this young comedian DC Young Fly. He’s not new, but I love Marlon Wayans. And Trevor Noah. That brother right there can be someone special.

Are there any game shows left to be rebooted?

They’ve pretty much exhausted these old properties. After they saw what Family Feud did, everybody went out and got ahold of their old stuff. They gotta find something new, something where everybody can play along at home. That’s what makes Family Feud so good. What’s your favorite color? “Dark blue!” Bing!

Who are you modeling your career after at this point?

Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey. The only thing I would do different from Oprah is that if I get a billion dollars, I’m not buying shit. I’m not running a network. I’m going away. (Laughs.)

What’s the best advice you’ve gotten from Tyler?

Tyler told me, “It’s not what you’re worth. It’s what you can negotiate.” And, at the end of the day, that we have to love what we do.

Do you love what you do?

Yeah! I’m either telling jokes or playing music. And I get a check for that. When I got this new talk show, they said, “Steve, I don’t think you understand how much hard work it is to produce a daily talk show.” Excuse me? I worked at Ford Motor Co., putting eight spark plugs in 1,400 engines a day. That’s hard work. Now I talk, and I wear suits. People put makeup on me, polish my shoes, trim my mustache, shave me. Someone fucking puts my belt in my belt loops! (Laughs.) A dude ties my shoes. That shit’s crazy. This isn’t real life.

What have you learned from taking on more producer roles?

I understand the dilemma that the networks are up against. It’s hard to find a hit. I can sit with people, and they can tell me what they don’t like about my show. But when I turn around and I say, “OK, what do I do to make this show rate like Dr. Phil?” Hush. No one knows. That used to frustrate me until I started to produce shows. Now I understand that dilemma.

What’s the five-year plan?

I’m gonna have the biggest television production company in Hollywood. I’m gonna be producing more hits than any production company in the industry. And I’m going to own a huge organic food business. I’m going to help people reshape the way they eat. A doctor told me, “Steve, what you eat in your 40s we will diagnose in your 50s. What we diagnose in your 50s, we will treat you for in your 60s. Whatever we’re treating you for in your 60s, we will bury you for in your 70s.” It changed the way I ate.

Do you want to open a market?

No, I’m gonna put the foods online and in all the brick-and-mortar stores — Kroger, Albertson’s, Wal-Mart. I’m going to probably sell my bacon business [Harvey Foods’ Easy Bacon, launched in 2015], because I’m gonna really go wholeheartedly at it. I’m going to to rival the success of Paul Newman.

Paul Newman’s salad dressings aren’t particularly healthy.

They just taste good! (Laughs.) I was meeting with a food company. They said, “You could be as successful as Paul Newman, except we’re having a little trouble right now. People are starting to read the labels. It’s fucking us.” (Laughs.) This is the people in the grocery business. They mad ’cause y’all started reading. I’m fuckin’ trying to live, asshole!

This story first appeared in the April 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.