The last time Steve Harvey called Los Angeles home, he was in what he calls the “pick me” phase of his career. “Back then, I was trying to make it,” he says, fiddling with a cigar on the table. “I was trying to get picked. ‘Hope I get on this.’ ‘Hope I get on that.’ This trip back is very different.” Indeed, the 60-year-old Harvey, who has lived in Chicago for the last five years, is here in Hollywood to add a new daytime talk show to a vast empire that includes five game shows, four books, a clothing line, a foundation and a popular syndicated radio show. In the last year alone, the married father of seven hauled in $42.5 million, according to Forbes.
Harvey’s new midday entry, Steve, rolled out via IMG and NBC distribution Sept. 5 and promises to bring “late night to daytime” — which is to say it’s comedy-based and will lean on celebrity guests. (Atop his wish list: Beyonce and Jay Z.) Even with its highly bankable star, however, Steve isn’t without hurdles. Not only is the daytime landscape increasingly fractured — his last daytime program, which recently wrapped after five seasons, was a top-five show with just 1.8 million viewers — but Harvey, who is the majority stakeholder, also is still dealing with fallout from the leak of a scorching memo he sent to his former staff. It showed a side of the man that was distinctly at odds with his affable public persona. Sample line: “IF YOU OPEN MY DOOR, EXPECT TO BE REMOVED.”
On an afternoon in late August, he opened up about the blowback from that memo as well as the barriers black talent faces in Hollywood, the advice Oprah offered and what came of his infamous meeting with Donald Trump.
With at least six shows already, why keep adding more?
I was homeless once, and I guess I’m running from that. I just don’t want any one person to be able to say, “You’re fired,” and then it’s all ruined for me. So now if one of them says, “You’re fired,” I’m still OK. If two of them say I’m fired, I’m OK. If three of them say I’m fired, I’m OK.
When does that end?
I’d love to build one of the greatest media empires of all time. Oprah’s done it. Dick Clark, Ryan Seacrest; Tyler Perry just sold his deal for several hundred million dollars. So, I’ve got a lot of targets to shoot for, and I’m getting closer because a lot of my shows I have ownership in. That’s what Oprah taught me. She said, “Steve, no matter what, get 51 percent ownership.” So, when I was approaching the end of my deal with NBC [for The Steve Harvey Show], IMG came along and said, “Hey, we want to play in the sandbox with you, but we’ll let you own the bulk of it,” I called Oprah.
And said what?
“Oprah, does this make sense to you?” She called Ari [Emanuel] at WME-IMG and said, “Is this real?” And they laughed. Of course, they laugh differently. I call it the billionaire’s chuckle. And then Oprah called me back and said, “Steve, the key to your success is ownership.” She’s taught me a lot about business.
She talks to me about organization and what to look out for and what not to mind. She said she and Dr. Phil were calling each other every day talking about, “Hey, I’m on the cover of the Enquirer today.” “I got you.” She said, “Never mind that. You do not have time to address it, so just keep moving.” That’s much easier said than done because I have relatives who are in the grocery store. My aunt calls and goes, “Lord, we’re going to pray for you. You’re trafficking drugs. Are you going to have to do time?” And I’m sitting there going, “No, Aunt, I’m not going to have to do time. It’s not true.” “Well, they’re saying it.” “You’re in the grocery store. If it’s on CNN, your little nephew’s got some problems. If it’s in the grocery store next to the candy, I’m going to be OK.”
When you launched your last daytime show, you were adamant that you didn’t want to do a celebrity show. What changed?
I was in Chicago! No need to crave celebrities when I know they’re not going to be there. So I made the focus everyday people. But daytime TV has changed. The [focus] used to be “takeaway” — the woman who’s at home wants to learn things. Well, digital has become so big, no woman has to sit there and wait on you to talk about coupon clipping or making linguine or how to change your dresser into a fancy front, because they have YouTube for that. So, the value of takeaway in daytime is gone, and I was saying it and nobody was listening. And after you try to fix the world’s worst dater 10 times, you’ve done it. And I’m not Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz. I’m not Oprah. I have a unique sense of humor, and sometimes that sense of humor wasn’t allowed to play out because of the subject matter. I’m sitting there in my head writing 100 jokes, but I can’t say any of them.
Any examples come to mind?
A woman comes on the show with a 15-year-old girl who’s abusive to her and her mother. She’s hitting them, spitting on them, and I’ve got a daytime show, so I’ve got to have counselors and offer therapy. But on the commercial break, the mother’s crying and she says, “Steve, I don’t know how to get her to stop.” And I just said, “Have you ever thought about kicking her ass?” She said to me, “I don’t believe in hitting.” I said, “Yeah, but she do.” Everyone’s screaming, laughing but it’s the commercial break. Then we come back and I’m sitting there thinking, “Man, I’m not helping this woman at all because I don’t have the skillset to help her. I come from a commonsense background, I don’t have an education, I can’t attach a survey or study to this like Phil can…
So this time you’ll focus on celebrity and comedy, much as Ellen DeGeneres has done?
Yeah, but I have a different brand of comedy. Ellen’s very entertaining, very likable. I like to say stuff a little bit over there by the edge. Ellen don’t go by the edge. I like the edge. I want to say something that “Well, have you thought about kicking her ass?” Ellen won’t do that.
Has that edge moved in today’s climate?
Oh, yeah. Jerry Seinfeld was right when he said political correctness is killing comedy. You can’t do anything anymore. Dr. Phil said to me, “Steve, it’s just a shame that everybody’s looking for a reason to get their feelings hurt.” So, it’s going to be a balancing act. I’ve got to find the way to do it. I may have to put everything in the form of a question, as opposed to statements. “Do you think Donald Trump is crazy?” (Laughs.)
How political do you intend to be on your show?
My last show was evergreen. I would tape a show and it would air two and a half weeks later. Now, when I tape the show, it airs tomorrow. So the advantage for me is I get to be current. I would talk about [the recent violence in] Charlottesville. I mean, how can you not? But I’d do it in the Steve Harvey way.
What would that have looked like?
It’s, “Look, I’m OK with you loving the Confederate flag. I’m OK with you loving them statues. Maybe people had great grandfathers who fought in the Civil War and they want to continue to honor them. Well, that’s great. But see, I pay taxes, and I don’t want to pay taxes to raise the flag every morning and then cut the grass around it and wipe the pigeon poop off the statue. So take all them statues and that flag and put it in your own museum. Then all the hillbillies can go there and cry in front of the flag at the feet of General Lee and howl and just have a great time. But it can’t be at the park. You can’t have the Confederate flag waving when I’m outside trying to have a picnic.” And you handle it that way because I’m OK with people preserving history, for whatever their reason. It may not be the right reason for me, but if it’s right for them, cool. But put it in a museum. Black people got museums. Jewish people got a museum. Get your ass a museum.
What’s still on the bucket list? Late night?
Man, I’ve always wanted to do late night. Jay Leno said years ago, why you are not doing late night is a mystery to me. [Jimmy] Fallon has said that to me. Comedians know. Somebody’s got to greenlight it. And let me tell you how good it would be. I could really take the gloves off. Oh man, it would be funny. Chris Rock did a joke about this, though. What’s a black man got to do to get a late-night show around here? It’s like trying to play golf at the Wilshire Country Club.
You once said that Hollywood is more racist than America. Still true?
(Nods his head.) ‘Cause they don’t get it. And it’s not that they’re racist. It’s that they, the people who greenlight shows, sit in an office in Beverly Hills, Burbank, Studio City, and they make decisions about America and none of them live there. And they’ve got to put everything in a category. “Blacks would like this. This is a black show.” I think Black-ish is the first black show that hasn’t had to put a white character on it. It’s amazing how they think out here. And America’s not that way at all.
So how do you change it?
Black-ish has got to be successful at it. The Carmichaels have got to go and be successful at it. There was The Cosby Show, but the problem there was that they could never find another Bill, a guy that was that likable on TV. Now they’re knocking statues down, peeling names off of walls. They’re doing everything but giving money back. They’re not giving no money back. (Laughs.)
Do you still talk to Cosby?
I haven’t talked to him in a few months, but when I’m your friend, I’m your friend. And Bill Cosby helped my sons at Morehouse [College], and he tought me how to do this business. He didn’t even know me and he taught me how to do this business. When I heard all the trouble he was in, I called and asked him how he was doing. You know what he says to me? “Hey man, I appreciate you calling, but just stay away from me right now. You don’t need none of this on you. You’re doing good. Whatever happens to me, happens to me, but don’t you get none of this on you.” That’s an amazing thing for a guy to say.
Earlier this year, you met with then President-elect Donald Trump. (Contorts his face.) Why are you making that face?
I didn’t see that coming. Jesus.
See what coming?
The backlash. It was so vicious that it really threw me. I was being called names that I’ve never been called: Uncle Tom. A coon. A sellout. Because I went to see this man?! Which only happened because my business partner got a call from the Obama transition team, who said that the Trump transition team would like to set up a meeting. The Obama team said they thought it would be a good idea because the president is encouraging dialogue. And I have a relationship with Obama. We’re friends. So I say, “OK, cool.” Now, here’s the crazy thing: I’m supposed to be on a boat for my 60th birthday, so my wife says, “Steve, just take off [and skip the meeting]. You’ll meet with him some other time.” God, I should’ve listened.
What did you and Trump discuss?
We talked about golf for 20 minutes. And then I told him, “Mr. President, I’m going to be honest with you, I didn’t vote for you. I campaigned very hard for Hillary Clinton.” And I said, “The problem was that we made a lot of mistakes in the campaign. We were playing checkers and y’all was playing chess. But now that you’re here, you’re the 45th president and I’m going to help you.” He wants to know how, so I say, “You’ve appointed Ben Carson as the head of Housing and Urban Development, and I’ve got keys to a lot of cities around this country from the years of performing that I’ve done. I can get an ear to them really quick and find out what their real needs are. Y’all keep closing schools in the cities. Why don’t we take those schools that are closing, put some HUD money in them, and reopen them as vision centers and teach STEM and computers and coding? If you connect me with Ben Carson, I can help him with that.” A few minutes later, he had Ben Carson on the phone.
Anything come of it?
I’ve been to HUD twice. I’ve met with Dr. Carson and we’re actually trying to get it started. We’ve had meetings, and now we’re just waiting on the final notes. We have several teams in place. Hopefully before the year goes out, we’ll be making the announcement about the first vision center.
Have you kept in touch with Trump?
No, I haven’t talked to him since.
It seemed as though the backlash to the leaked memo you wrote threw you, too. Fair?
Yeah. (Laughs.) I’ve got six shows! My time is consumed. For four years, I tried to be congenial. I’ll talk to people. “Hey, how you doing?” But I started watching them take advantage of me, so now I come onstage, here they are. I go to my dressing room, here they are. I go down the hallway, there they are. I’m sitting in my makeup chair getting makeup done. “You didn’t hear me knock. Can I talk to you?” Boom, they’re in my dressing room. I put doorbells up. They quit ringing the doorbells. I put signs on my door, “Knock before you enter.” “You didn’t hear the knock, so I came on in.” So I said, “Wait a minute, man. Let me send a memo out at the beginning of the year so in year five I can just walk from backstage to my dressing room.” ‘Cause other celebrities, trust and believe, you can’t bother them. You better not even be in the hallway when they’re walking. So, I sent the memo at the beginning of the year. Then the year is over, we’re about to do the wrap party, and one very angry guy — and he’s angry because my new producer came up there and interviewed some people and he wasn’t one that was picked — sends it to [media writer] Robert Feder in Chicago. I was OK with it until I saw it on CNN.
That’s not the grocery store …
No, that ain’t the grocery store. (Laughs.) Now we’re in trouble. This is way bigger. And I got a call from Gayle King, “Would you come on CBS and explain the memo?” And I said, “I’m going to text you my statement,” and I did. Then she said, “Don’t you want to apologize to somebody? Because it just seems so mean.” That’s when I stopped texting because I’m not going to apologize because I wasn’t being mean. I did learn that I don’t know how to write.
What does that mean?
I write like I talk. So hell, obviously that ain’t good. And I didn’t know if you put it in capital letters that meant you were hollering at people. My kids told me that after they got the memo. “Dad, why were you yelling at them?” I said, “What are you talking about?” My kids are going, “What they’re mad about, Dad, is you yelled at them.” I said, “I was putting emphasis on it. I wasn’t yelling in no damn type.” My kids were just laughing. And so the memo, it just got out of hand.
Do you worry it’s damaged your reputation?
Absolutely you get concerned. That’s only human. I’ll do jokes about it on the show. Look, if you never turn around and face the problem, it swells and becomes this big, uncontrollable monster. So as soon as something happens to me, I immediately go, “Let’s dance with it a little bit and see what it really is.” Like the Miss Universe thing [where Harvey announced the wrong winner].
When Warren Beatty had his mix-up at the Oscars, you leaned in and tweeted, “Call me.”
He was shell-shocked. He’s old Hollywood. He don’t do negativity. Social media is not in his world. He couldn’t believe the backlash. So I go, “Come here, boy. I can get you through this thing. Matter of fact, if you handle it right, you can get a Super Bowl commercial out the deal like I did. And they’ll pay you enough money where you’ll go and say the wrong damn movie next year, too.” (Laughs.)
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.