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.