How Steve Harvey became the new 'hardest working man in show business'

The taping for “Steve Harvey’s Funderdome,” an upcoming “Shark Tank”-style ABC competition series in which two entrepreneurs vie for the approval of a live audience, was just ending. But as the crowd started to leave the Television City studio in Hollywood, Harvey, the host who has unofficially inherited the late James Brown’s title of “the hardest working man in show business,” made it clear he was not done with them yet.

The entertainer, who has become a one-man force of nature in the last 15 years with a seemingly endless cavalcade of successes in the pop culture arena ranging from radio and TV shows to books to film, wanted to follow the fun with his message of faith.

“If you think you can make it without God, your ass is trippin’,” the sharply dressed entertainer with the thick mustache and shaved head declared. “I imagined, when I was 10 years old, that I would be on TV one day, and I believed in God and got successful. You’ve got to believe. Don’t ever give up!”

A few minutes later, Harvey had retired to a secluded tent, all but collapsing into a chair. As assistants swirled around him, Harvey loosened his tie and pulled out a cigar, staring straight ahead. It was a rare peaceful moment.

“In all my shows, I try to leave the audience with a little bit of faith,” he said in explaining the impromptu sermon. “Some people don’t want to hear what I have to say, and I’m OK with that. But I can see it resonating with a lot of folks. I can speak with a lot of truth because I never gave up when I was struggling and it looked real daunting for me.”

These days, Harvey’s life is the polar opposite — some may joke that he is working too hard. The 59-year-old, who hails from Welch, W.Va.,  and is a personal friend of President Obama, has  gone from a little-seen sitcom on the defunct WB network to the head of a multi-billion-dollar empire with projects inside and outside the entertainment arena.

Key to his evolution was his early years honing his skills as a stand-up comedian. His mastery of cultural observations and down-home humor was spotlighted when he performed with the Original Kings of Comedy in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Harvey, along with Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hughley and the late Bernie Mac, captivated urban audiences during a tour that was later chronicled by Spike Lee in a 2000 documentary.

Since that tour, Harvey has used those same chops in his hosting endeavors. He may have toned down the edge, but the charisma and eagerness to please huge audiences remains.

In addition to hosting “Family Feud” — now in its 40th season — since 2010, and more recently, the surprise NBC hit “Little Big Shots,” Harvey helms a daily syndicated talk show and a nationally syndicated radio show. His bestselling 2011 book “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man”  has spawned two hit films starring   Kevin Hart (“Think Like a Man” and “Think Like a Man Too”).

On the horizon is Fox’s revival of the classic showcase series “Showtime at the Apollo,” along with “Funderdome,” which does not have an air date yet. (Harvey is partnering with reality mogul Mark Burnett on the project.)

His overwhelming workload is about to grow. Executives have announced that the daily “Steve Harvey” talk show will be revamped next year. Harvey said the reboot will “revolutionize” daytime television: “I’m bringing late night to daytime. No one has ever done that before.”

His popularity is so powerful that even his infamous gaffe of naming the wrong runner-up — and thus the wrong winner — in the 2015 Miss Universe beauty pageant, which sparked international headlines and made him the target of death threats, has been all but forgotten (He was forgiven by Miss Colombia Ariadna Gutierrez, who briefly believed she was the winner.) 

“I am surprised by all the success, to be honest,” he said quietly. “I look at it and I’m humbled by it. It validates what I’ve been saying to Hollywood for the longest time  — if you take me out of the black box and just let me be me, that’s where all the good things happen.”

Everything he touches seems to turn to gold. When he took over “Family Feud,” he injected the aging format of two families competing to name the most popular responses to survey questions with a fresh comic vibe, often responding with incredulous silence at some of the families’ answers.

“What we were looking for was someone who was unafraid to say what the audience was thinking,” said Jennifer Mullin, co-chief executive of  FremantleMedia North America, which produces the show. “And yet Steve is not making fun of people. It’s really phenomenal what he’s done.”

(A prime-time version of “Family Feud” featuring celebrities, and hosted by Harvey, was one of last summer’s hits on ABC.)

He’s also succeeded in daytime talk, treacherous territory for several celebrities (Queen Latifah, Tony Danza, Megan Mullallly) who have flopped in the genre.

Asked about the secret of his ability to cater to a wide audience, he puffed on his cigar and grew quiet.

“I’ve got a wife, children and grandchildren. I’ve been well-off and broke. I’ve been married and divorced. I can cover the gamut. I’ve had 11 jobs, so I can talk to people about all walks of life. I’m not trying to talk above anyone’s head. I don’t use no four syllable words — I ain’t got none. I’m talking to them real,” he says.

“It’s my integrity — I am who I say I am. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was walk away from stand-up. But I’ve been able to use that stand-up muscle in all my genres.”

With his avalanche of TV projects and a multitude of business ventures — including co-owning the only latex glove manufacturing plant in the country — he’s most excited about the upcoming revamp of the talk show. 

“People will be saying, ‘Why didn’t I think of that before?’ ” says Harvey. “When you tune into the new ‘Steve Harvey Show,’ you will be howling. It’s going to be trendy, very pop culture-y. It’s Steve’s unique take on the world, combined with his unlimited comic skills.”

The show will have a celebrity talk format, but flipped on its side. “They’re not going to be talking in the way you’re used to seeing them talk. It won’t be just about their new projects. We will really talk. ‘What are you doing? What moves you? What do you want to see different?’ That’s what celebrities really want to talk about. Nobody is doing that in daytime.”

There are friends and associates of Harvey’s who worry that he’s taking on too much, that trying to do even one of the two television shows would be a demanding task. They say he should be slowing down, not speeding up.

“They say, ‘Man, you don’t have to do this,’ ” he said.

And it does take its toll. “I’m mentally fried,” said Harvey. “What I do — it re-engergizes me but also exhausts me.”

But Harvey said his relentless drive is connected to a memory of the past he can’t shake.

“There are a few things,” he said. “The first thing is, I’ve been homeless before. I’m running from  that — full-gait running from that ever happening to me again. That memory is vivid. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t recognize that. That’s why I wake up with such a sense of gratitude — not only for what God has done for me, but what he brought me from.”

Also key is his family.

“When my life is over, I want my children’s grandchildren to know who their great-grandfather was. I really want to leave something for them.”

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

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