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Comedian With A 'Tude

After paying his dues in blue-collar jobs, brash-talking Steve Harvey has become one of America's top funnymen.
Joel Drucker
From the Print Edition:
Michael Jordan, July/August 2005

(continued from page 1)

It was one in the morning on July 19, 1997, and Steve Harvey was feeling good. Earlier that evening, his son Wynton had entered the world. From Harvey's vantage point, Wynton's birth nicely capped off ten years of hard work. A decade earlier, shortly after he'd left his first wife and children, Harvey lived out of his 1976 Ford Tempo for a year, traveling across the United States in his quest to become a professional comedian.

Success finally came his way a few years later. First, a second chance at marriage, in 1989, to Mary Lee, a woman whom he'd met in a department store. Then, in 1994, Harvey was tapped as host of the legendary TV show "It's Showtime at the Apollo," and two years later, the WB network cast him in his own sitcom, "The Steve Harvey Show." Things were looking up.

So by 1997, his career thriving, his family life entering a new phase, Harvey walked the streets of his adopted hometown of Dallas and paused to take it all in. "It was time to celebrate," the 49-year-old comedian says of that night. "And what better way to celebrate the birth of my boy than with a cigar?"

He headed to Sir Elliot's Tobacco and bought a batch of La Divas. A couple of weeks later, checking out the humidor his manager had received as a birthday present, Harvey felt envious. "There were only four of these humidors in the world," he says. "Two feet tall, high-polished wood. So I got one and filled it up with the cigars that had the prettiest bands. What did I know? Man, you can't believe how much bad stuff I smoked. Mine is definitely not a good way to pick a cigar."

Soon he took a new approach. Over a six-month period, Harvey talked with store owners, studied rating guides and refined his tastes. "One of my favorites early on was the Ashton Maduro," he says. In time, he learned he liked the smooth taste of a Santiago Cabana and the Padrón Anniversary, a cigar Harvey admits he'll savor "anytime, day or night, with any food, no matter what the occasion."

Don't expect to see Harvey enjoy his Padrón mid-routine, however. Nor will he walk the path of many and smoke one while walking the links. "First of all," he says, "I suck at golf. I really do. The cigar for me isn't about work. It's about pleasure. I like cigar smoking when I can chill." For Harvey, that often means sitting down with his buddies such as fellow comic Cedric The Entertainer, Academy Award—winning actor Jamie Foxx or basketball star Gary Payton, breaking out a set of "Steve Harvey Table Classic Dominoes" and trash-talking one another to the point where nothing is sacred—with one exception. "I never tell a joke with a punch line that ends in profanity," says Harvey. "You've got to be able to adapt a joke to work on TV. If you can't be funny clean, you won't make it."

Harvey will gladly dish it out to anyone arrogant or ignorant enough to warrant one of his patented reactions or puzzled facial expressions. This is a man who says, "I get paid to meet some of the most ignorant people in the land." On his current WB TV program, "Steve Harvey's Big Time," he witnessed a prospective guest blow off a testicle. Another week during the show's audition period, Harvey watched a man devour pig feces. "I mean," he asks, "all for the chance to win $10,000? I turned to that guy eating that stuff and asked, 'My man, what are you doing?'" Then there was the guest who intended to shatter a watermelon with his forehead. Harvey pointed out to him that perhaps it wasn't such a good idea to deploy a watermelon in front of an African-American host.

As Cedric says, "Steve's got a point of view that is not necessarily the status quo. He'll put it right up-front. It can be controversial when he says it, but it makes sense, too."

Yet for all his amusement of others, the person Harvey most enjoys mocking is himself. Sitting outdoors at his favorite Los Angeles hotel, he sees a little girl walking alone, obviously unsupervised. As Harvey tries to get the attention of the hotel staff, he segues into a discussion of twenty-first-century family life. "I'm fed up with guys killing their wife and kids," he says. "What about divorce? What happened to that? Just do like a lot of us: go split and don't pay child support."

Harvey's not the first comedian to admit he draws on his personal pain. He also believes people with a keen sense of humor are born, not made. "Those of us who are funny have three eyeballs," says Harvey. "With that third one you see what you're thinking and it tells your mind to say it. It's what everyone is thinking—about your job, about your family, your life—but we've got the nerve to actually say it."

Overtly vocalizing that gumption, though, was a long way in the making. "I was never the class clown," says Harvey. But he absolutely was a smart-ass, the kid who'd discreetly mutter jokes in class just loud enough so that those nearby would laugh and get sent to the principal's office.

Steve Harvey was born on January 17, 1956, in Welch, West Virginia. Growing up in East Cleveland, Ohio, the youngest of five children of a coal miner and a homemaker, his childhood revolved around sports. He loved playing football, baseball and basketball, but admits, "I could run a lot faster than I could dribble. No way I was going to play big-time basketball." Unable to afford tickets to pro games, he once sold peanuts at Municipal Stadium, but says, "It all ended when I tried to keep the peanuts. That was that."

Harvey had always dreamed of a career in entertainment. Each morning before school, he'd stand on a milk crate in front of his bathroom mirror and practice facial expressions, sounds and jokes. At night, he'd watch his favorite comedians, including Red Skelton, Red Buttons, Jonathan Winters and Carol Burnett. When Harvey was in sixth grade, he wrote a paper declaring his desire to make people laugh and become a famous TV star. His teacher, angered by the boy's unrealistic hopes—"In our area, you were supposed to be a cop or fireman," Harvey says—took his paper to the front of the class and shredded it.

Harvey remained determined. After high school, he enrolled at Kent State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, and traveled on what he calls "The Dorm Room Circuit." Far more engrossed in his comedy than his studies, Harvey cruised the campus, looking for gatherings of as few as six people who'd let him riff on life in the dorms, exams, professors and all the quotidian details of college life. "And believe me," he says, "it's not so easy to play to a small crowd. Anybody can kill in a big room, but when only half the people are laughing in a small room, you die."

Friends constantly told Harvey he should leave school and make his way to Hollywood. They might as well have told him he should pilot a spaceship. "I had no idea how you got into entertainment," he says.

Nevertheless, Harvey dropped out of Kent State before graduation and took on a series of blue-collar jobs throughout Ohio at Ford, General Electric and Lincoln Electric, where he continued to hone his comedic material. Those were depressing years. "I'd come home, sit on my bed and start crying," says Harvey. "That's a cold place: to know what you want but not have a clue how to do it."

But these were also the years when comedy clubs were springing up all over America. A friend of Harvey's named A. J. Jamal performed at a Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, nightclub called Hilarities. One day, Jamal offered to pay Harvey $10 for a single joke. Harvey was shocked when he was told that Hilarities hosted an amateur night and that he was welcome to perform onstage. His heart pounding louder than it ever had in his life, Harvey furiously told one joke after another, completely ignorant of the manager's signals that he'd gone past his allotted seven minutes.

The next day, Harvey marched into his boss's office—he was selling life insurance at the time—to resign. His boss told him he'd regret it, advising Harvey that he wasn't particularly funny and that he had a family to support. But Harvey took the chance. In the first month, Harvey earned a whopping $125. But as the old saying goes, when you begin a career, it's not what you earn, it's what you learn.

Harvey hit the road in pursuit of a degree in the craft of comedy and traveled for 16 straight weeks with The Comedy Zone Tour fine-tuning his craft. In 1989, his father bought him his first brand new car, a navy Pontiac Bonneville. Within one year, he'd clocked 125,000 miles.

"Energy, excitement—this was the key to performing," says Harvey. "Audience is critical, too. For college crowds, don't talk at all about things like debt or divorce, because they don't know anything about that real-life crap. Better to stay with beer and MTV and jokes about parties. But for comedy clubs, you talk about family life, money, kids."

Within a few years he was making good money and catching the attention of television and film executives. Though he'd already become a TV star by the late '90s, Harvey's credibility as a comic mind was further aided by Spike Lee's 2000 film The Original Kings of Comedy, which was based on a long-running comedy tour starring Harvey, Cedric, D. L. Hughley and Bernie Mac. One of Harvey's more notable routines came at the expense of the movie Titanic. "The band went down with the ship?" he asked. "What do you expect from a white band? Kool and the Gang, they'd be in the first lifeboat so fast." The movie grossed more than $38 million. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote, "Harvey is a master of timing and tone."

Harvey believes there's nothing in entertainment quite as demanding as live comedy. As he once said, "If you're in a band and you have a bad night as a singer, you have your drummer play for five minutes. And then you go, 'Ricky!' And Ricky plays the guitar for five minutes. You can do that until you get your shit together. When you're on stage as a stand-up, there is no moment for you to get yourself together. You are doing the most difficult thing in the world, and that is to make a person laugh whom you've never met before. You don't know anything about them and they don't know anything about you."

Sitting with a note card and a pen, jotting down ideas in bullet points, Harvey shapes his material. "Condoleeza Rice," he says. "Well, Condoleeza Rice. See, the deal is that she's got secretary of state hair, and that's what she's got. She's not going to be putting gold on her nails when she's signing treaties." And off he goes, riffing on everything from beauty parlors to the war in Iraq.

Yet there is definitely a disparity at play in Harvey's work. His WB sitcom, in which he played Steve Hightower, a former R&B star who leaves the music world to teach at an inner-city Chicago high school, gave off the impression of a warm, fuzzy Harvey who'd descended from the pointed but kindly humor of Bill Cosby. Cedric, who played his sidekick on the show, says, "Steve was definitely more relaxed and more tame on that show. With those Midwestern roots, he can slow it down and make himself more acceptable." Harvey is particularly proud that the show won 13 NAACP Image awards.

But it's a drastically different sensibility that makes Harvey so passionate. "Richard Pryor, man, that was the guy," he says, his voice rising, his face getting more animated as he speaks of the ribald comic. "He blew the whole thing open. He changed the way comedy was done. He took the shit people were saying in basements and parks and living rooms and gambling halls and said it out loud. He discussed his personal life—the pain, the good, the bad, the ugly."

Whether on radio, TV or movie screens, Harvey will continue balancing both sides of his comedic persona. As his late-developing passion for cigars reveals—he smokes eight to ten a week—he's come to let himself savor his success, too. He's particularly proud of his marriage to Mary. "Three days after I met her, I told her we'd get married," he says. "She didn't believe me, but we did." When he's not shuttling to Los Angeles for work, Harvey relaxes with Mary and their children (Wynton and a son she has by a previous marriage) in their 16,000-square-foot house in Plano, Texas, a Dallas suburb. He's also delighted to be close with his children from his first marriage, twin daughters Brandi and Karli, who graduated from The Ohio State University this past May.

After all these years and with all his success, however, Harvey admits he still worries prior to each performance. "There's this moment of fright, but it also gets you going," he says. "But check it out: people are paying $60 to $75 to see your ass. They get the babysitter, they get out clothes they bought on layaway. You got people out $350 to $400. I can't afford not to be funny."

Oakland-based Joel Drucker is the author of Jimmy Connors Saved My Life. He writes frequently about sports, popular culture and business.

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