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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 2)

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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