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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)

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."

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