Man On The Move
It's almost 4 p.m. on a mid-January Wednesday in Chicago—which means Steve Harvey has been up and working for about 12 hours. So far.
"My goal is to be done by 6:30 p.m.—instead of 8," he says, picking at a plate of nachos on the conference table in front of him. "Then at least I might get to go home for 10 hours."
Even as he takes his lunch break, he's working, having discussions with various members of the staff of "Steve Harvey," his daily talk show, about taping his second show of the day and budget issues with one of his other TV shows that he hosts in Atlanta and Los Angeles.
Tall and husky, with the build of a onetime athlete, Harvey chats easily, even as a makeup person swabs his imposing shaved dome in broad, even strokes with a small, soft sponge. The rush to get extra shows in the can is necessitated by the fact that Harvey's wife is whisking him away for an uncharacteristic week off to celebrate his impending 60th birthday. The week after that will be devoted to hosting the Miss Universe Pageant in the Philippines. (Yes, they invited him back, despite what Harvey calls one of the hardest moments of his life.) As a result, the normally busy Harvey is downright swamped.
"Everything I do, I have to do something else at the same time," he says. "If I don't multitask, it's impossible to get to everything. I'm an expert at time management. I have a very simple philosophy: I spend all my time building dreams so that when I get time, I can live them."
It's already been an eventful week. He made headlines after a meeting with President Donald Trump (then president-elect) who put him on the phone with Dr. Ben Carson to discuss the problems of inner-city housing, a cause Harvey supports. Harvey, who is friends with former-President Barack Obama, appeared on his own radio show a few days afterward to acknowledge the unhappiness that many fans expressed about his meeting with Trump. "The transition teams on both sides asked me to meet, and I'm glad I did," he says. But he was being true to himself in taking the meeting, in his hopes of being able to make a difference in creating programs and facilities for inner-city kids.
"You have to take a seat at the table when you're invited," he says. "Change can only happen when we sit at the table. If you're not at the table, you can't refuse the menu, or suggest what you should be eating." Afterward, he told reporters: "I walked away feeling like I had just talked with a man who genuinely wants to make a difference in this area."
The same week, his staff had surprised him with an early birthday show with singers Stevie Wonder and former Cigar Aficionado cover subject Usher as the special guests. And on this day he is still shaking his head at a guest from the show he just taped, a fellow named Chad Bernstein, whose organization, Guitars Over Guns, had convinced 500 kids to give up gangs in favor of music. On Bernstein's previous visit to Harvey's show, Harvey had arranged a $5,000 donation for the group. Bernstein had returned to tell Harvey that the donation paid to build a recording studio, which meant dozens more teens had set gangs aside to make music instead.
"He said 50 kids were working there—the price of two of my suits opened a recording studio," Harvey marvels. "That's what it cost: the price of two suits in my wardrobe budget for the show. I don't buy two suits, I can open a recording studio for these kids."
Harvey has his share of suits. "What do I have—250, 300 suits?" he asks his assistant. Nearby his wardrobe hangs in order of hue, golds fading into rusts, blues moving to gray and black. "I ain't cute, so I might as well have something nice for them to look at. I'm comfortable in a suit. I like a tie. When I've got one on, I'm comfortable, not uptight. I like to dress to impress." His long-time pal, Cedric Kyles, better known as Cedric the Entertainer, was mentored sartorially by Harvey. "He was the first dude who told me, ‘Dress like a professional. You've got to be somebody people wanna come see,' " says Kyles.
Along with the suits, there are cigars—many of them. He has a collection of humidors scattered between his offices and homes in Chicago and Atlanta, enough to make sure he never gets caught short without a fine cigar within easy reach.
"I've got five humidors in my office in Atlanta, including one Daniel Marshall made me," he says. "In my office here in Chicago, I've got five more humidors, all with different things in them: Cubans, OpusX. One just has a collection of Acid cigars, because I like those flavored ones once in a while. Some of my traditionalist friends don't like that, but what do they know? I've got another one with nothing but Davidoffs. I've got a Vigilant inside my wine cellar, with some very rare things—and another big one in my man-cave in my basement. It's so big that, when you turn the lights on in it, it looks like a store."
Harvey is sitting atop a career that spans a radio show, a new book and a nearly endless TV schedule that keeps him moving. He triangulates his commute between his home in Atlanta, where he shoots "Family Feud" in the summers; Chicago, where he has shot his talk show for five years, and Los Angeles, where he shoots "Little Big Shots" and "Celebrity Family Feud." The man doesn't slow down.
Harvey learned his work ethic growing up poor but churchgoing in Cleveland, where his father, a coal miner, moved Steve and his four older siblings from West Virginia. The first in his family to attend college, Harvey went to Kent State University (where he was classmates with Arsenio Hall) to major in advertising, but wound up flunking out. He spent years doing a variety of jobs, everything from cleaning carpets to selling insurance.
Harvey, who has a memory for significant dates, can pinpoint the moment his life changed.
"It was October 8, 1985. A girl I knew invited me to a comedy club in Cleveland," Harvey says, his warm eyes twinkling a bit at the memory. "I had been writing jokes for a comedian I knew, who needed help. I was getting $50 a month and thought that was great. This girl told me, ‘You should stop writing for someone else and do them yourself.' So we're at the comedy club and I signed up for the next week's open mic, because they only had room for 10 that night.
"Nine guys got up there and everyone was laughing. I was mesmerized. I thought, ‘That's what I want to do.' Then the 10th guy for the open mic didn't answer when they called his name and the emcee said, ‘OK, let's go to next week's list. Is Steve Harvey still here?' So I ran up onstage. At the end of the night, I won amateur night."
He was paid $50, and he was off and running. "I went to work the next day and quit my job. I told my ex-wife that I'd found what I want to be: I'm gonna go be famous. The only person who believed me for a whole year was my father. He said, ‘If you're funny, go ahead.' He believed in me."
Making that decision came easy. Making the grade proved more challenging. What got him through—from living in his car and bathing surreptitiously at public swimming pools in his tough, early days—was a belief in himself and a taste for hard work that stays with him to this day.
"When I met him around 1988, he was already a big road comic—he was one of the few black headliners working clubs in the midwest," his fellow comedian Kyles recalls. "His work ethic was amazing. It took him years to become a headliner. So that multitasking? It's nothing new. When we were doing ‘The Steve Harvey Show' sitcom, we would shoot the show during the week. Then we'd go out and do shows on the road during the weekend and be back in time for the show's table read on Monday morning."
"He has the busiest schedule of anyone I know," says Alex Duda, executive producer of "Steve Harvey," a show that has won Harvey a pair of Daytime Emmy awards, in addition to People's Choice and NAACP Image awards. "He always has so much going on."
It doesn't end with work. His meeting with President Trump to help inner-city children speaks to the values embedded in him by his mother at an early age. "My mother said things to me as a kid, like, ‘God blessed you to become a blessing,' but I didn't get it at the time," Harvey says. "When I had successful shows on TV, she would tell me, ‘Don't forget, God ain't made you famous just so you can be famous.' She made me think all the time about who am I helping. She would say: ‘You were less fortunate—now what have you done for somebody less fortunate than you?' And so I started mentoring kids, going to youth detention centers to talk to the kids there."
Harvey's message is almost always the same: No matter the mistakes you may have made, you can build a better future if you have faith. As he says at a number of different points during this day, "If you change your attitude, you change your altitude." He offers those exact words to his audience after the first taping wraps, going on to express feelings so heartfelt that his voice cracked briefly with emotion.
Which fits with the persona that Steve Harvey has always presented: the commonsense approach, supported by his faith. At the height of his popularity as a stand-up comedian, playing to packed arenas, he would begin each show with the same invocation: "To me, God is everything. Everything I have, everything I am, I owe to God." Granted, he usually followed that with a sly smile as he added, "Gon' be some times tonight when it sounds like I don't know God. But I do."
Age hasn't slowed Harvey down. Indeed, Harvey can't quite believe he's reached this particular peak. "Man, 60 seemed so far away when I was 30—but then, when I was 30, I was living in my car," he says. "What I am today almost seemed unthinkable. I didn't even have an image of 60 when I was 30. Back then, I was so consumed with right now, with the next gig, and how am I going to make that $1,000 I need, and if I could just make this $175 over here. Do I have to work this hard? Yeah, I do, to get where I want to. I'm trying to get in a position where, when I'm gone, my children's grandchildren know my name. That might sound strange, but that's important to me."
Whether chatting with a guest on his talk show or acting as moderator to gameshow contestants, Harvey brings the same down-to-earth sense of the absurd that marked his stand-up work. He's a slow-burn reactor, wielding his athletic eyebrows and aggressive mustache to draw the maximum laughter as he lets some moment of unexpected hilarity sink in. YouTube is rife with such encounters, including Harvey's reaction to the "Family Feud" competitor who answered the question, "Name something that follows the word ‘pork' " by saying, "-cupine." Harvey stares at the camera, incredulous. "What," he says, "is -cupine? This is the greatest answer I've ever heard!"
His stand-up was built on Harvey's similar amazement at both the mysteries and ridiculousness of life. He turned perspicacity into a comic style.
"I found out that common sense was not that common," he says. "I thought, Hmm, I can make a career out of this, because too many people ain't got it. I'm not Dennis Miller. I don't say anything heavy. It's about a unique phrasing, the unique way I say it. I like jokes that go over the plate and just as you swing, it makes a hard left."
His physicality and use of voices, his sense of observation about the community in which he was reared may spark memories of legendary comedian Richard Pryor. It's no accident.
"In college it was Richard Pryor, Richard Pryor, Richard Pryor," Harvey says. "He was the whole reason I got into comedy. But when I was a kid, I loved Jonathan Winters, Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason, Dick Van Dyke."
His stand-up material, drawn from his own life, often centered on the differences that men and women found hardest to bridge. He made it funny, but realized he was thinking more deeply about the subject as his own daughters began to mature. Which led to his first book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, which spawned his talk show.
"The show came from the book, which he wrote for his daughters," Duda says. "He realized after the response to the book that he had millions of daughters. That's what drives the show, which is about relationships and everyday people."
Harvey subsequently has written several more books, the most recent of which, Jump, is subtitled, Take the Leap of Faith to Achieve Your Life of Abundance. Harvey himself married for the third time in 2007 and uses his own experience as he counsels others. His one indispensable piece of advice to about-to-be-married men?
"I tell every man who gets married, ‘You can be happy—or you can be right.' You make that decision everyday," he says. "If you're in a relationship and your goal is to be right, understand that you're going to be arguing with a person who is an expert at arguing. You have to understand what you're up against: You're arguing with someone who knows everything about you. I learned after two marriages that I'd rather be happy.
"The mistake women make is thinking ‘I can change him.' You keep thinking that but, ladies, we are how we are. We are all basically the same. You can't change us. But you can persuade us, get us to do things we don't want to do. For example, my wife likes Broadway shows. And I don't like musicals at all. But, because we sleep together, I sit there and try to find something I like about it. She walks out after and she's in a great mood: ‘Let's go back to the hotel and sleep together.' Jackpot."
As with his comedic success, Harvey's considerable love for cigars didn't happen overnight. "The first meaningful cigar I smoked was 20 years ago, the night my son Wynton was born: July 18, 1997," he says. "It was so cool—I smoked an Ashton Maduro. I'd tried cigars before and it hadn't really worked for me. I smoke a lot of different cigars, but that was the first one that mattered. It was in my backyard, and I smoked it with my two best friends at the time."
As befits a busy man, Harvey selects his cigars based upon the time he has to smoke. "These days, I've got short ones for when I've only got 20 minutes and nice big ones for when I've got an hour and can sit with it. My go-to cigar is an OpusX, at the end of the day. But my all-time favorite is a Cohiba Siglo VI." He has learned to be discerning. "I used to pick my cigars by the way they looked, if they had a pretty wrapper or band," he says. "Little did I know."
Harvey prefers mild-to-medium cigars and wants to hold on to something solid when he's smoking: "All the cigars I like have to have a nice ring gauge. If I'm going to smoke something, it has to look like a cigar from across the street. No thin ones, nothing that looks like a cigarette."
If Harvey hit his stride as a stand-up comic in the mid-1990s, he moved to the next level with the "Original Kings of Comedy" tour, which ran from 1998–2000. Teaming Harvey with Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hughley and the late Bernie Mac, it was the highest-grossing comedy tour of its time, selling out arenas and bringing in $18 million and $19 million respectively in the first two years on the road—and that was before it pulled in almost $40 million more at the box office, from Spike Lee's 2000 concert film of the tour.
"The ‘Original Kings of Comedy' tour, professionally and goal-wise, cemented my faith in everything that was happening to me," Harvey says. "Nobody had sold that many tickets to a comedy show. We sold out the MCI Center (in Washington, D.C.) on back-to-back weekends. That's 64,000 people in four shows. And that was all without a single newspaper article about the tour. There was no Facebook, no Twitter or social media. No newspaper printed a single story about the tour until the third year, when they found out we were going to do a movie. It was my greatest accomplishment as a stand-up to that date. We were like rock stars. There's nothing like that."
Harvey recognizes the power of the experience that comes in being able to get a room packed with thousands of people to rock with laughter. He also knows that power goes both ways.
"When you're out there, you're a doctor," he says. "You produce a laughter that releases endorphins, a chemical that makes you feel good—and it's free. It not only gives you a euphoric feeling, but it comes with one of the most basic human emotions, one that produces hours of laughter.
"On the ‘Kings of Comedy' tour, I could hear the audience when I was in my dressing room, when Bernie was onstage—that feeling of laughter just washing over the stage. You know you're killing it, but it's very, very humbling. Those laughs are bigger than you and your talent. And the moment it goes away, you're not the same."
Commanding laughter from arena-sized crowds is a powerful stimulant, Harvey admits. He was filling those arenas by himself, at the point he decided to retire from stand-up.
"It was August 2, 2012, so it's creeping up on five years," he says. "Fortunately, I get to be funny on every show I do: my radio show, my talk show, the game shows. I'm able to be funny on all of them. But nothing can ever come close to what it feels like when you're onstage and it's 12,000 people and it's you and a spotlight, a bar stool, a glass of water and a microphone. There's nothing like that. It's the basis of everything I am."
Leaving stand-up, the career that made him famous, was a tough call for Harvey. "It was a heartbreaking decision. I cried so hard afterward. I was on my knees. It was crazy to walk away from something that meant so much to me. But if I hadn't, I would have had no time for my life. Touring takes all your time. In 32 years, I missed my call-time twice. And one of those was when my mom passed. I'm a show-up guy. If I sign a contract, I show up."
He's also a stand-up guy, one who was willing to take his lumps for a very visible mistake, perhaps his greatest public embarrassment: the December 2015 Miss Universe pageant, in which Harvey mistakenly read the name of Miss Colombia as the new Miss Universe, only to return a few minutes later to explain that there had been an error—and that Miss Philippines was, in fact, Miss Universe instead.
"In the Philippines, they love me—but I can't go to Colombia," Harvey says with a rueful smile. "I'll tell you something: That was the worst walk of my life, to go out and say we'd made a mistake. The only walk that was harder was the one to sit in the front row at my mama's funeral. But I went out and I ate it. I didn't roll the teleprompter guy and the cue card guy and the director under the bus. It was on me."
As bad as it was in the moment, the flub grew worse. "It was a disaster, but I didn't know how big a mistake it was until the next day. The next morning, there was this massive crowd, all around my car outside the hotel—all these Colombians giving me hell. My Twitter and Instagram blew up and I got called every name in the book. I got cussed out in Spanish so bad that I know profanity in Spanish now.
"I live on a dead-end street—and it got real when things started coming over the gate. Empty boxes with bows and pictures of bombs. And these death threats on social media that would pop up from fake IP addresses. I wound up with 24-hour armed security at my house. I have two armed guards there full-time to this day. What can you do?"
The mistake finally ran its course, and Harvey was even able to turn it into a positive. "I made fun of it with the T-Mobile Super Bowl commercial," he says, talking about the spot where he apologizes for the "wrong" numbers that start the commercial. "They came to me with the idea of spoofing the Miss Universe thing and I said no. Then they offered me complete creative control and I still said no. Then they told me how much money they were offering—and I did it. It was a pretty good one, too."
The always-moving Harvey will move his "Steve Harvey" show to Los Angeles in the fall, limiting his commuting to cross-country jumps. So why not just move to L.A.?
Harvey gives a "happy wife, happy life" shrug of the shoulders: "I don't move to L.A. because my wife won't let me. Our kids and grandkids live in Atlanta. Two years ago, my wife and I didn't have any grandchildren; now we have four. So she's got to be able to fly home; that house has to stay there."
Given the career peaks he's summited and his own urge to spend time with those grandchildren, Harvey would hardly be blamed for thinking about easing back.
"When I hear the word retirement, I start laughing," he says. "I can't imagine doing nothing. When I walked away from my act, I knew I've got to do something to stay mentally sharp. I can't do the crossword. That's more stressful than going to work."
Still, he may finally have given himself permission to actually slow down and recharge for the first time in decades.
"We were on vacation in France last summer and I ran into Dr. Phil on the way back," Harvey says. The two TV hosts started chatting about work. "I asked him when he was going back to work and he said, ‘September. How about you?' And I told him I was going back to work as soon as I got back. He said, ‘You work in the summer?' "
Harvey realized he was an outlier for working year-round, and crafted a plan to take off this upcoming summer season. "It will be the first summer I haven't worked since I was 19. I'm gonna play with my grandkids, sit in the grass and throw a ball."
If he puts performing aside, he has plenty of other ventures to pursue. He and his wife have built the Steve and Marjorie Harvey Foundation, creating mentoring programs for inner-city boys and girls: "My goal is to send 10,000 inner-city kids to college," Harvey says. "So far, we've sent about 70. I need a lot more money. It's just kept growing and growing. Now I understand something I heard an old guy say one time: Your career is what you're paid for. But your calling is what you're made for."
It's getting dark outside, as Harvey readies himself for the briefing for his second TV show of the day, in his ongoing quest to get home from work at a reasonable hour. But his mind flashes back to the kids from Guitars Over Guns and the effect of the recording studio financed by his donation.
"If I kill 20 suits out of the budget, what'll that do?" Harvey hypothesizes. "Let's open 10 more recording studios, save a couple of hundred kids. I got a lot of suits." He pauses, then chuckles: "So I wear one of those black ones over—if I change the shirt and tie, no one's going to notice."
Contributing editor Marshall Fine is critic-in-residence at The Picture House Regional Film Center in Pelham, NY.