The “wh-” sound is tailor-made for Steve Harvey. Whether he’s dispatching it on “The Steve Harvey Morning Show,” “Steve on Watch” or “Judge Steve Harvey,” the comedian’s “What? When! Why?” has a sonic-boom quality few humans can match. That is hyperbole, of course. But when Harvey tells a story — not a joke, but a story — his ability to turn shock into awe is akin to spinning straw into gold.
He was homeless for a while. He cried frustrated tears after seeing a friend on TV for the first time. He gave former U.S. housing and urban development secretary Ben Carson the idea for an initiative. He used his international connections to secure literal tons of personal protective equipment for one country from another. What? When? Why?
“I’m way beyond where I thought I’d be,” Harvey said. “How could I see myself having a life that I didn’t even know existed? I didn’t even know this was on the ticket.” Sporting a white hoodie with “AGELESS” written across the chest in bold letters, the 65-year-old tried to sum up his life and career during a recent Zoom interview. “How in the world?” the comedian added, shaking his head.
This is the how — sort of.
Because breaking down Harvey’s story is a herculean task: How the kid from Ohio with a speech impediment would one day have six different TV shows airing in a single calendar year. How the man who made gigantic rainbow-colored suits his trademark is now on the cover of Paper magazine, achieving fashion icon and senior citizen status at the same time. How the guy who flunked out of Kent State University became a “judge.”
There are so many twists and turns and “what?” moments it all sounds made up — like a Grimm’s fairy tale or a biblical parable. A story meant to startle you into learning something.
“I hated the process, but when I look back on it, everything you’re going through is preparing you for what you asked God for,” Harvey said with all the sincerity of someone who’s been through it and come out the other side. What he asked for was pretty straightforward.
When Harvey was 10, he wrote a secret wish on a piece of paper: I want to be on TV. There was only one problem: He had a stutter. Hanging out with his buddies from the block on East 112th Street in Cleveland, he was fine. School was a different story. The dozens — a ruthless game of lobbing insults — was as popular as dodgeball. “The anxiety was too much,” he said. And no one took it easy on the kid who couldn’t get his words out. “There was no mercy.”
After school, he’d head straight home to the bathroom mirror and deliver all the comebacks he couldn’t on the playground, a form of “personal therapy.” It also gave him a glimpse of life in front of the camera. “Man, I was so funny,” he said. One of his favorites? “Yo’ mama so funky she used Secret and it told on her.” This was Grade A stuff in middle school.
By college, he conquered the stutter but was no closer to becoming a TV star. Instead of going to Hollywood, he headed about 40 miles in the opposite direction to Kent State University. Grades were less of a concern than cracking jokes.
One classmate noticed and gave him some “straight talk, no chaser” advice: “Steve, you don’t belong here. You missed your calling.” It took him two more years to finally get the message and another 10 to do something about it. Meanwhile, another college classmate was planting seeds.
Arsenio Hall and Harvey spent hours on the basketball court together. “Steve had this infectious smile. He was hilarious, and you knew it then,” Hall said. “He didn’t do characters, he didn’t do impressions, he would just talk. You would have to tell Steve ‘Stop, stop!’ because he would have you hurting.”
When the 1977 spring semester ended — which would turn out to be Harvey’s last day at Kent State, as weeks later he got a letter from the university informing him that he could not return — Harvey and his friends kicked around ideas about their futures. Hall, who majored in theater, had tunnel vision. He told the group that he was going to Hollywood to become a famous actor.
“Everybody laughed,” Harvey said. “Everybody except me.”
Fast-forward nearly five years, and Harvey was at home in Cleveland getting ready for the midnight shift of a dead-end job. “I hated my life,” he said. “Solid Gold” was playing on the TV in the background, and before Harvey walked out the door, he caught the host of the variety show announce its newest comedian: Ladies and gentlemen, all the way from Cleveland, Arsenio Hall.
“It’s him, and he’s killing, man, but I’m not laughing at anything. I went to work that night and I was in misery, because this dude had did it,” Harvey said. “From that moment on, I thought of nothing except, ‘How do I get on TV?’ ”
Still clueless about how to make that happen years later, Harvey, who was selling life insurance, took a side gig selling jokes at $10 a pop to a buddy he made laugh. “I didn’t know what he was doing with them.” Turns out that friend was killing down at the local comedy club with Harvey’s stuff. The next week, Harvey himself stepped up to the mic for the first time, won amateur night and cried the entire ride home.
“ ‘I was born tonight. I’m a stand-up comedian,’ ” Harvey said he declared. The lightbulb that had been flickering for more than a decade finally and forever switched on. The next day, he quit his job. “I have done nothing since October 9th, 1985, except write and tell jokes,” he said. Well, not nothing.
This is where the story gets kind of wild.
Harvey left his family — a wife and twin daughters — to hit the comedy circuit, scratching out a meager living booking small gigs that paid $75 here, $150 there. He lived in his car for three years. There was a two-week stretch where he didn’t speak to another human being. What kept him going was an unshakable belief in himself and in God.
“When you ask God for something and you believe he’s going to give it to you, the thing is, he never tells you when it’s going to happen. Because if he gave you the date, you wouldn’t need faith, you’d just need patience, and he requires our faith,” Harvey said. “And I had no Plan B.”
Comedian and actor Cedric the Entertainer, who shared the stage with Harvey on “The Kings of Comedy” tour and starred opposite him on the WB’s “The Steve Harvey Show” for six seasons, remembers Harvey the hustler who he met in 1988 on the club circuit.
“He was the kind of guy that would do a show in Dallas on Wednesday night and drive to D.C. to get some more money on Thursday and then come back,” Cedric said. “In a way, nothing was ever too big or too small.”
In time, the small clubs would lead to HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam,” which became a pipeline to even bigger gigs for Black comedians, who, as a result of the TV exposure, could then command thousands of dollars a night instead of hundreds. In 1993, Harvey landed “Showtime at the Apollo” and hosted the famed talent show for the next seven years. “The Steve Harvey Show,” which aired for six seasons, premiered on the WB network in 1996. Then in 2000 came “The Kings of Comedy,” one of the highest-grossing comedy tours ever. His radio show was next, then the daytime talk show, the prime-time specials, the hit movies based on his New York Times bestseller “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.” He resuscitated “Family Feud” in 2010 and a decade later also took it to South Africa and Ghana, where it’s wildly popular.
But he still wouldn’t call himself “self-made” or bulletproof. Mistakes have been made. Very public ones. Remember the Miss Universe mix-up? The time he disparaged Asian men as being romantically undesirable on his talk show? When he joked with a caller from Flint, Mich., on his radio show to “enjoy your nice brown glass of water”? None of that was as bad as the thing with Donald Trump, though.
After the 2016 election, Harvey got a letter from President Barack Obama’s transition team, asking if he’d meet with Trump. At first, he wasn’t going to go; the comedian had officially endorsed Hillary Clinton on his nationally syndicated radio show. But there was an idea he wanted to run by Carson, Trump’s pick for HUD secretary.
“This brother don’t know nothing about the ’hood. I do,” Harvey explained. So he went to Trump Tower and pitched Vision Centers, or shuttered urban school buildings turned into community centers. The Trump team loved it. They even got Carson on the phone.
Harvey headed to the elevator feeling satisfied, but just as the doors were about to close, the president-elect stuck his hand in: “I’ll go down with you.” The unlikely pair entered the lobby together for the waiting cameras. Trump called the comedian he’d just met “a great friend of ours. Everybody knows Steve Harvey.” As Harvey stood next to him looking shellshocked, Trump announced that he was going to repeal and replace Obamacare.
“I’m going, ‘Hold up, dog, that ain’t got nothing to do with me,’ ” Harvey recalled. All hell had broken loose online by the time he got to his car. The beloved showman was branded everything but a child of God. “I didn’t even vote for the dude.”
That June, Carson announced the launch of HUD’s first EnVision Center in his hometown of Detroit. “It was the only initiative that Ben Carson ever had his entire four years,” Harvey said. (A representative for Carson did not respond to requests for comment.) But Harvey didn’t get involved with the program. “I said I’ll never give them that photo op.”
The consummate entertainer contemplated retirement for the first time last year. Yeah, that didn’t happen.
“I thought I was getting close, and then my stupid ass thought of something else, and here we go again,” said Harvey, whose latest show, “Judge Steve Harvey,” premiered on ABC in January.
The network originally tried to sell the comedian on a sitcom idea, but he said no and instead divulged his dream of being a TV judge. “I heard a guy on the Zoom say, ‘Is he a lawyer?’ ” No, he isn’t.
“Donald Trump became president. Why the hell is it such a stretch to see me as a judge?” Harvey wondered. It’s one of the only prime-time courtroom shows on TV and, according to Harvey, is doing so well ratings-wise that the network wants more.
The only downside to the new show, which is now his third on ABC, was telling Marjorie, his wife of 14 years, that their swoon-worthy month-long August vacation would be postponed.
“There is not a great man I know that achieved greatness without a her. Barack ain’t the dude without Michelle. You can go down the list. I needed the her, and the her for me has been instrumental,” Harvey said, adding that it had to be “the right” her.
After two divorces, he called Marjorie “a guiding force.” The comedian doesn’t make a major decision without her. It was Marjorie who persuaded him to stop wearing the zoot suits and eventually hire a stylist. Marjorie who said it was okay for him to go bald and leave his signature high-top fade behind. Marjorie who assured him that he was more than just a showman.
“The career that people see today? I can only tell you that it came from the peace she provided,” he said. “It freed my mind up to become the creative that I wanted to be.”
A freed-up Harvey is like a hurricane. His creative and corporate interests have converged into one big business, Steve Harvey Global. He knows the presidents of both Ghana and Botswana. He met Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, at a Formula One race. The crown prince knew who he was. “He said, ‘You have a magnificent story. I want to sit with you sometime,’ ” Harvey recalled. Now the two are close. The United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, considers Harvey a cultural connector.
“There’s a sense of gratitude in everything he does, that feeds into his humility,” the ambassador said. “It’s impressive for someone who’s that famous to still be grateful and humble. So if it’s an ask for Steve Harvey, it’s almost always going to be a yes.” Which is what happened at the beginning of the global pandemic when Botswana, where Harvey plans to produce more television, couldn’t get the PPE it’d ordered from China. Harvey asked the UAE, where he conducts business and philanthropy, if it could help. The country sent two cargo planes filled with seven tons of equipment.
Harvey is still in awe, still surprised when his name is spoken in rooms he didn’t know existed. But the hustle is nonstop; there’s even a business brewing behind that “AGELESS” sweatshirt he has on. There’s always another dream in the works.
“As you make these incremental steps in life, you get a little bit higher, and after you climb each step, your goals become a bit more lofty. It’s a different view from up there,” Harvey said. “That’s what happens. You have to have a different target, but my aim is always up.”