Steve Harvey keeping it real with new daytime TV talk show

Comedian, radio host breaks into daytime TV with focus on real people

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The dream, for Steve Harvey, was always late-night: the monologue, the desk, the studio band. It was the pinnacle for a successful stand-up comic, and Harvey had been very successful.

"That was something I always wanted since 'Original Kings of Comedy,'" Harvey said recently from his new home base in Chicago. "You know, I just saw Jay Leno and Conan and Letterman and now Kimmel, and these boys that I've known for years and that are stand-ups, and you go to late-night so you can do a monologue and you can talk about politics. You can hammer a couple of items down some people's throats, and I thought that would be cool."

Instead, the co-star of that 2000 movie detailing a raucous comedy tour was talking from an oversize armchair in a fancy new dressing room, built expressly for him, overlooking the Chicago River. He had just finished making an hour of television in which he chided a couple of women for taking too long to put their makeup on and counseled a couple of mother-daughter combinations in which the adult child was living at home again. 

"What you may have to do," he told the mother of a daughter who didn't want to leave, "is kick the little bird out of the nest." 

"You didn't like that, did you," he said to an adult daughter, after letting her know that if it was mom's house, then it had to be mom's rules. "But you know what? It's 'The Steve Harvey Show.'"

It is, indeed. Harvey, 55, is the centerpiece of an expensive new entry into the daytime sweepstakes — one named after him, just like his ongoing syndicated radio show ("The Steve Harvey Morning Show") and his former WB sitcom ("The Steve Harvey Show").

Shooting on a lavish new set in NBC Tower studio, where chairs and vitriol used to fly until Jerry Springer was lured away to Connecticut, Harvey joins Katie Couric, Ricki Lake and Jeff Probst (best known for hosting "Survivor") in trying to win a place on the agendas of people who are home weekday afternoons and still missing Oprah. The Harvey TV show, running on the stations NBC owns plus enough others to cover 98 percent of the country, will get a week's jump on the other newcomers by starting Tuesday (2 p.m. weekdays, WMAQ-Ch. 5).

And the dream of late-night has been put away with, to hear Harvey tell it now, other childish notions.

"The problem is, I messed around and kind of grew up," he said. "I kind of matured a lot. I really got into family. I really got into my wife. I really, you know, got in touch with my faith again and just started going, 'OK, man, what's this all about?' And next thing you know, after the success of the book" — "Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man," an advice book he wrote to his daughters — "and the success of 'Family Feud'" — he has improved the ratings as the new host of the venerable game show — "I looked up and I really wasn't suited for nighttime anymore. I became a daytime TV player. I didn't plan it like that, but I'll take it."

Watching him work the show, you can see why NBC Owned Television Stations, the NBC station group, and Endemol USA, the big reality TV producer, were willing to back Harvey with an upfront investment that the Hollywood Reporter pegged at $25 million.

A straight man hosting daytime TV — as Harvey put it, "a man's man" — is not the ordinary thing: The audience is still predominantly women, and the vibe that works tends to be coffee klatch. But even at the taping last week of show No. 2, Harvey's stand-up roots showed in his ease with the studio audience. His life as the father of seven and the author of best-selling advice books showed in his willingness to draw from his own experience and give counsel.

"The thing that I'm loving so far in what we've taped," said executive producer Alex Duda, "is just watching that balance of, here's a real bit of advice, but we can still laugh about how funny it is. … He's at a perfect place to do this kind of a show 'cause he truly, truly has opinions. Seven kids, come on. He always says, 'I know what you're going through, cause there's a piece of your house in mine.'"

That he's doing the show in Chicago, filling a national talk-show void left by the departure, first, of Springer and, more recently, Oprah Winfrey and Rosie O'Donnell, is largely the result of persistence by Larry Wert, the general manager of WMAQ-TV and executive vice president of station initiatives for the NBC station group. 

Harvey said initially he was considering New York, Connecticut (where he taped, ironically, his pilot episode in Springer's current studio) and Atlanta, where his family lives and where he tapes "Family Feud."

Chicago didn't enter the picture until Wert began making his pitch at a national television convention in Miami in January, the comic said. 

The two men made fun of the courtship in a taped piece shown at the show's launch party Aug. 22 in Chicago, before the first shows were shot the next day. In it, Wert, in an electric-blue suit, essentially begged the comic to pick Chicago as the show's location, while all Harvey could focus on was the cheap-looking threads — which Wert claimed were from Harvey's menswear line (and Harvey denied). 

In reality, Wert, armed with the knowledge that Chicago works for talk shows, and that he had a big studio that wasn't being fully used by the "Judge Mathis" daytime courtroom show, first made that appeal to Harvey and found him receptive, but then had to win over the comic's wife, Marjorie.

"He immediately said, 'I want the show to win. I want it to be successful. If you all think our chances are better in Chicago, then I'll just say I'm open-minded to it,'" Wert recalled. "Which was my opening."

"It just has bothered me to have lost shows to other markets when I know some things — when I know that we have better, more engaged audiences that'll line up here without having to pay them, (which) they do in some cases in Los Angeles," Wert said, plus a base of potential employees who have experience producing and shooting top-tier talk shows.  

And then there was the advantage of having the show in an NBC studio, with another NBC Universal division distributing it.

"You can figure out the economics," Wert said. "If the show's successful, we're going to be paying some other landlord versus paying ourselves over time. So that conversation started making a lot of sense."

What didn't make sense, but certainly helped, was last winter's balmy weather. NBC and Endemol flew Harvey's wife to Chicago to visit in February, "and it was 68 degrees and sunny," Wert said.

"Never happen again. But she fell in love, too, with it. I give Marjorie and Steve credit for relocating their family to do this, committing to Chicago."

What being "in" means for Harvey is a condition that might be called overemployment, even after he retired from stand-up in August. This, he said, is his new schedule: "I get up at 4 o'clock in the morning. I'm on the air at the radio station at 5 a.m.

"I come here at around 9-something. I work out for an hour. I shower. I meet in what we call our board room meeting. We sit down and hack over the two shows for that day. I do the shows. And then after that we start over and do it again. My weekends are free because I retired from stand-up. We'll live here until May. When May is up, we go back to Atlanta and we tape 'Family Feud' from May until August. And then we come back here, late August to May again. And let's hope we get to come back."

Riding on the show's success is more than just Harvey's place of residence. The production comes with more than 100 new jobs, the show says, not to mention a new destination for Chicagoans looking to taste some limelight. (For tickets, visit steveharveytv.com.) Success is by no means guaranteed, but Wert, who has been through many talk launches, says there's a good, comfortable feeling around this one. 

Duda, who also executive produced Tyra Banks' talk show and, more recently, the reality shows "Jerseylicious" and "Chicagolicious," is banking on the multitopic format and Harvey's uniqueness in the marketplace. Ellen DeGeneres is also a comic, but her focus is more on celebrities, while Harvey will approach relationship and other life issues with an emphasis on real people. 

Harvey's goal, he said, is to find space to be funny, be himself, but also to give people something valuable they can apply to their own lives. 

"When you tune in to 'Steve Harvey' starting Sept. 4, it's going to be inspirational, it's going to be uplifting and it is going to be funny," he said. "That's the take-away from it. Even my radio show (recorded in the NBC Tower and carried locally on V103) is uplifting and funny and inspirational. You know, daytime TV, I can't reinvent the wheel here. There are themes on daytime TV that are like must-haves."

When reminded that the previous occupant of his studio had also started out with hopes of high-mindedness, at least until the ratings came in, Harvey said he will stick to his guns, keep running a positive show. 

"This ain't 'Springer,'" he said. "I'm not that as a person. I never was, and, really, the person I've evolved into is even further from that. I'm not gonna ever do that. If the ratings go down that bad, then we're just out of work, and I'll have to go do something else, probably have to go back to stand-up."

That spirit was in evidence during the taping. As Duda held the cue cards, a level of hands-on involvement you won't see from many executive producers, Harvey balked at reading a script that had him say the show had surveyed 100 audience members to get responses for a "Family Feud" segment.

"We just started this show, we're lying already," he said, suggesting that the audience in the studio had taken no such survey. "I just don't feel comfortable lying."

The crowd laughed at Harvey's discomfort; he even read the script one time with the addition of a barnyard epithet meaning "not true," but it seemed genuine. 

Only when he was assured that such a survey had taken place, even if it was not with that specific audience, did he settle down.

"I just don't like when it ain't real," he told the crowd. "That's pretty much why they hired me, to put some realness in daytime TV."

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

Other entrants in daytime field

"The Ricki Lake Show" (3 p.m., WFLD-Ch. 32; 11 a.m., WPWR-Ch. 50): Show treating health and lifestyle issues, marking Lake's more upscale return to daytime.

"Katie" (3 p.m., WLS-Ch. 7): Former "CBS Evening News" anchor and "Today" host Katie Couric plans to chase newsmaker interviews for a show that reunites her with former "Today" executive producer (and former NBC network boss) Jeff Zucker.

"The Jeff Probst Show" (2 p.m., WBBM-Ch. 2): "Survivor" host (and movie director) makes a bid to be ladies' daytime friend while covering pretty much the same range of topics as other daytime shows.

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