Steve Harvey: Why The 'Little Big Shots' Host Is A Big Shot

By: Ken Tucker

Steve Harvey has another TV hit on his hands with Little Big Shots, an NBC hour that showcases Harvey interacting with children who are exceptional at various things, whether it’s spelling difficult words or shooting baskets. The ratings for the first episodes of the new show were enormous: Little Big Shots, which is co-produced by Ellen DeGeneres, has only aired three times, and it’s already renewed for a second season. Clearly, the show hits a certain kind of sweet-spot: It’s harmless Sunday-night entertainment, the sort of thing that ABC has made a mainstay of for decades with America’s Funniest Home Videos. (Indeed, Shots finds most of its contestants from videos its producers track down from the Internet.)

Little Big Shots is essentially just a pint-sized version of America’s Got Talent without the judges. Its show this past Sunday featured 11-year-old twin trumpet players, an eight-year-old dancer-gymnast, and a 13-year-old girl from Croatia who sang a heartfelt version of Beyoncé’s song “Listen.” 

But the key element in Little Big Shots is Steve Harvey, who relates to the kids in exactly the same way Art Linkletter and Bill Cosby did in their respective versions of Kids Say The Darnedest Things in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘90s. He chats with children with just the right mixture of skepticism and indulgence.

These days, you cannot go wrong with Steve Harvey; he’s money in the bank. He hosts a Chicago-based syndicated radio show. His daytime talk show is a hit, with its combination of uplifting themes and no-nonsense advice segments. The Steve Harvey Show mixes daytime-TV escapism with more sober, Dr. Phil-like, serious topics. You can see both elements in play in his recent interview with singer Angie Stone, who was accused of domestic violence against her adult daughter.

Harvey's version of Family Feud is a lot more racy than the kissy-kissy version Richard Dawson used to do, and it's another hit. This, I have to admit, I find the most baffling and compromised achievement of Harvey's. During his time hosting the game show, it has found new life by shaping the questions so that they elicit naughty-to-R-rated answers. The show frequently seems beneath Harvey's dignity, but I guess it works for him, and he doesn't seem to mind asking questions such as, "Name something you'd hate to see fall out of your date's underwear."

Harvey even managed to turn his mistake in announcing the wrong 2015 Miss Universe winner into a positive — America could not wait to forgive him. So why is he such a success? First (and, duh), because he’s funny; really funny. Harvey may have retired from the stand-up comedy that brought him to nationwide prominence in the 2000 film The Original Kings of Comedy, but he continues to work audiences — whether they’re sharing the stage with him on Shots and Feud, in a studio audience, or at home — with a kind of controlled ferocity that he doesn’t allow to tip over into anger. His style is all about contrasts — his impeccable double-breasted suit fashion style contrasted with his casual, down-home delivery. (Harvey was born in West Virginia and retained a homey drawl even after relocating to Cleveland.) 

Harvey, who’s 59, didn’t become a star until he was middle-aged, and had previously worked such jobs as a carpet cleaner and an insurance salesman. He’s still pitching products — his best-selling advice books, filled with common-sense tips mixed with personal anecdotes, include 2014’s Act Like A Success, Think Like A Success: Discovering Your Gift and the Way to Life’s Riches

For all this, there’s very little of the huckster in Harvey — to use his own terminology, he has the “gift” of communicating sincerity without a trace of piety. He makes whatever he’s doing at the moment seem fun, and invites the audience to share his delight or puzzlement or wonder at whatever odd or humorous thing a guest or contestant may say. It’s a rare quality few entertainers can pull off, and why he appeals to such a wide, diverse audience. 

Little Big Shots airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on NBC.