Steve Harvey’s Secret Is Out: Game Show Host Is a Pretty Good Gig, Even for A-Listers


Those of us who grew up with “Sesame Street” still remember Guy Smiley, the stereotypical game show host as originally voiced by Jim Henson. Guy was loud, boisterous and the host of everything from “Here Is Your Life” and “Beat the Time” to “Name That Sound!”

Guy Smiley served a purpose for “Sesame Street,” and so did real-life game show hosts. It was a very specific (and also, very non-diverse) group: Bob Barker, Monty Hall, Jack Berry, Bill Cullen, Wink Martindale, Bob Eubanks, Richard Dawson, Gene Rayburn, Alex Trebek and many more. As he retires, “Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak may be the last of that string of game show hosts pretty much only known for being a game show host. (Sure, some of them were actors and many of them came from radio or other TV roles, but they’ll always be remembered first and foremost for their hosting gig.)

More from Variety

Game show host is a tough job, requiring a lot of skill to juggle the gameplay, keep the contestants involved and the audience entertained. But as parodies like “Guy Smiley” hint at, there’s also a cheese factor to it. That’s why, when Steve Harvey first took over “Family Feud” in 2010, he endured a fair amount of ribbing from pals and fellow comedians.

“You would not believe the calls I was getting from guys that I knew,” Harvey tells me. “’Steve, you’re doing a game show, man? Getting into that cornball business?’ Well, do you know the checks they’re writing for this cornball business if you can take this cornball business and turn it into a hit?”

Drew Carey took over “The Price is Right” in 2007 and Wayne Brady began hosting “Let’s Make a Deal” in 2009. After Harvey joined their ranks, the flood gates opened. Now, almost every game show, particularly in primetime, is fronted by a star who’s doing this as a side hustle. Rob Lowe (“The Floor”), Jane Lynch (“The Weakest Link”), Elizabeth Banks (“Press Your Luck”), Keke Palmer (“Password”), RuPaul (“Lingo”), Jimmy Kimmel (“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”) and Jimmy Fallon (“That’s My Jam”), just to name a few.

“They found out,” Harvey says. “Everybody now tries to find that magic. Look at all the game shows, they went and got somebody with some face recognition.”

The rise of the superstar game show host coincides with the elevation of the genre to the primetime Emmys, which began last year as part of an ongoing realignment between the L.A.-based Television Academy and New York’s National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Perhaps the most high-profile game shows are now in primetime anyway, so the move made sense.

Last year, “Jeopardy!” — which it should be noted, isn’t hosted by a Hollywood star, but rather by the show’s famed long-running champ Ken Jennings — won the Emmy for game show, over “Family Feud,” “The Price Is Right,” “That’s My Jam” and “Wheel of Fortune.”

“I think the key to being a great host is you’ve got to be gracious; you’ve got to be willing to laugh at yourself,” says Harvey, who also hosts “Celebrity Family Feud” and “Judge Steve Harvey” for ABC. “But then you’ve got to know the line of how far you can push the joke with a contestant. You can’t make the audience think you’re being harsh with them. But at the same time, you’ve got to have fun with them.”

But really, Harvey has the secret to why game shows are truly having a moment right now: In an era when there aren’t many comedies in primetime, game shows are the new sitcom.

“I’ve taken a game show and turned it into a comedy show, really,” he says. “’Family Feud’ is a show about the survey of what a hundred people think. Nobody cares what a hundred people think anymore, because we’ve got Google, we’ve got YouTube, we can find out what you think. They gave me the leeway to do it my way, so it’s not so much the question and answers, it’s more the relationship between the contestant and the host. And that’s what makes it pretty fun.”

Time to brush up on your comedy skills, Guy Smiley.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.