Two Kings and a Giant: Daytime TV’s New Power

Fact: Michael Strahan, Steve Harvey, and Cedric the Entertainer are on daytime television. All the time.

On shows that are not only popular, but gaining in viewership. And, even more impressively, each is a part of a franchise that has been supremely revived since their arrival (Live!, Family Feud, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, respectively).

Up a massive 336 percent in total households since Harvey took over as host in 2010, the game show also is outranked only by “Judge Judy” among adults 25-54 for the last full week of January. —February 4, 2014

For the week of Jan. 27, “Steve Harvey” averaged over 3 million viewers — a new series high — and continued to trend upwards in daytime’s key demo (women 25-54), hitting a 1.4, which was up 37 percent over the previous week and 27 percent over the same week last year. —February 11, 2014

Live-plus-same-day ratings among metered markets give Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan’s show a 4.9 rating among households on Monday. That makes it the No. 1 syndicated talk show of the day, narrowly besting Ellen’s 4.8 rating, and places it as the highest-rated telecast since Regis Philbin co-hosted his final episode in November 2011. —March 4, 2014

Despite facing Winter Olympics coverage during the 2014 February Sweep, “Millionaire” was up over its first sweep with Cedric “The Entertainer,” growing over November 2013 by 5% in Households (2.2 rating vs. 2.1 rating) and 4% in Total Viewers (3.055 million vs. 2.939 million). —March 11, 2014

And while their positions are far from new (nor are discussions of these individuals; this 2013 Los Angeles Times piece is a great example), the continued surges are worth examining. Because these successes should not be accepted at face value. Or brushed off as normal. Because they’re steeped in complexities.

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First, the NFL’s all-time single-season sack leader.

Last week it was announced that Michael Strahan — the newly minted NFL Hall of Famer, one-half of Live! With Kelly and Michael, and member of the Fox NFL Sunday crew — will also be joining the Good Morning America roster. With Josh Elliott’s departure to NBC Sports, Strahan seems like a worthy, no-brainer substitute. But it also will undoubtedly be bigger than just trading a sports guy for a sports guy. Because Strahan, unlike the majority of his retired athlete commentator peers, has found a way to transcend sports.

His rise has been surprising and remarkable. He was always personable as a player, but there’s no way to have known he would rise to this level of fame. And adoration. And mainstream acceptance. He wasn’t even supposed to be the breakout post-football media star of his own team. For years, it seemed like New York Giants running back Tiki Barber would assume the throne. He was the New York media darling. He was the one with intrinsic media savvy. He was the one who looked like he could have been in The Wood. And he even had a head start on Strahan, with Barber exiting the league two years prior.

But, for a variety of reasons — a few out of his hands and the rest quite Tiki-inflicted — Tiki didn’t flourish the way Tiki was supposed to. Tiki had the juice, but then Tiki spilled said juice. Tiki allegedly had a penchant for bad-mouthing and, because of that, people didn’t seem to like Tiki as much as Tiki thought people liked Tiki. And just like that, the spot that Tiki was supposed to take was gone. Which meant Strahan had his opening.

But it wasn’t seamless. Because first, there was Brothers. You remember, the show about Michael Strahan playing a retired NFL player. His brother was Chill from House Party. And his parents were Apollo Creed and CCH Pounder. That one?

This was supposed to end it for Strahan. Because this show was over in 13 episodes. Which meant, at best, he’d have a long career doing commercials and talking about football with other ex-players who get paid millions to wear quadruple-Windsor knots and use any opportunity available to remind viewers of the time they made that play in that game.

But somehow, Strahan kept going. In 2010, he landed a guest cohost spot on Live! in Regis Philbin’s absence. Over the next two years, he made 19 more guest cohost appearances with Kelly Ripa. And then, in September 2012, over the likes of popular, rumored candidates such as Seth Meyers and Josh Groban, Michael Strahan became the permanent cohost of one of daytime television’s most storied franchises.

And suddenly, every day, there was Live! With Kelly and Michael. And with the Strahan addition, the show skyrocketed. This daytime television institution exploded with the addition of a 6-foot-5 black ex-professional defensive NFL athlete man, sitting next to the small, white, blonde powerhouse that is Kelly Ripa.

That happened. And is still happening. On daytime television, every Monday through Friday.

And 18 months later, that’s where we still are. On paper, it sounds like an unlikely fit, but when you watch the show, you quickly understand why people love it. Because Strahan and Ripa’s chemistry is undeniable. But there’s also something about Strahan that makes him stand out from every other host on television, day or night. That “something” stems from a certain societal luxury afforded to the physically imposing alpha male who can suddenly turn on the playful charm, or the sentimental smile. Someone of Strahan’s ilk can become less guarded and more carefree, simply because he was once tasked with destroying quarterbacks for 15 seasons. It’s like a never-ending get out of jail free card for behaving in a typical “un-cool” manner. When your background is in doling out pain, it’s much more acceptable to shed the tough-guy layer and dance around. Or make fun of yourself. And do it all with an unwavering confidence. Because ultimately, the key to being embraced for shedding your tough-guy image is, at one point, having been a tough guy.

It’s something Shaquille O’Neal built a post-basketball career on and Strahan has refined.

Strahan is Shaq 2.0. The same way Shaq could deliver Kobe diss tracks, destroy LeBron James and Dwight Howard in dance-offs, and sing Beyoncé in a dress and wig, Strahan can help Floyd Mayweather seem like a guy you bring home to mom and dad, dress up like Oprah and Tyler Perry, and then talk comfortably with the real-life Oprah and Tyler Perry. Only someone like Strahan can have a running tough-guy shtick with wrestler John Cena in which they both comedically show their soft sides. No one else can pull that off. Not Arsenio, not George Stephanopoulos, not Jimmy Fallon — no one. Because they didn’t fall from the same alpha male tree. They aren’t a part of that fraternity of occupational machismo. But by being the most comfortable person in his own skin, Strahan makes his guests more comfortable. And thus, more likable. And then makes Kelly Ripa more likable. And, in turn, becomes the fulcrum of all things likable on Live!

But while his presence, as well as his and Ripa’s existence as a duo, is becoming normalized, to pretend as if their continued success is par for the course suggests simplicity. Or, better yet, delusion.

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Black television hosts are not new. The Oprah Winfrey Show, lest you forget, was not just a thing, but the thing for 25 years. And Oprah’s success opened the way for an array of other daytime hosts (Tyra Banks, Wendy Williams, Queen Latifah) and panel members (Star Jones and Whoopi Goldberg on The View; Aisha Tyler and Sheryl Underwood on The Talk). There have been male television hosts, too. There was (and is again) Arsenio Hall, Chris Rock, Magic Johnson, Keenan Ivory Wayans, and now Tavis Smiley and Eric Andre at night; Montel Williams during the day; and a handful of judges (Joe Brown, Greg Mathis) to entertainingly uphold the law. Society has been forced to warm up to black hosts at the helm.

And then there’s Wayne Brady.

WAYNE BRADY

While not necessarily a trailblazer of daytime television, Brady’s importance within the medium should not be undervalued or overlooked, even though it often is. Because he’s still pulling off a remarkable run: getting a daytime television show (The Wayne Brady Show, 2001-04), winning awards for said daytime television show (Daytime Emmy for “Outstanding Talk Show Host,” 2002-04), having that show canceled (2004), and then becoming the host of another daytime television show (Let’s Make a Deal, 2009-present).

To some, Brady’s success in daytime television doesn’t raise an eyebrow. Because it’s singing and dancing Wayne Brady we’re talking about, after all. Or, to some, corny-ass Wayne Brady we’re talking about. But what is it that really makes Brady’s existence as a black male in the daytime television pantheon seem somehow unremarkable?

Does his post-firing appearance on Chappelle’s Show offer any clues?

In a moment of genius comedic convergence, Chappelle and Brady critique his very existence (and perceived “blackness” and what people think about him) over the course of 11 minutes. It’s a skit that goes from Wayne saying to the crowd, “Let’s have a round of applause for my mom” to him pulling out an automatic firearm and shooting (and presumably killing, based on the poorly pixelated blood splatter) Donnell Rawlings. And then a panicked Chappelle saying, “Goddamn, man. You got a Daytime Emmy, n—–, you ain’t supposed to be doing shit like this.”

Or later, when Chappelle and Brady are pulled over and a cop recognizes Wayne and says, “My mother-in-law loves you.” Wayne responds by singing “I Say a Little Prayer” and then breaks the cop’s neck, lowers him to the ground, drops the mic, and tells Chappelle, “They cancel my show and shit goes CRAZY.”

Without explicitly saying so, Brady and Chappelle were talking about the faux-reality of certain minority individuals who are thought of as more “equipped” to be in front of mainstream audiences. Or, to use less coded, cowardly language, a select few that will appeal to white people more directly.

This is the space Wayne Brady has occupied, so much so that he’s become a punch line that represents black and nonthreatening. Here’s Bill Maher in 2010:

I thought, when we elected the first black president, as a comedian, in two years that I’d be making jokes about what a gangsta he was. Not that he’s President Wayne Brady, but I thought we were getting Suge Knight.

It’s clear, regardless of how it’s used or who the user is, that this idea of being “nonthreatening” or “safe” has historically been linked to the idea of “how black you are.” Which becomes even more complicated when you consider the relationship between one’s blackness, one’s nonthreatening-ness, and one’s success in television. It’s something that has followed Brady for his entire career, especially as he continues to find roles that keep him on daytime TV. The idea that he’s safe to put out there. That he’s a “safe black,” if you will. Or, to take it a step further, that he’s not black. He’s just Wayne Brady.

The question of blackness is not something Strahan has had to struggle with so far. Not at Brady levels. Not yet. But this notion of safe and nonthreatening, that’s a reality for Strahan. But is it a bad thing?

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Identifying someone as “nonthreatening” or “safe” is a tricky distinction. It’s extremely loaded. And that only intensifies when discussing individuals from groups that have historically been maligned, be they minorities, women, LGBT individuals, or anyone else who’s fought for equal footing. People who have felt pressure to “tone it down” in order to succeed. But are these words inherently undermining? Is this a newer, more politically correct, less antiquated way of suggesting someone is an Uncle Tom? Or a sellout? Does it matter whose mouth the word comes out of? Or should “safe” simply be seen as a compliment, a way of thinking of someone as an upstanding member of society who translates well across all demographics?

These are all worthy questions — and worries — for any individual in a mainstream role, from a gay news anchor to a young black writer on the Internet to a host on a daytime television show. Especially a daytime television show. Because daytime TV is like comfort food. It’s not necessarily good for you, but it makes you feel at ease. The goal of this programming is for the hosts to feel like old friends. People you can depend on, day in and day out. People who make you laugh. People who are never subversive or confrontational. And people, most notably, with incredible appeal across the board.

When it comes to finding these people, they’ve historically been white men and women. Of course, there have been exceptions to the rule, but not many. The most recent new additions to this exceptional group over the past few years, however, signify something. Some change. And much more change than the medium’s nighttime TV counterpart, which has long been a space bravely built on the labor of white male comedians for 70 years. But with Strahan climbing yet another prestige rung, Steve Harvey successfully juggling two hit shows, and Cedric the Entertainer single-handedly resurrecting the thought-to-be-dead Millionaire franchise, this is a moment defined by each man’s unpredictable rise and continued success. But it’s worth looking at the reasons for this success, because you can’t attribute it all solely to charisma. And at the same time, it’s not simply their blackness that makes everything so shocking. Or that they’re black men. Or that they’re black men succeeding in this medium. But that they’re specifically these three black men succeeding in this medium.

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It’s like that big movie that came out last year, Titanic — white people. Always running to jump on some bullshit. 

This is Steve Harvey in 2000’s The Original Kings of Comedy. Along with Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hughley, and Bernie Mac, Harvey became a comedic standard and also a study in what happens when you have made it to the pinnacle of black embrace. Four comedians at the top of their game, touring the country, selling out arenas, talking about their black experiences to majority black crowds. Yes, being accessible to all audiences has assisted in the film’s sustained cultural relevance, but there was a clear target audience for these jokes.

If anything is proof of this, it’s in the way these jokes are told by these comedians. And the pronouns used to address the audience; it’s most clear when black people are referred to as “we” and white people as “they.”

Watching this film in 2014, knowing where Cedric and Steve have been and currently are, is mind-boggling. It’s hard to draw the arc of their careers without picking up your pen. Even with the successful (and also critically acclaimed) run of The Steve Harvey Show between 1996 and 2002 , it didn’t look as if mainstream daytime television was their path. They cursed and said “n—-” plenty. They made fun of white people. A lot.

Yes, black comedians donning “white voice” is as old as black people being comedians, but Cedric and Harvey occupy a different strata than Chappelle or even Eddie Murphy. And because of that, they have decidedly different target audiences than cultural icons Chappelle and Murphy at their peak rock-star levels. In a Delirious or a For What It’s Worth, for example, between the audiences and the joke-tellers, you feel like you’re laughing with white people. In The Kings of Comedy, however, you’re laughing at them. It’s one of the many ways Cedric and Harvey perfected the art of entertaining like-aged, like-raced people. And more than a decade ago, based on their successes, one would assume they’d probably just continue to do that. After all, if you’re so good at connecting with black audiences, why risk trying to appease everyone?

But here we are. With both men flourishing. How?

I considered the voices of Strahan, Harvey, and Cedric. Their vocal tones and speech patterns. Perhaps I would attempt to look at their success through linguistics. I thought I would speculate on whether that, perhaps, had anything to do with it. “It,” being directly tied to those notions of “safe” and “nonthreatening.” And, ultimately, wondering if there’s any correlation (with these three men) between what you sound like and what you look like and your success. Which then inches toward one of society’s greatest sociological ills, the idea of “talking white” and “talking black.” And how that has long been used to exceptionalize certain groups.

I thought about going that route, but not because of my own theories on the issue. It was actually Cedric’s doing, because in my ear, his “white man” voice from previous stand-up specials sounds oddly similar to the voice he uses on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Which I find hard to ignore. And quite hard to unhear.

The first time I watched Cedric on Millionaire, I immediately assumed he was trolling anyone who had never seen his early stand-up. I laughed because I felt part of an inside joke. I knew what Cedric was doing, even if the contestants didn’t. And watching Cedric do Millionaire on Steve’s talk show, both men sounding quite different from their stand-up voices, almost felt like a comedy routine in itself.

But I know it’s deeper than that. Even though there’s a small chance that these are their most comfortable speaking voices, there’s reason to assume otherwise. Recently, this idea of the vocal code-switch came up when Kanye West did two interviews, one with Jimmy Kimmel and the other with his mother-in-law, Kris Jenner. In these interviews, many noticed a change in Kanye’s voice. Because, what happened to it? Why was he talking like that? And did it have anything to do with doing interviews with white hosts for mainstream audiences? New York’s Power 105.1 dedicated eight minutes of airtime to discussing Kanye’s voice, having people call to weigh in on “#KanyeSoundsLike,” which boiled down to a battle of who could make the best joke about him being (1) white, (2) a white woman, (3) a gay man, and (4) someone who was molested. A grim eight minutes for humanity, to be quite honest, but amid the trash, an example nonetheless that people were either thrown off or surprised that he felt the need to don this vocal alter ego.

Kanye later went on San Francisco’s 94.9 and briefly addressed his switch.

Even when you get invited to certain dinner parties or even when you’re in certain magazines, it’s still like a Dinner for Schmucks situation. Are they inviting you to be a part of what you’re doing or are they inviting you to laugh at your teeth … And then we have our thing that every time we do it, we give them the white voice.

While not explicitly stating that he’s employing his “white voice” in these interview situations, Kanye is acknowledging its existence. And that, in certain instances, it seems necessary. To be taken seriously. For social and career survival.

It’s hard not to think of this example of Kanye when considering 2000 Harvey and Cedric versus 2014 Harvey and Cedric. If they’re employing a voluntary and purposeful safety switch, is it also being employed as a survival tactic? Is it self-inflicted or something that’s being articulated from the top down? And does it feel necessary in order to keep the daytime masses happy?

You wonder if they would be allowed — welcomed, even — into America’s homes every day if they sounded different. And if there’s a direct correlation with how they sound and how likable they are in this medium and, ultimately, if that all plays a part in their shows’ increasing success.

For Harvey and Cedric, this is a conversation for 2014. But this idea of “safe” and these two comedians isn’t new. When you look back to the Kings of Comedy era, this idea of who’s safe and who isn’t was there, right on the surface. In a scene offstage, the four comics talk about having their own television shows. Bernie Mac finds himself the odd man out. And, aloud, he speculates on why that’s the case. While the bit is in jest, per usual his sentiments are riddled with truth. “But do I have a television show? Naw. I ain’t got no television show. Why? ’Cause you scared of me. You scared I’ma say something. You motherfucking right.”

Perhaps “playing the game” is a more acceptable way of articulating “safe,” but this is what Bernie Mac was getting at, especially when he does a 180 and proceeds to beg white people to give him a show, regardless of the channel. (As Steve notes, he’d even take the Cooking Channel.) It’s this idea of authority deciding who’s ready for the big time. But also — more realistically and cynically — who can be trusted. Trusted to produce, but also stay in line.

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Strahan always seemed built for the game. There is no drastic before and after with Strahan. There is no early Strahan voice and then Strahan “white voice.” There’s just Strahan voice. Even when embroiled in a heated postgame argument with a reporter in 2006, he sounds like a slightly more ticked-off version of the guy on ABC every morning. Even if Strahan’s regular voice is another black man’s “white voice,” there’s been no apparent need for him to switch for mainstream success. This is different from Cedric or Harvey, but doesn’t necessarily make one trajectory any better or more authentic than the other.

Over time, Harvey and Cedric have figured out the game, and after years of jumping around the industry, they’re reaping the game’s benefits. And while all three men exist in the same daytime TV space, perhaps the difference we’re seeing between the Kings and the Giant is generational. Harvey and Cedric represent men who learned over time how to appeal to the masses without having their blackness questioned. Strahan represents a different trend, a newer one — one born out of differences in background and age. He exists independent of the code-switch. Because it’s ingrained, it’s all he knows.

But it’s hard to deny that Strahan is fortunate that what’s ingrained — lisp, gap, and all — sounds the way it does. Because there’s a good chance if it didn’t, we may still think of him as that NFL legend who once had that show called Brothers.

Filed Under: TV, Michael Strahan, Cedric the entertainer, Steve Harvey, family feud, kelly ripa, who wants to be a millionaire, live!

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Rembert Browne is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ rembert