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Standing Up for Something Positive on TV : Television: On ABC’s ‘Me and the Boys,’ comedian Steve Harvey turns what could be a formulaic sitcom setup into a positive role model for African Americans.

TIMES TELEVISION WRITER

Cast and crew are filing out at the end of the workday on ABC’s new comedy series, “Me and the Boys,” and the show’s star, Steve Harvey, leads the way down a bland corridor of offices, finally opening the door to his dressing room.

It is not a dressing room that would make the pages of Architectural Digest. He has probably seen more stylish furnishings in some of the remote burgs and dives he has worked during a decade on the road as a stand-up comedian. But the trappings quickly become nothing as he starts talking. At 37, it is clear that Harvey knows who he is, what he will do and what he won’t.

In the Tuesday night series, which is co-produced by ABC Productions but is shot at CBS Television City on Beverly Boulevard, Harvey portrays a video store owner who is a widower and lives with his three sons and mother-in-law, played winningly by Madge Sinclair.

It is a TV formula setup, of course--a thus-far successful link in ABC’s strong Tuesday lineup that includes “Full House,” “Home Improvement,” “Grace Under Fire” and “NYPD Blue.” But if the first few shows are indicative, there is more than mere formula at work here.

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After a flurry of disputes over some stereotypical and unflattering portrayals of African Americans in TV series, “Me and the Boys” presents Harvey as an authoritative, serious--yet funny--role-model father who emphasizes education and responsibility to his sons, and clearly is unimpressed by the fads of the moment.

The priorities of the series in its first month--a father urging his sons toward the path of learning--have much in common with the positive values of “The Cosby Show,” Harvey acknowledges. And some viewers may well see roots going back to the Fred MacMurray comedy series “My Three Sons.”

“We knew going in that comparisons (with ‘My Three Sons’) were going to be made,” Harvey says. “But there’s not a new concept under the sun, especially when you’re talking family shows. The difference is, I ain’t Fred MacMurray. Fred wasn’t funny himself. He was humorous. I have more of an edge.”

Indeed he does. But like MacMurray and Cosby, Harvey is also a solid anchor for the series, a handsome, mature, unpretentious presence. If the series succeeds and continues with its initial plot thrusts, it could earn audiences through word of mouth. If it fails, at least it will have attempted something worthwhile.

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Harvey also knows that, like “The Cosby Show,” “Me and the Boys” risks being labeled goody-goody. But he says:

“I have a tendency to agree with what Bill Cosby said one time: If we are going to give America a drive-by view of us, then it should always be a positive view, because the only way to help this whole situation is to show the other side. The news will show the negative because they sensationalize everything.

“When you have a cast that’s black, America has a tendency to label it, call it a black show. But this is a show about a family, a man and his sons, this man’s undying love for his sons. No matter what happens, his sons are No. 1 with him.

“He cares about his sons above his business, above his dating, above his trying to find a mother for them, above his buddies. The kids are the focus of his life. He cares only to raise his children in the right way.

“And it’s not about a black man and his black boys. That’s one thing that I wanted to do--have people look at this and think, ‘This is a great family, man. You know he’s right. My kids do the same thing.’ ”

The series, Harvey says, “is very close to me personally, because when you’re struggling in this business, 10 years of stand-up, you get to a point where you want to stand for something. And I want to stand for something.

“I want people to say, ‘That guy is OK. He’s putting out a good product.’ This is no Stepin Fetchit, this is no Amos ‘n’ Andy gig. This is not ‘Def Comedy Jam.’ You’re showing a father who’s just taking care of his kids.”

Born in Welch, W. Va., brought up in Cleveland and with some lower-profile television behind him--he’s hosted the syndicated and cable series “Showtime at the Apollo"--Harvey has a lot riding on “Me and the Boys,” especially after his decade on the road in stand-up.

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“To tell you how much touring I was doing,” he says, “in November of ’87, I bought a brand new Bonneville. Zero miles. November of ’88, I had 124,000 miles on my car. It was New York to Miami, Miami to Denver, Denver to Mississippi, Mississippi to Detroit, Detroit to Iowa.”

And there were the inevitable moments that, Harvey is convinced, turn stand-up comedians into performers who can handle anything. For example, he says, there was that town in South Dakota:

“You don’t know what the road does, man. I mean, I walk to the door, and the bouncer goes, ‘You must be the comedian. I’m gonna tell you right now, we ain’t never had no colored in here. But come on in.’

“Now, you’ve got to sell your act like you’ve never sold it before. I had to go in ‘cause I had $40 in my pocket, I need a hotel room and I need that hundred bucks I was making for the night. I gotta go do this gig. Now you’re in a biker gig and you’re doing your jokes and you have to find something in you to pull that off.

“But the acts you see on TV now that are the most successful come off of that road. Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen, Roseanne, Brett Butler, Mark Curry--they are people who’ve been out there for years building an act. They have more of a concept of what this really means, what comedy is all about, and they can transfer it better on TV.”

Harvey, who is divorced and the father of twin 12-year-old girls, says that ABC took the idea for “Me and the Boys” to producer Bob Myer, “and when he pitched the concept to me, I pitched back the ‘what-I-will-dos and what-I-won’t-dos.’

“I had a list of things I won’t do. Like the way I dress on the show. I’m not a Docker guy with a cotton shirt. I said I have to be allowed to dress the way I normally dress. I wear a lot of ties to work, a lot of jackets. I’m that type of guy. So they allowed me that.

“And then I said, ‘I don’t want to do anything stereotypical.’ I don’t want to do something where a viewer who is non-black will say, ‘I don’t understand this show.’ I also stated that I wanted it to be a positive message.

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“One of the things that’s out there when we talk about stereotypes is the absent African-American father. What makes a good father is a guy who loves his children, provides for them, supports them, offers them leadership, guidance and love.

“But what makes you a great father is not whether you live at that house or not. Because you and the woman didn’t get along doesn’t stop you from being a great father. There are a lot of great fathers who are absent for whatever reason--mostly it’s divorce, or they never got married.”

Harvey’s character, however, was married happily and lives at home in “Me and the Boys.” And with sly, knowing humor, he is on the conservative side--and, he says, a far piece from the world of hip-hop.

“Right,” he says. “My thing is, at 37, and growing up in the ‘70s as a teen-ager, hip-hop is not for me. I’m hip-hop without the hop. I’m just hip. I’m not dressing in a pair of boots that’s not tied up and some big jeans hanging down off my tail. I’m not wearing shirts that are five sizes too big for me. I’m not that guy in real life, and I’m not going to be that guy on TV. I don’t care how much money you’ve got or how funny a script you’ve got, there’s just certain things I’m not gonna be.”

But one thing he is going to continue to be, he says, is a stand-up comedian--regardless of how his series fares:

“I don’t really consider myself an actor. My best work is done alone on a stage with a microphone--no props, no gimmicks, no lights, no band, no stage direction, no marks. Stand-up is purely one-on-one, and it’s the most rewarding form of entertainment that I know of. I would never give it up. It’s the one thing I have that God gave me that no one can take. They can cancel this show, but they can never take stand-up away from me.”


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