Family Feud’s “Success” is Built Upon its Irony

There are enough pictures and gifs on Imgur and Reddit that pretty much sum up the current run of Family Feud: questions clearly geared towards sexually provocative answers, lots of hooting, hollering, and laughter, and host Steve Harvey mugging wildly at the mere suggestion that, oh my god, how could seemingly normal people possibly come up with these answers? Remember that scene in The Cable Guy where Matthew Broderick was playing “Porno Password” with his family, growing more and more uncomfortable with each sexual suggestion? That’s essentially Family Feud.

Family Feud

The thing is, everyone’s in on the joke, with Steve playing the stuffed shirt role. I’m going to get into Steve Harvey in a bit, but for now, it’s important to understand that Family Feud has, at this point, stewed in its ridiculousness, of innuendos and gotcha-responses, and everyone is playing along. There was once a point where people played Family Feud to actually try to win. Now? You practically hear the assistant director urging families to say the most suggestive responses they can think of (or the most bizarre ones). Family Feud is less a game show than an elaborate comedy skit.

The internet has taken to it for sure. It’s a wonderful jpeg/gif smorgasbord, perfect for quote/expression/reaction captioning. In some ways, social media is what keeping Family Feud’s current run afloat, and the producers are obviously aware of it, coming up with some of the most insanely, specific questions they can muster up. Gone are the vague “Name something that you drink out of mug.” Now we have “Name something that gets hard when it gets cold,” and it’s hard not to eye-roll or facepalm at it. The show’s and contestants’ energy, however, is so contagious, you can’t help but watch along.

It helps that Family Feud has, at its core, a rock solid premise. Richard Dawson ran the show during its initial debut in the 70s, quickly making it his own. He spent literally the first ten minutes chatting and talking to the contestants, passing kisses to all the women, regardless of age, and shot the shit – which sounds boring, but Dawson’s charisma made it work. Dawson had a confidence, a presence that made him imminently likable, and he knew it, too. He also knew to control it, never coming off too cocky or arrogant. He was definitely one of the best game show hosts around.

“The Feud” was cancelled in 1985. It returned in 1988 with new host Ray Combs, who was passable but not nearly the presence that was Dawson (Combs ultimately committed suicide in 1996). The format changed slightly, dropping the extended introduction and focusing on a new “Bulleye/Bankroll” concept (this would eventually be dropped as well). The show proceeded to work through various hosts – Louie Anderson, Richard Karn, and John O’Hurley – all of whom were fine for different reasons. Family Feud itself, though, was a former shell of itself, a easy-going, early-morning game show with a fun format, where stay-at-home parents would shout the obvious answers at the screen in between commercials for cleaning products.

Then Steve Harvey began hosting.

To get why Steve Harvey “works” so well for Family Feud, it helps to really understand his career as a comedian. Steve Harvey’s routine isn’t really all that memorable or distinctive. His classic stuff was one might call “top tier” during the early rise of the young black comic in the early 90s, where HBO’s Def Comedy Jam and BET’s Comicview allowed African-Americans an opportunity to speak to a very particular “urban” viewpoint, when headlining The Apollo was as game-changing as getting top billing at Caroline’s, which boasted a heavy use of racial/sexual explicitness. Like its hip-hop counterpart, much criticism and controversy arose during this era. A lot of it was borderline racist, but there was a legitimacy in criticizing such comedians and their focus on comedy as shock value (he said nigga! she said she likes to suck lots of dick! and so on). There’s truth to the fact that so many young black comedians were blindly ripping off Richard Pryor’s success without grasping Pryor’s vulnerability and self-depreciation. (It also helps that Pryor’s routine took place during a very provocative era.) But it was a unique viewpoint nonetheless, and those voices were at least given the chance to be heard.

Steve Harvey was one of the breakout successes, post-Eddie Murphy (others included Jamie Foxx, Martin Lawrence, Cedric the Entertainer, DL Hughley, the Wayne Brothers, and Bernie Mac). They were all given TV shows and writing opportunities, and for a while they were managing a decent amount of success. In fact, Harvey, Cedric, Hughley, and Mac arguably reached their pinnacle with Spike Lee’s The Kings of Comedy, released in 2000, netting almost 40 million dollars on a 3 million dollar budget. Their routines were raunchy but pointed, speaking to a very specific crowd of African-American youths AND adults.

The rise of the alt-comedians in 2000 spelt the end of the “black comedian” so to speak. While the best black comedians found comedy in distinctive racial differences, alt comedians found comedy in “irony,” including self-aware distinctive racial differences. While everyone split off in different directions, Steve Harvey still had some success in the stand-up business, but began to turn towards a more religious viewpoint (one can’t help wonder if Bernie Mac’s death affected him more than he lets on), soon after refusing to use vulgar language, a la Bill Cosby. The Steve Harvey of today – the fixture of his radio show, his talk show, and his books – is more of a soft parental figure, a charming advise-giver and seemingly innocent, Christian, non-threatening black man who simply asks his audiences to let him into his home every morning.

So it’s funny to watch Steve Harvey host Family Feud. Harvey’s excessive mugging and over-the-top exasperation at the responses are, in their own ways, a load of shit. Harvey has said much worse during his 27 years as a stand-up comedian; he simply cultivated a much more home-spun, traditionalist “character” in the last six years or so. He’s no fool, though; the man knows comic timing, and he understands his role as a host. He’s not reading comments like “Give me a word a married man would use to fill in the blank: ‘I would _______ for sex’ ” without being self-aware enough to know that the show’s contestants would respond with “pay,” “lie,” or “kill.” Steve Harvey is playing his part. Everyone is playing their part, including the internet. It’s all a show within a show, a certain degree of irony that, in some ways, allowed Steve Harvey to indeed find his place within the alt comedy world.

Family Feud is the second highest rated show in all of daytime television programming (just behind Judge Judy). The core concept of the game show is strong enough to merit watching and playing along, but now its been given a jolt of pseudo-outrageousness with its questions and responses, exacerbated by a host who acts bewildered by it all but is clearly in on it. There’s nothing subversive here; we’re all in on the joke – the families, the producers, the viewers, the internet, hell, even the “100 people surveyed”. Family Feud, the game show, is really window dressing to Family Feud, the comedy. It’s not about the money. It’s about the fun. So let’s play the Feud, and lets try and keep it clean (and yeah, we won’t).


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  1. #1 by Addyarb on May 5, 2014 - 3:02 am

    Great read, I was looking for a way to explain the type of comedy that has taken over FF, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, and even shows like Judge Joe Brown to some extent, and this article hit the nail on the head. I’m honestly peeved by the faux shock of the hosts and the intended vulgarity of the posed questions/content, and sad to see that entertainment has shifted from genuine, classy, and light-hearted to cheap, raunchy and easy to digest.

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