The Blues Gotchu? Downhome Dr. Feelgood Refills the ‘Script in ‘The Projects’

2011/04/07

Depending on your age and cultural references, the term “Dr. Feelgood” may have a negative or positive connotation.  When applied to the man in charge of “The Steve Harvey Project,” it’s all good because there’s nothing wrong with overdosing on some downhome humor now and then.

The key words are now and then.  When you have a crick in your neck and it’s not the worn futon that’s to blame, but the boss’s heel imprint, then surfing to the Centric Network channel to catch the antics on “The Steve Harvey Project” can be a timely antidote.  Watch the show too often, however, and you might find yourself tripping over subject-verb disagreement at the office and landing on the unemployment line.

Then again, I worked at one place where a colleague used to respond to anyone’s attempt at a humorous anecdote with, “You is so crazy!” or he’d omit the verb altogether while euphemizing a swear word, as in: “Dang, you a hot mess!”  I won’t fuckin’ lie; the second remark of his was my favorite.

But I digress from the subject of this post.

I watch “the Projects”  — a shorthand that Harvey, his co-hosts and even some guests use for the veteran comedian’s televised morning radio show — whenever I need to decompress quickly after work.  I can get some easy laughs in front of the idiot box when I’m stressed from Type A assholes’ pushing my buttons as if I were a human accordion.

I also view the ensemble comedy/talk radio show whenever I desire a brainteaser.  Why bother with Sudoku when I can just fall back on my couch, totally exasperated from trying to decipher Harvey’s speech.  Don’t get me wrong.  Steve Harvey has charisma and a rich reservoir of humor, downhome and otherwise.  His timing is impeccable, his material is funny and his moustache is Pryoresque.

Oh, and Harvey’s insight probably saves several generations of Black folks from wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars on the psychotherapy that they avoid as if it’s the superstition that unfortunately has survived the slavery era in America.  “What? You want me to put my bag where?  Under the table?  No can do.”

But here’s a twist:  Black folks may or may not be saving money by seeking Harvey and his sidekicks’ Southern shamanic treatments for their love joneses, the advertisers are racking up a fortune through subliminal messages that cater to the same viewers’ instinct to “keep up with the Joneses.”  And just when they thought they couldn’t buy enough fast cars, fast food and weight plans that make them “feeeeeel GOOOOOOD,” they get suckered in night after night through book plugs that pop up like those annoying, cloying TV ads for addictive sleep aids and pain medications.

Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.  See, the love-drug-addicted among you probably got a rush just now.  I nabbed my copy of Harvey’s bestseller, not from my local library but from the pile of books headed for the trash heap outside.  Actually, I’m busted, too.  Ahem, eyes up here; I didn’t say busty.  I meant that I’ve been going through withdrawal symptoms waiting for another neighbor (or the same one) to toss out the sequel to Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.  Yes, I’m looking forward to being bullshitted straight through Straight Talk, No Chaser.  Or perhaps I missed my chance at a free copy.  Maybe an opossum already gobbled it up.  The critter took one look at Harvey’s yummy lips and bared its teeth like Karen Black at the end of that Trilogy of Terror vignette (the best of the three).

Yes, now and then “The Steve Harvey Project” has me grinding my teeth.  Not in my sleep but when I’m wide-awake.  Sometimes my ears are doing battle with Harvey’s smothered-fried dialect and I’m grabbing the remote for the umpteenth time to press the rewind button.  For me to unwind in those moments, the amount of negative stress in my workday must outweigh that experienced when I’m struggling through his chunky dialect.

Having said that, Harvey’s skit in which he purposely obscures every word in a sentence — as the aptly named character “Tongue Tied” — is hilarious because it’s supposed to be incomprehensible.  But there is another reason for the skit’s effectiveness:  One of Harvey’s female co-hosts, the überarticulate Shirley Strawberry, plays the role of interpreter.

If ever there was a perfect voice for a phone sex line, it would be Strawberry’s.  (Her surname alone is erotic, and I couldn’t care less whether she was born with it, married into it, or created it.)  I may wince through Harvey’s grammatical butchery as he scoffs at missives from the “E-mail Bag,” but while I’m listening to Shirley in the “Strawberry Letter” segment, I feel as if I’m receiving a full-body massage — at a remote island spa where I’ve traveled to only in daydreams.

My fave skit on “The Steve Harvey Project,” cardboard-and-wood fans down, is “Pastors with Horoscopes.”  Thanks to my father getting his way and making me follow the Baptist religion in childhood — even though he himself never attended worship services — I recognize all the love taps and outright disses in Harvey’s sketch.  For example, I never fail to laugh when the Reverend Motown (Harvey), with Deacon Def Jam (Harvey’s Nephew Tommy, a co-host of “the Projects”) at his side, opens his Baptist-style sermon with:  “Holluh, holluuuUUUHHH!  Backatchoboyyyy.”  Perhaps I’m not doing the line justice here.  You really need to hear it in all its gospel glory for yourselves.

Deacon Def Jam, too, has me rolling as he recites the church’s slogan — “Jackpot Joint of Jerusalem”  (a.k.a the “JPJJ”) — in an inadvertently maniacal voice.  Think legendary film villainVincent Price; for those of you under the age of 30, Price narrates at the end of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

As for the pastors’ “Jackpot Joint of Jerusalem,” there’s at least one inside joke:  that some of the most sanctified churchgoers are some of the most discreet high rollers at the casinos.  Hmmm, all that cash intended for Building Fund envelopes, gone!

With the exception of the old-school cash register’s “cha-ching” that follows the deacon’s intro — and, of course the horoscope readings (“Stop right dehre!”) — the sketch “Pastors with Horoscopes” brings back fun memories of my churchgoing days.  Hey, if one must be a captive congregant, one may as well get some comedic mileage out of the experience.

In a Black Baptist church, at least the one I joined as a young girl, the organist would lean on a few chords as the preacher approached the pulpit.  Although television doesn’t have the time to allow the Reverend Motown and Deacon Def Jam to spoof Black Baptist sermons fully, their skit mocks the best parts.

My favorite part of the sermons of yore was the revelation.  The lesson.  Upon hearing the organ cue up the sermon’s climax, I would completely awaken if my mother’s backhand hadn’t resuscitated me first.  Then I would stretch my eyes at my Mickey Mouse wristwatch and prepare for the jam session that was chutch.”  Just as instruments — vocal and mechanical — riff off each other in jazz, so too between organist and minister.

A whoosh of chords piping up sharply behind every few, briefly spoken-sung phrases could delineate how swiftly the listener might go to Hell if the pastor’s lesson were not heeded.  Or, a ripple of organ notes could accompany the preacher’s impromptu tap-dance number behind the pulpit as he sang in a gravelly voice about the upside of following the Lord’s word.

In “Pastors With Horoscopes,” Harvey opens the doors of the church.  In real life, when the minister would open the doors of the “chutch,” the musical dynamics would change dramatically, as in “a lil’ bit lighter now” — to borrow from The Isley Brothers classic “Shout.”  After all, it was time for the minister to beg.  He needed cold hard cash for the Building Fund, the Sick and Shut-in Fund, the Pastor’s Anniversary Fund, the Fish Fry Fund, the Patrimony Fund, etc.

It also was a time for the good rev to implore his suckers, er, sinners to come get their souls cleansed.  There always would be more women than men trudging up to the front.  For the minister, the anticipation would be worth it; soon the day would come when he would get to dunk a fascinating array of women dressed in white in a baptismal tub and revel at how the water renders the material translucent.

As thrilling as his priapic fantasy may have been, money really was the focus of his musical invitation.  While the pastor’s eyes bucked and seemed to beseech dollar bills out of Madea-heavy bosoms in the front and side pews, ushers would thrust gold-toned collection plates into the faces of congregants foolish enough to sit on the aisle.

As a young teen, I often thought how ingeniously those collection plates were designed, with a velvety cushion at the bottom center so that churchgoers couldn’t hear all the coins clinking into the plates.  When the plate clunked against my nose, I used to strain to see the dollar bills bouncing off each other at the top and watch men groping through their pockets and women rifling through their bags as if dropping paper in that plate was their last chance to make it into heaven.  It was all so psychological — the fleecing of the flock.

On a recent episode of “the Pastors” — how the sketch sometimes is referred to by Harvey and his co-hosts, and in the media — gospel celebrity Kirk Franklin paid a visit.  While the height-deprivation jokes were overdone (with Nephew Tommy playing Harvey’s foil as always), the chemistry between Franklin and Tommy, as the deacon, was electric.

When Harvey, as the Reverend Motown, revealed to Deacon Def Jam that “Kirkie” would be replacing him as the reader, he stammered the word Wait an astounding number of times before quipping:  “After all these yeeeuhhhs, he come in here wit a Gucci hat and a Gucci jacket on, and you give him–”

The Reverend Motown interrupted him to explain how Kirkie “has sold a million albums,” as if to justify the deacon’s demotion.  With perfect timing, a camera zoomed in on Franklin’s Hello Fear CD, while Shirley Strawberry and Carla Ferrell could be heard guffawing in harmony in the background.  Franklin’s objection over the minister’s injurious short jokes, led Reverend Motown to apologize to him while still managing to insult Deacon Def Jam.  Deadpanning, the preacher stated that Franklin is “a giant in the gospel world.”

The skit concluded with Kirkie Franklin making a plea for viewers to “call into the Short Ministry of all the people that’s tall through it all.”  Again, maybe you had to be there, but that episode of “Pastors With Horoscopes” was funny as hell.

“The Steve Harvey Project” airs on the Centric Network every weeknight.  In my area, the show airs at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m.  Please check your local TV listings for show times.

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