Who Is This For?, by Tom McAllister

NOTE: This post is part 10 in an ongoing series of reviews of syndicated daytime TV shows by Barrelhouse editor Tom McAllister. See the rest here and check back Tuesday and Fridays for future installments.

Steve Harvey does not give a shit. At all. 

Contrasted with the hyperbolic high-minded rhetoric of so many other daytime hosts who promise to inspire and build community and teach you how to live, Harvey’s disengagement is actually sort of refreshing. There is no pretending that this show is important or useful in any way. There is no aspiration to be anything beyond a producer of noises and images and product placement. Even the opening theme is lazy, with music that sounds like a Garage Band sample loop, and clips of Harvey saying, “I’m here to help,” and “you and I will get through this. Together,” both of which are recited with the conviction of a teenage boy promising to get home before curfew. 

Harvey seems perfectly aware of his place in the television landscape; his job is to create noise and images for one hour every day, and to occasionally say something funny. He is extraordinarily comfortable on stage, and he does not have to break a sweat to meet the minimal requirements of his job. 

He is very quiet, compared to most hosts, who are desperate to interject witty and outrageous remarks.  When he speaks, it is often as part of an obviously pre-planned bit, as in the “Ask Steve” segment that opens every episode and features alleged audience members obviously reading scripted and rehearsed questions to him on topics that nobody would ever ask Steve Harvey about. “Can you give me pointers on throwing a baseball?” one woman asks, and then they turn to find a bucket of baseballs beside Steve. “Why is it that French fries just taste better when they’re someone else’s and not yours?” another woman asks, and what she means is, “Steve, can you please go into your 90-second bit about how good free food is?”  He then trots out a bit that is certain to end up in his next stand-up tour. He is sometimes funny, or at least funny-adjacent.  After nearly thirty years in comedy, Harvey has the cadences of comedy down pat. Thousands of hours on-stage have made him a master of the rhythms of sounding funny, even when he’s not saying anything particularly funny. He’s a professional entertainer who can get the job done even when he doesn’t care about the job at all. He proved decades ago that he’s capable of telling funny jokes, but most of his comedy on this show relies on subtle contortions in facial expressions, which range from contempt to mild contempt to disgust to disappointment to stifled laughter. He has an impressive physical presence and is really good at this aspect of his job, and if I’m being dismissive here it’s because I don’t care enough not to be. 

Look, let’s stop for a minute. What do you want me to tell you about this show? What are you hoping to get out of this? What am I supposed to say here? It’s a dumb show. It achieves base-level competence and tries for nothing beyond that. There are cooking segments and weight loss segments and many dating advice segments and audience giveaways. There is much applause. I don’t know who the show is for. Who is it for? 

Who is it for? 

I don’t know who it’s for. 

Does anyone in the world watch it on purpose? Does anyone pay more than a few seconds of attention, or is it just background noise? Is it even intended as something that can be watched intently? 

I need to confess something: I fast-forwarded. You may not believe me, but this was the first time during this project that I’ve fast-forwarded. I just couldn’t keep watching. It became clear to me midway through the second Steve Harvey episode that not even Harvey himself could be bothered to pay close attention to what was happening. During one confusing segment, he interviewed a female bullrider, who was giving him riding tips as she sat on a mechanical bull. He wasn’t even looking at her while she spoke. He grunted sometimes in semi-responses. Then she finally got to the obvious conclusion: Steve, it’s your turn to ride the bull. 

“Nope,” he said. “Steve ain’t getting on that.” She tried to convince him, the audience egged him on, and he shook his head and that was the end of that segment. 

If Steve ain’t riding that bull, then I ain’t going to endure any more “Ask Steve” segments in my life. I am never again going to subject myself to his dating advice segments (over the past half-decade Harvey has branded himself as some kind of relationship expert despite his two divorces and complete lack of expertise) during which couples lay out a problem for him and he nods and looks sincere and then says something about how you gotta love your wife or whatever. 

This is a rational decision, to fast forward, to stop allowing this show to be a part of my life. I realize that. I realize also that I’m the one in charge of this project and I can set the parameters however I’d like them to be set and nobody in the world would care at all about what happened. And yet I felt guilty about it. After fast-forwarding through a segment about a champion log-roller looking for love this morning, I didn’t delete the episode because I worried maybe I’d missed something important. So then I came back to it tonight, rewound, and watched that segment. I took notes on it. I looked for something important. 

There was a dating game-style competition for the log-roller (a woman) that involved the prospective men sawing logs and answering questions like log rolling requires really good balance. How do you balance your career and relationship? and log rolling is all about having quick feet. What is the quickest part of your body?

I looked for something important. 

I reconsidered my conception of the term important

I didn’t rewatch everything I skipped. There was some guy with an X-cube—essentially a more complex rubik’s cube—and the only way I could have been made to care about that five minute segment is if solving the cube opened a portal to another dimension, preferably one without commercials featuring animated pooping bears. 

I couldn’t make myself watch the thirteen minute segment in which some guy got a custom-designed “man cave.” I don’t even understand the concept of the man cave; the whole earth is a fucking man cave. You don’t need leather recliners and a flat screen to establish hegemony. 

A lot of things happened during the past week of The Steve Harvey Show. None of them were important. Nobody cared, not even the host. Somebody made money from it and they’re going to turn that money into more money. In my notes, I wrote “Why are you doing this with your life?” and then I stopped taking notes because I couldn’t answer that question and I was afraid of where it would lead me.  

Coming Friday – I just don’t know, man. 

Tom McAllister is the Barrelhouse Non-fiction Editor. His memoir, "Bury Me in My Jersey," was published in 2010, and his shorter work has appeared in FiveChapters, Black Warrior Review, elimae, and some other places. He has a novel forthcoming from Algonquin in Spring 2016. He co-hosts the Book Fight podcast and you can find him on twitter @t_mcallister.