Steve Harvey cries for "me time" and, on some level, I get it

Yes, Harvey's brusque memo was rude. But it also validates the basic human need to protect personal space

By Melanie McFarland

Published May 12, 2017 6:28PM (EDT)

Steve Harvey       (Reuters/Patrick Fallon)
Steve Harvey (Reuters/Patrick Fallon)

In a different life, I worked at a company with an open floor plan. Although the location of my desk seemed fairly primo — close to the windows with a view of the nearby lake — in reality, as it turned out, it was not. The desk also happened to be near an alcove area with a table and two comfortable chairs.

Said comfy corner was the floor's main staging area for people to have loud phone conversations on their breaks. I listened to men talk to their divorce lawyers and insurance agents. At one point I wrote down the address and credit card number of a repeat offender who seemed to be under the impression that his nearby co-workers were hearing impaired, and I contemplated gifting him with a series of ludicrous magazine subscriptions. Impromptu parties and stand-up meetings led to my team's posting a sign requesting that people keep their voices down in consideration of those working nearby. It was ignored.

On top of this were the frequent, unannounced visits to my little veal-fattening pen, a place inside of which I huddled like Smeagol and intentionally cultivated to resemble a garbage pile in the hope that my co-workers would find me too disgusting to approach. Didn’t work. Neither did the permanent “Do Not Disturb” indicator on my instant messaging window, or the headphones that were glued to my skull from the moment I sat down in the morning to the moment I left late at night. I was the TV person, and in their mind, that made me Lady Fun Times — always at their beck and call.

Regardless of the deadline pressures I was under or the concentration needed for the task, I could count on people swinging by several times a day on their breaks (our team rarely had time for those) to ask me about certain shows, usually dead ones. In one particularly memorable case, one of the company’s top executives waved his hands in my face to get my attention, signaled me to remove my headphones, leaned in with a facial expression that was serious as cancer, and asked, “'Homeland.’ Is it any good?”

This happened the morning after “Homeland” won the Emmy for outstanding drama.

All of this is to say, on a very meaningful level, I get where Steve Harvey's head is. I really do.

In case you haven’t heard, earlier this week a letter from the jovial television host was leaked via Chicago media reporter Robert Feder’s blog that painted a not-so-chuckleworthy picture of what the comedian is like when the cameras aren’t on. The host of daytime talker “Steve Harvey” sent the missive to his new Hollywood crew: Production is shifting to Los Angeles after five years of being based in Chicago. (Harvey also serves as the ringmaster for ABC’s “Celebrity Family Feud” as well as  NBC’s “Little Big Shots” and has signed on to Fox’s upcoming reboot of “Showtime at the Apollo.” )

Here’s the memo in full.

Good morning, everyone. Welcome back.

I’d like you all to review and adhere to the following notes and rules for Season 5 of my talk show.

There will be no meetings in my dressing room. No stopping by or popping in. NO ONE.

Do not come to my dressing room unless invited.

Do not open my dressing room door. IF YOU OPEN MY DOOR, EXPECT TO BE REMOVED.

My security team will stop everyone from standing at my door who have the intent to see or speak to me.

I want all the ambushing to stop now. That includes TV staff.

You must schedule an appointment.

I have been taken advantage of by my lenient policy in the past. This ends now. NO MORE.

Do not approach me while I’m in the makeup chair unless I ask to speak with you directly. Either knock or use the doorbell.

I am seeking more free time for me throughout the day.

Do not wait in any hallway to speak to me. I hate being ambushed. Please make an appointment.

I promise you I will not entertain you in the hallway, and do not attempt to walk with me.

If you’re reading this, yes, I mean you.

Everyone, do not take offense to the new way of doing business. It is for the good of my personal life and enjoyment.

Thank you all,

Steve Harvey

Obviously, this looks bad — very bad. Considering that it hit the trades and social media a week after he laid off members of his Chicago crew without warning or, according to Radar Online, interviewing any of them for positions in Los Angeles, it looks even worse. After all that, Harvey had the temerity to refuse to apologize for it.

“Look man, I’m in my makeup chair, they walk in the room. I’m having lunch, they walk in, they don’t knock,” he told Entertainment Tonight. “I’m in the hallway, I’m getting ambushed by people with friends that come to the show and having me sign this and do this.”

He went on to add, “I just didn’t want to be in this prison anymore where I had to be in this little room, scared to go out and take a breath of fresh air without somebody approaching me, so I wrote the letter.”

Twitter was not there for it:

Mind you, by pursuing a career in the entertainment industry, Harvey signed up to be a public persona. Relinquishing a share of personal space on the job is the part of price a celebrity pays for making millions of dollars. And there's never an excuse to take out one's fatigue and discomfort on people who are paid far less and work tirelessly to make stars like Harvey look good.

But as someone who once had to spend upward of 10 hours in her own “little room” five days a week, who had no time for breaks and whose job depended on smiling and accommodating anyone who wanted to engage in banal chatter while under hard deadline pressures, this letter comes across to me as a cry of “enough, already.”

I am not saying Harvey is a saint. He may indeed be a horrible person to work for and with. That would make him far from unique in Hollywood — or the world. Nor are his demands singular or really, if you think about it from the perspective of a guy who’s always had someone in his face, altogether unreasonable once you peel back the brusqueness of the presentation.

But in our culture, whether we work at an office or at home, we are losing our respect of personal space. Most of us are not afforded the luxury of office doors. Even when we go to bed at night, many of us are tacitly expected to keep our phones on our nightstands  — devices that now accept emails, text messages and instant chat notifications. We can turn them off, but it’s nearly impossible to ignore the world of Other People Who Want Our Time.

There was a time when I wish I could have said, “I want all the ambushing to stop now. I hate being ambushed. Please make an appointment.” But alas, I would have paid for that during that company’s glorious system of peer performance reviews.

Harvey also said that in hindsight, he would have handled it “a little bit differently.” Well, sure. For instance, maybe say "please" a few times. Try being polite. Also, and this is important, don’t write this stuff down. Hire human assistants who can convey that message on your behalf. Steve, you have the money. Lots of your Hollywood peers do that. Many of them make far more selfish and egotistical demands of their staff than you're making. I have heard many stories. I cannot substantiate them, though. Know why?

The answer is those demands are not on paper.

Then be extraordinarily considerate of and loyal to the people who are sticking by you despite this publicity blunder. Treat your production staff  like gold because it’s the right thing to do and because you now have to do damage control. One thing you could do is make taking “me time” part of the work culture at "Steve." Encourage it for everyone, and really make it possible for your staff to enjoy.

Otherwise, as you have discovered, people will talk — and the hounding will simply not go away.

Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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