Television Without Pity
A lawsuit says sitcoms are are hostile, filthy workplaces. Writers say they wouldn't have it any other way
October 17, 2004
Sometimes, typically at 2 or 3 in the morning, comedy writers make jokes they never expect anyone else to hear. These are trotted out exclusively for the pleasure of punchy, bleary-eyed co-workers whose senses of humor have been hardened by years of professional wear and tear. One writer might start with the story of a humiliating colonic, which might trigger speculation about what a particular network executive would look like dressed in bondage gear, which could inspire a poem composed entirely of venereal diseases.
"If someone put out a transcript of what goes on in writers' rooms, it would be very, very hard to explain," said Diane English, creator of the CBS sitcom "Murphy Brown." "I can remember some nights lying on the floor screaming with laughter, thinking if anyone was here with a tape recorder, my God, how horrible."
Just how horrible is no longer a source of speculation, thanks to a former writers' assistant who was fired from the NBC sitcom "Friends." Amaani Lyle contends that while doing her job, which was to record anything any of the writers said, she was subjected to her bosses' dirty, personal and just plain weird banter, so much so that it constituted sexual harassment. Crude language, naughty doodles, sexual fantasies involving cast members: all are dutifully chronicled in a lawsuit against Warner Brothers Television; Bright/Kauffman/Crane Productions; and three writers, Adam Chase, Gregory S. Malins and Andrew Reich. The suit, which grew out of a complaint filed in 1999 and has now progressed to the Califorinia State Supreme Court, has prompted pledges of support for the "Friends" staff from many within the industry, as well as sympathy for the assistant from a few dissenting observers. It has also produced a dead-on parody from another writer who, in a sitcom-ready plot twist, was signed by an agent impressed by the writing sample.
Sexual harassment claims are nothing new in Hollywood, but this one has attracted particular interest, partly because it involves dirty talk and a hit sitcom, but also because it touches on sensitive issues of gender and race. Ms. Lyle is African American; her original complaint included charges of racial discrimination. The case may also have consequences far outside Hollywood because of Ms. Lyle's potentially precedent-setting position and Warner Brothers' equally novel defense.
In most cases that claim a "hostile work environment," the defense argues that the offending actions didn't really happen, or weren't that bad, or that they were taken out of context. The Warner Brothers lawyers, however, do not dispute that the "Friends" writers were often lewd, crude and extravagantly vulgar. The excuse was they're comedy writers. "They were talking about sex because that's their job," said Adam Levin, a partner in the Los Angeles law firm Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp. "The real crime here is that these writers are being individually sued for doing their job."
Both sides are making big claims for what's at stake. Studio executives say not just the way their industry works but also the First Amendment is under attack. And some legal experts fear that if what has been called the "creative necessity" defense prevails, it will give people in show business immunity from the same standards that apply at construction sites, stock brokerages and any other workplace forced in recent decades to clean up its act. "The law should not say that people in a writers' room can refer to women in demeaning terms but no one else can," said Joanna Grossman, who teaches sexual harassment law at Hofstra University.
The "Friends" writers certainly had some legitimate reasons to talk about sex: this was, after all, a show in which a character once fashioned for himself a prosthetic foreskin out of Silly Putty. "This was not 'Barney and Friends,' " Mr. Levin said. "The show dealt with pornography, threesomes, oral sex anal sex."
He added: "How could they not talk about sex in the writers' room?"
But Ms. Lyle's lawyers say Warner Brothers is exaggerating the show's sexual content. "They make it sound like soft porn," Mark Weidmann, lead counsel for Ms. Lyle, said. "They made an occasional oblique joke about sex, but I've seen nothing on the show that suggests it was adult."
So the defendants have gone to great lengths to emphasize the smuttiness of their workplace, while the offended party is strenuously arguing how tame it was. Which is, of course, exactly the opposite of how most sexual harassment suits play out.
But whatever the case - whether "Friends" is an exceptionally ribald or utterly tame show - employees of other sitcoms say the banter among writers is almost always the same. "I don't believe there's a room out there that's clean," said Jon Sherman, who spent five seasons writing for the buttoned-down "Frasier" and a year with the relentlessly inoffensive "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."
"Both rooms could get incredibly filthy," Mr. Sherman said. "Out of context it sounds horrifying and awful and makes no sense. But to do this job well, you have to open your head up - and sometimes what comes spilling out isn't exactly pretty."
WITH few exceptions, situation comedies are written by large groups of predominantly young white guys - often under-socialized, smart-alecky guys for whom "Portnoy's Complaint" and "American Pie" are sacred texts - who are cooped up together in small spaces late into the night. (According to the Writers Guild of America, of the 1,576 writers who worked on network television programs in the 2002-2003 season, 425 were women.) Often, the only real authority figure is the show runner, who may have created the series but probably doesn't have any management experience. In rare cases, show runners are efficient, staffs are productive and everyone goes home in time for dinner with loved ones. More often, scripts bomb at table readings, egos are battered and free-floating anxiety coalesces into white-hot panic at precisely the moments writers are expected to be at their funniest.
That atmosphere has been likened to a submarine, a foxhole or any other battle scene. "You take on a bunker mentality, definitely," Ms. English said. "When you've been sitting in the same room with no ventilation for 12 hours and you can smell your dinner rotting in the trash can and just want to get in your car and go home, thank goodness for that person who said something or draws something that cracks everyone up. You get a rush of adrenaline and you can go on."
An offensive remark, Mr. Sherman said, can be "a sharp stick that you poke the room with." Such a tool can come in handy when writers find themselves in a lull, stuck for a line, left idle by an absent boss or struck by the sense that they better justify their six-figure salaries by stirring up some actual laughter. "A lot of times it starts when a writer is like, 'Uh-oh, I haven't gotten a joke in the script for 15 minutes,' " says Jake Farrow, a writers' assistant who worked on "Friends" the year after Ms. Lyle left. He said "the easiest way" to get a laugh is to make a masturbation joke "or ask how many dead babies can you cram into a glove compartment."
Sometimes, the jokes even move the script along. A "Friends" writers named in Ms. Lyle's suit entertained co-workers with a story of having oral sex with a prostitute who turned out to be a man; according to legal filings, this anecdote formed the basis of a story in which a character unwittingly kisses a man in a wig in a poorly lighted bar. That's what writers mean when they talk of "pulling back" a joke from a "first blurt," said Marshall Goldberg, who spent 24 years writing for shows like "Diff'rent Strokes" and "L.A. Law" before becoming general counsel for the Writers Guild of America.
"The whole point is to create the loosest room you can," Mr. Goldberg said." If people aren't censoring themselves, they're going to be funnier and more real."
But even when they don't end up in the scripts, the off-color jokes, writers say, are essential. Some of the cleanest shows are created in filthy rooms, said Jeff Schaffer, who works on the HBO comedy "Curb Your Enthusiasm." "If you're not doing challenging jokes on the air, you've got to let them out some way," he said. "It's about stacking a few more pounds on the barbell. It's necessary to get filthy."
In this atmosphere, almost anything is fair game. "Our negativity is almost always self-directed," said Rob Long, who wrote for "Cheers" and developed several other sitcoms, Except, that is, when the negativity is directed at someone else.
"Writers make fun of the cast relentlessly," Mr. Long said. "There's a huge status difference between writers and these gigantic, internationally known megastars. The cast of 'Friends' is beautiful and talented and funny and they seem really nice and in fact they are really nice and they did a great show and they all got really rich - and if you're a writer, these are the people you despise."
Ms. Lyle's suit said that while joking about the supposed infertility of the actress Courteney Cox, one writer described her reproductive system as "full of dried up twigs" and speculated that if she tried to have sex, "she'd break in two." One target, however, is traditionally off-limits: writers' assistants. "It's immoral and beneath contempt to make fun of someone making so much less money," Mr. Long said. "They also spend a lot of time with your lunch before you eat it, if you get my drift."
NOT all comedy writers agree that the smutty humor is offered as a sacrifice to the creative process. Chris Kelly, who got his start on the ABC program "Politically Incorrect" and now writes for the WB sitcom "Grounded for Life" and HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher," said "room jokes" are less often tools for relieving tension or sparking discussion than acts of juvenile one-upsmanship - or just plain procrastination. A riff on the supposed homosexuality of a writer's spouse might segue into a discussion of a certain TV star's sexual habits, which might inspire a child molestation joke, which might inspire something else - and an hour is gone. "A dirty bit can take forever," Mr. Kelly said. "Not only in the telling, but then it has to be topped. And then someone has to jump on the Internet to find something that's worse."
Ultimately, that climate favors certain writers over others, often to the detriment of the show, Mr. Kelly said. "It doesn't just marginalize women," he said. "It marginalizes older writers who just want to go home."
But the effect it has on women is at the center of this case, and Amaani Lyle is not the first to call attention to it. "It was a rotten place to be a woman, basically," said one alumna of a current network program who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern about future job prospects. Show runners enjoyed teasing their staff members about their sex lives, boasting about their virility or pointing out the inadequacies of women "P.M.S. was a total obsession," she says.
The basics of sexual harassment law were well known to the show runners: an annual seminar inspired an especially boisterous round of joking, she says but the threat of legal action was not exactly a deterrent. "We all knew we could probably sue," she said. "But we also knew if we did we'd never work again."
Not all women mind. "I can get just as bawdy as the guys," said Eileen Conn, whose credits include "Just Shoot Me" and "Mad About You." "My partner used to joke that I'd be the first person slapped with a sexual harassment suit. You either join them or you get out."
Ms. English said she learned that lesson early in her career, when women were even fewer and further between. At the first hint of foulness, Ms. English made a concerted effort to "out-gross the >> guys."
"That way," she said, "they knew they couldn't intimidate us and the playing field was equal."
BUT should a potty mouth (or asbestos skin) really be a job requirement for working in comedy?
Ms. Lyle joined "Friends" in 1999 as a staff writers' assistant, an often thankless clerical job typically filled by aspiring writers willing to put up with grunt work to learn the business. Her suit claims she was forced to listen to her bosses discuss oral sex, ideal breast size and their desire to turn the character played by Matt LeBlanc into a serial rapist. In a formal declaration, which became fodder for writers' room banter after it was posted on the Web site thesmokinggun.com, Ms. Lyle said that one writer passed around a "dirty little coloring book that would allow a person to make the pictures anatomically correct," and another enjoyed blacking out letters on scripts to change the word "Friends" to the word "penis." Ms. Lyle conceded that none of the remarks were directed at her but said that the constant banter was both an offense and an imposition: "I can recall sitting around waiting to go home while writers were sitting around pretending to masturbate" and continually talking about their penises.
Sounds about right, said Zack Rosenblatt, a writers' assistant who worked alongside Ms. Lyle at "Friends." During the season they worked together, the staff was routinely busy until three or four in the morning and discussion often veered into decidedly indelicate territory.
Ms. Lyle was fired after four months, according to court papers filed by Warner Brothers, because of "slow typing." Ms. Lyle did not respond to requests for comment. She initially said she was the victim of racial discrimination, in part because fellow writers' assistants who were white were given access to networked computers while she was made to wait. And although her discrimination claim was rejected by a trial judge and an appeals court, Ms. Lyle's request to have a jury decide whether writers' dirty talk constitutes harassment is now being considered by the California Supreme Court, which is expected to issue its ruling next year.
Both sides say the ruling could have far-reaching consequences. "Once you write into law that creativity is a no-holds-barred process," says Deborah Blake, an associate professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, "you're opening the door for that spilling over into all sorts of workplace contexts where you want some sexual harassment protection."
Warner Brothers lawyers ague that the suit threatens free speech in all "communicative workplaces," including lecture halls, newspaper offices, art galleries and theatrical venues. Letters of support for the "Friends" writers have been filed by the California Newspaper Publishers Association, the National Association of Scholars and the Motion Picture Association of America, among others.
A finding for the plaintiff, Mr. Levin, a Warner Brothers lawyer, wrote in one court filing, would hang "like Damocles' sword over the heads of employees in any workplace in which speech, particularly that which might offend others, is an integral part of the business and an indispensable part of the job."
It's unclear what Amaani Lyle herself thinks of the legal and professional arguments that have arisen from her case. After leaving "Friends" in 1999, she joined the Air Force and is stationed on the Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany. Meanwhile, her former co-worker at "Friends," Mr. Rosenblatt, has since graduated to staff jobs at two network sitcoms and just finished working as a story editor on a midseason NBC program called "The Men's Room."
"See what happens when you keep your mouth shut?" Mr. Rosenblatt said.