Thursday, April 20, 2006

Sexual Peversity in the writing room

Thanks to the California Supreme Court we comedy writers can continue to be vulgar and crass and sexist and infantile and crude…and do our jobs. With a vote of 7-0 the judges threw out the ridiculous sexual harassment lawsuit against certain FRIENDS writers and Warner Brothers filed by a disgruntled incompetent writers’ assistant who was fired for cause. The sexually explicit remarks made by the FRIENDS writers were not even aimed at her (although now they will be). They were directed at the actors.

Writers Rooms are not for the faint of heart. It is not the Queen’s Tea in there. Sitcom writers on multi-camera shows like FRIENDS work under enormous pressure. The writers see a runthrough at 4:00 and must fix the entire script that night, even if it means throwing out the script and writing a new one. They must identify the problems, come up with the solutions, and have the new draft ready first thing in the morning. Tough luck if the muse doesn’t come, or you’ve got the flu, or worse, had Laker tickets. And you face this daunting task essentially every night for 22 weeks.

To relieve that pressure and kick start the creative process, comedy writers need to be free to say ANYTHING. And considering we’re all neurotic, self loathing, insecure, still pining for that girl from Junior High, and funny our escape valve tends to be material that makes “The Aristocrats” joke seem PG. The only rule is everything and everyone is fair game…even YOU. The best way to prevent others from taking a shot at you is taking the shot yourself. A writers room is the only place in the world where the winner of a dick measuring contest is the one who has the smallest.

And if a favorite target is the cast, well who do you think had all the objections or tanked the material that resulted in this grueling rewrite anyway? You’re in a stuffy room eating bad Chinese food or El Pollo Loco while Courtney Cox is out for a lovely evening. Sure you’re going to talk about her genitals…for twelve hours.

Had the writers’ assistant won this absurd lawsuit the result would not be more genteel writers rooms. It would be fewer woman writers and assistants being hired. And no one would benefit from that.

One last point. If you were ever to be in one of these rooms you would likely be appalled, offended, even outraged…but you would never laugh so much and so hard in your life.

And maybe some of the Courtney Cox genital jokes were true.

26 comments:

Will Teullive said...

Writing suitable dialogue for funsters such as Courtney Cox and Matt LeBlanc has to be a flippin challenge

Beth Ciotta said...

And I thought my deadlines were stressful. I can't imagine that kind of creative pressure day after day for 22 weeks! Don't think I could handle that, but what I wouldn't give to sit in on one of those meetings. Although then I might be a target. On second thought... :)

Richard Cosgrove said...

"The writers see a runthrough at 4:00 and must fix the entire script that night, even if it means throwing out the script and writing a new one. They must identify the problems, come up with the solutions, and have the new draft ready first thing in the morning. Tough luck if the muse doesn’t come, or you’ve got the flu, or worse, had Laker tickets. And you face this daunting task essentially every night for 22 weeks."

And there goes any desire I had to write for TV.

Hollywood blond said...

In any field a disgrunteld ex can sue an employer, burn all bridges and try to grab a pot of money. Just the fact that this lawsuit happened is a threat to getting more women in the writers room. Hopefully, it's a reflection of the person and not the gender.

Ken Levine said...

To shy away from hiring women is shooting yourself in the foot. The goal is always to hire the best, most talented person you can find. And in many many cases that's a woman.

TJD said...

I've worked as a writers assistant on many different shows (too many!) and I laughed a TON. The writers would tease everyone (including me) about virtually everything - but that's all it was: teasing to make a joke. It's only mean-spirited if the person can't take a joke. And if you can't take a joke, I don't know how you could be a decent writers assistant since 95% of your job is "taking" and "getting the joke" and typing into a script or notes. This lawsuit was RIDICULOUS.

vinb said...

No doubt the Court's decision is the right one, but should it discourage sitcom roomies from trying other means of getting their creative bile flowing, even when women aren't in the room? I know, comedy writers are special and their ways are mysterious to outsiders, yaddayadda, but I've seen a few episodes of "Friends." Does pretending to jack off while talking about Courteney Cox's dried up ovaries really produce good funny? I need convincing.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

I can't recall ever reading specific comments about women writers before. I'm sure the comments get said. I just am not around to see or hear them. Point is, your comments are sane and objective. I'm a fan of few, but I'm running for office in your fan club now.

Anonymous said...

If you guys caught Lisa Kudrow's one season HBO show "the Comeback" this lawsuit reminds me of it. On one episode Lisa's character was visiting the writers room while they were doing an all night rewrite to fix Lisa's problems with the script, and when she arrived she could see through the window that two of the male writers (on the sitcom there was only one female writer) were joking around about and miming raping her. She was less than pleased.

I wonder now if that was meant to refer to this particular incident or it was just an overall inside joke.

CharlieDontSurf said...

TJD

What is the best route to scoring a tv writers assistant job? or at least getting the interview?

Besides blackmail and banging the showrunners wife of couse.

Dave said...

Gotta think that the writer's assistant is going to kick themself in the ass over that lawsuit for years. I'd imagine they'll be blackballed to some degree. Now they'll probably be condemed a normal job where you don't work 22 weeks of horrible hours you get to work 49-50 weeks of horrible hours.

I believe that the comraderie of working with a tight group of folks for long hours builds some real bonds. They're probably the best buisiness contacts you can have (or the worst, should the relationship go the other way).

Ken - do you still keep in touch with any of the folks you wrote with on shows?

Hollywood blond said...

This assistant may have seen the writing on the wall. Her former bosses said that her typing skills were slow, so apparently jokes weren't hitting the page in a timely fashion. She may have thought, hey nothing to lose. (Or, benefit of the doubt, she really was offended by the routine coarse dialogue.)

She should've been working on a National Geographic show instead. Although, those pesky scenes with animals reproducing... maybe not. There's always Starbucks.

Ken Levine said...

I'm very close with the writers and assistants I've worked with for many years. Many have become my dearest friends. You do build up relationships and bonds after spending years in a foxhole with them.

On pilots it's now a customary practice that if you have one in production you gather your friends to help on rewrite nights. Likewise, you help out on any of their pilots when they've got one going. On our last pilot we had a creator of FRASIER, three executive producers of CHEERS, the creator of BECKER, producer of WINGS, writer of ROMY & MICHELE, creator of JUST SHOOT ME, and producer of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT come in and help out.

And the pilot still didn't go.

tjd said...

In response to the question above, "Does pretending to jack off while talking about Courteney Cox's dried up ovaries really produce good funny? I need convincing." The answer (maybe surprisingly) is YES YES YES. I've seen MANY times where the most god-awful, inappropriate, twisted, sick joke got turned into a very funny line for a character.

HeiaVincent said...

Before you continue defending that writers seem to be excused from sexual harassment, read this document:

http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/0423041friends1.html

Bobe Kyrant said...

Ken said: On our last pilot we had a creator of FRASIER, three executive producers of CHEERS, the creator of BECKER, producer of WINGS, writer of ROMY & MICHELE, creator of JUST SHOOT ME, and producer of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT come in and help out.


That's alotta cooks. Maybe the pilot ended up being overcooked?

If you don't mind, Ken, explain how that process worked (bringing in your comrades to help with the pilot script).

Hollywood blond said...

Re Emilio's post:
I didn't know the specifics of the case, having somehow missed the Smoking Gun papers. It's clear this woman was affected by her job, whether the writers room was running a normal environment or not. 7-0 decision is pretty clear, but reading the specifics at TSG it's easy to see it was somewhat misogynistic in there.

Humor is a result of the deepest extremes... pain, absurdity, sexuality... injustice. Observation is the means to the punchline. ...

It's interesting that stories regularly hit the papers about office firings over what barely qualify as sexually charged comments.

As a writer, I would have to side with the people who are assessing this lawsuit as bogus from the beginning; as a woman, I wonder why her computer was not hooked up for a month and a half and why she failed to receive screen credit, unlike what her co-workers experienced.

I can't imagine how a team is assembled except by word of mouth recommendations, strong writing samples and resume credits. If the jokes are flying, so be it. Writing under deadline is much pressure but it's always preferrable to writing for fun.

Julie Goes To Hollywood said...

Ken, you must read the brilliant, cult classic short story "Courtney Cox's Asshole," by Jill Soloway (from Six Feet Under). The authoress envisions Mrs. Arquette's anal canal as well worth the scrutiny of a bunch of sitcom goofballs.

http://www.jillsoloway.com/

Anonymous said...

Ken, as someone who was named in the lawsuit, I certainly appreciate what you wrote. In fact it was a relief to see that most people who posted saw our side of the matter. But nothing impressed me as much as this: You did play by play for my seattle mariners? Awesome. How have we never met?

Ken Levine said...

Don't know how we've never met. Thanks for the nice words. I don't know which of the writers you are but as a big admirer of FRIENDS I tip my hat. You guys were even funny on the page. Email me so we can chat. And enjoy your freedom. No longer will you have to run around yelling "Attica!!"

Anonymous said...

Dear God, they face that kind of stress twenty-two weeks of the year??? On meager six and seven figure salaries. Followed by thirty weeks of vacation ("hiatus"). Sweet Jesus they have to write 22 minutes of material capable of making a laugh track laugh. How do they endure???

You industry people are the most cloistered, out of touch prima donnas I have ever encountered. The holding in this case was a travesty that sanctions overt misogyny as the ultimate discriminatory tool to keep television white and male. How many FEWER women could there be in this biz?

Every single woman in the "industry" should have been groveling in gratitude to this brave soul for saying enough is enough, specifically at the risk of being banished for life. (Which she assuredly is.)

Anonymous said...

Circa 1972, my mother-in-law was a divorced (abandoned) mother of six who was denied the opportunity to seek promotion in the prison where she worked on the explicit grounds that she was not a man. Two years of slashed tires, death threats, and DOJ litigation later, she won a permanent injunction against the State of New York. She rose to the rank of Captain and, in her final years, her ex-husband had to salute when she walked by. (Now there’s justice.)

Let’s see what has really changed in thirty-plus years: “Prisons are not for the faint of heart. It is not the Queen’s Tea in there. Prison guards work under enormous pressure. Violent psychotics housed in stuffy rooms eating bad food consider guards their sworn enemies and the sole impediment to freedom for murder and mayhem within prison walls. And they face this daunting task essentially every night for 50 weeks (with two weeks off for vacation). To relieve that pressure and kick start the process, prison guards need to be free to say ANYTHING.”

Try some others. Insert litigation/lawyers, banking/bankers, medicine/doctors, war/soldiers and the appropriate “daunting tasks.”

Therefore, the argument went, letting women in is just unacceptable. Now, the argument is, OK, we will let women in, but we will subject them to the most degrading, demeaning and humiliating working conditions – in the name of “stress relief” and “creativity”!

There is only one workplace in America where an undeniably hostile environment of vitriolic discrimination is sanctioned - the sitcom writers’ room. You must be very proud.

Kristen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kristen said...

Oh how I long as a Canadian to have the luxury of Comedy Writing Rooms.

I guess that's what my yakbak is for...

I'm so alone!

Ger Apeldoorn said...

I've just read the smoking room comments and I'd have to say they are dull, repetative and not very shocking. No homosexual jokes at all?! I know we are more openminded over here in Holland, but I'd have expected at least one reference to 'anal bleaching'.

Mark P said...

Tonight's Studio 60 used this lawsuit for plot inspiration, and (interestingly) Sorkin took the accuser's side.