Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A "me too" story I've never shared

Here’s a sexual harassment story where a woman stood up.

This was the first season of CHEERS. We had a script where Diane enters the Miss Boston Barmaid of the Year competition. “No Contest” was the title. Remember that one?   It was actually a very pro-feminist story with Diane entering solely to publicly denounce the competition for objectifying women. The script was written by Heide Perlman and was terrific.

After a writer completes their second draft the staff does whatever rewriting is necessary to arrive at a script for production. That script gets circulated to the network, cast, studio, and various departments of the crew (including casting director).

Glen & Les Charles and David Isaacs and I did the polish for the production draft. We changed very little. Like I said, Heide had crushed it.

We inadvertently left in most of the stage direction as well. I say “inadvertently” because there was one line that slipped through that shouldn’t have. In describing one of the barmaids, Heide, with tongue-in-cheek, wrote she had “state-of-the-art tits.” It’s the kind of thing we all do – write little jokes in the stage direction as an incentive for people to read them. Lots of readers see a block of direction and just skip it. Anyway, no big deal. These jokes are for the room and generally removed before the production draft.

Well, that one stayed in. For all I know it was my fault. I might have been proofing that day and missed it. Who can remember?  It was 35 years ago.   

Anyway, the following day we have our casting session for barmaids. A number of actresses come in and audition. It’s a typical session. Me and David, Glen and Les, Jim Burrows, and our casting director are in the room.

After several candidates, one young woman walks in, points to her breasts and says, “Okay, boys, here they are.” We were all taken a little aback. That was a strange thing to do. We said, “What?” And then she pointed to them again, “Here are my state-of-the-art tits!”

Needless to say, we all were mortified and wanted to crawl into a hole.

We all apologized profusely (and no, I don’t remember if we hired her or not – at the end of the day it was still acting ability). But I think back now and really applaud her (no, I don’t remember her name either). That was an inappropriate description in the script and I suspect the other actresses weren’t too keen on it either but this one stood up.

Obviously there was no disrespect intended, but it just points out the number of indignities – intentionally or unintentionally – that women face.  I've always prided myself on my conduct but even I contributed to a "me too" moment.  Hopefully things will change… even a little. We guys need to be more sensitive to this… and proof better.

23 comments :

Anonymous said...

Should the description have been written as "Obviously fake, but perfectly crafted"? I guess I don't see where the problem is. Isn't that a valid description of what the writer had in mind? I don't remember the episode in detail, but IIRC the other barmaids were knockouts. Wasn't that part of the gag? Diane wins without being a cartoon knockout?

Claire said...


Great Post!!!

Lots of discussions on this issue and also many people coming forward with their own stories. Will the industry change or be as it is, as you said the other day Ken.

Wonder if Rose McGowan read your blog on Harvey. She is commenting on almost all articles and calling out on celebrities and generally not allowing the issue to die down.


John in NW Ohio said...

Maybe it was a very young Teri Hatcher? ("They're real, and they're spectacular").

Charles Cavender said...

Outstanding piece. How about "high quality, aftermarket breasts?"

Craig Nesbit said...

Did the fact it was written by a woman not change anything?

Did this impact stage direction notes going forward? Or just improve everyone's proofreading?

blinky said...

Ample bosoms (acceptable), great tits (lewd). Made sweet love (acceptable), fucked our brains out (obscene).
When talking about the actual sex act is there any good word or is innuendo the only option, except on HBO?

Elf said...

It comes down to how people can interpret things like inside jokes or shorthand in a completely different way than what was intended. Clearly there was no derogatory intent and the comment made sense in context.

I've worked in healthcare IT for decades now and years ago when we had a massive problem to solve and no idea how to go about it, we held what we referred to as a gang-bang, back when the term referred to to gangs physically fighting in an alley. We'd all get together, throw our best ideas out and argue over which was best until we had a winner. Imagine how it went over when I suggested a gang bang in a similar situation just last year with a crew mostly in their twenties and thirties with no idea of how the term used to be employed...

Mike Bloodworth said...

I'm really confused about this one, Ken. If the script was written by a woman and that woman wrote the stage direction how are YOU guilty of anything?!? Its not like you coerced Heide to write that. And you never asked those actresses to expose their "state-of-the-art" breasts. In fact, I have a lot more respect for that actress for getting the joke. The closest modern parallel I can think of is the debate over, if an African-American uses the "n-word" are you racist if you quote him or her? I mean, you didn't say it; or at least didn't originate it. Similarly, are you really a sexist/harasser simply because you didn't filter out that direction? Some of the female writers I have known can get just as raunchy as the men. Sometimes even more so. I have the utmost respect for them because they "get it." Basically, your "Me too" is like comparing, please excuse the cliche, apples to oranges. Or in this case, apples to genetically modified melons.

Andrew said...

I don't get the self-recrimination. Heidi wrote the text. If a woman describes another (hypothetical) woman that way, how is that a man's problem? This seems insignificant, and not an example of "Me Too."

On the larger subject, I realize there are legitimate reasons why victims of actual abuse and harassment might choose to keep certain details hidden. But I really wish that more of these women coming forward would name names, and let the chips fall where they may.

If you haven't seen it yet, look up the clip of Barbara Walters interviewing Corey Feldman about what he suffered. She was protecting the industry. It's so disheartening. I wish Feldman, and every other actor/actress who was abused (especially as children), could be honest about who the perpetrators were. But I'm not one to judge, never having experienced anything that horrific. The most important thing is that they heal as much as possible, and revisiting the incidents of abuse might do more harm than good.





Mark Moretti said...

If your notes had said “Jaw dropping package" to denote a male character with a massive bulge in his pants would that have been offensive? What if it was a female who wrote it?

I think offense taking has become all to common lately with people who have a wish to be punitive parsing every last word, glance and action in the least charitable way. They are being encouraged to do so by SJWs and HR Departments and the spineless University administrators who kowtow for fear of getting flamed on social media.

Trump is just the beginning of the backlash, let's all grow up before it gets worse.

Steve said...

For those who don't get why Ken is a bit embarrassed about his role in this think about all the me too stories you've read this week and realize probably every woman in that room had been sexually harrassed, at least, by men with power over their careers. They don't know who wrote that joke, they don't know that everyone on that writing staff is a great guy, they just know that here's another lewd remark about their chests-- and at a time and a place where they are trying to be professionals and get a job. What might be fine in the writer's room, applied to an imaginary character can be hurtful when you put it out in a workplace applied to a human being. Imagine how that incident might affect one of those actresses if she went on to be harassed in a more serious way by someone on the set. Would she take it as a sign that no-one on the writing staff would listen? It wouldn't hurt any of us men to give some thought, as Ken has here, to how we may have been complict in some small way in creating a culture where harassment and abuse of women is as common as it is and where women find it so hard to feel they can speak out about it.

It's not about political correctness, it's about treating people with respect.

Jim said...

And here's a nice little story showing how the breasts can bite back. So to speak. From the late 1930's through to the 1970's, one of the most popular comics in the UK was a little chap by the name of Arthur Askey. When he moved from radio to TV in the 1950s he had a great idea for a comedy foil: A dumb blonde with huge breasts. I can't believe that that didn't appear just a tiny bit hackneyed to anyone in the business at the time, but we had pretty strict censorship for a long time so who knows. Anyway he went and hired the bustiest young blonde he could find, a nineteen year old with a 41-19-36 figure. He didn't think to check her acting ability, after all this was only going to be a one-time gag. Unfortunately for him the public loved her, and if you check her wikipedia page, virtually any inanimate object with a bump or two gat nicknamed a Sabrina. And poor old Arthur Askey not only had to invite her back, he also had to write parts for her in his sketches, even though as he later said, not only could she not act she could barely walk in a straight line when the cameras were running. Check out this little clip and revel in the agony of the writers having to find week after week TV friendly versions of what's pretty much the same joke.

Donald Benson said...

For some reason recalling a casting story from "Notes on a Cowardly Lion":

Bert Lahr toured with a stage play and was actively involved in shaping the show-within-a-show burlesque. He sought out a bald-headed violinist for the band because he remembered every band having a conspicuous bald-headed violinist. When rehearsals began, the violinist showed up in a toupee and Lahr never had the nerve to mention it.

W said...

I didn't know that Rhea Perlmans sister wrote for Cheers. Who did you hire first?

Mike said...

Levine: C'est vrai. Moi aussi. Je suis 'ar-vee.
Roseanne: I knew it. Asshat.

Cap'n Bob said...

Talk about a tempest in a teapot.

Myles Warden said...

It's not just about doing the wrong things. It's about helping create a culture that allows the bad things to happen or encouraging them. It's why Billy Bush still doesn't have a job (but please don't make me explain how Trump got the world's biggest promotion).

Y. Knott said...

David Lloyd actually came up with the story for this one ... as an episode of Taxi. Beat for beat, the story was very similar to the story that ended up on Cheers. Y'see, Elaine was entered into a "Miss New York Cabdriver" contest without her knowledge by Louie...

It never got used on Taxi, but it was a solid story (at least in terms of having a female character facing the temptation to denounce a contest which, on some level, she'd also like to win.) That's probably why Cheers executive script consultant Lloyd passed it along to Heide Perlman.

MikeN said...

What would be the point of wasting peoples' time and not including the description in the casting call?

Andrew said...

"It's not about political correctness, it's about treating people with respect."

Okay, fine. Then they should have opened up the casting to women who were plain-looking and unattractive, and who were not "well-endowed." But that would have defeated the whole point of the episode.

I take "Me Too" very seriously. But I don't take retroactive virtue signalling seriously.

Anonymous said...

And yet, right now, Ed Sheeran's biggest hit is all about fornication and objectifying women. Go figure.

Johnny Walker said...

Thank you Steve for writing what I wanted to add, too (and probably doing it much better). If you still don’t understand why Ken and David felt bad, I can’t help you.

Johnny Walker said...

Also Y. Knot thanks for sharing that! How did you come across such information?