Friday, April 3, 2009

Sexual Harassment, Television, and You

Back in 2004, a sexual harassment lawsuit was brought against members of the writing staff of "Friends" by former writer's assistant Amaani Lyle. The complaint filed by Ms. Lyle goes into great detail about the various crude remarks, conversations, gestures, drawings, and plenty more that came out of the "Friends" writers' room. Truly vulgar stuff.

When news of the lawsuit emerged, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I was very offended. How could someone in such an enviable position throw away such an amazing opportunity?! I mean, come on! Not only are you a writer's assistant, gaining valuable first-hand knowledge and making even more valuable connections to carve out a writing career for yourself, but you're a writer's assistant on what was, at the time, the biggest hit comedy show on the air. (Indeed, there hasn't been a hit comedy of that magnitude on TV since.)

Throw a pebble in Los Angeles and you're going to hit someone who would kill to get such an incredible opportunity. Ms. Lyle not only squandered an opportunity that so few are granted, but she set out to disgrace those she should have been nothing but grateful toward.

Most people who apply to be writers' assistants are aspiring writers themselves. One would assume that Ms. Lyle was not only familiar with the creative process before going in, but was eager to embrace the lifestyle that went along with it.

The crux of Ms. Lyle's argument was that the writing staff was speaking and behaving in ways far more extreme than the content of the show they were producing. In her complaint, Ms. Lyle stated: "I have never been aware of any of the 'Friends' episodes that I worked on involving pornography, people having sex on the show or nudity." That statement clearly reveals an ignorance on Ms. Lyle's part of the creative process. When you're trying to work through an idea, or get the creative juices flowing, you just spit out anything and everything that comes to mind, make yourself laugh at how extreme you can get, and then pull back and figure out a way to make it work for a broader audience. Think The Aristocrats.

As elaborated in this fantastic article on the Lyle situation:
An offensive remark ... can be "a sharp stick that you poke the room with." ... Sometimes, the jokes even move the script along. A "Friends" writer 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.
Such inappropriate behavior is one of the reasons I got into this business. Not primary, of course, but an added bonus. I currently work in a specific genre where inappropriate behavior is not only accepted and encouraged, it's actually the very product we're selling. I'm speaking, of course, of reality TV.

When my coworkers run up and down the halls yelling about the shows they're working on, I'm bound to hear all about whose tits are in whose face, who gave someone else which STD, who put vodka in her vagina for someone to drink, and so on. Nobody is getting sent to the principal's office for this. It's just another day at work.

Sometimes the discussion moves away from what's on the screen and carries over into the coworkers' lives. Conversations can easily slip into where various penises have been placed (or want to be placed), how terrifyingly huge certain coworkers' breasts are, or who among us serves more as a "couch ornament" than as a valued employee. Photographic evidence is often presented.

In most work environments, this kind of thing would not be tolerated. Or at least it would only be tolerated behind very tightly closed doors. But when choosing to work this kind of job, one must accept, if not flat out enjoy, the inappropriateness. It's fun!

Recently, I was in earshot of a conversation between coworkers about "extending the act." It didn't take long for the conversation to turn from legitimate shop talk to sexual innuendo. In the midst of the innuendo, I tossed off the joke, "I guess no one reads their sexual harassment forms before signing them, huh?"

The reaction to this was unexpected. I got a strange look and, "I guess you haven't read the sexual harassment form, have you?"

To be honest, no, I hadn't. I assumed I knew the score. No means no, yada yada yada, "that's sexual harassment, and I don't have to take it," etc. etc. etc. Who needs to read all that paperwork?

When you work in reality TV, you find yourself looking for a new job every four to six months. With each new job comes 20 pages of paperwork to fill out. Even if you're working at the same company, you have to fill out new forms for each show you switch to. Even if you're working on the same show, you have to fill out new paperwork for each season. After enough paperwork cycles, you start doing it from muscle memory. You just press the pen against the papers, and a little while later they're finished. Honestly, I don't even know who I put down for my emergency contact anymore.

I've probably signed off on dozens of sexual harassment forms by now -- initial each page, sign at the end -- but I'd never really taken the time to read them. Perhaps it was time...
Company's natural workplace environment will incorporate sexually coarse or vulgar language or conduct, and exposure to speech and conduct related to race, sexual orientation, gender, national origin, religion, disability, and age not present in other workplace environments. Accordingly, while working for Company, employees will be exposed to language or conduct that may be considered offensive by some individuals. In particular, such language and conduct may include: (i) conversations among producers and other staff that refer to sexual antics and sexual situations; (ii) conversations among participants in the reality television programs about sex, sexual antics and sexual situations; (iii) participants in reality television programs may remove their clothing and may engage in sexual or vulgar conduct alone or with other participants; and (iv) conversations or conduct among producers and/or among reality show participants related to race, sexual orientation, gender, national origin, religion, disability, and age.
In other words, "Hey, you're going to get sexually harassed! Constantly. Also, your age, race, religion and sexual orientation are fair game."

What can I say? Sign me up!

The Lyle case was eventually dismissed. It's important to note that it was never a situation wherein sexual favors were demanded in exchange for job security or advancement. Even in the sleaziest corners of Hollywood, that is not accepted. (It may happen, but it's not openly condoned.) This was just a bunch of people telling dirty jokes. And when you're making a TV show, that's an important part of the job. It may not be for everyone. If it's not for you, please just do yourself and everyone else a favor and get lost! Make room for someone who could take better advantage of the opportunity. And don't try to punish or change a system that you were clearly never meant to participate in.

Additional reading: For eight amusing pages of the Lyle complaint, click here for The Smoking Gun website. Quite entertaining. (I feel sorry for Lisa Kudrow, who is conspicuously absent from the writers' sexual fantasies.)