Thursday, April 27, 2006

Writers are again free to @%*&! with gusto

By Ray Richmond

It was nice to see common sense carry the day for a change when the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled last week that sexually-explicit banter in the writers room at "Friends" did not violate the rights of the fired writers' assistant (read: disgruntled former employee with ax to grind) who filed the original lawsuit.

To put it another way: the writers room is once again safe for trash-talk about Courteney Cox's genitalia. While this may not seem like a giant leap forward for creative freedom, trust me that it is.

The 7-0 decision by the high court shooting down the sexual harassment argument brought by the dismissed Amaani Lyle in her suit is encouraging. First Amendment rights of free speech still hold water, even in an industry whose artistic independence is under increasing scrutiny and threat.

What's more disturbing is that this made its way so far up the judicial food chain in the first place. That it would be deemed a test-case piece of litigation worthy of the state's highest court is, in a word, madness. And I'm not merely referring to the boys-will-be-boys notion that you can't reign in frat house behavior due to a single puritanical apple.

Here we have a woman who was apparently fired for cause. Her transcription skills during the ribald brainstorming sessions in question illustrated a certain lack of competence. So after being sent packing, Ms. Lyle decides that, well, her ears were offended by what they'd heard. We're not talking about quitting in a fit of moral indignation. Instead, it appears this was about getting even, not standing up for the rights of virtuous assistants everywhere.

But even forgetting motive -- which seems clear enough -- it's difficult to understand how this situation could ever qualify as sexual harassment. It may be disturbing and offensive, but doesn't it have to actually be directed at the individual in question for a violation to occur?If someone working in the cubicle beside you spouts profanity nonstop into his or her telephone and refuses to stop, that's potentially worthy of discipline if not termination. Yet even that, I argue, isn't sexual harassment. It's called a jerk you need to either move to another department or fire.

We also need to look closely at the "When in Rome ..." aspect of this. Why does Lyle go to work as a writers' assistant at a TV comedy series if she's legitimately agitated by the lewd and crude repartee that have long served as the hallmarks of the comedy writer domain? It's rather like a female sportswriter who has issues with seeing sweaty men in jockstraps (or less). I mean, if you're allergic to peanut butter, you probably shouldn't accept a position with Skippy.

Ken Levine, a longtime top television comedy scribe whose resume' includes "M*A*S*H," "Cheers" and "Frasier" (and who has seen more than his fair share of writers rooms), wrote the following Friday on his blog: "Writers rooms are not for the faint of heart. It is not the Queen's Tea in there. Sitcom writers on multicamera shows like 'Friends' work under enormous pressure ... To relieve the pressure and kick-start the creative process, comedy writers need to be free to say ANYTHING ... The only rule is everyone and everything is fair game ... even YOU. (It) is the only place in the world where the winner of a dick measuring contest is the one who has the smallest."

Does this smack of a certain insecurity and immaturity? Undoubtedly. Misogyny? Probably. But harassment? Please.The court decision doesn't serve as a ringing endorsement of the potty-mouth metality. It simply prevents writers rooms all over town from being transformed into no-swear zones. And I don't think any of us are ready for the WGA police to start enforcing a policy prohibiting secondhand "fuck."



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