If you look over to the right of this page, you’ll see a blogroll. The second link down is to Ken Levine’s blog. Ken is a former sitcom writer, and he tells a lot of stories about what it was like to write for Cheers and MASH, and some of the things you can expect in a writers’ room. He told a story recently that made me very uncomfortable, but it took me a while to be able to articulate why.
Warning: foul language ahead.
Comedy writers’ rooms are well-known to be places of gross humor, crude stories, and absolutely inappropriate jokes. In any other office setting, any one of those writers would be written up for sexual harassment likely before they could open their mouths to introduce themselves. Then again, so would Michael Scott. There’s a lot of humor in the things we don’t like to talk about. Of course, people also laugh when they’re uncomfortable, so it’s easy to say uncomfortable things and get a laugh and think you’re funny when you’re just gross. But the job of a comedy writer is to explore that boundary, to make sure you’re on the funny side. Which often means going over to the other side and playing around there for a bit. As long as the end result is funny, who cares?
Ken tells the story of someone who was thrown into this environment completely unprepared and was uncomfortable. Although he doesn’t specify, it sounds like the type of thing that would have happened back when writers’ assistants were not writers in training, but rather secretaries. (Before computers, typing was a very specialized skillset.) She may have genuinely not known what she was getting into. When she voiced her discomfort, they shot her down. Then the showrunner dictated an unprintable scene (which, obviously, would also never make it to network television) solely for the purpose of making her transcribe and then read it back. And that’s where the line is crossed for me. At a recent job interview, someone asked me about my strengths and weaknesses. I said that I am very good in high-stress offices. Yelling and swearing don’t phase me at all. But when the environment becomes abusive, I don’t do as well. And that happens when the yelling and swearing becomes targeted. “That fucking bitch” is fine. “You fucking bitch,” we’ve got a problem. And that’s the line I think this showrunner crossed.
Was she asking for it? That’s debatable. Certainly, she was asking to be reassigned somewhere else. But what recourse did she have? None, if she wanted to work in this town again.
In television writing/production, if you are very very lucky, you will be looking for a new job every three years. It’s likely to be more often than that. So if you get a reputation as someone who makes a fuss, who complains about harassment or even files a lawsuit, you’re too dangerous to work with. Even if you were right. Even if there is a videotape of someone snorting a line of cocaine and then sneaking up on you and grabbing your crotch. You don’t need to get fired, you simply won’t get hired again. And, believe it or not, the situation can make things harder for people who had nothing to do with it. Remember the Friends lawsuit? Shortly after it was filed, I got my first PA job on a sitcom. There were ten writers, two writers’ assistants, and a total of four PAs. (We covered all aspects of the show, assisting the writers, production, post-production, and even on set.) And of those, I was the only woman. And the writers were scared to death of me.
I gave them no reason to be scared. Okay, in hindsight, maybe I should have made my own crude jokes instead of just protesting that seriously, I wasn’t offended (this usually happened as I walked into a room), but I seriously never was offended. And yet, every time I was around, someone was apologizing for something they said. And then towards the end of the season, one of the other PAs asked for and received permission to sit in on the writers’ room. I was jealous. I knew I couldn’t ask for the same privelege. To ask would be to put the writers in a position of either saying no and having to explain why without leaving themselves open to a lawsuit, or saying yes and feeling like they had to censor themselves. And neither of those would have benefited me or the show. So I never asked.
I spoke with someone once who was working in the Friends writers’ room and actually told one of the jokes that made it into the lawsuit, but it was attributed to someone else. He had very mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, it was his joke and he wanted credit! On the other hand, he wasn’t named in a lawsuit. So he sort of figured it was a wash. These are the priorities of writers. And these are the things you have to think about if you’re considering a career in TV writing.
I’m not going to take Ken’s blog off of my blogroll or stop recommending him. Most of his posts are funny and many are valuable to anyone wanting to work in the business. Including the post about the harassed secretary. It’s a good opportunity for you to ask yourself: where is the line? And what do I do if someone crosses it?