‘Friends’ Makes an Enemy
Amaani Lyle was thrilled. She had worked in television before, but never for a blockbuster like “Friends.” It was her big break.
She was hired to be a writers’ assistant, to take copious notes while the high-powered writing team brainstormed for the show. But Lyle said her excitement soon gave way to feelings of degradation when the writers’ conversation grew raunchy. At times, she said, she felt nauseated.
“They would basically sit like teenagers in a locker room, talking about, you know ... things they wanted to do to the cast and walking around pretending to masturbate and just ridiculous conduct,” she said.
They also talked about their personal sexual experiences, mused over sexual matters involving actors Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox Arquette and David Schwimmer, and ruminated on the most attractive types of breasts and buttocks, Lyle said.
After being told that she was fired for typing too slowly, Lyle filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Warner Bros. Television Productions Inc. and the producers and writers she had worked under for four months in 1999. She alleges that they created a hostile work environment.
The writers counter that they have the right -- or even a need -- to discuss personal sexual experiences as they search for compelling and often titillating plots.
The case, which is before the California Supreme Court, represents a collision of sexual harassment law and the 1st Amendment’s protection of free speech.
The state’s highest court must decide whether the suit can go to trial, and, in the process, answer a question that few appeals courts have tackled: Does an employee have a right not to be to subject to offensive sexual conversations and profanities at work even when the work involves writing for a show that deals with sexual material?
The court’s ruling may determine whether laws designed to protect workers from sexual, racial and other kinds of discrimination in the workplace should be limited when the offensive conduct occurs during a creative process.
The entertainment industry and the media have lined up behind the writers, arguing that their controversial remarks were protected by the 1st Amendment.
The comments were not aimed directly at Lyle and were made while writing a show about sexually active young adults, they point out. And Lyle has acknowledged that she was warned before she was hired that she would be subjected to racy discussions.
“The show deals with sex and sexual references and anatomical references,” said Adam Levin, a lawyer for Warner Bros. and the writers and producers they employed. “It is axiomatic that writers need to talk about sex, joke about sex and laugh about sex.”
Women’s legal groups, legal aid lawyers and employment attorneys are siding with Lyle. They fear the case could decimate anti-discrimination laws by limiting them in so-called communicative industries such as television, movies and newspapers.
“We are dealing with [the entertainment] industry, where I am sure there has been longtime sex discrimination,” said Elizabeth Kristen, project director for the Legal Aid Society’s Employment Law Center. “Do they think they should get a pass from age discrimination as well by saying they are making TV shows for a youthful audience?”
Some of the show’s writers, in sworn depositions, admitted that they told stories of oral sex, simulated masturbation as a way of saying they were wasting time, talked about anal sex and altered an inspirational calendar to change the word “happiness” to “penis.”
Lyle complained that one of the writers, Gregory Malins, often spoke of his fetish for blond cheerleaders, how he liked “young cheerleaders with pigtails and short skirts.”
Malins denied expressing lust for cheerleaders, but said he did talk about once having been a cheerleader. One of the episodes on “Friends” involved Rachel, played by Aniston, dressing up as a cheerleader to seduce a man.
“A great portion of everything on the show happened to people in their real lives,” Malins said.
Lyle complained that writer Adam Chase told the group that he was not into foreplay and was “all about” intercourse. Chase denied that. “Absolutely not,” he said in a deposition.
But Marta Kauffman, one of the show’s creators and original writers and its executive producer, said: “I believe that’s related to the episode that we wrote about teaching Chandler about [a woman’s] erogenous zones.” Chandler was told that he should explore all of a woman’s body: “If you go to Disneyland, you don’t spend all day at the Matterhorn.”
Kauffman said in her deposition that there was one word she didn’t want uttered in her presence -- a vulgar word for female anatomy.
Lyle didn’t have the authority to prohibit the word and had to listen to women being degraded day after day, said Scott O. Cummings, one of her lawyers.
“She had to die a little every day” in that room, he said.
Lyle, who previously had worked in a writers’ room for Nickelodeon, said the writers for “Friends” had a “dirty” coloring book on which they would draw breasts and other parts of the female anatomy while working.
Some of the male writers talked about how one of the writers had missed an opportunity to have sex with Aniston, and they spoke pejoratively of part of Cox Arquette’s anatomy, Lyle said.
Representatives for Aniston and Cox Arquette did not respond to requests for comment.
During a deposition of Andrew Reich, a third writer named by Lyle in her lawsuit, a lawyer for Lyle repeatedly asked whether the writers used a four-letter word to denote sexual intercourse. In his questions, the lawyer used it over and over again.
Have you heard the word used? the lawyer asked.
“Yes,” Reich replied.
Is it common to hear the word in the writers’ room?
“Yes,” Reich replied.
Is it common for people to talk about oral sex?
“It’s not infrequent,” Reich said.
Do men talk about receiving oral sex from women?
“It’s probably come up,” Reich said.
A lawyer for Warner Bros. told The Times that the writers were unavailable for comment because the case was still pending.
Other writers say the atmosphere in writers’ rooms must be loose -- even silly -- to generate comedy. Personal censors must be turned off.
There is an unwritten rule that what is said in the writers’ room stays in the writers’ room, said Bob Stevens, who has written for television for 20 years.
“You really have to kind of let your hair down and say things you wouldn’t say in polite company and share things, knowing it stays in the room,” said Stevens, who has written for “Night Court,” “Malcolm in the Middle” and “The Wonder Years.”
While writing for “Night Court,” he said, he had to write dialogue for a lecherous character, a task that required him to try to think like that character.
“You are writing in all these disparate voices for all these different kinds of characters,” Stevens said. “Obviously, you are going to be saying things you wouldn’t ordinarily say.”
Locker room humor “is pretty standard fare” in comedic writers’ rooms, a female TV writer who has written for animation, comedies and drama for 11 years agreed.
“Usually if something is funny and people are laughing, it will be allowed,” said the writer, who did not want to be identified by name.
Writers’ rooms vary from show to show, but many are extremely casual. The writers move about telling stories and suggesting story lines as writers’ assistants type what they say into a computer so the material later can be assembled into scripts.
Several TV writers said the writers’ room is usually a forgiving place because writers know how much courage is required to pitch a joke in front of 10 professional comedy writers.
Marshall M. Goldberg, who wrote for television for 24 years and now serves as general counsel of the Writers Guild of America, said all writing, whether for TV or not, is intensely personal and sometimes eccentric.
Edith Wharton wrote her novels in bed; John Updike keeps typewriters in seven rooms in a large New England house and bounces from room to room to work on different projects as the spirit moves him, Goldberg said.
“A lot of dramatic writing is saying what we all feel but are too polite or self-conscious to say,” Goldberg said.
Lyle’s suit has moved the inner sanctum of the writers’ room before judges and legal scholars whose own workplaces would not tolerate sexually explicit language.
After a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge dismissed Lyle’s lawsuit, a three-member panel of Los Angeles’ 2nd District Court of Appeal reinstated it, ruling that a jury could decide whether the sexual talk was “necessary” to the writing process.
The appellate court decision has worried some outside the entertainment industry. The media, including The Times, have intervened, arguing that the court ruling could make reporters and editors vulnerable to harassment claims when they discuss stories of a sexual nature.
Journalists conceivably could be sued for discussing such stories as the rape case against Laker star Kobe Bryant and the sexual molestation charges against Michael Jackson, media lawyers said.
These concerns are “not fanciful or hypothetical,” 1st Amendment lawyer Douglas E. Mirell said, though he admitted he had never heard of a sexual harassment suit triggered by conversations in a newsroom.
“I also hadn’t heard of anyone suing fictional screenwriters over private conversations until this case,” he said.
Lyle, 31, is in Germany with the U.S. Air Force. She could not be reached for comment.
Besides charging sexual harassment, the African American woman also alleged that she was discriminated against based on her race.
No court has found enough evidence of racial bias to support that claim, which has been dismissed.
Courts over the years have expanded the ability of workers to sue for sexual harassment.
An alleged victim may prevail in a sexual harassment suit if the employee demonstrates that the conduct at the workplace was “severe” and “pervasive” and created a “hostile” environment.
It remains legally uncertain whether the conduct must have been targeted directly at the employee.
UCLA constitutional law professor Eugene Volokh, a consultant to Warner Bros. on the Lyle case, has complained in his writings that harassment law chills free speech.
“An employer may be liable when offended employees merely hear about offensive speech that was said only to consenting listeners,” Volokh wrote.
But Duke University constitutional law professor Erwin Chemerinsky contends the 1st Amendment does not protect speech that creates a hostile and discriminatory climate at work.
He believes the Court of Appeal ruling in Lyle’s case was correct.
“How do you balance the rights of a worker to be free from a hostile environment and free speech?” he asked. “It is enormously difficult. But just because it may be difficult to draw lines doesn’t mean we don’t draw any lines.”