It would have been somewhat off-putting to the show's fans if suddenly the NBC sitcom "Friends" had featured the character Joey Tribbiani, played by Matt LeBlanc, raping Jennifer Aniston's Rachel Green.
But according to a former writers' assistant on the show, which ended its 10-year-run last May, writer Greg Malins often joked during the creation of the 1999-2000 season about how much he would like to turn Joey into a rapist.
One such discussion "had him removing a shower curtain and removing a lock on the bathroom door and sneaking in and basically having his way with her," former "Friends" staffer Amaani Lyle said in an April 28, 2001, deposition.
Such conversations are now at the heart of a case soon to be heard before the California Supreme Court, sparking a debate that questions where artistic freedoms end and sexual harassment law begins. It is a case that has much of Hollywood concerned.
The Joey-as-rapist plot line never coalesced, of course, and the creative team behind the show insists there was never a chance it would have. Such discussions were merely part of the creative process, they say, a way to conjure forth comedy out of thin air.
But Lyle didn't find such topics amusing, nor did she think they contributed even remotely to the gestation of the show. Lyle thought the remarks were vile and contributed to a work environment she found hostile and harassing. And for that reason, she has since 1999 been locked in a legal battle with the creative forces behind "Friends."
"Friends" was one of the most successful shows in television history. It now might make legal history as well.
Many in Hollywood have rallied behind the defendants, Warner Bros.Television Productions, Bright/Kauffman/Crane Productions, and writers Malins, Adam Chase and Andrew Reich. They are arguing that such conversations, however explicit, were part of the job.
"That's the creative process," said Adam Levin, who represents the defendants. "It's an organic process. It evolves. It starts with some very coarse and rough concepts that get refined."
Ideas that may start off raunchy in the writers' room end up as innuendo, simile, double entendres and allusions, but regardless of their final form, such talk "leads to a lot of humor and laughs and fun on the show," he said.
Lyle, who had worked for Nickelodeon and for the HBO series "Dream On," is currently serving as a senior airman in the U.S. Air Force at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany. She would not comment on the case, but her attorney, Mark Weidmann, challenged Levin's assertion.
"I don't believe that telling disgusting, degrading stories about women and using the most foul language to describe them was necessary for the writers of 'Friends' to create a 'Friends' script or show," Weidmann said. But even "assuming that it was, I don't believe they needed to do that around someone who was offended and disgusted by what they were saying," as was the case with Lyle, he said.
The case threatens in some ways to divide Hollywood's entertainment community, a famously liberal enclave where progressive politics occasionally run at odds with a unique professional world free of traditional inhibitions.
On one side are those saying that, as Steve Martin once remarked, comedy is not pretty. Comedy writers often argue they need complete freedom to say whatever pops into their heads in order to brainstorm ideas and dialogue.