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.
Crude Talk as Part of the Job?
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.
Liberal Hollywood Divided?
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.
"Writers have to do what we have to do to get the balloon up," said Harry Shearer, a respected comedy writer and actor who is one of the creative forces behind "The Simpsons" and the cult classic film "This Is Spinal Tap." "We have to lose our connection to our mundane world of bank deposits and picking up the kids, and get to this other place where everything is fodder for a laugh."
The process of creating comedy, Shearer said, is "about taking normal human behavior and just pushing the boundaries of what is actually funny about the way people are."
It's a process that is "not about people's good side," he said. "So to imagine more about people's bad sides you've got to travel to that side of the road."
Shearer appeared as a deviant zoo owner in an early episode of "Friends."
"If you want to be around people who are polite and responsible and do everything that the human resources people think they should, probably way down on the list would be working for comedy writers," he said.
But Elizabeth Kristen of California's Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center says such arguments amount to exempting the creative community from sexual harassment laws that apply to everyone else. "If the artistic community is given an exemption from sexual harassment laws," she warned, "other workplaces could similarly seek an exemption, and I think that's very troubling and it's a slippery slope."
One of the arguments TV and movie studios are making, Kristen said, is "we work late hours and we need that adrenaline rush that comes from making sexual and racial jokes."
Lyle, who is black, also alleges she had to put up with racist humor.
"Any type of industry could argue that when the hours are long and they're having difficulty staying focused -- and wouldn't it be fun to make some jokes," said Kristen.
She argues that when humor crosses the line into sexual or racial harassment, "women and people of color and others who might be subjected to harassment should be able to pursue their rights in a court of law just like anybody in any other workplace."
The California Supreme Court case, which is expected to be argued in 2005, is technically about whether Lyle should be allowed to bring her case before a jury, since an earlier suit on a lower level court was thrown out.
Weidmann, Lyle's attorney, says his client's case has already suffered from the fact that stories about Lyle's experiences have not scratched the surface of the offensiveness of the comments made in the "Friends" writers' room.
"Frankly, the problem that we have had in the media with this case is you don't ever read all the details of how disgusting, degrading and vile the language that was being used was," he said. "The best description is imagining a locker room conversation that would make the guys in the locker room blush."
Crudeness Into Comedy?
A number of specific issues related to this case cloud the larger arguments that may have relevance for all of Hollywood. Lyle alleges there was a general climate of hostility to her that she feels was rooted in her race and gender; the writers of "Friends" have said in testimony that Lyle was fired after four months because she was not a good typist and that, moreover, Lyle made crude remarks as well about her breasts, libido and a marital aide she was designing. Lyle denies making such remarks.
Then there are the rather raw remarks Lyle says writers made about three of the actors on the series -- Aniston, Courteney Cox Arquette and David Schwimmer -- which are the only comments Levin specifically denied his clients ever made.
But, more relevant to the future of Hollywood, the creative forces behind "Friends" are laying out a case that it is sometimes necessary to create a crude environment so writers can mine it for comic gold. "You can't write a show that deals with sexual subject matter without talking about sex," Levin said. "It's that simple."
Series co-creator Marta Kauffman said in a December 2001 deposition that one of her own personal sexual experiences became part of the pilot episode, when the character Monica Geller, played by Cox Arquette, "sleeps with a guy who tells her that he hasn't been able to have sex in three years because of a bad experience he had with a woman." Monica "later finds out he does this all the time, which was an experience that I had had in college," Kauffman said. In writing that episode, the conversations about her personal experience got "very explicit," she said.
Other experiences of writers found their ways into "Friends" scripts, Kauffman said. One writer who said he had received oral sex from a person he thought was a woman, but was actually a man, turned that into a tamer version when the character Chandler kisses a man he thought was a woman. Another incident in which a writer said a tailor groped his genitals during a fitting was played out on the show when Chandler and Joey went to a tailor.
But Lyle and her attorneys assert those examples are irrelevant, relatively tame and not part of her complaint. None of the conduct she is suing over had anything to do with script-writing, she says.
Whether it was the presence of a raunchy coloring book or writer Chase's alleged assertion that "he is not really into foreplay," Lyle said in a deposition the "Friends" writers "would go off on tangents that had absolutely nothing to do with the script in regard to what they'd like to make Joey and Rachel do to each other."
She added later: "I think any kind of discussion of anything sexual outside the confines of the script is sexual harassment."
Benissa Salem and Florinda Cruz contributed to this report.