"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."
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.