“Friends” Lawsuit Getting an Unfriendly Ear

Filed Under Comedy Writers, Sitcom

Yesterday the California Supreme Court finally heard the case of Amaani Lyle, a former writers’ assistant on “Friends” who has sued Warner Brothers for an environment of sexual harassment. Among the conditions mentioned in the lawsuit were drawings of vaginas, ruminations on the sexual habits of Courtney Cox and Jennifer Aniston and, my favorite, the character of Joey as a rapist. Smoking Gun has the full complaint. According to this article in the LA Times, the justices seem to be favoring the writers right now.

I’ve been firmly on the writers’ side, allbeit queasily at times, but one fact mentioned in the court makes me absolutely certain that the claim is without merit: she was told she would be working in an environment where sexual explicit talk would occur. Two of the Supreme Court justices noted it during arguments. Warner Brothers lawyer also makes a compelling point that breaking a story can require “going down blind alleys”, making it difficult to know what will finally make an episode work. In fact, one anecdote about sex with a prostitute ultimately created material that found its way into a script. (The case itself perhaps even made fodder for Lisa Kudrow’s ill-fated “The Comeback”) The lawsuit never alleges, to my knowledge, that Amaani was directly sexually harassed, i.e. propositioned or asked to perform sexual favors. Even in a free writing environment like a comedy show, I would expect that form of sexual harassment to still be prosecutable.

Hopefully here’s where the lawsuit will get nipped in the bud. The Supreme Court is only deciding whether a lower courts decision to let the case continue on to a jury is correct. Though I think a jury trial would ultimately fall Warner Brothers way, I imagine it would be hard for a jury to sort out why an uncensored writing environment is necessary. The California Supreme Court has 90 days to decide.

Update: The NY Sun covers the story as well, detailing more of the arguments. In particular, there’s mention that sitcoms stay white and male because this behavior is allowed. I agree with the ideal of more balanced staffs, but the job of comedy writing requires people to say taboo things. I have several comedy writing friends who actively make jokes about each other religions, sex lives, etc. It’s part of the gig. A level of decorum needs to be set, but it can’t be set by the courts. When a joke goes to far afield of the writer process is the head writer’s job, not a lawyer’s. (Also, adjusted post title - the actual lawsuit is getting a poor reception from judges - hence unfriendly.)

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