Comedy writers defend say-anything culture
Comedian Louis CK admitted Friday that he had, as the New York Times had reported, used his star status to compel several women to watch him masturbate.
That revelation was like “a nuclear bomb in the comedy community,” said Dan Hernandez, a producer on Netflix’s One Day at a Time reboot. “But I’m glad it’s being exposed. It’s definitely overdue.”
It also, Hernandez and other comedy writers say, provides a contrast between making crass or offensive remarks — often a feature of the workplace for professional comedians — and actually making women feel uncomfortable, powerless or worse.
“You want to feel safe when you’re going to work,” said Amy Aniobi, a writer on HBO’s comedy "Insecure." The show chronicles the lives of black millennials navigating work, sex and friendship in Los Angeles. One memorable scene depicted a blow job gone wrong for star Issa Rae, a funny and poignant poke at the power dynamics between men and women.
To make that kind of scene a success, the writers have to feel comfortable talking explicitly about sex and trying jokes that might not work the first time.
“It’s this weird comfort formed by being able to joke crassly with other writers,” said Aniobi, who is 33. “If you can laugh at my nasty joke, then I know you can also listen to my rough pitch that might not make sense.”
In the early days of TV, the majority of writers were mostly white men from the East Coast, says David Isaacs, a professor at USC School of Cinematic Arts. He started his career writing for the long-running sitcom "The Jeffersons."
That show, about a black couple’s upward mobility, was written almost entirely by white men, which probably wouldn’t happen today, Isaacs said. Writers’ rooms have gotten more diverse in the past 40 years, but the "general tenor hasn’t changed much," he said.
“The whole unwritten rule of working in there is that you can say almost anything,” Isaacs said. “It can get gamy. Things are said that aren’t necessarily said in any other work environment.”
In the interest of compliance, comedy writers usually get the same spiel from human resources as everyone else does. Not many people take those classes seriously, said Janis Hirsch, a writer who previously worked on “Frasier” and “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.” We’ve all had it. Everyone hates it,” she said.
The California Supreme Court has acknowledged that talking dirty can sometimes be a necessary part of the job. In Lyle v. Warner Bros. Television Productions, Amaani Lyle, a former writers’ assistant for NBC’s hit sitcom, “Friends,” claimed the sexually vulgar language and conduct among her coworkers constituted sexual harassment. The court threw out the case, saying that when it comes to vulgar language, context matters.
The 2006 decision codified what industry veterans described as an unwritten rule: outside of personal attacks or targeted bigotry or bias, everything else was fair game.
“There’s an understanding that if you’re very sensitive about language or sexual innuendo, you shouldn’t be there," Isaacs said. Many writers informally get that warning before they enter the room.
In recent weeks, writers have started talking more openly about what can feel like a gray area. At the start of the workday at "Insecure," the writers now hold "mini therapy sessions" to review the latest allegations, Aniobi said.
In the past year, the whisper network has gotten louder, amplified online via email and Facebook. “I’ve seen a lot more traffic, people saying Hey this has happened to me,”’ she said. Often, they’re naming names.
In an essay for the Hollywood Reporter, Hirsch detailed some of the sexism and abuse she faced as a young writer in 1986. Truly bad behavior was always the exception, not the rule, she said. Now women also have more information about who the bad actors are.
The latest round of revelations — and, perhaps more important, the consequences — will probably encourage more soul-searching, said Aniobi. Except, of course, where it doesn’t.
“There some writers rooms that are never going to change,” she said. “People are people. There’s always going to be a gray area because people are gray."