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Chicks and Dicks: Potty Humor and Gender Relations in a Sitcom Writers' Room


On Thursday, the California Supreme Court ended the infamous "Friends lawsuit," ruling that the simulated jacking off, expressed rape fantasies, and other raunched-out behavior of the show's writing staff did not amount to sexual harassment, as writers' assistant Amaani Lyle had claimed. Warner Bros. Television Productions, one of the defendants, no doubt did a dance of triumph, the first amendment did a perfunctory little jig and sitcom writers everywhere breathed a sigh of relief that their joke creating process wouldn't be censored. As for me, a former writers' assistant and girl in sitcom-ville, I thought of high school...

In 10th grade geometry, I used to draw cartoons of heads on wooden spikes much to the amusement of the boys sitting next to me in the back row. However, it wasn't until I started drawing penises that I was hailed as a breakthrough comedic artist in math book doodling. With every penis I drew (Penis in a top hat! Penis taking a math test!) the boys laughed harder and thought I was "cooler" because I was a girl drawing these things.

Then one day my Mom found my notebook.

"I don't want you being the girl who draws penises for the boys!" she scolded me as if I had been taking my shirt off for quarters in the cafeteria. Were they drawing penises too?, she asked. I confessed that, no, it was just me. To my mother, I was degrading myself by trying to out-boy the boys instead of acting like a mature girl-woman thing. But I didn't want to be "noticed" by boys--this was the domain of girls with boobs and no braces. I wanted to be one of them, not as a transgender, but in a I-can-compete-on-their-turf way. At least in regards to the funnies. When it came to video games, they could reign supreme. So if the goal was to avoid the slander of "you're funny...for a girl," what was more important: Being a lady or drawing a well-rendered foreskin?

And so the writers' room of a sitcom...What is a bastion of unfettered balls-out craziness to some was a foot-binding, cross-burning orgy to Lyle, who was not only female but African American--an extreme rarity in the mostly white, male sitcom writing world. Reading her sworn declaration on www.thesmokinggun.com, Lyle seems like she approached her writers' assistant position as a normal, pseudo-secretarial kind of job. After all, transcribing writers' conversation, jokes, and relevant story points is an assistant's main responsibility. But a writers' room, unlike a regular office, is all about being free to say and do whatever you think will be funny whether it be at the expense of women, Blacks, Jews or Helen Keller. Every office meeting is the back row of 10th grade geometry. With mostly men in the room sometimes meetings can end up like this: "I can recall sitting around waiting to go home while writers were sitting around pretending to masturbate and continually talking about schlongs," Lyle said in her statement.

The defense (which included Warner Bros. Television Productions, Bright Kaufman, Crane Productions, NBC Studios, and specific Friends writers) argued that ribald jokes were necessary for the comedic process to flourish. This is often true. Somewhere between riffing on anal fissures and an actress's eating disorder may be the perfect joke to get out of a scene. In fact, some of the funniest things I've ever heard came out of the kind of banter that would qualify as harassment in any other work place. But there are considerable downsides to a completely uncensored mouth. For one, the endless series of bits as other writers try to one up each other: "The hooker in his joke had no teeth, so mine has no legs...and she's 12!" As the world grows raunchier no doubt anecdotes will follow suit and I wonder if one day 3 am writers room sessions will deteriorate into jokes etched out in feces splattered across the floor.

Like Lyle, when I first entered a sitcom writers' room I was shocked at where the conversations could go. I was an assistant to two show runners who often invited me into the room, sometimes to take notes and other times just to bear witness to it all. Unlike Lyle, I was fortunate enough to work with writers (6 men and 2 women) who made me feel like a valued part of the team even if that value was sometimes measured in the success of a lunch order. The fact that everyone was so lovely made the jokes all the more shocking. I had never encountered this kind of smut and I had just come from a year of writing for a porn magazine.

Everything and everyone was fair game in the spirit of finding the joke. After years of censoring myself, feeling that going crude was immature/tacky, suddenly I was encouraged to let my toilet mouth loose. And I did in spades for the same reasons I drew penises in 10th grade. I thought these jokes were funny but more importantly I had to prove my mettle not just through clever bon mots but by showing that I could be as foul as any guy--ironically, in a writers' room, this is the equivalent of being taken seriously.

While off color humor suited my palate just fine, there were times when I felt I was selling out, taking something a little too far just to impress the boys. For example, joking about an actresses' weight. In my mind, it's never okay to talk to guys about how fat a girl is and yet I found myself doing just that. Later, I felt really shitty. Not only because I had violated some rule of sisterhood, but because I had betrayed a principle just to " be down." Before long would I find myself holding up a meeting, pretending to jerk off a dick I didn't have? You know, for yucks?

Back in the 10th grade, Mom got me thinking that maybe I had been acting a bit like a dancing monkey for the boys. So, despite my enjoyment of the series, I stopped drawing penises and returned to the neutral terrain of heads on spikes. When I announced I was done with drawing penises because it was un-feminist, the boys sighed. Then after a long pause, one of them said to me, "Okay fine, but can you draw vaginas?"