How Hollywood blurs the line between workplace jokes and harassment

Nell Scovell
Television Writer, Producer, and Director
Hollywood writer's rooms are notorious boys clubs: men often outnumber the women by 8 to 1. TV writer Nell Scovell has defied that depressing statistic her entire career. She's written for an incredible list of shows: Friends, Late Night with David Letterman, The Simpsons, just to name a few. Here, she talks about a time in the Friends room where a lewd joke was taken a little too far — but also sparked an idea for an entire episode of the show. Nell's new book is the hilarious and illuminating Just the Funny Parts: ...And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into the Hollywood Boy's Club.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Nell Scovell: So in 2006 an assistant who worked on Friends, a writer’s assistant, sued the show for harassment. I think it was... it wasn’t physical/sexual harassment. I think it was verbal harassment. And what that show was able to prove to the judge was that all that lewd talk in the room did sometimes lead to story ideas.

I think there was a story where Ross is like masturbating when one of the women walks in, and he switches the channel so it looks like he’s masturbating to a shark video. And that starts a whole thing, and that came out of people in the room talking about jerking off. So in that sense the TV writers’ room isn’t like most workplaces, and that’s I think sometimes hard for people outside to understand; that it can get personal and it can get weird and sexual, and sometimes all three things at the same time.

But the judge said that the assistant had not been in any danger and that they could justify this language.

People have, I think, misread that in Hollywood to mean “you can say anything you want in the room,” which is not true.

And I think if you want to have a non-hostile work environment you obviously have to be aware of other people’s feelings and levels of comfort and making sure that everybody, you know, feels that the show is mission-based and you’re all working hard to make the best, funniest episode you can.

When you’re on a set you know the difference when a crew member brushes by you because you’re in some tight cranny and when a crew member presses up against you in a sexual way. And I feel the writers’ room it’s the same thing.

I know when someone I work with is making a joke—is just commenting on a woman’s body in order to make a joke or a man’s body in order to make a joke—and when it gets threatening.

So I’ve gotten more vocal as I’ve gotten older at going to people outside the writers’ room and saying, “Okay, that made me feel uncomfortable.”

Now the problem with that is Hollywood is one of those places where if someone acts inappropriately and you call them on it, YOU’RE the asshole. So that’s one of the things that I would love to see change, where you could tell someone, “That made me feel uncomfortable,” and instead of them being defensive and saying, “I was joking,” they just went “Oh, well thank you for telling me. I’ll be more aware of that in the future.”