Unfunny business

Variety editorial

There are very few places in America where people are paid gobs of money to sit in a room and tell offensive jokes.

But that’s business as usual for sitcom writers, judging from a sexual harassment suit now before the California Supreme Court, brought against some of the writers and producers of “Friends” by a writer’s assistant on the show.

If the plaintiff wins this suit, it could set a dangerous precedent. The writers room, particularly on a comedy dissecting the sexual lives of young single people, is bound to be a bastion of juvenile humor and explicit talk.

Group writing is a chaotic process. Comedy writers are sometimes funniest when they’re confronting their darkest impulses. They need be free behind closed doors to go too far so that they know what too far is.

The evidence from the plaintiff’s brief, available on the Web Site smokinggun.com, suggests that the “Friends” writers had plenty of darker impulses.

It’s alleged that references to blowjobs and female anatomy were routine, and among the ideas that were put on the table was a proposal to turn the character Joey (played by Matt LeBlanc) into a serial rapist.

That’s not especially funny, but it’s perfectly in keeping with the atmosphere of other sitcom rooms. The Writers Guild of America has filed an amicus brief defending the comedy writers, offering ribald anecdotes from shows like “Malcolm in the Middle.”

These days, there are certainly other reasons to reconsider the creative process behind the sitcom. With “Friends” gone and “Everybody Loves Raymond” soon to sign off scripted comedy may have reached its tipping point. At the very least, it’s currently no longer the blockbuster genre it used to be.

Networks have high hopes for a series of midseason comedies, including “The Office” and “Jake in Progress”; and they sent hundreds of executives to the Aspen Comedy Festival last week to scout new talent.

No one is advocating insensitivity toward co-workers, but there needs to be some understanding of the creative process. And with sitcom writers trying to fight their way out of a corner, now is not the time to be pulling punches.

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