Being a “Difficult” Woman on TV and the Refreshing Brilliance of ‘The Comeback’
When the history of ’90s sitcoms is told through televised romans à clef, it is, of course, the writers who get the last word. Tension between writers and stars is nothing new to television — ask any writer of Mork & Mindy what working with Robin Williams was like — but these tensions became more pronounced in the ’90s, for two reasons: The syndication money was obscene, and the standup explosion of the ’80s led to a demand in star-driven vehicles based on standup routines. This led to inevitable questions of authorship. Carsey-Werner became famous for creating sitcoms around standup performers (Bill Cosby, Roseanne Barr, and Brett Butler, for example), and just as famous for the volatility of their stars.
Certainly writers poking fun at their stars is nothing new (Cheers mocked Ted Danson’s vanity decades before Community took a swing at Joel McHale‘s), but when relations were frosty, the narrative was: actors were hard to work with. It should come as no surprise that in a field as male-dominated as TV writing, male stars endure light ribbing even when the network had to hire a fixer to pay off their rape victims, while there’s a word we use to describe demanding women. It is for this reason, in part, that The Comeback is such a (hilarious) relief: Lisa Kudrow functions as a writer-performer (co-creating the series with Sex and the City’s Michael Patrick King) and can reframe stories of bad behavior on both the part of the actors and the writers. On one episode this season, Seth Rogen, playing himself, observes that “every writer” wants to shoot their actors, and “that’s why you gotta write your own stuff.” The Comeback, which just finished its second season on HBO, is far from the first series to make specific references to closet skeletons in Hollywood, but its point of view is decidedly rare.
As a comparative example, I’d like to touch on a similar project from a few years ago to point out the important differences. In 2008, the writing staffs of Two and a Half Men and CSI took on episodes of one another’s shows, resulting in the episodes “Two and a Half Deaths” (CSI) and “Fish in a Drawer” (Two and a Half Men). “Fish in a Drawer” involves the investigation of the death of a character on Two and a Half Men. “Two and a Half Deaths” (co-written by Two and a Half Men creators Chuck Lorre and Lee Aronsohn), though, had the CSI gang investigating the murder of a sitcom star. This hour drew heavily from Chuck Lorre’s own history working with women sitcom stars in the ’90s (specifically Roseanne, Brett Butler, and Cybill Shepherd), and was clearly written to exorcise his own misogynist resentment of them.
Spoiler alert: The sitcom’s executive producer (Stephen Tobolowsky, as a Chuck Lorre avatar) has conspired with its costar (Rachael Harris, as an avatar for Cybill‘s Christine Baransky) to murder the star (“Annabelle,” played by Katey Sagal), due to her bad behavior on set. Like Roseanne, Annabelle is constantly hiring and firing new writers, including her schmuck boyfriend (Diedrich Bader, as a Tom Arnold avatar). Like Brett Butler, Annabelle struggles with alcoholism and is inappropriately sexual with the actor playing her son on her sitcom. Like Cybill Shepherd, she cannot stand to see her costar get bigger laughs than her. The premise itself is a likely reference to the Feb 26, 1997 Viva Las Vegas crossover promotion ABC did with Grace Under Fire, The Drew Carey Show, Coach, and Ellen. Working with Brett Butler was supposedly so challenging that the Drew Carey Show crew made themselves “I Survived Brett” t-shirts. It’s worth noting, of course, that Lorre was no longer running Grace Under Fire at the time.
In fact, his time on all three of those shows was relatively brief (not quite as brief as a colonoscopy, but…). He worked on Roseanne from 1990-1992, then created Grace Under Fire, but only stuck around for one season. He was then on Cybill for two seasons (through 1998).
Roseanne has written about her struggles with Matt Williams, her show’s first EP — in short, while he was writing the show, stories were drawn from her life and standup act, and she felt she had to really fight to make sure she had a creative voice on the show. This doesn’t necessarily justify this or this, but it goes a long way toward recognizing that she was a human being working hard to make the show great (and it truly was).
Brett Butler did some pretty inexcusable things on Grace Under Fire. She was also then, as now, struggling with serious addiction issues — issues that shut down production so she could possibly get clean (Hollywood’s great at giving performers the time they need to kick addiction). She’s since made appearances on Anger Management, starring another performer Chuck Lorre battled against, Charlie Sheen.
Cybill Shepherd, rumor has it, fired Chuck Lorre after Christine Baranski won an Emmy for the show (Shepherd hadn’t). While that’s a stone cold Beyonce-in-Dreamgirls rumor, it also seems like a bit of a stretch. Here’s where it becomes important to see who gets to tell the story. Chuck Lorre struggled with alcoholism during this time, once admitting to Entertainment Weekly, “I led a dissolute youth until 47” (this would be around 1999). Can it really be true that he committed no bad behavior during his “dissolute” middle-age? His work in the first few seasons of Two and a Half Men, in particular, doesn’t point to a man comfortable around women (including its casting of Charlie Sheen). Cybill Shepherd described Lorre as “so angry, he couldn’t function.” But his CSI episode points to a man browbeaten by a demanding star, able to trust only his (all white-male) writing staff. Annabelle, the star, is revealed to have been getting drunk via vodka-dipped Tampons, and following her death had a rubber chicken stuffed down her throat. If Roseanne Barr, or Brett Butler, or Cybill Shepherd wrote an episode of CSI about a TV writer being murdered, what might we have the chance to learn?
We have an opportunity like that, in The Comeback. There’s nothing to suggest that Lisa Kudrow is difficult to work with. Valerie Cherish, Kudrow’s character and the lead of The Comeback, is a sitcom actor best known from a ’90s sitcom called I’m It which just missed syndication by three episodes. In The Comeback‘s first season (2005), she’s the subject of a reality series about her comeback on a new sitcom called Room & Bored. Like a lot of actors, Valerie’s determination not to be a Problem gives her trouble with sincerity. As Emily Nussbaum wrote, “Her job… is to be a good sport. Any hint of resistance might get her tagged as ‘difficult.’” She can’t control her image on her reality show, and the first season throws her into a tailspin.
The other source of agita for Valerie is Paulie G, one of Room & Bored‘s two creators. Paulie G won an Emmy for a Simpsons episode he wrote in his early 20s, and he thinks he’s a genius. Paulie G is boorish and obnoxious, and hates that he’s contractually obligated to write for Valerie (her reality show and the sitcom are a package deal). James Burrows, playing himself directing the first few episodes of Room & Bored, sees a “hate show” coming: the writers (all white men and one white woman who’s terrified of standing out as a Problem) must write for Valerie, but what they write doesn’t have to be good.
One night, Valerie shows up at the writers’ room to bring them homemade cookies for their late night of rewriting — she finds the writers pantomiming a sex scene between themselves and her (in the form of a writer with a red t-shirt on his head, to mimic her red hair). She explains to the camera, “That was nothing, just writers blowing off steam… It’s a comedy show, part of the creative process.”
Valerie’s language here is deliberate. The Friends writers’ room was notoriously miserable and sexist, resulting in a groundbreaking lawsuit that resolved that if a sitcom deals with sexual situations, its writers can discuss sex in the room with near-impunity. The lawsuit mentioned, among other things, that the Friends writers would make obscene jokes about the stars of the series, specifically the women. Writers insisted that this kind of thing was necessary banter for reaching stories. A writer (not on the show) explained, “[Friends] was so concentrated on sexual titillation … they’re practically obliged to explore that. They’re writing Friends, for God’s sake.” Many writers rallied around the Friends writers, Ken Levine even going so far as to say, “Had the writers’ assistant won this absurd lawsuit the result would not be more genteel writers rooms. It would be fewer woman writers and assistants being hired… And maybe some of the Courtney Cox genital jokes were true.” As the New York Times noted, “According to the Writers Guild of America, of the 1,576 writers who worked on network television programs in the 2002-2003 season, 425 were women.” In 2012, 3715 writers were employed in television; 1019 were women.
The assistant that the writers kept past midnight while tossing these jokes around, a black woman, has left the industry. The judge allowed, “The writers regularly discussed their preferences in women and sex in general. [Writer Adam] Chase spoke of his preferences for blond women, a certain bra cup size, ‘get[ting] right to sex’ and not ‘mess[ing] around with too much foreplay.” Rob Long, another writer (not on the show) insisted, “Writers make fun of the cast relentlessly. The cast of Friends is beautiful and talented and funny and they seem really nice and in fact they are really nice and they did a great show and they all got really rich — and if you’re a writer, these are the people you despise.” But according to the suit, no male cast members were insulted to the degree that Courtney Cox and Jennifer Aniston were.
It’s accepted wisdom that Friends is one of the great sitcoms in television history, but how much are we supposed to tolerate in the name of “great” writing? Certainly Room & Bored is not a classic. Very few sitcoms are. Did Community‘s greatness justify Dan Harmon’s behavior? Its contemporary, Parks & Recreation, seemed capable of making fantastic comedy without fostering a Community-like environment. Another (non-Friends) writer interviewed about the lawsuit suggested that TV writers rooms are “a very tough atmosphere and if you don’t love it it’s not going to work for you at all.” That writer was Dennis Klein, who the interview notes worked on Cosby — a show starring a rapist — and The Larry Sanders Show — a show that fired an actor when she stopped sleeping with star/EP Garry Shandling. It can be inferred that “tough atmosphere” is just another way of saying “women aren’t welcome.”
In the nine years since season 1 of The Comeback, all of its characters have been apparently dealing with its trauma. Season 2 gives us a quick recap of what they’ve been up to — Valerie was originally cast on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills but was so terrified of again being portrayed as a monster that she walked off filming. Jane, the field producer of The Comeback‘s reality show, retreated to serious documentary, and seems truly miserable over the woman she became making a reality show. Paulie G, notably, has kicked a heroin habit we didn’t know he had during Room & Bored, and is now clean and making an HBO series about a recalcitrant TV writer working on an asinine sitcom starring a persnickety has-been actress. For a moment, we can hope that his addiction was what made him an asshole, and that his casting Valerie to play “Mallory Church” will be the first step toward a positive working relationship between the two of them.
That is unfortunately not the case — Paulie G is also directing his series (Seeing Red), and refuses to give his actors any direction, relying instead on Seth Rogen for hackneyed improv. Valerie comes to set with all her lines memorized, every time, and needs direction to function. Soon Paulie G is screaming at her that “you make me want to put a fucking needle in my arm!”
An early shoot day has them filming a fantasy scene where Mallory goes down on Mitch. Valerie is uncomfortable simulating oral sex on camera — her background is network sitcoms — and begs Paulie G to give her some kind of understanding about what the scene is about. She’s worried especially that, since so much of the show is autobiographical, the crew will think that she actually did blow Paulie G while working on Room & Bored. As Kate Arthur notes, Valerie “would have read the sexual fantasy scene in the script, and still agreed to do it. If Paulie G. hasn’t evolved much, neither has the self-immolating Valerie.” Fed up with being asked, Paulie G tells her, in front of the entire crew, that when they were working on Room & Bored, and she would come to the writers with a question, he would think “Blow me. Blow me, Val.” She pretends that this kind of sexist abuse works as a scene-motivator, and it takes Seth Rogen to come up with an alternate solution she’s (slightly) more comfortable with.
Seeing Red is, unsurprisingly, sexist tripe, with great performances by Valerish Cherish and Seth Rogen. Even Juna, one of Valerie’s Room & Bored costars (played by Malin Åkerman), worries about the line between fact and fiction that Paulie G is blurring. She’s now a movie star (and was always more comfortable in her skin than Valerie) but indicates that the Seeing Red version of her slept her way to her role, something Juna doesn’t want viewers thinking is the truth. What really kills her, she tells Valerie, “is that Seth is charming. He makes it look like we were the problem [on Room & Bored]… Seth is so winning, it’s like you and I are these awful women who are just a body or an ego.” Valerie finally concedes, “That’s how he wrote himself.”
During a press junket in anticipation of Seeing Red‘s release, a blogger asks Valerie how she felt about the show’s misogynist sexualization of all its women characters. We saw Valerie shoot a scene flanked by two naked, moaning women, so we know how she felt: “That was hell. That’s where I was,” she told Mickey in confidence. But Valerie is an actress, and it’s not her job to publicly criticize bad writing or bad behavior by writers. She can just grit her teeth and bear it. Valerie isn’t a writer. Luckily, Lisa Kudrow is.
Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the webseries Doing Good.