How Do I Deal With Harassment at My New TV Writing Job?

Patton Oswalt and Julie Klausner on Difficult People. Photo: Hulu

As a former comedy agent at UTA and WME, Priyanka Mattoo represented numerous big-name writers and performers before leaving to start a TV production company with Jack Black. Now she writes and directs, but she still encounters a tidal wave of comedy hopefuls looking for the advice, information, and pep talks that only a former agent can provide. In show business, they say that it’s all about who you know. Well, you’re in luck because now you know Priyanka!

I’ve been pinching myself because I can’t believe how lucky I am to have landed my dream job: staff writer on a TV show. The only problem is that almost immediately, an older, senior writer pulled me aside to tell me that I didn’t deserve the job, and that he had been rooting for someone else to get it. He said it with a smile, but I’m not sure who would have found it funny. His behavior has been “jokingly” hostile at times ever since. It’s not sexual or anything, just … jerky. I’m definitely the lowest on the totem pole here, which makes me nervous about complaining to anyone, or making waves. How would you suggest I handle this situation? —Anonymous

I am so sorry you’re going through a hard time at your job and that it’s not everything you had hoped it would be. It’s so embarrassing that this kind of thing happens so frequently in our industry, and I’m sure everyone who has ever worked in a writers room can talk about the colleagues whose abhorrent behavior was just laughed off with a “That’s just how they are … they don’t mean it.” This has allowed workplace verbal abuse to run rampant, and unfortunately, it is often celebrated.

I’ll never understand why Hollywood allows treating people like dirt to stand in for a personality. In the past, screamers and jerks have often been canonized, and their cruelty even credited for their success — if you read books like The Mailroom, or any filmmaking memoir, the “fun” parts are about people getting psychologically tortured. Every mid-career exec or creative I know has a quiver full of stories about a tough boss, and honestly, the ones who have been through the wringer with a particularly difficult one (we all know who they are) are usually rewarded with extra credibility, and so the cycle endures.

Abusive behavior in Hollywood is often coded as “training” someone for a job. Bosses claim to be tough on their employees because this can be a difficult place to work, and skin thickened against daily indignities ensures a long career. I call bullshit. Most people are exposed to a sort of tough-love training, for sure, from scary-seeming higher-ups. This is entirely different from the people who are just abusive or hostile, and should be reported, but it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.

My own first job was working for a woman who was … exacting, and vocal about it. I was a dreadful assistant whom she ultimately, contrary to all logic, promoted. I got fired for a day here and there and wanted to quit every week. I let packages pile up under my desk, billed work items to her personal card, inflated ticket prices so I wouldn’t have to make travel arrangements (she still brings this up — it was legitimately a very bad habit), misplaced client paychecks, and once gave a famous person’s cell-phone number to Chris Noth, or someone who claimed to be Chris Noth, on the phone — who can say! I didn’t even know where the files were kept (right behind me). I was objectively terrible because I hated the minutiae of the job and I thought every single request she made was unreasonable (and the more I think about it, the worse I realize I was). I suspect I did some of it on purpose to torture her.

But big picture, we were a match made in heaven. When she promoted me, which was quickly, she called me a menace who was sabotaging her career. She conceded that I had an eye for material, the other agents were fond of me, and the clients were as well. But she had orchestrated all of this by making sure I was emailing the partnership about great scripts I came across and building direct relationships with the clients, even as I forgot to mail their packages. Who was doing the filing, I’ll never know. I would not recommend this approach to anyone, but I hope it clarifies that while she might have been intimidating at first, any conflict in our work relationship had to do with the quality of my work and her wanting to improve it so that she could make an airtight argument for my promotion. She was, and remains, my fiercest champion.

In your specific case, this guy does not have your career in mind. He is not taking you under his wing, he is not offering any career support, and his interactions with you are planned to make you feel small. He is just a bully. Perhaps it would help to unpack his psychological profile. You’re young, smart, and seem like a decent human being — and a constant reminder of his growing irrelevance. People in entertainment are obsessed with relevance! It’s everyone’s job to track and shape popular culture, and the second they feel like things might be changing and their views are even slightly outdated, they panic and mount an offense. This sounds like the kind of person who openly laments the rise of political correctness because it means that he is doing something wrong, and anyone younger than him is doing it right. Add to that that you’re a woman, and you are a daily reminder of his dwindling job security.

It may seem like an overreaction, and it totally is, but unlike you, he probably has a family and a mortgage or two, and most shows don’t hire 60-year-old writers, so all he sees is his professional window closing as yours is being thrown wide open. Let’s call the whole ball of yarn “economic anxiety” while we’re at it. These bullies are very much a type in Hollywood that I’ve seen many times over — they like to remind you that you’re lucky to be here, and that 100 people are lined up to replace you if you breathe a word of complaint. But guess what? You got the job for a reason, not just because you happened to be walking by and they needed more jokes. This is a competitive job that requires a high level of skill. He is targeting you because you scare him. He is making you uncomfortable because you make him uncomfortable. Keep that in mind when you start telling people about him.

Now the puzzle of whom to tell. I have to say, coming up in the industry, it never would have occurred to me to report anything to HR. HR was often a shadowy Michael Clayton figure in a faraway room. This has changed as companies get bigger, more corporate, and more focused on running businesses like actual businesses. So talk to your representatives and find out who the studio or network HR person is, so you can have a confidential conversation with them. A paper trail is so important in these cases and can prevent him from bullying people in the future. A producer friend recently had to deal with a problematic writer, and there was zero record of anyone on this show going to HR about him, which only strengthened his case.

If this makes you uncomfortable at the moment, perhaps start smaller, at the show level. It can be tricky reporting any weird behavior to showrunners because they go on the defensive — you’re telling them that something is wrong with the way they’ve staffed and run their creation. And if he’s a high-level writer, he’s likely old friends with your boss. But look around for a sympathetic-seeming colleague, or producer, or someone who you think can help you navigate this specific situation, and approach it exactly as you did here: by stating that something strange is happening, and asking how they would navigate it. I suspect you’ll hear a little “Oh, he’s just like that” from the other writers, but a producer is more likely to take it seriously, especially if, or when, you’ve spoken to HR. Again, terrifying, as you’ve just gotten your foot in the door, but I can tell you unequivocally that at this moment, people are taking complaints from young women extremely seriously (at last). If they don’t, come find me again because I live to send an unhinged email to a complete stranger. Alternatively — and I know this feels scary — you could just go to this guy and tell him that his behavior is making you uncomfortable, and ask him to stop. He probably won’t, 100 percent, but remember what I said about you scaring him? Direct confrontation can be like throwing water on your wicked witch. There is a reason that comedy writers have a reputation for being socially awkward. Take advantage of that.

The good news is that the overwhelming majority of people in our business are so traumatized by their lack of influence over the Trump administration that they are clamping down on bad behavior they can actually control. Like Star Trek: Discovery or this recent Netflix firing, tolerance for professional misconduct is dwindling by the second. In addition to timely rage, your bosses are overwhelmingly more rational and reasonable at work than their own bosses were, and your peers will be more humane and professional still. I promise you, we are trending in the right direction. Hang in there and people like this joker will be a thing of the past. You will be able to work with wonderful, kind, supportive people for the rest of your career, and this one will soon be a distant memory.

How Do I Deal With Harassment at My New TV Writing Job?