All In The Family? Art and Responsibility

All In The Family? Art and Responsibility May 31, 2018

In the past few days, two shows have come under scrutiny because of the behavior of their cast members:

  • The revelation of verbal abuse from Jeffrey Tambor on the sets of Transparent – from which he was fired -and Arrested Development – where he was kept on;
  • And the cancelling of Roseanne Barr’s reboot of her sitcom Roseanne after a series of racist tweets she put out the other day.

And it got me thinking, after writing whether we can enjoy anything anymore after #MeToo, about Art and Responsibility.

Let’s take a look.

Arrest that Development!

At a recent press tour for the premiere of the fifth season of Arrested Development on Netflix, a New York Times interview took a turn for the serious when co-star Jeffrey Tambor was asked to comment on his recent firing from his Amazon series, Transparent.  Tambor had been removed from that show due to sexual misconduct allegations, which he denies, as well as accusations of severe verbal abuse leveled at every member of the cast and crew, which Tambor admits to.

Despite admitting to being verbally abusive behind the scenes – an admission that seemed to shock no one among the Arrested Development cast – the Netflix series hired Jeffrey Tambor back as the equally manipulative patriarch for their family show.  Tambor himself admitted that he was “difficult,” but when his Arrested Development co-star and on-screen wife, Jessica Walter, admitted that her volatile co-star had turned his verbal abuse on her, rather than apologizing, the other male co-stars of the cast immediately came to Tambor’s defense.

Jason Bateman, the series lead, said that he would not continue with the show if Tambor was not present.  He further made the excuse that genius required putting up with abusive behavior (which he called “atypical”), before going on to say that the cast was like a family and this was how family behaved.  By the end of the interview, Walter was reduced to tears, apologizing for Tambor’s behavior, saying:

“I have to let go of being angry at him….In almost 60 years of working, I’ve never had anybody yell at me like that on a set and it’s hard to deal with, but I’m over it now.” (Read the full article here.)

It should go without saying that verbal abuse is never appropriate.  And certainly not something that anyone should have to “let go of” and become accustomed to for the sake of a job.  Verbal abuse has no place in society – whether in a job, let alone in a family.

And make no mistake: when Jason Bateman sided with Tambor, saying that he wouldn’t film a sixth season without the abusive actor, Batemen was holding everyone’s job hostage at the price of working with a volatile and aggressive co-worker.

That the other men of the cast fell in line behind Batemen, excusing Tambor’s behavior in Jessica Walter’s face, in front of the press, they were protecting their own careers – ready to sacrifice Walter’s career to save their own.  It’s a coward’s move.

That executive producer and series creator Mitch Hurwitz sought out Tambor after he had been fired from Transparent in order to continue working with Tambor, making working with a known verbal abuser a condition of everyone’s employment, Hurwitz was putting everyone’s job and safety in jeopardy.  Knowingly.  Which is unconscionable behavior for an employer.

It may not be weaponizing sex, but this is still leveraging power. 

In this case, power over women, and those less capable of defending themselves: the actors and crew members.  Whose only “choice” became – as Walter’s put it – “having to let it go,” or getting fired for someone else’s bad behavior.

Roseanne Barred

The other news that broke just in the past few days was the cancelling of the successful reboot of Roseanne over on ABC, after series lead and creator, Roseanne Barr’s racist tweets.

Barr also has a reputation for being difficult to work with, although her story was retooled in recent years as she opened up about the sexism she had to go through to break into Hollywood to begin with.  (Read the article here.)

However, after Barr tweeted that Valerie Jarrett, a former Obama advisor, resembled a primate – a racial slur she has used against those of African descent before – ABC cancelled the show.  Tweets flew fast and furious in the past 24 hours, with Roseanne claiming that she was on Ambien (resulting in some great free advertising for the drug).  And just today, sensing that something was not about him, Donald Trump jumped in demanding an apology from ABC to himself as well.  (As of this writing, ABC was unable to cancel the current presidency from its season line-up.)

In better news, unlike the men of Arrested Development, the cast and crew of Roseanne spoke out on Twitter, thanking her for the job opportunity while criticizing her speech.

The most interesting critique, however, comes from fellow comedian, Kathy Griffin, who encouraged audiences not to praise ABC for its sudden morality too swiftly.  As reported in the Washington Post:

The reality is, ABC, like anyone with the ability to see, hear, and read, knew who Roseanne was when they gave her this show. They wanted to get a piece of Trump/conservative world business. So I’m not going to heap praise on Bob Iger or anyone else at the network…

They knew exactly what they were getting..[sic] they were just willing to put any concerns/issues aside for the sake of ratings and money. The question is, why was this the limit? It wasn’t enough when she called David Hogg a Nazi? Or when she tweeted racist stuff about Susan Rice?

While the goings-on behind the scenes is not yet public knowledge, the truth is that Barr has a reputation – much like Tambor’s – for being “difficult.”  Or perhaps, in Bateman’s words, “atypical.”  Or, to be more accurate, “abusive.”

The only difference here is that ABC was willing to sack the verbally abusive woman, while Netflix, Mitch Hurwitz and Jason Bateman had no trouble rehiring the verbally abusive man.

Perhaps Barr’s “genius” is lesser than Tambor.  Although to judge by their award nominations and wins, they’re relatively equal in the public’s eyes.  If their talent is equal then, as seems to be their volatile temperaments, why is Tambor tolerated while Barr let go?  Or, perhaps more importantly, why weren’t both of them sacked immediately to begin with?

Why do we expect “abuse” to be a hallmark of great “artistry?”

With Great Power…

The argument for hiring a “difficult/atypical/abusive” artist is generally: “We can’t do without his art!  There is no one else like him!”

This is the argument for keeping Woody Allen at large.  However, it’s a false belief.

No one – not even the genius – is above reproach.

There may have been only one Mozart.  And he may have been “difficult.”  But even he would have benefited from being held accountable.  Perhaps then he may have lived longer and given the world a completed Requiem.

Nor is there anything in the artistic temperament that actually makes “being difficult” a draw.  I’ve worked with any number of “difficult” artists – and I’ve worked with them once.  Then I refuse to work with them again.

Moreover, many of the most talented artists of my acquaintance actually tend to be some of the hardest working, most disciplined and conscientious people that I know.  Artistic jobs are few and far between – so if you’ve managed to land a paying gig, you’re far more invested and show up to work half an hour earlier than your salaried employee who slouches in fifteen minutes late, a little hungover, and faffs about on the computer to get through the day.

Why does Jessica Walter say she “has to” be alright with Tambor’s behavior?  Why are the men silent?  Because those silenced actors are not temperamental.  Because they’re scared.  Because if they speak up, they’ll be labelled “difficult” – the kind of “difficult” that gets you fired.

Yet there are fewer repercussions for standing up to the outlying woman with an offensive mouth, as the cast members of Roseanne have done.  Why?  Because everyone always knew Barr was “difficult,” and it was only a matter of time before they could safely let her go.

…Comes Great Responsibility

What action is actually required here?

Those who fear feminism may presume that I will now make the argument that Barr should be reinstated while someone should bring me Tambor’s head on a platter.

But no.

Bad behavior is bad behavior, and should be called out no matter the person’s sex or occupation.

We need to remember that art, especially collaborative art, is a workplace.  And that inappropriate behavior is never tolerable in any workplace.  That, in fact, the safety of the community is more important than coddling and encouraging poor behavior from an individual.  And that correcting bad behavior is ultimately the most loving act we can do for the abuser, as well.  (See the priest scandals.  See the reform we’re calling for in Catholic colleges.)

In some ways, I’m grateful for the misstep of Arrested Development, because it’s thrown into relief that more than sex can be weaponized.  Words can be weaponized.  Employment can be weaponized.  Press junkets can be weaponized.

Weinstein weaponized sex, but that wasn’t his true crime.  The true crime is the about the abuse of power. 

Tambor may not have violated another woman’s body, but he abused her soul.  And the men of Arrested Development let it happen.  In fact, said that it must happen.  In fact, said that it was necessary to his genius.

Barr may not have violated someone’s body, but she denigrated their reputations.  And the cast and crew of Roseanne said, “No more.”  Even at the expense of their own occupations.  Because bad behavior cannot be rewarded.  And moreover, don’t praise the ones who sacked her: because they hired an abuser with moneybags in their eyes.  And they fired her with those same moneybags on their mind.

I hope, and I pray, in this #MeToo moment, as Hollywood is called to some account that the slow changes being wrought before our eyes will actually have effect in showbiz and all businesses.  There is a reckoning.  And I say: good.

If, as Bateman said, “This is just like a family” – then I say:

Let’s clean house.


Image property of ABC.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Excellent article! Will this nuanced revelation of the discrepancy in the #MeToo movement make mainstream media? I doubt it. There are so many yet-to-be revealed stark incongruences that this one pales in comparison. This is the tip of the iceberg to the dark underground of power abuses that continue to work unfettered in society, with pornography and slave traffic being the culmination of all the tolerated perversion still operating at full tilt.

  • I’d argue that this part of the #MeToo movement *is* absolutely in the mainstream media. At least insofar as realizing that Tambor’s behavior and Bateman’s exusing were Not Okay. To be honest, I’m more concerned about insidious power dynamics than the more obvious sexual issues. It’s “easy” to look at sex slave traffic and all agree that it’s no good. But it’s our actual, personal failings that don’t distinguish when we abuse power at home that paves the way for the obvious evil to happen. I’m all for changing things at the fundamental level for most people, since most people aren’t going to be called to stop slave trafficking…but we WILL be called to modify our own behavior and prejudices.

  • Kenneth Neal

    Emily’s remarks about Mozart were ignorant and inappropriate. He died from rheumatic fever, not from being a jerk.

    Jeffrey Tambor is talented. Roseanne Barr is merely coarse and vulgar. He sitcom was unwatchable by anyone with a three-digit IQ

  • Obnoxious to be sure, but less so than: “Amateur artists – literally, lover of the arts – no matter how talented they may be, only partake in their art so long as it remains pleasing. The community theatre actor will drop out as soon as it’s no longer fun.”