A quarter century ago, a glamorous celebrity newlywed couple broke out a Hi8 camcorder and made a home movie. It’s 54-minute running time was mostly film of the head-over-heels honeymooners cooing, flirting, smiling, laughing and repeating “I love you so much, babe” to the point of rom-com parody. It was cute, lovable, and frankly, pretty boring — save for the eight minutes of close-up copulation, which thanks to this new-fangled worldwide web machine, changed the sexual mores game forever.
The story of how a Playboy cover goddess and a Motley Crue metalhead had their most intimate moments snatched out from under them and displayed for all the world to see is told in Hulu’s new series Pam & Tommy. The first three episodes, which drop today, take the audience for a ribald ride on the wild side before the later hangover ones kick in and the ugly fallout and painful ramifications of our collective perversity unfold.
The tabloid royalty are played by Lily James (Downton Abbey’s Lady Rose) and Sebastian Stan (MCU’s Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier), basically unrecognizable in their rock-star hairdos, tattoos, funky undergarments, fake fake tits and a certain angry cast (ahem) member, which will be discussed, at (ahem) length, down below (also ahem?).
If upon first glance, it seems like a mild-by-21st-century-standards sex tape scandal starring Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee — who are literally Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee — can’t sustain a series, prepare to have your mind blown. The insane saga, reported out for Rolling Stone in 2014 by Amanda Chicago Lewis, begins with a former two-bit porn actor/amateur theologian/mediocre electrician Rand Gauthier being fired by Lee for not bringing his ridiculous ever-changing waterbed-on-a-pedestal dreams to life. After the bethonged drummer stiffed him on payment, stole his tools and chased him off his Malibu mansion property with a shotgun, the disgruntled shell of a mulleted man decides to stand up for himself and steal Lee’s personal safe. Inside, he found the treasures of a cock-rocker’s life: jewelry, guns, a “wedding bikini” and the tape that would kickstart the heart of the burgeoning online porn universe.
Gauthier, played by Seth Rogen with pitch-perfect twitchy “why does the universe hate me?” patheticism, gets double-crossed by his debaucherous porn partner-in-crime Uncle Miltie, played in coiffed genius by Nick Offerman, and ends up beholden to mob-affiliated porn legend Butchie Peraino, inhabited with gusto by Andrew Clay. (Diceman’s “Bring me the doofus” belongs in the character actor’s line-reading hall of fame.) The true story is shocking, less because of Lee’s supreme Cheshire Cat grin as he money-shots on his beautiful bride, and more because of how one semi-vanilla video coming along at the advent of the information superhighway permanently changed the public’s relationship with celebrities. Privacy be damned, the internet knows no rules or boundaries. The pilfered property brought in $77 million in 1996 alone.
Pam & Tommy is brought to life by Robert Siegel, who was editor-in-chief of The Onion at its apex, and as a writer/director, has specialized in dark comedies (The Wrestler and Big Fan chief among them) with sketchy male protagonists failing at making any sort of mark on the world. In his first foray in showrunning, Siegel manages to mix pathos, humor and glimpses of human decency into the objectively scuzzy universe of Tommy Lee’s dong. I recently spoke to him about Pamela Anderson’s private burdens and public smiles, the 1990s porn shift from the living room to the laptop, how to construct a Roshambo plot and what happens when CGI just can’t capture the magic of the male member.
Let’s hop in the wayback machine to the 1990s, what do you remember about the Pam and Tommy tape being passed around. It seems like something that must have circulated around The Onion?
The Onion was definitely a place where we would get underground material. I saw the South Park Christmas short before anyone knew who those guys were and Jack Black in a Tenacious D video that was going around. As for porn, we had stacks and stacks of VHS and CD-ROM titles laying around the office. Whatever the new technology is, porn is getting there first. [Porn studio] Vivid [Video] sent us stuff all the time, but I don’t have any recollection of the Pam and Tommy tape. My memory is shot in general, but I’m not like some people who’ve told me they fondly remember jacking off to it. I don’t have a great anecdote to share about their sex tape. I probably should.
One thing I remember is hearing about the tape long before seeing it — probably online — so it was a huge honking scandal that went on forever.
It’s crazy how big a story it became, but back then, the news cycle was a lot slower. Scandals sat at the center of the pop-culture world for a long time. Look at how long the ridiculous Janet Jackson “Nipplegate” thing hung around — we’re still talking about it. Pam and Tommy’s tape was stolen in 1995, but it took two years before they settled with the guy from Club Love to show it online. It was months before Tommy even realized the safe had been stolen. Today, scandals quickly spread far and wide, but they only hang on until the next thing, forgotten by the following Tuesday.
It’s fascinating how shocked people were that a married celebrity couple, especially this particular married celebrity couple, made a sex tape in the first place. I doubt a celebrity sex tape would cause a ripple nowadays, short of it starring perhaps Taylor Swift.
Looking back on Pam and Tommy’s tape, a lot of people now assume it was a publicity stunt, a career move. It resoundingly was not; it was stolen property. But it did lead to more sex tapes, both leaked and “leaked,” that were used as career leverage. We had the Paris Hilton tape at The Onion, and I do remember it seemed like she was playing to the camera. Pam and Tommy weren’t. There had been other celebrity sex tapes — Rob Lowe had one with an underage girl, but very few people saw it, so it was more of a rumor than a reality. There was no way to disseminate them to make money because lawyers would come after porn distributors and shut it down.
Pam and Tommy’s video hit right as the world was coming online. The internet was in its infancy, so at first, people ordered it from a website by sending a check in the mail. The ability to process credit cards and streaming technology were the rocket boosters for their video taking off. Today, sex tapes are normalized, so the Pam and Tommy story only happens at that critical online juncture of the late 1990s.
Once VCRs became readily available, porn stars were, if not “mainstream,” at least ubiquitous, especially in the L.A. hair metal world of Motley Crue. How did the Pam and Tommy tape bridge the boldface-porn-stars-to-the-OnlyFans eras?
In the 1970s, there was a brief period of porn chic, fashionable couples going to the theater to see Deep Throat together, but it was short-lived and skin flicks were shuttered back to their seedy peep-show roots. Again, the sea change was technology. The VCR led to Seka and Jenna Jameson becoming household names. Pam & Tommy shows the evolution beyond the videotape days — how one of the dinosaurs it killed was San Fernando Valley with the shift to Silicon Valley.
Another major cultural change, and this must be hard to imagine if you’re of a generation younger than X, but back then, you didn’t have behind-the-scenes access to celebrity lives. The Pam Anderson sex scenes were shocking, but so was watching her blow out candles on a cake. This presaged celebrity reality television. MTV Cribs came out in 2000, and it was like, “Holy shit! Ludacris’ kitchen!” But it was all by design. Pam and Tommy were just being themselves for each other and each other only. It was so voyeuristic, like Rear Window if Jimmy Stewart was spying on a guy honking a boat horn with his penis from across the street.
There is very little actual sex in the tape’s running time, so clearly viewer curiosity was aroused above and beyond Pam and Tommy’s considerable physical assets. The least skeezy part of the entire scandal is the tape itself, which is warm and wholesome in its own way.
It’s a straight head-over-heels married couple having missionary position sex. Nothing could be more normal about it. I don’t believe the tape would’ve had the same cultural impact had it been an hour of hardcore fucking.
Anderson isn’t involved in the Hulu project, and I know you can’t speak for her, but she wanted to follow in Jane Fonda’s Barbarella-to-Oscar-winner footsteps. As someone who spent years researching her career, do you think the sex tape derailed her Hollywood trajectory?
I should say the part in Pam & Tommy where she talks about emulating Jane Fonda is fictionalized. I don’t know what she actually thinks about Fonda, but the Barbarella track rang true. Realistically, I don’t think her career would’ve been radically different if the tape never surfaced. Barb Wire would’ve still flopped, but either way, her public persona remained the same. I watched every interview with Anderson I could find, and what’s striking is, if you close your eyes and listen, you wouldn’t know if it was 1996, 2000 or 2022. You can usually hear it in the voices of actors and public figures who’ve been chewed up and spit out, but not Pam. She always sounds fresh, joyous and light. I can’t say with any certainty how deep her psychic scars are, but I have to imagine it was a public survival mechanism. She gets knocked down, she gets up again.
I thought Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” could’ve been recontextualized and really work with the Pam & Tommy story we were telling. I was vetoed outright. Too many people hate it.
Seth Rogen’s Rand Gauthier is like the sad-sack men in The Wrestler and Big Fan, floundering guys whose dreams aren’t exactly grandiose — even early on in The Founder, Ray Kroc just wants to be a kick-ass milkshake-maker salesman, not a fast food impresario. What draws you to these bumbling hard-luck guys?
If I really start digging into it, probably daddy issues. I relate to underdogs, dudes on the margins who are trying to find a purpose or a sense of dignity, guys who feel small and want something to feel bigger about their place in the world. It’s about masculinity, grappling with what it means to be a man, and how to go about it. I think most decent writers have their one core idea they focus on and spin out hopefully novel variations on the theme. Doesn’t matter if you’re Spielberg, Fincher, Hemingway — they all have their personal Rosebud, the wound they want to heal. Mine is, what makes you feel like a man?
Conversely, you have Tommy Lee, doing whatever the fuck he wants, damn the consequences. He’s all id, lacking any depth, and frequently an asshole.
He’s trying! Tommy’s really trying! At least with Pam, he sincerely wants to be there for her, and wants to be a good partner. Throughout the tape ordeal, he’s not sleepwalking through the crisis, he’s engaged. They have arguments for sure, but he wants to put it behind them as much as she does to get back to the honeymoon vibe and start a family. Tommy is in the struggle with Pam, wants to be her protector, but can’t be what she really needs because he’s hellbent on revenge.
Pam knew exactly how suing Penthouse would play out. Still, because it’s what she does, Anderson went along with Tommy and their legal team. In a deposition, she ended up answering questions about her sexual past, whether posing nude in Playboy is tantamount to prostitution, to a gross old white lawyer. Tommy’s solution is always confrontation; he can’t see what it’s doing to Pam. Lee says, “They’re in it together,” but she knows it’s not the same for her. He gets high-fives at bars; she has to deal with loneliness and isolation. Tommy feels “pissed.” Pam feels “violated.” Very different realities.
Fair, but notable that had Tommy not been a dick to Rand, the whole thing wouldn’t have happened in the first place.
The general construction of Pam & Tommy is Rock, Paper, Scissors. We have three main characters and shifting power dynamics. At varying times, Tommy’s rock is smashing Rand’s scissors, Rand’s scissors are cutting Pam’s paper, Pam’s paper is covering her husband’s rock. It’s an interesting lens to look at the three interwoven relationships. They’re all victims of each other. The first two episodes are the wild heist and the whirlwind drug-fueled wedding courtship, which are more comedic and meant to seduce the audience with all the fun being had. Later, the show slows down as the consequences get more serious, and not just for the main characters. Any of us who watched their sex tape are a little bit complicit.
Rand ruined Pam’s life for a time anyway, but what neither of them knew was they had a lot in common in terms of abusive upbringings. It seems like Anderson led a charmed golden girl life, plucked from the stands of a Canadian Football League game to the first of many Playboy covers to Baywatch in a short amount of time. But she’s talked about her alcoholic father and multiple sexual assaults. Rand’s father Dick, an actor who played Hymie the Robot on Get Smart, was awful to his son. Meanwhile, Tommy had an idyllic Southern California upbringing. His parents met in Greece; dad was a GI, mom was a Greek beauty pageant winner. Neither spoke the other’s language, but it was love at first sight. They got married in a matter of days, which is even crazier than Pam and Tommy’s four-day trip. Tommy was never told no, paid no price for the epic Motley Crue hedonism. He was rewarded for it. I’m not excusing Tommy’s behavior in any way. He did jail time for spousal abuse and has had plenty of legal problems throughout his life, but he has endearing qualities. His puppy-dog charm and rock-star charisma sure dazzled Pam.
Tommy doesn’t have a boner, it’s flaccid.
My apologies, but it feels like new ground has been broken in dick acting. What was it like seeing that scene come to life off the page?
We weren’t aiming to be the trailblazing penile equivalent of the Captain Kirk-Uhura interracial kiss on Star Trek. It wasn’t even born out of any desire to shock the audience. It came from Lee’s memoir Tommyland, co-narrated by his talking cock. I thought it entirely plausible, even likely, that after a four-day ecstasy binge, Tommy would argue with his dick about whether to marry Pamela. If you’re someone rattled by commitment, it’s the same conversation you have with a friend the night before your wedding. It’s absurd, but it’s so on point for Tommy that I doubt he just made it up for the book.
So you call in the puppeteers…
It took four because it needed to be animatronic. There was brief talk of CGI, but I’m partial to the Yoda puppet. I wanted the whole Jim Henson with a Muppet on his arm vibe. One day, a message popped up on my phone, and it was video of the puppeteers testing out the dick prototype. I wanted lo-fi, so they made it remote control. It had a limited range of motion, up-down-right-left. There was a guy hiding around the corner, operating Tommy’s member with a little handheld switch, like a model airplane. Seeing it come to life was a great day.
I spent 16 years in Catholic school, so grain of salt, but it feels to me one thing that’s improved in the last 25 years is, at least in the more progressive circles, a healthier, more honest view of human sexuality among the younger generations, no?
When I was growing up, I never would’ve watched a movie with naked breasts in it alongside my parents. It would’ve been mortifying and just wouldn’t have happened. Inconceivable, like my parents hadn’t been properly vetted.
But we just watched Wolf of Wall Street with our 13-year-old son. I think it’s far more common than it used to be. There’s obviously terrible stuff in the movie in the character’s actions, but in terms of a general acceptance that sexuality exists, it’s no big deal to my son. He’ll talk about friends — “so-and-so is gay” and “so-and-so is trans” — and it’s just how it is. The world changes. I need to catch up with where he’s at.
In Pam & Tommy, it’s said multiple times by one or the other — usually Tommy — that things are going to work out and everything will be okay. It was terrible that Anderson was put through the ringer, but for being such a massive deal at the time, it doesn’t feel like it destroyed her. All these years later, is the sex tape scandal a relic of another age?
Well, I’m definitely not qualified to say how much harm it did to her. From outward appearances however, Pam’s a survivor. She constructed a suit of armor; the question is how much damage is hidden underneath. My sense of Anderson is she doesn’t see herself as a victim and puts a positive spin on her life.
Look at her marriages. After having so many of them fall apart, it says something about her that she still believes in love. She doesn’t say, “I’m never getting married again.” She hits the reset button. What makes her think the seventh time will work after the sixth failed? I have no idea, but nobody is going to keep her from doing what her heart wants. Whether it’s love or scandal, Pamela Anderson is nothing if not resilient.