Television

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in the Pam & Tommy Episode Where the Sex Tape Hits the Web

Pam tries to keep a low profile, while Tommy gets into a fight at the Viper Room.

Still from Pam & Tommy of a computer monitor displaying the crude 1996 website for the sex tape
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Hulu.

In Episode 5 of Hulu’s Pam & Tommy, familiarity with the couple’s sex tape expands from internet early adopters and video pornography enthusiasts into the mainstream, and this wider visibility poses an increasing threat to Pam’s movie career and her relationship with Tommy. We take a look at how closely the show sticks to reality.

Was the Sex Tape Sold on a Random Website?

Milton Ingley (Nick Offerman) hires a techie to create a website to sell the tape. The site does not feature video clips, just photos and a phone number you can call to order the tape.

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The episode is true to the primitive state of the internet in 1996, when only about 25 million Americans were online. The first e-commerce transaction came in 1994, and retailers were just starting to invest in the technology (an online bookstore called Amazon.com was up and running that same year). Streaming video was almost nonexistent—it was quite a tall order for the dial-up connections of the time—but the porn industry was an early pioneer on that front. According to Rolling Stone, the websites Milton Ingley had made, pamsex.com, pamlee.com, and pamsextape.com, “gave instructions to send a money order to the New York outpost of a Canadian T-shirt company, which then funneled the money to a bank account in Amsterdam.”

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Did Tommy Get Into a Fight at the Viper Room?

Diptych of the Viper Room awning and Stan as Tommy Lee wearing a black hat and a shirt open to his bare chest
The Viper Room in L.A., and Sebastian Stan as Tommy Lee. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Francisco Antunes/Flickr and Hulu.
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Tommy is becoming a sort of rock ’n’ roll Norman Maine, brooding in his L.A. mansion on his declining career while encouraging his new wife’s ascendant one. As Pam is being interviewed for a profile in Glamour to tie in with the release of her film Barb Wire, Tommy looks at his platinum records, aware that Mötley Crüe’s sales are sinking and the band is becoming passé in an age of grunge. He goes solo to the Viper Room, where he doesn’t like the (grunge) music or the fact that the girls are ignoring him. He cheers up when he encounters two fans in the men’s room, but when one says admiringly that the sex tape is the best thing Lee has done since a record made in 1987, Tommy decks him and the fight makes the evening news, much to the disapproval of Pam’s publicist.

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Lee did go to the Viper Room and get into a fight that made the evening news, although the circumstances were a bit different. For one thing, he was at the club with Anderson. For another, it wasn’t two fans he beat up in a urinal but a tabloid TV cameraman named Henry Trappler, one of several paparazzi who swarmed the couple as they were leaving. Trappler suffered a displaced hip when Lee threw him to the ground outside the club. The incident was caught on tape, and Lee was charged with battery.

Did Tommy and Pam Sue Bob Guccione?

Diptych of the real Guccione and Caulfield as Guccione, both wearing necklaces and shirts unbuttoned to the middle of the chest
Bob Guccione in 1978, and Maxwell Caulfield as Bob Guccione. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Santi Visalli/Getty Images and Hulu.
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Bob Guccione (Maxwell Caulfield), the publisher of Penthouse and the great rival of Pam’s patron Hugh Hefner, is finally persuaded the tape is more than a home movie and watches it. Soon after, Tommy gets wind that Penthouse is going to be running stills from the tape and hires lawyers to get an injunction against Penthouse and to sue Guccione for invasion of privacy. Pam has reservations, arguing that the lawsuit will kill off any chance of the tape’s notoriety fizzling out on its own, but Tommy and the lawyers dismiss her concerns, saying a lawsuit is the only way to stop Guccione from publishing. The couple file a civil suit claiming $10 million in damages. Guccione’s reaction is to cite freedom of speech and to tell his staff to “run the nastiest frames.” Pam is proved right when the very fact of the lawsuit makes the tape newsworthy enough to be reported on by the likes of the Los Angeles Times and to become a point of mainstream discussion.

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This is pretty much what happened. Penthouse admitted to having the tape but promised the couple not to run any images from it. Nevertheless, in March 1996 Lee and Anderson were rattled enough to file a $10 million civil suit against not only Guccione but also Gauthier and any of his associates who they thought might be involved in disseminating copies. They also attempted to sue Penthouse separately to prevent publication of any part of the tape, but a judge denied that request. Guccione’s response was to put Anderson on the cover and run a story describing the tape in juicy detail. The magazine was scared off of printing stills from the video without copyright permission and instead used stolen Polaroids that had already been published in April 1995 in the French and Dutch editions of Penthouse and the porn magazine Screw. On the basis of that previous publication, Penthouse had legal cover for using them. Anderson notably said in an interview, “When I saw the first Polaroid, I was like, ‘Whoa, baby, we should frame this.’ … In the end, who cares?”

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