The former ‘Late Night with David Letterman’ writer reflects on female representation in TV, the #MeToo era and learning from Sheryl Sandberg
This story is part of “Ceiling Smashers,” a series in which successful women across industries tell Moneyish how they broke down professional barriers.
Show Nell Scovell some stats.
The veteran TV writer behind “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” and a Vanity Fair essay that helped blow the lid off late-night television’s “boys’ club” says the present celebration of women taking over Hollywood feels a little premature.
“I love when people say, ‘But it’s getting better!’” Scovell, 57, told Moneyish. “And you’re like, ‘I need to see the data that shows me that’s true.’ Because anecdotally, I’ve been hearing ‘It’s getting better’ for 30 years.” (Women made up just 28% of key behind-the-scenes roles during the 2016 to 2017 season, according to San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, a 2% increase from the previous season. They comprised only 23% of creators.)
Scovell will know that female representation in TV and film has actually improved when she doesn’t “have to count anymore,” she said. “When I don’t have to count the women in the room; in the photographs. When I don’t have to count the women on the panel.”
Scovell, a Newton, Mass., native and Harvard University alum who counts Spy magazine and a Boston Globe sportswriting stint among her pre-showbiz gigs, boasts a hefty CV of television credits on shows like “Murphy Brown,” “The Simpsons, “Coach,” “NCIS,” “Charmed” and “The Muppets.” She has written jokes for President Obama and directed a Lifetime movie. And she co-wrote the women’s workplace manifesto “Lean In” with Sheryl Sandberg, whom she met — wait for it — on Facebook.
But Scovell, currently promoting her recently released memoir, “Just the Funny Parts,” may be most recognizable from the roughly five months in 1990 that she spent as a writer on “Late Night with David Letterman,” the springboard for her 2009 Vanity Fair essay, “Letterman and Me.” In the widely discussed op-ed, Scovell — the show’s second female writer, and one of only a handful of women writers over the Letterman show’s 33-year run on NBC and CBS — characterized the workplace as a “hostile work environment” stemming from the boss’s and other high-ranking male employees’ penchant for sleeping with female staffers. Ultimately, she called on Letterman and his male late-night counterparts to “hire some qualified female writers and then treat them with respect.”
Scovell’s piece hit just weeks after Letterman delivered an on-air admission, under the alleged threat of blackmail, that he’d had sexual relationships with staffers. (Scovell, for her part, says Letterman never hit on her — but that he did pay her enough extra attention that another writer commented on it.) That same week, a New Yorker article had noted that Letterman, Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien had zero female writers working on their shows.
The latter revelation “shocked” Scovell, who was floored to find that “even tokenism was dead”: “You cannot literally do worse than zero,” she said. “I felt compelled to speak out. And in a way, I didn’t want to. I knew I would be drawing attention to myself in a negative way; I knew there were people who would attack me for pointing out the truth.”
Meanwhile, on Dave's new Netflix show, there are 5 Executive Producers and ALL are male. "It has changed" but not on Dave's shows.
— Nell Scovell (@NellSco) May 4, 2018
“You know, Hollywood’s a weird place,” she added. “Hollywood is the place where if someone treats you poorly and you call them on it, you’re the a–hole.”
Scovell later set her sights on the pipeline to the writers’ room. “In the past, when there was an opening, they would tell the writers to tell their friends to submit — so you were telling a bunch of white guys to tell their friends,” she said. “It was not equal opportunity.”
So she began serving as a conduit of sorts: After reportedly sending then-ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney her Vanity Fair piece along with a note about boosting women’s numbers in late-night, “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” head writer Molly McNearney — now Kimmel’s wife — reached out to ask about female writers. Scovell furnished the names of writers Joelle Boucai and Bess Kalb, who both landed jobs on the ABC show. She also connected Jill Twiss, who tutored kids by day and moonlighted as a standup, and Vanity Fair writer Juli Weiner with “Last Week Tonight” showrunner Tim Carvell after he asked her for names.
“One of the go-to excuses for not having more funny women in the room is that they don’t want the job; that they don’t apply for the jobs. And I just knew that wasn’t true — I knew it wasn’t true for myself back in the ’80s, and I knew it wasn’t true for women now,” Scovell said. “So I really wanted to blow that excuse out of the water.”
In 2011, Scovell met Facebook chief operating officer Sandberg through a college friend who worked on Facebook’s communications team, going on to collaborate with her on “Lean In.” Sandberg’s 2010 TED Talk, “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” had helped Scovell better understand “the forces that drove (her) to make certain choices” throughout her decades in television, she said. (The controversial 2013 best-seller, while empowering to many, also received criticism for telling women how to succeed in a man’s world.)
By way of example, Scovell cited Sandberg’s call for women to sit at the table both figuratively and literally — tracing back to her first sitcom job at “The Bob Newhart Show,” where she was a low-level story editor. At the table read for the first script she’d written, Scovell said, she opted to sit on the periphery with the assistants instead of joining writers at the table. No one waved her over to the table, she added, a gesture that “would’ve been appropriate.”
“I always thought I had made that choice out of my sense of humility,” she said, “but in truth, that choice was dictated to me by a culture that didn’t make me feel comfortable joining my colleagues.”
As for the ever-increasing flood of #MeToo stories in Hollywood and beyond — Scovell, in a chapter of her book, recounts being manipulated into oral sex by a former boss — the writer and author pointed out that “there’s a spectrum of bad behavior,” warning against conflating the actions of alleged serial predators like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby with those of Letterman or Louis C.K., who last fall admitted having forced women to watch him masturbate without their consent. “I do think, though, we have to call these guys on it and not let them get away with it,” she added.
Asked whether someone like C.K. deserved to make a comeback, Scovell said she was “not really comfortable being the judge of those things.” “I think he will come back, and I think people will greet him with open arms,” she said. “I’d love to see good come out of this. If he did a whole set where he talks about how poorly he acted and what he’s learned, and then if he donates the proceeds to (USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative) … I could get behind that.”
Scovell says one of the biggest changes ushered in by Sandberg and “Lean In” is that she sees “more women supporting other women” and viewing one another less as competition. She advised other young women coming up in male-dominated fields — especially comedy — to “make friends with the other women around you.”
“In comedy, help each other. The guys help each other all the time … I know the pie is smaller for women, but I do think the cliche that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ is true,” she said. “We need a network.”
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