ou might not know it, but you’ve most likely laughed at one of Nell
Scovell’s jokes. It’s just that President Obama, Conan O’Brien, and Kermit
the Frog were delivering them. The veteran Hollywood comedy writer,
producer, and director has worked behind the scenes of iconic television
shows such as The Simpsons, The Muppets, and Late Night With David Letterman and was the creator of the cult
favorite Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Scovell used her time with
Letterman—hired in 1988, she was only the second woman ever to write for
his show—as the basis of a 2009 essay in Vanity Fair that detailed
a hostile, sexually charged toxic work environment.
The morning after the essay’s publication, Scovell was inundated with
appearance requests, including one from The Today Show, which she
turned down. Then-anchor Matt Lauer, who’s since had his own fair share of
scandal, called her personally to try and change her mind. But when Scovell
pushed back about wanting to discuss gender in writers’ rooms rather than
interns in the bedroom (Letterman had publicly admitted to having affairs
with female employees), Lauer joked, “Hey, I couldn’t be held to that high
a standard.” So she passed again.
The only public reaction from the Letterman show came when an anonymous
male staffer smeared Scovell in the press, saying she’d never had any jokes
on the air and had quit because she was going to be fired. Both were lies.
“After speaking out that I’d felt demeaned by the show in 1990,” she
writes, “the show’s knee-jerk response was to demean me again.”
But the essay would later fuel a cultural debate about the lack of gender
diversity in late-night TV writers’ rooms. And now, she’s telling all in
her fun, honest, and sometimes shocking memoir
Just the Funny Parts: And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking Into the
Hollywood Boys’ Club
, available March 20. In advance of her upcoming appearance in Chicago with
Chicago Ideas, Scovell, 57, shared with us what to expect in her
conversation with Mellody Hobson, how pop culture really gets made, and
Give us an idea of what you and Mellody plan to talk about.
In addition to being president of Ariel Investments, Mellody was the
longtime chair of the board of directors of DreamWorks Animation. [She’s
also married to George Lucas.] So it’s a good bet that women in the
workplace will come up. Mellody wrote a wonderful essay for Lean In for Graduates about the additional problems women of color
face. In Just the Funny Parts, I tell a story about working [on a
short-lived sitcom] with the stunningly talented Larry Wilmore. One day
Larry and I got into a friendly argument about who had it tougher in TV
writers’ rooms: women or African-Americans (you can guess who took which
side). Larry and I argued our cases to a stalemate. We did, however, agree
on one thing: African-American women had it the hardest.
You’ve worked behind the scenes at iconic TV shows and have called out
the lack of gender diversity in late-night TV writers’ rooms. Any
advice for women hoping to break into the field?
Once, while we were walking through Central Park, an actress friend said to
me, “The only way to move forward creatively is to allow yourself to be
judged.” I stopped in my tracks and dug out a pen so I could jot her words
down. This is the best advice I’ve ever heard. Writing is not what you
start. It’s not even what you finish. It’s what you start, finish, and put
out there for the world to see. It’s harder for women to do this because,
(a), we’re often judged more harshly than men and, (b), ugh, who wants to
be judged? But writing for TV means learning how to appeal to an audience,
and sharing your work and getting feedback is an essential part of the
What would you like to see late-night TV look like in the future?
I would like to see the hosts, producers, writing staffs, and crews of
late-night shows reflect the audience that watches them, which is an almost
equal split of men and women and also includes people of color, people with
disabilities, and people from the LGBTQ community.
First, with your Vanity Fair essay and, more recently, in your
2017 Washington Post op-ed on how Hollywood can protect future
victims of abuse, you’ve taken a public stand on sexual harassment in
Hollywood. Why is that important to you?
A recent study showed 94 percent of all women in Hollywood say they’ve
experienced some type of harassment or abuse by an older, more powerful
person. Twenty-one percent said they’d been forced to do something sexual.
Only one in four reported the incident, and only 28 percent said the
workplace improved after they reported. My #MeToo story happened a long
time ago [on one of her very early jobs working for the Smothers Brothers].
It was before Anita Hill, so I didn’t even have the vocabulary to describe
what I’d been through. It’s important for women to speak up so we can close
the gap between transgression and reporting. In the future, I want women to
report within 30 days, not 30 years.
In this era of #MeToo and Time’s Up, do you think progress has been
Not yet. The inclusion rider [suggested by Frances McDormand in her Best
Actress acceptance speech at this year’s Academy Awards] is a good start.
For my entire career, I’ve been told (mostly by men) that “things are
getting better.” I want statistical proof, not anecdotal. The year after
Kathryn Bigelow won the Academy Award for Best Director , there was a
dip in the number of female directors of major motion pictures. It’s also
important to note that Bigelow won for a movie [The Hurt Locker]
that had zero female speakers. So one step forward, one step back.
You cowrote the best seller Lean In with Sheryl Sandberg. How
did that come about?
When I tell you how Sheryl and I met, you’ll kick yourself for not figuring
We met through Facebook.
I’d love to direct another movie. I wrote a feature loosely based on Lean In, and I’m still hoping that will get made. v