Y 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 more.
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 process.
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 made?
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 it out.
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