I remember when Christopher Hitchens wrote that ridiculous Vanity Fair piece about how women aren’t funny. I wrote a screed about it and got in a public scrap with Graydon Carter after at a very awkward luncheon. What can I say, this line of reasoning has always irritated me. Women aren’t funny? Really?
No. Not really. There are funny women, there are funny men, there are people who are good at sketch and not at standup, there are funny writers who are awkward in person, there are men who joke unfunnily about their bowel movements and women who joke unfunnily about their periods, and there are people who are funny about both; there are sight gags and parodies and one-liners and dick jokes, there’s sketch and improv and stand-up and scripted comedy and McSweeney’s funny and Gawker funny and xkcd funny and, as I heard Tina Fey call it once onstage at a UCB Marathon once, there’s “theater funny.” There are funny women just like there are women with gravitas and women who could serve on the Supreme Court and at all levels of business and politics and whatever.
So let’s just get that straight.
Nell Scovell has that straight. She created the TV series Sabrina, the Teenage Witch and has written for Coach, Murphy Brown, Monk, N.C.I.S., Charmed, The Critic, The Simpsons and Newhart.
And Late Night with David Letterman.
That’s the jumping-off point for Scovell’s essay today on VanityFair.com, “Letterman and Me,” where Scovell recounts her experience in the writers room at Letterman’s old show. Did she have sex with him? (I know that’s your first question – it was mine – so let’s get it out of the way: No.) Actually, the essay isn’t really about that. Here’s how it starts:
At this moment, there are more females serving on the United States Supreme Court than there are writing for Late Show with David Letterman, The Jay Leno Show, and The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien combined. Out of the 50 or so comedy writers working on these programs, exactly zero are women. It would be funny if it weren’t true.
The thesis of her piece comes next: “Late-night talk shows have long snubbed female writers.” And then she examines why that is, through the lens of her personal experience, without complaining or accusing. It’s the sort of thing where if you switched up a few words, it might be the account of a female reporter describing her experience in an early-80s newsroom, or maybe an early-80s boardroom, or on an early-80s campaign trail.
Which must mean that women just aren’t as good at comedy, journalism, business or politics, right? Ha, ha.
Back to Scovell: She was one of only seven female writers hired for a Letterman writing staff in 27 years. Seven. Here’s her account of how it felt to work there:
Without naming names or digging up decades-old dirt, let’s address the pertinent questions. Did Dave hit on me? No. Did he pay me enough extra attention that it was noted by another writer? Yes. Was I aware of rumors that Dave was having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Was I aware that other high-level male employees were having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Did these female staffers have access to information and wield power disproportionate to their job titles? Yes. Did that create a hostile work environment? Yes. Did I believe these female staffers were benefiting professionally from their personal relationships? Yes. Did that make me feel demeaned? Completely. Did I say anything at the time? Sadly, no.
Scovell left and went back to LA to the career referenced above, and that was that — until the Letterman story broke. That’s why, she says, she is speaking up now: “I’d like to pivot the discussion away from the bedroom and toward the writers’ room, because it pains me that almost 20 years later, the situation for female writers in late-night-TV hasn’t improved.”
Scovell notes — correctly, according to my own anecdotal experience chatting with comedy writers — that “women just don’t apply for these jobs.” She suggests it’s because so much of it is done through connections (“the shows often rely on current (white male) writers to recommend their funny (white male) friends to be future (white male) writers”). I think there might be a confidence gap there, too — that’s a tough limb to go out on (my own experience doing sketch prior to this whole blogging thing was marked by some awkward bumping up against this stuff). But here’s a more authoritative take — SNL alum Michaela Watkins in Black Book last month:
“[C]omedy itself is not as forgiving to women as it is to men… men can get away with certain things and so can women, but it seems like women really have to blow doors in order to do things. I sometimes wonder. This is so personal, and I don’t think I am speaking on behalf of comedy. I am just speaking on behalf of me when I say—having been at the Groundlings and places like that, it’s moving swiftly, but there are times where men have a little more leeway with the audience. Then I think it is an even playing field, and then I think it’s play ball. I am just saying that first pitch; I think women have to hit the ball extra hard.”
(By the way, after Watkins was inexplicably let go from SNL this fall, Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales suggested that she “may have been just too classically pretty to be hilarious.” Because Angie Tempura was such a knockout. Sheesh. The too-pretty comment reminded me of another head-bonk quote I remember reading 3 years ago, by Bob Odenkirk about Jenna Fischer in Entertainment Weekly: ”She reminds me of Diane Keaton with that ability to be smart, have dignity, and be as funny as any guy.” As funny as any guy.)
Is Scovell as funny as any guy? Presumably, given her record. So this isn’t some screed borne of years of pent-up frustration — it’s measured and thoughtful and matter-of-factly assesses the situation. However many protestations are made about how it’s getting better and not systemic and women need to apply more and etc. etc. etc., the numbers speak volumes: No female writers on staff at Letterman, Leno or Conan. Seven women on Letterman’s writing staff in 27 years on the air. In this age of Tina Fey-Kristen Wiig-Amy Poehler dominance, that just seems so outdated. Funny is funny. Thanks to Nell Scovell for reminding us of that.
Letterman and Me [Vanity Fair]
Michaela Watkins Fondly Remembers Her SNL Stint [Black Book]
Women Aren’t Funny [Vanity Fair]
Yes They Are [Vanity Fair]
Alex Leo: Tom Shales Is So Right, Beautiful Women Are Terrible At Comedy [HuffPo]
Related in Funny Women:
Sweet Dee from Always Sunny [FY30s]
Eliza Skinner from Baby Wants Candy [Mediaite]
Colleen McHugh from Baby Wants Candy [ColleenMcHugh.com]
Jessica Chaffin & Jamie Denbo, aka Ronna & Beverly [Ronna & Beverly]
Sarah Silverman, obvs [ETP]
Amy Poehler, obvs again [FY30s]
Jessica St. Clair, who I loved at the UCB before she moved to LA [VH1]
Jackie Clarke, huge comedy girlcrush, from Respecto Montalban [Jackie Clarke]
Brianne Halverson of Party Central USA [Party Central]
Rachel Dratch, always [The Lovahs, SNL]
…this is a long list. I have a life. Finish it yourself in comments!
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