Every Wednesday, L.A. Weekly will focus on a woman making a difference in Hollywood. In our debut #wcw feature, Entertainment Editor Michele Raphael shares a conversation with Nell Scovell, author of the new book Just the Funny Parts, about her #MeToo moment and her motivation to pull the curtain back on the sexism in late-night comedy in her memoir.
In comedy, and sometimes in life, timing is everything. With the rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, Nell Scovell’s memoir, Just the Funny Parts ... and a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking Into the Hollywood Boys’ Club, published last month, is right on time. Scovell is an L.A.-based comedy writer and the creator of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch; her career has spanned writing for Murphy Brown, Late Night With David Letterman and The Simpsons as well as co-authoring Lean In with Sheryl Sandberg and writing jokes (including the punch line of a wink) for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. After decades of too often being the only woman in the writing room, Scovell reveals Hollywood’s uncomfortable truths and advocates for diversity in the industry, landing her punches with uncanny candor — and humor.
L.A. Weekly: You describe a #MeToo moment early in your career in L.A. in the late 1980s involving Jim Stafford, then head writer of a remake of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, that makes our heart sink as readers and yet glad that you didn’t blame yourself and somehow were able to shake it off. Of course #MeToo didn’t exist then and only does because of women like you speaking up in Hollywood. In that chapter, “The Big Twist,” you also mention Harvey Weinstein. Was it written before the #MeToo movement took off in full gusto late last year?
Nell Scovell: I had planned to tell my story two years ago and included that chapter in my original book proposal. I wanted to share my story of being manipulated into performing a sexual act by a headwriter because I think there’s a tendency to look at people who have been successful and think, “Nothing bad ever happened to them.” It’s rare that a woman avoids dealing with a male co-worker who crosses the line. Too often, it’s the woman who walks away feeling embarrassed. I hope by telling my story, it will make others feel better. I also tried to make it funny because even in an awful moment, it’s good to find the humor.
You were a featured guest on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert on Monday night and sat on the same stage where your former boss, David Letterman, admitted in 2009 to having sex with former female colleagues. You wrote candidly in your book about the sexual wrongdoings you witnessed and the sexism you experienced when working on Letterman’s show. What was it like to be back, this time in front of the cameras, after writing an exposé and, since then, your book?
I worked at 30 Rock (like Liz Lemon) and not the Ed Sullivan Theater, so it wasn’t exactly a “coming home” moment. But it was weird to sit on the stage where Dave admitted, “I’ve had sex with women who work for me on this show.” That confession prompted me to write an article [“Letterman and Me”] for Vanity Fair that called out The Late Show — and The Tonight Show With Jay Leno — for gender discrimination in the writers’ room. If you had told me back then, “Someday you’ll be on that stage and Dave won’t,” I would have said. “That’s insane."
Although this is a memoir, it’s also been called a “femoir.” It seems clear that you wrote Just the Funny Parts to help other women, not just to make a buck or just to tell your story, but actually to empower women and particularly younger women in the industry. You express in the book, and it feels genuine, that you want to help other women succeed. That idea is still a new concept in a competitive industry and this town. What motivated you to write it?
It’s complicated to answer the question “Why did you write a memoir?” My first thought is, “Well, if I didn’t write it, who would?” Really, it’s the one subject where I can confidently say that I’m the world expert. But I also wrote it as a Lean In case study. I wanted to talk about my career but also how my husband stayed home with the kids as the primary caregiver. Only 4 percent of men do this, so it’s as rare for him to raise kids as it was rare for me to direct movies. And I wanted my two kids to know what I was doing when I wasn’t home. I do hope it helps other women … but I also hope men read it. Those who do, love it. One male colleague wrote me that he laughed a lot … but he also saw things from a different perspective.
Has anything been surprising for you since publishing the book — something you could not have predicted?
One surprise was I got a voicemail from someone who’d been an executive producer on the show where I was sexually assaulted 30 years ago. I figured he was calling to say that he had no idea about the incident and that he wished I'd said something at the time. So I called him back and it turned out that he wants to write a memoir and was hoping I could connect him with my literary agent.
In the book, you admitted to having been somewhat terrified about writing the Vanity Fair article about the blatant sexism in late-night comedy, including on the Letterman show. Of course nothing like #MeToo or #TimesUp existed when you wrote it. And you especially feared it would kill your career; instead it did the opposite. Is there a lesson here in speaking (or writing) out?
I really did think speaking out in 2009 might end my career, and I’m thrilled that it didn’t. All advice is autobiographical and, based on my experience, I would encourage anyone who can speak out about inequality, should. Still, I understand why people are scared. We call women “brave” when they call out people who abused their position of power. What does that tell you? It means we’re all acknowledging that there’s a threat of harm to a woman who dares to speak the truth. I look forward to a day when women don’t need to be brave to tell their stories.
Following that industry-shaking piece, you co-wrote Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s famously controversial Lean In and contributed to her recent follow-up, Option B. In turn, she wrote the foreword to Just the Funny Parts. What drew you to collaborate with her? Has becoming an outspoken advocate for women, while still writing for Hollywood, been a part of your Option B?
I cherish my collaboration with Sheryl Sandberg. She is brilliant and thoughtful and empathetic — just an extraordinary friend and an exceptional leader. We were introduced by a mutual friend who wrote me one day and asked if I’d seen her 2010 TED Talk called “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.” (Everyone should watch — it’s amazing.) I wrote back. “Seen it? I memorized it.” I started helping her smooth out speeches and that turned into a book deal. I loved stepping out as an outspoken feminist. I just wish my mom had lived to know about my working with Sheryl. It would have made her proud.
Do you have a goal for the book? Other than it becoming a best-seller and winning a Pulitzer? Are you curious about the reaction of Jim Stafford and others who are unnamed in your memoir?
My goal would be that this book leads to more women and people of color getting hired. I firmly believe that it’s not a “pipeline” problem but a “broken doorbell” problem. The talent is out there. Women and people of color are on the doorstep ringing the bell, ready to work as soon as the door is opened. I hope to direct again. I always have ideas for TV shows. As for Jim Stafford, I don’t expect we will cross paths since I don’t get to Branson [Missouri, where he lives] often.
You’ve written jokes for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. On The Late Show on Monday night you got a chance to write fake jokes for Donald Trump. Has speaking out and having more of a visible voice changed your writing or comedy?
I might be a little bit more cautious about my jokes since having a higher profile. But if you’re a comedy writer and no one’s ever told you that you’ve gone too far, then you haven’t gone far enough. And if people are constantly telling you that you’ve gone too far, then you’re an asshole. (And, yes, I’m looking at you, Bill Maher.)
PBS NewsHour just posted a powerful #IMHO video of you sharing your thoughts on #MeToo. You quote author Zora Neale Hurston: “If you're silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” In the clip, you explain that even though women are now speaking up, it’s still risky for them professionally, and that unlike some people who advise that men should “shut up and listen,” you advise that men should be speaking up more than ever and using their voices to shed light on the ongoing sexism and wage gaps in Hollywood. You say speaking up isn’t about “making trouble” but about “making progress.” Tell us more.
People need to stop admiring the problem and fix it. Awareness should lead to action but too often it leads to defensiveness. Let’s all admit that we are raised in a culture that is biased against women and people of color and move on from there. And let’s remember that “affirmative action” does not mean including someone who isn’t qualified. It means not excluding someone who is qualified.
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In the book you introduce readers to the four stages of every Hollywood writer’s careers:
Stage 1: Who is Nell Scovell?
Stage 2: Get me Nell Scovell!
Stage 3: Get me a younger, cheaper Nell Scovell!
Stage 4: Who is Nell Scovell?
What's next for Nell Scovell?
I hope we loop around again to “Get me Nell Scovell!”
Nell Scovell will appear at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Saturday, April 21, in the panel "Memoir: Becoming a Writer," with Michelle Franke, David Biespiel and Alexander Chee. Tickets are free (with a $2 service fee) but must be reserved in advance.