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Here’s what it’s like to be the only woman in a TV writers’ room

Nell Scovell has written for TV shows like “The Simpsons” and co-wrote “Lean In” — she isn’t buying your excuses for workplace harassment.

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“Just the Funny Parts” author Nell Scovell
“Just the Funny Parts” author Nell Scovell
Robert Trachtenberg

Nell Scovell was one of the only women ever to write for David Letterman — and when the late-night icon disclosed that he had secretly slept with several women who worked for him, she recognized what a bad example that set.

“When leadership acts that way, it gives other people permission to act that way,” she said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka.

Scovell previously co-wrote “Lean In,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s megahit book about women in the workplace. In her new memoir, “Just the Funny Parts,” she also talks about sexism in the workplace — among other things.

One part of the new book features a step-by-step breakdown of how a script for “The Simpsons” comes together; in another, Scovell relates stories from other shows where being one of the only women in the room put her in uniquely difficult situations.

“We had a director who had an emergency appendectomy, and there was a discussion in the writer’s room about how long it would take for him to recover,” she said. “I’m the mother of two and I rarely talk about my kids at work ... And I say, ‘I had two C-sections and they weren’t that bad.’ To which another colleague said, ‘You mean you’re still tight?’”

“So I deadpanned, ‘Yes, that was the point of my story,’” Scovell added. “That’s the sort of everyday, offhand comment that you can expect.”

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On the new podcast, Scovell said she doesn’t buy the argument that harassment happens more in workplaces that may tend to have socially awkward employees, such as TV writers’ rooms and tech companies.

“It’s an excuse, not an explanation,” she said.

And for people working in the TV business, one of the big dangers is that toxic attitudes behind the scenes of one show can be contagious if left unchecked. Scovell said she was stunned by what she heard on the set of “The Muppets” from people who had worked on Charlie Sheen’s “Anger Management.”

“They would routinely refer to actresses as ‘dumb bitches,’” Scovell said. “And then I don’t want to say anything because then I’m ‘no fun’ and ‘the schoolmarm,’ and I don’t want to be that, but it’s no fun to sit there and listen to women be referred to that way.”

“I think we need to spread around the discomfort more, because right now you have a select group that can really say anything they want in the room,” she said. “Some of us have to look at our feet while they say those things.”

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