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What it’s like being the “only woman in the room” on a TV show

“I really didn’t want to be perceived as someone who was there for any reason but my talent.”

Nell Scovell
Nell Scovell’s new book, Just the Funny Parts, is a terrific TV memoir.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Writer Nell Scovell has worked for some of the best, most popular TV shows of the past 30 years. She wrote for David Letterman. She wrote for The Simpsons. She created the ’90s show Sabrina the Teenage Witch. She wrote on NCIS. And at too many of those jobs, she was the only woman working in the writers’ room, countering Hollywood’s endless boys’ club.

It’s something she points out frequently in her new memoir, Just the Funny Parts, an excellent chronicle of her time in the TV trenches. Early in the book, Scovell will mention going to work in one of the writers’ rooms listed above, and then casually drop, as an aside, “I was the only woman in the room.”

She’s not doing so to make a major point but rather to note her reality, as she slowly builds to the argument in the book’s closing passages that Hollywood is better when the people making movies and TV better reflect the world at large.

Scovell’s long career writing for some of my favorite shows (as well as her gigs co-writing Lean In with Sheryl Sandberg and coming up with jokes for President Obama’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner performances) made her a natural fit for the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting. And we got to talk about everything from sitcom running times to why Bonnie and Clyde director Arthur Penn never rewatched his movies.

But I also wanted to talk with her about those asides, about the idea of being the only woman in the room and what effect that had on her as a young writer. A transcript of that portion of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Todd VanDerWerff

Can you talk a little bit about those experiences, about being the only woman in the room?

Nell Scovell

Well, I get out of college in the early ’80s, and I think gender inequality has been solved. Gloria Steinem, we have Roe v. Wade, Betty Friedan — they’ve been beating the drums. So I really walked into the work world thinking, “Okay, there was this problem, but I’m in this great first wave, and it’s just going to keep going.” Didn’t quite work out that way.

But early on, I just wanted to blend in. I loved doing what I was doing. I get to Letterman, I’m the second woman who ever wrote for that show. The first was, of course, the great Merrill Markoe. She’d been gone for two years. They hadn’t had any other women. And I get there, and the last thing I wanna do is call attention to my gender.

Nell Scovell
Nell Scovell.
Robert Trachtenberg

Todd VanDerWerff

One of the things I thought was fascinating about the chapter about Letterman, which later in the book you talk about, is that you had a cordial relationship with Dave while you were working there, and then people were assuming things about that. And that was something I had never really thought about. That experience, what did you learn from that?

Nell Scovell

People who have read the book come away with this insight that I am conflicted about David Letterman. He’s a giant. In the ’80s, he reinvents comedy. Back then, there was Johnny [Carson], and there was Dave. Johnny was your parents, and Dave was the cool kid. I really wanted to work on that show. So many great writers had come out of there, from Andy Breckman to George Meyer, my old friend Kevin Curran. And I just desperately wanted to be part of that club. So I keep sending him material, and I go off, and I’m having a sitcom career. I work on Newhart the last season. I’m writing a Simpsons. And finally, I get this call from Steve O’Donnell saying, “Dave would like to meet you.”

And when I get there, Dave was one of the nicest people to me. He’d stop by my office. He’d say things like, “Do you need anything? Can I get you some soup?” So I was a little taken aback when one day in the writers’ room, someone made a comment about maybe I could pitch an idea to Dave while he was in my office. The implication was he was paying attention to me. So I started closing my door 10 minutes before he came in, because I really didn’t want to be perceived as someone who was there for any reason but my talent.

I say in the book that was a very admirable thing for me to do. It was also very stupid, because Dave was the ultimate source of power on that show, and cutting myself off from him, voluntarily, was not probably the best thing for getting my work produced on that show.

Todd VanDerWerff

Late in the book, you talk about the revelation Letterman made in 2009, where he said he’d been sleeping with staffers. When you were on the show, was that tension in the air, that sense that Letterman was creating an environment that had sexual harassment baked into the core of what that show was doing?

Nell Scovell

Yes, although it was pre-Anita Hill, so we didn’t have vocabulary. I just thought the place was fucked up. [Laughs.] That was the technical term. I want to be clear: I wasn’t harassed, and it wasn’t just Dave. That’s the thing. When you’re in these situations and it starts at the top, it does give permission for others to act in that way, to think it’s okay. Some office romances are perfectly fine. It is problematic when it is a manager or someone who has the ability to hire and fire people.

Todd VanDerWerff

Tell me a little bit about the psychology that develops from being the only woman in the room. You write really smartly about wanting to be a writer, first and foremost, and not wanting to be “a woman writer.” But as you got later into your career, you started to think about it as, yes, I am a writer, but I’m also a woman. So tell me about the psychology of what that does to you.

Nell Scovell

It’s our culture. As much as I wanted to blend in, forget that I was a woman, the business kept reminding me, in small ways and big ways. The big ways were in the way I was paid, in the way I was viewed. I make this leap from half-hour to hour at one point, and I’d been an executive producer in half-hour, and I understood I would have to take a step back. I’ve now been writing dramas for 19 years, and they still have not given me the executive producer credit. I have other male friends who’ve made the leap and within two years were back to being executive producers.

For much more with Scovell, including her memories of working with the legendary early Simpsons writing staff, her story of what happened at the taping of the classic Newhart series finale, and her tales of working with Salem the talking cat, listen to the full episode.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

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