david letterman

Nell Scovell, a female former member of David Letterman’s writing staff when he was doing Late Night with David Letterman on NBC, published a piece today on Vanity Fair’s website about her time working for him and the sexism that she believes exists across the board on late night television talk shows. Her piece provides some great insights into the atmosphere in comedy writing rooms and why women have had a difficult time getting/keeping those sort of jobs in the past.

Here’s Scovell on her time working for Letterman:

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.

Here’s Scovell on female writers getting jobs writing for late night comedians:

I was the second female writer ever hired at Late Night. When I applied for the job in 1988, I had no way of knowing how much the odds were stacked against me. In 27 years, Late Night and Late Show have hired only seven female writers. These seven women have spent a total of 17 years on staff combined. By extrapolation, male writers have racked up a collective 378 years writing jokes for Dave (based on an average writing room of 14 men, the size of the current Late Show staff).

One frequent excuse you hear from late-night-TV executives is that “women just don’t apply for these jobs.” And they certainly don’t in the same numbers as men. But that’s partly because the shows often rely on current (white male) writers to recommend their funny (white male) friends to be future (white male) writers.

Here’s Scovell on why things are the way they are and why changing it all would make a show better:

An executive producer with an all-male writing staff once inadvertently revealed his deep, dark fear. While discussing a full-time position for me, he mused out loud, “I wonder if having a woman in the room will change everything.” Of course, what he really meant was: “I wonder if having a woman in the room will change me.” Male writers don’t want to be judged in the room. They want to be able to scarf an entire bag of potato chips while cracking fart jokes and making lewd comments without fear of feminine disapproval. But we’re your co-workers, not your wives. Crack a decent fart joke and, as professionals, we will laugh. And while writers do need to feel comfortable in order to make comedy, denying an entire class of people certain opportunities in order to preserve a way of life seems a tad antebellum. Plus, it’s been my experience that a room with a fairer sampling of humanity will always produce funnier material.