Who Is Nell Scovell?
Over the holiday weekend, I finished Just the Funny Parts by Nell Scovell. The memoir was published back in March 2018 and branded as a scathing but funny insider look at “the hard truths about sneaking into the Hollywood boys’ club.”
Honestly, before reading it, I had no clue who Nell Scovell was. Just the Funny Parts had been a digital book sitting in my virtual to-read pile on my Kindle for the last 6-months. Something suggested to me, given my penchant for humor and feminism, and bought on a book-sale whim.
Once I got around to reading Just the Funny Parts, I was not disappointed. Well, I was. Not by the quality of the book, but the unfortunate experiences noted therein.
Unbeknownst to me, Scovell had some creative influence (as a writer, director, producer) in many iconic television shows from my childhood and young adulthood: NCIS, The Simpsons, The Muppets, Charmed, Murphy Brown, Warehouse 13, etc… However, the work environments were often a challenge, especially since Scovell regularly found herself the only woman in the room, and rarely, if ever, were writers groups racially diverse or included anyone LGBTQ. Most writers' rooms were homogeneously made up of straight white males.
Per the book, the general belief is women, even those working in entertainment, are not funny. Because women are so often excluded, it is perceived as a favor when they’re allowed in. Women are expected to be grateful, no matter how dreadful or toxic the conditions are, and be willing to accept less pay or a lesser position, without argument.
In this part memoir, part tell-all, Scovell chronicles— with delightful sprinkles of humor and biting wit— significant details about her personal life: how she first became interested in becoming a writer, the evolution of her career, and how she handled working in the highly-competitive, male-dominated entertainment field. Throughout which, Scovell was commonly identified as “a female writer” instead of just a writer; her gender emphasized whenever it interfered with the boys club mentality the entertainment industry had long been operating under.
Some of the hurdles Scovell encountered, were, at times, jaw-droppingly blatant examples of sexism, gaslighting, backstabbing, and double-standards.
I too keenly remember moments when I made many of the same faces seen here on Emily’s Instagram post, coupled with some audible, disgusted scoffs.
“My favorite stories are the ones where the sexism is blatant.” — Nell Scovell, Just the Funny Parts
While settling into her office, Scovell’s first day on the job at Late-Night with David Letterman, one of her fellow writers stepped in to introduce himself. During this exchange, he made a stray comment.
“Before this is over, I will see a tampon fall out of your purse.”
Scovell posits this was him demonstrating what is called stereotype threat, or making a pointedly embarrassing reference to negatively reinforce her gender. She was the only woman on the writing staff, after all. “Perhaps this explains why [he] went out of his way to remind me of my gender that first day,” in hopes of creating anxiety and inhibiting her ability to focus and perform well. To throw her off her game.
In 2003, Scovell met with an agent to look over shows who were hiring. “As we went down a list, several times the agent noted, ‘They’ve already got two women on staff, so they won’t be looking to hire another.’ …this remark dismissed my skills and reduced me to my gender.”
In a meeting with 20th Century FOX, Scovell recalls an executive who said, “We’re big fans of yours. Are there any shows you’d like to work on?” Being a fan of 24, Scovell suggested the unthinkable. The executive's response, a matter-of-fact, “24 won’t hire a woman. They had one and it didn’t work out.” One. Once. An officer of a publically traded company flat out told Scovell, because of her gender, she wouldn’t be considered for an interview. Once again, the remark dismissed her skillset based solely on her sex. This, of course, is illegal, but Scovell elected not to push the issue further, knowing what a Pyrrhic victory it would have been for her career.
While operating as a co-executive producer on a show, Scovell was tasked with editing the script for a male writer on her staff. After spending the weekend working on it, she sent the new draft to the other EP for a final polish. The next morning the male EP pulled her aside and said, “Great job, Nell. But if you don’t mind, I think it’s better if I tell Mike I did the rewrite. I don’t want him to feel emasculated.” Wow. Seriously? It was fine if the male EP made corrections, but heaven forbid the female EP, in the same power-position, have a hand in it.
“The American woman is told she can do anything and then is knocked down the moment she proves it.”
— (supermodel, actress) Paulina Porizkova, America Made Me a Feminist
It isn’t enough to negotiate and advocate for their accomplishments — women, statically, are seen as difficult, demanding, and out for themselves when they dare ask for more (e.g. fair/equal) pay, or get evasive push back when applying for a senior role they are qualified for.
The [few] women in power positions did help keep Scovell’s career afloat, between less than suitable gigs. Scovell found, the older she got in the industry, the more challenging it was for her to find, rather be hired for, the senior roles she was aptly qualified for. Instead, Scovell often had to lower her expectations and accept lesser positions and projects and was denied access to spots where she would have gained beneficial experience, such as in directing.
Following the release of Just the Funny Parts, Scovell sat down with Vox’s, I Think You’re Interesting (Podcast) hosted by Todd VanDerWerff. In it, she expounded further on how she’d wanted to cover the pay gap many women creators also suffer from. But this section alone would have significantly overshot the book’s allotted word limit.
Hearing this, you want to pipe up with well-meaning, seemingly common-sense advice like, “Why don’t women just stand up for themselves? Talk about their accomplishments? Ask for more money?” According to Lean Out: The Dangers for Women Who Negotiate, written by Maria Konnikova of the New Yorker, women who don’t negotiate may not be refraining because they are shy. Most of the time, when [the small percentage of] women do speak up about their accomplishments and attempt to negotiate for more, it does not have the intended effect.
Per various studies mentioned in the report, when women initiate negotiations for higher compensation, they face a greater level of criticism compared to male applicants who do the same. Instead, many of these women are penalized; accused of being difficult, scolded for daring to ask for more, told “the first offer is the final offer,” or their application is withdrawn entirely. Because of this implicit gender bias, women (in general) are more reticent to negotiate than men.
During brunch with girlfriends, all commiserating about their own respective gasp-inducing tales of sexism, Scovell mentioned a time when she’d been renegotiating to stay on a show. The (male) executive producer stopped by her office to check on the status of her deal.
“Did your agents call business affair?”
“Yep, there’s on it.”
“And you don’t care about money, right?”
I [Scovell] looked at my boss, incredulous. “Yeah, I’m just here for the salty snacks.”
I doubt the EP would have asked a male worker the same question regarding pay.
Throughout the book, Scovell highlights additional studies demonstrating the bias women face when it comes to career and success.
In one, a Columbia-based professor divided a class into two and assigned each to read about a successful venture capitalist. Both case-studies were identical except for one detail, one was identified as “Howard” the other “Heidi.” The students were later asked questions about their respective assignments. Both “Howard” and “Heidi” were deemed competent, but only Howard was seen as likable. Heidi was perceived to be ‘selfish’ and ‘out for herself.’
Social programming reinforces the belief women are supposed to be nice and friendly, no matter what. If a woman acts assertively or competitively, exhibiting identical behaviors a man does in the role of leadership, she is deviating from an unfair social script and she is seen as cold and selfish, hard to work with.
Further Unpacking Gender Inequality in Comedy
Most notably, Scovell had been the second female writer hired for Late Night with David Letterman. She’d essentially taken over the vacant only-woman writer slot. In 1993, though, after working there less than a year, Scovell left the show.
In 2009, faced with blackmail and exposure, Letterman admitted on-air, to having sexual relationships with female staffers. While he and Scovell had not had any sort of relationship, she wanted to address the systemic sexism and sexual harassment plaguing Hollywood, citing her experiences coupled with statistical research. She published an essay in Vanity Fair, outlining how the show (and others) had been a “hostile work environment.”
For example, Scovell noted Late Night with Letterman had only managed to hire seven female writers in 27 years, and on average, the combined total number of years on staff for said women were 17 (compared to 378 combined years on staff for the male writers). Male writers were retained longer, paid more, and were utilized to recruit other straight white male writers to the team. She alleged that late-night tv executives dismissed gender disparities as a pipe-line problem; claiming women weren’t applying for writing jobs. This wasn’t entirely true. While they did apply in lower numbers, the shows failed to take on funny female talent in the same respects they did (white) male writers. In most cases, you might see one female writer on staff. And rarely, if ever, a woman of color, a person of color, or LGBTQ.
As though proving their point — shortly after the essay was released, an anonymous male staffer attempted to smear Scovell, saying her jokes never aired and she’d been on the verge of being fired. These were lies. “After speaking out that I’d felt demeaned by the show, the show’s knee-jerk response was to demean me again.”
Scovell’s Vanity Fair essay fueled the cultural debate regarding the lack of gender diversity in late-night television writing rooms and inspired further research. It was revealed, of the top three late-night television shows — Jay Leno Show, Late Show with David Letterman, and The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien — none, at the time, had a female writer on staff. Racial minorities and LGBTQ were also grossly underrepresented.
I could go on. But I think you get the point. Well-written and informative, Just the Funny Parts gives the reader some less than funny insights about what women really deal with when trying to break into male-dominated industries.
The foreword is provided by Sheryl Sandberg, COO (and the first woman elected to the board) of Facebook, co-author (with Scovell) of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, and founder of LeanIn.org. Sandberg also has a fantastic and enlightening TED(Women) Talk from 2010, addressing Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.
“I’ve seen firsthand Nell’s commitment to support and advocate for other women. She once told me about a talented young TV writer who reached out to vent after a soul-crushing meeting. The woman said she couldn’t take the rudeness and rejection any longer. She was tired of competing for the ‘one female slot’ on comedy shows. Nell gave her a pep talk, sharing tips on how to deal with the frustration. A week later, the young writer emailed her, excited.” — Sheryl Sanberg
The writer managed to get her first staff writing job. Coincidentally, Nell had (unknowingly) been up for the same job. Regardless, she was truly happy for her fellow writer.
“Both Nell and I [Sandberg] look forward to the day when there are no “female writers” — just writers. We share an unshakeable belief that having an equal number of men and women sitting at the table where decisions are made will make this world fairer and better. It will also make the world funnier.”
As with all of my stories and reviews, the opinions I give are my own. The books or services mentioned were paid for by me. I am in no way affiliated with or compensated by Nell Scovell or Dey Street Books, a subsidiary of Harper Collins Publisher for this general review.