Have you heard the one about Nell Scovell?

The veteran comedy writer on her new memoir, which covers everything from Letterman and 'The Simpsons' to Lean In and #MeToo.

CREDIT: Getty Images/Art by Adam Peck
CREDIT: Getty Images/Art by Adam Peck

Maybe a good place to start is right here: Nell Scovell’s book is funny.

Scovell’s done her time in dozens of comedy writers’ rooms. Her CV is longer than a CVS receipt. A very incomplete list: The Simpsons, The Muppets, Murphy Brown, Coach, Sabrina the Teenage Witch (which she created), Newhart, NCIS, Late Night with David Letterman. She is the rare writer who can say her jokes have come out of both President Obama’s mouth and Miss Piggy’s snout. So it shouldn’t be all that surprising that her memoir, Just The Funny Parts: …And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into the Hollywood Boys’ Club, is as lousy with jokes as Pinterest is with inspirational quotes misattributed to Marilyn Monroe.

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But — have you heard? — it is apparently, actually impossible to traverse Hollywood without working for and alongside men. So many men. Far more men than women, in fact. And while some of these men, whom Scovell thanks by name, happily aided and abetted her success, others… did not. As she writes, “Sexual harassment is so embedded in show business, the industry even has a cutesy name for it: the ‘casting couch’ — which does sound a lot nicer than the ‘rape sofa.'”

This is where I have to acknowledge that there is diversity in comedy: There are so many different kinds of sexism!

Scovell meets men, I guess you’d call them “sexism traditionalists,” who screw their female underlings in all senses of the word. She also meets men who are always going out of their way to remind the only woman in the room — so often there is just one woman in the room — that she’s a woman, which in their defense is an absurd thing for her to be. Her purse (!) is probably full of tampons (!!) that she puts in her vagina (!!!) except for when she’s pregnant (!!!!), all of which is objectively disgusting and that’s why women should only write Lifetime movies.

But many of the men Scovell comes across are sexist in that insidious, low-grade way: They basically understand that misogyny is bad and also everywhere, but they aren’t sure what it is you’d like them to do about it. Frankly, they’re annoyed that you even brought it up. These men are the human equivalent of the shruggie emoticon. And how can we expect them, these esteemed men of comedy, to know how to address this problem? Only 48 percent of them went to Harvard. The rest went to, I don’t know, Dartmouth? So you can see why they’re struggling.

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Scovell’s book traces her career from an upbringing that seemed, to her, like an unlikely background for a comedy writer (an “uneventful” childhood with a loving, supportive family) through her stint in journalism, which she wisely abandoned when she discovered that “writing for TV made way more sense than writing for magazines. And by sense, I mean money.” She writes about landing her dream job on Letterman, which she ditched after only five months when the dream became a nightmare, as she would go on to reveal to all the world in her Vanity Fair essay, “Letterman and Me,” in 2009. What she feared would be a career-ending revelation turned into the opposite: She became friends with Sheryl Sandberg, with whom she co-wrote Lean In.

After decades of crafting jokes behind the scenes, Scovell is now getting to tell her life story in public. It’s an adjustment. “It’s terrifying,” she said by phone. “I guess that’s the first word that comes to mind.”

“But it’s also satisfying,” she said. “Because — it sounds so cliched — but I feel seen. But only for this week. I’m sure I will just go back to being invisible.”

Were you prepared for this publicity at all by watching Sheryl Sandberg go through the Lean In phenomenon? 

You know, I’ve watched Sheryl Sandberg, who is just phenomenal at communicating her message. Although I will say, there was an article about me that came out around Lean In, and in it, the writer said something like, “Scovell does not radiate Sandberg’s upbeat poise or fill the room with effortless charisma.”

Sounds like that didn’t stay with you at all.

No, and I’ve given some talks and I put that up first to set expectations. But as a writer, you’re in your head all the time. So suddenly, communicating through speaking instead of writing is different. Not bad, but different.

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How did you decide to write this book and include all this personal material? It does seem like you could have gone in a more “professional advice-giving” direction, and not revealed so much of your own experiences if you didn’t want to share them.

In a way, it seemed like I was a perfect Lean In case study. Sheryl talks about how the most important career decision that a woman makes is who her partner will be, and I chose extremely well. I have a husband who didn’t just resign himself to staying home, but was happy to be the primary parent.

President Obama is “a classic sitcom character. He’s the leader of the free world, and he lives with his mother-in-law.”

There’s this story in the book about how I was directing up in Vancouver, my first film, and the first week of the shoot landed on my second son’s first birthday, and I was heartbroken that I couldn’t be with Dexter. But this is how the schedule played out, and there was nothing I could do. So Colin, my husband, got on a plane with two kids under the age of four and flew to Vancouver so I could kiss Dexter on the set on his first birthday.

Speaking of your kids, you write about how motherhood is seen in comedy rooms as this black hole where comedy goes to vanish.

And it’s not just comedy rooms. I think in all fields, there’s this motherhood pay penalty where the second you become a mother — and this is true whether you give birth or adopt — you’re perceived to not be as committed to your job. Whereas men are perceived as breadwinners who now need more money and promotions because they’re fathers.

Right, and if a dad goes to literally one baseball game, he’s a hero.

But there’s also that line where Penn Gilette says to me, “Nell you’re the world’s worst mother but you’re the world’s greatest dad!” It did offend me at first, but I actually embrace it now.

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You also had a kind of inverse of that experience: You were told that you “write like a guy” and you took it as a compliment, and only later did you kind of think, wait a second…

Well, I actually hope that I was part of that growth! Because the reason that was said to me — and it was said to me by Garry Shandling, one of the great standup comics of all time — there was this perception that men wrote hard jokes that made you laugh, and women wrote soft jokes that made you smile. My script had made him laugh. So I think the shift is all the women who have proven that not to be true.

After Garry died, I wrote a piece for Vanity Fair that talks about how, actually, Garry wrote like a girl, because he talked about emotions. His friends all told me that he would have really liked it.

I imagine you were working on this book in a pre-Weinstein time, so, more than six months ago. What was going through your mind at that time? Clearly you did not anticipate the cultural moment your book would be landing in, but you address so much of what we’re grappling with now about abuse of and discrimination against women. 

No, I did not tell Harvey Weinstein to rape all those women so that Me Too could become a thing and help sell my book! So when I wrote my Me Too story — and I’m not going to, and I hope you don’t, summarize it here, because it’s a complicated nuanced story, and if you break it down to the ten minutes, I don’t think it does the story justice — but what’s interesting is when I wrote it this summer, I was nervous. And then all these stories came out this fall and then I couldn’t wait to get it out there and join the chorus.

“Dave was a really powerful man in 2009. He made a lot of money for CBS. And nothing I said in that piece has ever been refuted or even questioned. But speaking out, which I did really think could be the end of my career, actually ended up being one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.”

Can you talk about your decision to write about it and include it in the book as you did?

There’s a tendency to look at successful people and think, they made it because they found this charmed path and nothing bad ever happened to them. And it’s just not true. And I hope by telling this story what people take away from it is, you don’t have to beat yourself up. You don’t have to let a bad experience stop you from doing what you want to do.

One thing that stood out to me is that, on the one hand, you say that you’d tell younger you “don’t mistake sexual power for real power.” That comes in the section you were just describing. But then you also describe learning about “sexual favoritism” — that your Lean In research gave you the vocabulary for something you’d seen at Late Night with David Letterman. You write about how Letterman would stop by your office to talk, and then you decide to close your door so he can’t do that anymore — not because anything was going on, but because you found out people were talking about you as if something was going on. But in hindsight, you say that it was dumb of you to keep your door closed — that you shouldn’t have shut yourself off from the boss just to ward off any allegations of impropriety.

I also include that amazing line from Gloria Steinem where she says, “If women could sleep their way to the top, there’d be more women at the top.” She is really funny, in addition to being just the most empathetic, brilliant person. I say in that other chapter, I quote the woman who comes into the writers’ room and says, “I just texted my boyfriend a photo of my boobs,” [and I point out] that it does work! I’m sorry: It can work. And I guess I’m not going to judge anyone by how they make those decisions. But for me, I didn’t want anyone to question if I had earned my spot because of my writing.

You say your favorite kind of sexism is blatant, and I think a lot of women relate to that sentiment — that it’s almost easier if someone is just obviously sexist, because no one thinks you’re insane for calling it what it is. You also include these, what I guess we’d call micro-aggressions, of things men say or do to you that really can wear on a person, but then if you tried to describe them to a guy friend they’d probably say you were being crazy or overreacting.

I really want men to read this book, because I think it’s more eye-opening for them than for women. I don’t love the term “micro-aggressions” because I think so much of it is unconscious. You know that great joke at the start of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speak to Kenyon where he talks about the two fish swimming in the water? It’s two young fish, and an older fish swims by and says, “How’s the water today, boys?” And one fish turns to the other and says, “What’s water?” When you’re surrounded by something, you’re surrounded by bias, you’re soaking in it. It’s really hard to see. This is true for men and women.

[In the book], I tell this story about wanting to work on 24 and having an executive say to my face, they don’t hire women. And then being informed that I’m “lucky” because I wouldn’t want to be in that room! And I can tell you, you are never lucky to be denied an opportunity.

Let me think about that. I guess “You have an amazing opportunity to get drinks with Bill Cosby” might be one…

I had a weird Bill Cosby story I didn’t put in there. This wasn’t that long ago, and they were talking about him coming back to NBC and doing a reboot. And I got a call from his PR guy who said, “Bill Cosby wants to meet with you,” which seemed really strange. And I said, “Okay,” and we actually made a date where I was going to come in and meet with him. And I’ll never forget: The PR guy at the end said, “Oh he’ll love you.” And I actually ended up canceling on the appointment.

The rape-y stuff wasn’t out yet. I don’t know if Hannibal Buress had done his shoutout, but there was enough that was like, I’m not going to do that.

You also have this detail in your book about Matt Lauer being a creep, when he was trying to book you on Today to talk about your “Letterman and Me” essay in 2009. You have a real spidey-sense for these guys!
 
I know! People who say, “I had no idea,” all I can say is, I was a total stranger and Matt busted himself within two minutes.

“I think it’s sad that women are considered ‘brave’ for telling the truth. Think about what that means: That our culture acknowledging there are risks and backlashes against women who speak out against powerful men.”

One line of yours that really stuck with me is about awareness: “In an ideal world, awareness would lead to action, which would lead to change. In the real world, awareness more often leads to defensiveness which leads to excuses.”  I think among progressives there’s this belief that if people had enough information, everyone would agree. That awareness is this magic pixie dust that automatically makes everyone change their minds.

If awareness led to action, there’d be no ThinkProgress! As soon as you identified a problem, it would be solved.

How does that understanding about awareness influence the work you do on the advisory board of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative

Dr. Stacy Smith understands that you can’t change what you don’t measure. And for 30 years, I’ve heard anecdotally, “it’s getting better, right?” And only until there’s sustained, statistical proof, will I believe that. And what’s so great about the inclusion rider [which contractually mandates minimum percentage of women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups to be hired or cast for a project] is that it takes the awareness to the next level and says: Okay, you’re recognizing there’s a problem and you want to fix it. Let’s set some goals. And it you don’t meet those goals, then there’s a penalty. So you eliminate the “we’re working on it for a decade” syndrome.

I want to talk about your Vanity Fair essay for a minute. You wrote about the “hostile, sexually-charged atmosphere” at Late Night with David Letterman. It was published in 2009. When I write about women who accuse famous men of sexual violence, I always hear from people who believe that at least some of those women are coming forward “for the money.” Yet you write about how, when you were deciding whether or not to publish this story, you and your husband actually talked to your accountant to make sure you were in a solid enough financial place in case the story burned all the bridges you had in Hollywood. You were afraid you’d never work again.

I think it’s sad that women are considered “brave” for telling the truth. Think about what that means: That our culture acknowledging there are risks and backlashes against women who speak out against powerful men. And Dave was a really powerful man in 2009. He made a lot of money for CBS. And nothing I said in that piece has ever been refuted or even questioned. But speaking out, which I did really think could be the end of my career, actually ended up being one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. Because it just put me on this path where I end up meeting Sheryl. I’m still writing and hope to direct again someday.

“I really want men to read this book, because I think it’s more eye-opening for them than for women.”

Let’s talk about that. That was a really poignant moment in your book: You say that you don’t really know what kind of director you could have become if you’d had the opportunity to find out.

When you’re creating a TV show character, the key is consistency. So Sheldon [on The Big Bang Theory] is emotionally tone-deaf. Ilana [on Broad City] likes sex and smokes a lot of pot. And the fun comes out of predicting what they’ll do in the situation, which is the “sit” of sitcom. So in real life, we’re not that consistent. Sometimes I’m very brave and sometimes I’m sitting in the car in the parking lot crying. So sometimes you’re aggressive and sometimes you’re not. That was a time when I didn’t lean in.

You’re really tough on past you, and not just for, as you say, not “leaning in.” You level with yourself for not being inclusive enough when you had the opportunity to hire writers. And I think that’s admirable, because some of these guys now — like Letterman, he has since said we need more women in comedy, in writers’ rooms. But he hired almost zero women when he was on Late Night, and he’s got this new show on Netflix and there are no female writers on that staff! 

He’s not doing it now, no. [Editor’s note: According to the show’s IMDB page, there are no writers who work on the show, with the exception of, presumably, Letterman himself. There are several women listed on staff in various production capacities.] Sometimes we’re ahead of the curve and sometimes we’re on the curve. And I think when it came to intersectionality, I was on the curve, and I wish I’d been ahead.

In addition to writing for all these television shows, you wrote jokes for President Obama. Is that intimidating? 

I never met him, so I’ve never had to pitch him a joke to his face. But he’s a classic sitcom character. He’s the leader of the free world, and he lives with his mother-in-law. You could really sell that sitcom. He’s delightful. And he wrote me that amazing quote on the photo where he said, “Thanks for the jokes, glad I was able to provide the material.” His delivery’s amazing. So that was pure joy, writing for him.

“Matt Damon said he was disappointed in my performance. Well, Matt, I just saw The Adjustment Bureau, so right back at ya, buddy!” – President Obama/Nell Scovell

There’s a lot of dark stuff in this book, and yet you also have this line about how you decided not to call it “all the angry and bitter parts.” You joke that it would be way too long. Was there anything you were too angry or bitter about to make funny? Is anything too painful for humor? Are some experiences or subjects just comedy-proof?

Oh, what a good question! There’s a great quote from Herb Gardner, who wrote a play called A Thousand Clowns. It’s basically, “If things aren’t funny then they’re exactly what they are; and then they’re like a long dental appointment.” So I guess that’s sort of my philosophy of trying to find the humor.

On the flip side, is anything universally funny?

I doubt it! And sadly, the first things that come to mind are stinky feet and farts. But no, I think not. Albert Brooks made a really funny movie, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, which is all about that subject.

I love your family’s sense of humor. One of my favorite jokes in the book comes from one of your aunts, who sees your sister reading Little Women and tells her, “Don’t get too attached to Beth.” 

I know! They were funny, and they were dark. It wasn’t just self-deprecating humor, which was, I think back then in the ’60s and ’70s, the go-to: Phyllis Diller making fun of how she looked and Joan Rivers making fun of her husband. I was so happy that my aunts weren’t like that. I was lucky.

I talk [in the book] about how I come from Newtown, Massachusetts, which is the most liberal city in the most liberal state. And I think what I’ll do after the book tour is just work on the midterms. Whatever I can do, if it’s writing speeches, punching up speeches for candidates, if it’s going door-to-door, I just don’t think anything else is more important.

Should Trump ever deign to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, will people in comedy-land write jokes for him?

Oh, sure!

Would you?

No! [laughs]. But he just spoke at the Alfalfa Club! And he had some good jokes. They’re mean. His sense of humor is mean. And he made that one joke about, “I’m supposed to be self-deprecating, I’m the best at being self-deprecating.”