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Men and women have different reactions to Nell Scovell’s memoir, Just the Funny Parts…And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking Into the Hollywood Boys’ Club. Scovell, an accomplished writer, producer, and director who created the 1990s–2000s sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch and has written for The Simpsons, Murphy Brown, and Late Night With David Letterman, to name just a few, has picked up on this trend: “The women say, ‘Oh my god, I nodded along throughout the whole thing,’ ” she tells me over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “But for the men, I think it’s really eye-opening.”
Just the Funny Parts tracks the highs and lows of Scovell’s thirty-year career in television, which began after a short stint in the late 1980s writing for Spy and Vanity Fair, where she is still a contributing writer. Scovell grew up in Massachusetts, and attended Harvard, but was too intimidated by the aggressively critical dudes of the fabled Lampoon. Instead, she wrote for the sports section of the Harvard Crimson. Her television career took off when a journalist friend suggested she could write for TV — and clarified that he didn’t mean it as an insult.
A memoir that doubles as a how-to guide for aspiring TV writers, Just the Funny Parts is full of juicy stories about celebrity encounters and red-light warnings for women in particular. There was the time Garry Shandling told her she writes “like a guy”; the meeting with a Fox exec who discouraged her from trying to write for her favorite show, because “24 won’t hire a woman. They had one and it didn’t work out”; and the staff party for a TV show she worked on, early in her career, that ended with the head writer pulling her into his bedroom (“This is so, so hard to admit but…Reader, I blew him”). Scovell’s experiences, particularly when cast against the harsh glare of the #MeToo moment, have led her to an apparently contradictory conclusion: We need more men to lead the women’s movement.
“I think Time’s Up has done amazing things here in Hollywood,” Scovell says of the organization, launched in January by a coalition of high-profile female stars, that aims to eradicate sexual harassment, particularly at work. “But the one thing I’d like to see them do is include more men. I think we need men to lead the women’s movement, along with women. There’s a great book by Brooke Kroeger called The Suffragents, and it’s about how men, mostly husbands of the women in the suffrage movement, worked to help get women the vote. It’s about equality. They’re part of the equation.”
There’s a reason, beyond her years in Hollywood, that such issues are at the forefront of Scovell’s mind: In 2013, she co-authored a little book called Lean In, with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. “I saw how my life was kind of this Lean In case study, where I continued to work and my husband raised our kids,” Scovell remarks. It wasn’t just the division of labor at home that allowed her to thrive at work. While Scovell writes about realizing, years later, that it was mostly female executives who hired her in her forties, after she had kids, most of her mentors have been men — which is perhaps not so surprising, considering Scovell was often the only woman in the room.
“Men did more than just mentor me, they advocated for me,” Scovell notes. “There’s a difference. It’s great to encourage someone, but it’s even better to hire them.”
Just the Funny Parts is filled with concrete examples of how women’s voices enhance the writing of a show, particularly in comedy, Scovell’s bread and butter. The book includes drafts of rejected jokes she wrote for Hillary Clinton to deliver at the 2016 Al Smith Dinner — because, she writes, “they illustrate why a female perspective can lead to joke areas that male writers might overlook.” (One joke Hillary passed on: “Donald defines nontraditional marriage as between a man and a brunette.”) Scovell quotes Samantha Bee, who appeared as a correspondent on The Daily Show while pregnant and who told New York magazine that working in such a state will “add to your comedy in ways that you never expected.”
One of my favorite anecdotes in the book tells how Scovell came up with the backstory for Sabrina’s mother on Sabrina the Teenage Witch, which premiered on ABC in 1996 and starred Melissa Joan Hart as a sixteen-year-old living with her aunts who discovers she has magical powers. The ABC executives wanted to explain the mom’s absence by suggesting she’d died in childbirth. But Scovell pushed against this — Sabrina’s dad, after all, wasn’t dead, even though he wasn’t in the picture, either. Eventually, the network relented, although they insisted the mother not be away from her child by choice. Scovell’s solution: Sabrina’s mom, a mortal, is on a dig in Peru, and the Witches Council forbids her from seeing her daughter for two years after Sabrina has become a witch. Otherwise, her mom will turn into a ball of wax. I always liked that detail; I never knew its feminist origins.
And then there’s David Letterman. Scovell first wrote about her brief stint writing for Late Night in a 2009 Vanity Fair article that was published shortly after the comedy legend admitted live on air that he’d had sex with women who worked on his show. (Someone threatened to blackmail him with this information, so he beat him to the punch.) Although Barbara Walters defended Letterman on The View, and insisted that his behavior did not amount to sexual harassment, Scovell disagreed: “There’s a subset of sexual harassment called sexual favoritism that, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, can lead to a ‘hostile work environment,’ often ‘creating an atmosphere that is demeaning to women,’ ” she wrote in the article. “And that pretty much sums up my experience at Late Night With David Letterman.”
Perhaps the most insightful line in the book comes toward the end, when Scovell points out that only after they were no longer helming late-night shows did David Letterman and Jay Leno publicly cop to the fact that the TV industry needs to hire more women. Letterman even told Tom Brokaw, “I don’t know why they didn’t give my show to a woman,” and in a 2015 event alongside directors Bennett Miller and Spike Jonze at his alma mater, Ball State University, he questioned the two men on the subject of Hollywood’s “pervasive sexism.” When Miller demurred — “I’m not a studio executive” — Letterman pushed back: “Having been very, very successful, now can’t you devote your career to help others who struggle to be successful?”
Scovell shrewdly theorizes what prompted Letterman’s and Leno’s apparent change of heart: arriving at the “intersection of ageism and sexism. The two former hosts now know something every woman learns early in her career: it sucks to be pushed aside by a less-experienced man.”
And yet, Letterman returned to television earlier this year, with a monthly Netflix interview series called My Next Guest Needs No Introduction; all five executive producers are men. “No lesson learned there,” Scovell says. “He had a chance for redemption and did not take it.” (Letterman did not respond to a request for comment.)
We often hear about how important it is for women to have each other’s backs. And at this point in her career, Scovell has devoted much of her time to helping other female writers — like Bess Kalb, who writes for Jimmy Kimmel Live!, or Last Week Tonight With John Oliver’s Jill Twiss — find staffing jobs. But Scovell’s experiences illustrate how important it is that men get involved in the fight for equality. Scovell told me that with one exception, she has been interviewed about her book exclusively by women. “I find that really troubling,” she admits, calling into question the knee-jerk habit to put women’s stories in a separate category from men’s. “It just creates an us-versus-them dynamic, which is exactly what we’re trying to fight,” she says, adding, “That’s why men really need to mentor women — a) there are more men in senior positions, and b) women are so overloaded.” Even in two-career households, women still take on more childcare and housework than their male partners — not to mention what Scovell calls “housework at work,” such as organizing parties or clearing out the office fridge. “We’re supposed to do it because we’re communal and we love helping others,” she says. “And then on top of that you have to mentor women? Come on, men! Step up!”
Just the Funny Parts…And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking Into the Hollywood Boys’ Club
By Nell Scovell