The Jokes on Us: Examining the Hard Truths For Women in Television
By Eric DeggansJuly 6, 2018
Just the Funny Parts by Nell Scovell
Stealing the Show by Joy Press
Scovell’s book — part memoir, part how-to manual for surviving as a TV writer in Hollywood — also serves as a damning indictment of all the sexual harassment she endured developing a career as a writer for the late-1980s revival of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Late Night with David Letterman, The Simpsons, and many more shows. She kicks ass and names many names — more on that in a bit — providing chapter and verse on the system that keeps female writers, directors, and showrunners so severely underrepresented in the industry.
Press’s book serves a different function. In recounting the history of the women behind groundbreaking female-created and female-led shows like Murphy Brown, Girls, and Orange Is the New Black, she lays out how women have triumphed despite an unequal system to produce revolutionary television. And these bold new voices have built on each other: Press recounts how Roseanne Barr’s writer’s room on Roseanne hired Amy Sherman-Palladino, who would create Gilmore Girls and hire Jenji Kohan as a producer and writer, before she went on to create Weeds and Orange Is the New Black.
Considered together, these two works present a passionate argument for challenging the male-dominated status quo in Hollywood.
In particular, Scovell’s book is compelling, because so few TV writers and producers are this honest in public. Even hugely successful figures can be hamstrung by the politics of the town; when you’re worried about landing your next job or keeping your current one, it’s tough to spill the tea as much as you’d like. But that doesn’t seem to be a problem for Scovell in this funny-yet-revealing work.
She writes about how, during her time working on Late Night, David Letterman’s 12:30 a.m. NBC show, the star rarely set foot in the writers’ room. Instead, he discussed upcoming bits and segments with producers by phone while driving home. “Dave’s superpower was being able to cling to his neurotic insecurity in the face of staggering success,” Scovell writes. She also notes that, while Letterman’s shows rarely hired female writers, they never hired nonwhite writers; in two different shows hosted for two different networks from 1982 to 2015, Scovell says, he never hired a person of color for the writers’ room.
Scovell also details how she wrote and developed a classic episode of The Simpsons as a freelancer in which Homer believes he has accidentally eaten a poisonous blowfish and only has 24 hours to live. Once the show aired, she wasn’t hired on the staff. Still, the chapter provides an intimate look at how humor and story are shaped in a top TV comedy.
Elsewhere, Scovell describes how a TV showrunner’s job works, how the energy in writers’ rooms is harnessed by the top producers, and how scary it was to deliver a speech right before the first “table read” for the series she created and led as showrunner, Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
Just the Funny Parts loosely takes its structure from an old joke about how the arc of most careers in Hollywood is summed up in four statements/questions. (Who is Nell Scovell? Get me Nell Scovell! Get me a younger, cheaper Nell Scovell! Who is Nell Scovell?) It’s filled with a lot of great information about the writer’s life, including a quote from a friend who told her, “The only way to move forward creatively is to allow yourself to be judged.” She even devoted an entire chapter to jobs she didn’t get, from losing an episode of The X-Files because Stephen King asked to write something to seeing a project with Robert Altman and Carol Burnett fall apart amid stalled negotiations with CBS.
But the most searing material in Just the Funny Parts centers on Scovell’s recounting of the harassment and misogyny she experienced in the business, including a story of being manipulated into giving oral sex to head writer Jim Stafford during the wrap party for the Smothers Brothers revival’s first season. She had feared that refusing him would keep her from getting hired for the show’s second season, but she wasn’t hired, anyway. “Don’t mistake sexual power for real power,” she writes of her lessons learned from that incident. “Gloria Steinem put it perfectly: ‘If women could sleep their way to the top, there would be a lot more women at the top.’”
Later, she notes how, during The X-Files original run, only seven of 200 episodes were written by women. She also observes that, in 27 years, Letterman’s shows only hired seven female writers compared to over 100 male writers. Scovell says women who do have some success as writers and directors in TV can succumb to a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, where they gloss over the harassment and exclusion they have faced — even while some male colleagues act as if they should be grateful for the limited opportunities they do receive. And she reveals, with some irony, that Letterman and former Tonight Show host Jay Leno have talked about the need for more diversity in late night — after they left their big jobs, where they did little to improve the numbers when they actually had the power to do so.
If Scovell’s book is a blueprint of all the problems facing women in the TV industry, Press’s Stealing the Show describes the excellence that can come from giving talented women the freedom to create shows from their unique perspectives.
Press, a former TV critic and editor at places like The Village Voice, Salon, and the Los Angeles Times, provides behind-the-scenes details on the evolution of shows like Murphy Brown, Roseanne, Gilmore Girls, Scandal, Transparent, and more, by tracing the backstories of their creators. We learn how Diane English’s original script for Murphy Brown — centered on a fortysomething journalist just out of rehab — was filmed without changes, despite the network’s fear the star character was unlikable, because English wrote it just before the 1988 Writers Guild strike. And Press quotes Barr saying the original script for Roseanne was focused on the sister of matriarch Roseanne Conner because the writer feared viewers wouldn’t like her character.
By telling the stories of these talented, rule-breaking women, Press also recounts the evolution of women’s voices on TV — from the snappy patter and generational conflicts on Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls to the purposeful unlikability of core characters on Lena Dunham’s Girls and Amy Schumer’s use of sex jokes to lure in Comedy Central’s young male viewers for a dose of feminism-tinged humor on Inside Amy Schumer.
They often face an industry where career advancement is wrapped up in the ability to work with powerful men who can serve as mentors. Press quotes Jill Soloway, showrunner for Amazon’s drama about a transgender college professor and her family, Transparent, on why white males tend to hire other white males:
If you are a white, straight guy who’s lived in the Pacific Palisades for the past 25 years and you bring a young trans director of color onto your set, you are not going to get to have that relaxed feeling of “Let me throw my arm around you and show you how things go.” You are going to be forced to confront your privilege.
In the end, both Scovell’s Just the Funny Parts and Press’s Stealing the Show confront male privilege by telling the stories of women who have succeeded despite the barriers in their way.
These books also show that achieving equity in these spaces isn’t just about being fair — it’s about accessing new and better stories that will elevate television for everyone.
Eric Deggans is NPR’s TV critic and a board member and judge for the Peabody Awards. He is the author of Race-Baiter: How Media Wield Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, a look at how prejudice, racism, and sexism fuel some elements of modern media.
Eric Deggans is NPR’s first full-time TV critic. He came to NPR from the Tampa Bay Times newspaper in Florida, where he served as TV/Media Critic and in other roles for nearly 20 years. A journalist for more than 20 years, he is also the author of Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, a look at how prejudice, racism, and sexism fuel some elements of modern media, published in October 2012 by Palgrave Macmillan.
Now serving as chair of the Media Monitoring Committee for the National Association of Black Journalists, he has also served on the board of directors for the national Television Critics Association and on the board of the Mid-Florida Society of Professional Journalists.
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