Nell Scovell’s New Memoir Shines a Much Needed Light on Some Dark Places in Televisions Writers Rooms
Nell Scovell’s new memoir, “Just the Funny Parts” has been getting praise everywhere you look. With features in the New York Times, Vogue, and Vanity Fair, interviews with Time Magazine, The Guardian, and John Oliver at New York’s revered 92nd Street Y, and on our own Gail Meets Girls, to say Nell’s book is being well received is an understatement, so I was thrilled to get the opportunity to talk with Nell about her book.
“Just the Funny Parts” is a really important book. Going far beyond bio and experiential material, Scovell’s memoir touches on some of the most important social and culture workplace issues of our time. She brings life, vibrancy and real-life stories to the conversation America and the world is deeply embroiled in, and adds depth of experience to the issues. Through her own experiences, Nell takes you through what really happens in the closed-door world of Hollywood writers rooms illuminating quite a few dark corners including the hard-to-believe-its-still-this-bad lack of diversity, the way male co-workers subtly and not so subtly demean and diminish others, sometimes without even realizing it, and the depressing double standards applied toward women at work.
For anyone who scoffs at headlines proclaiming unfair practices in the biz, Nell’s book puts the behavior in real life context that can’t be ignored or brushed away. You can’t sideline Nell’s revelations by blaming her for the problems, or calling her a woman who “can’t hang” in the boys club. On the contrary, Nell’s story is successful by any standard- her resume includes working with television GIANTS. Giants like Garry Shandling, Newhart, the Smothers Brothers, The Simpsons, Coach, Murphy Brown, the Muppets and Letterman for starters- creating and showrunning the hit series Sabrina, and dozens of other gigs that go on for pages. And through her book you learn that she’s exactly the type of woman who can hang with the guys.
This book is not just for women, nor is it just for social-conscious-minded. The much-needed cultural medicine that runs throughout the book is only part of the story, and only one of the levels that makes Nell’s book work so well.
It’s also a page-turning tell-all exposing some really reprehensible behavior ranging from hypocrisy to sexual assault.
It’s a fascinating life story that reveals a woman with an incredible work ethic, who thanks to great talent, good timing, and a very helpful unorthodox family structure, waded to the top of a system that works against her at every turn.
It’s an inside the industry tale, highlighting high points and low points of working in television as well as the day to day grind. Scovell shares the fairy tale of getting her first paid tv gig working with the great Garry Shandling, the rewriting process at The Simpsons from the pitch, to breaking the story, creating the outline through to a final produced episode, a peek behind the curtain at David Letterman’s Late Night, and getting getting her own personal “Hi, Bob” moment while working on Newhart,
Through her own observations, experiences, and inner monologue, Nell also shares a nostalgic look at the history of some of the best comedy writing– Scovell is a fan of the greats going back to the Thin Man movies, Singing in the Rain, the Marx Brothers, Monty Python, Albert Brooks (Real Life is a particular favorite and point of inspiration), the Smothers Brothers, Joan Rivers, Martin Mull’s Fernwood Tonight, an Evening with Tom Lehrer and more.
And lastly but absolutely not least- “Just the Funny Parts” is a collection of really useful advice for anyone trying to survive and thrive in creative industries. Nell encountered a dream list of great mentors throughout her career and her incredible ability to recall dozens of snippets of great advice from her friends and colleagues, the book works as a handbook for any aspiring comedy creator. Practical advice like a phenomenal chart showing how male and female showrunners are perceived differently and eight lies writers hear are invaluable.
I asked Nell whether she chose to focus her memoir on gender politics because of the timing of the #metoo movement. Scovell herself has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to talking about gender in the workplace– she authored an article about her time at Late Night back when Letterman was defending himself against allegations of sexual favoritism, and she co-wrote “Lean In” with Sheryl Sandberg in 2013. But she said her initial plan for this book was to just write a memoir, initially planning to alternate talking about her work life and her home life. While writing, she found herself wanting to cover more.
“To quote my mentor Barry Kemp, ‘Writing is not an act of creation, it’s an act of discovery,'” she said. “So, I remember I was actually writing at Skywalker Ranch, which is my Yaddo for nerds, and I started writing the chapter about Joel Hodgson, the creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and how we met and became collaborators … There was gonna be a shift, ’cause I was talking about my personal life, and then I was gonna talk a little about my home life and being a mom, and I vividly remember having a moment saying, “No, I should do a whole chapter on motherhood and what it’s like being a mom in comedy.” And so I think we’re all biased, and my own bias was telling me, “Don’t write about that, because … ” I make that joke in the book about how I rarely talked about my kids in the writers’ room, and my opening joke on the first day was always, “I have two kids but I’m blanking on their names now.” ‘Cause there is this motherhood penalty. It’s real, study after study has shown it, and that once they become mothers, women are perceived as being less committed to their jobs.”
It’s a difficult job, even without facing bias issues; collaborating with others is always challenging. Nell explained that the creative process is a lot like canoeing. “If you’re both paddling in the same direction, you can really pick up steam and get there faster, but if you’re not, you just go around in circles, and it’s hard. It’s intense, it’s like a relationship.” And of course, how smoothly that goes depends on the group. Writers rooms, she explained are like families, some more functional than others. “There’s no prototypical writers’ room. It’s just a collection of personalities under enormous stress, and some deal with it better than others. There was one show I was on for three years, and the first year was an absolute delight, and then there were a couple of changes in personnel, and the second year was a disaster.”
Bad situations lead to bad habits for many women writers. In the book Nell writes about some of the mistakes she made early on- like being afraid to sit at the table with the rest of the team, or trying to be invisible. While working at Letterman, when one of her co-workers made a snide comment about Dave showing her attention, she elected to avoid her superstar boss to avoid those comments, which also meant missing out on opportunities to excel at work. She wrote about an incident where she had a blocked milk duct (a common but painful condition) while nursing, a fact she made sure to hide from her coworkers, despite that she often heard about their “personal hygiene” issues. When we talked she told me she shared a similar incident when she worked on the set of Coach and wasn’t feeling well, so she went to the bathroom, vomited, brushed her teeth and went right back into the writers’ room. “I just felt like I had to be so tough, right? And you didn’t want them to see you sweat.”
Nell has some simple solutions to offer, starting with three very simple words: Hire More Women. “The way you fix the lack of diversity, hire more diversity,” she said. “Which is why I loved Frances McDormand ending her Oscar speech with two words, “inclusion rider.” Because the inclusion rider is more than lip service. It means a production company is committing to diversity, and if they don’t reach their goals, there’s a punishment. And the problem is we haven’t had any punishment for not being more inclusive. So everyone will say of course, ‘Oh, I want to.’ But you have to do it.”
Quoting Albert Brooks, she said, “a fairer share of humanity will always produce better comedy,” adding, “it just gives you more perspectives, more experiences. Someone once said you should cast your writers’ room, because if you have people who all do the same thing, then what do you need … You got you, I don’t need him. You know, everyone’s gotta pull in the same direction, and there has to be overlap in some basic way, but I think in the utopia, yes, you would have groups of … you’d have disabled people, and people from the LGBTQ community, and people of different colors.”
It’s not enough to just achieve diversity in the composition of writer’s rooms. She’d like to see more equitable behavior among co-workers as well. “One thing is, women and people of color can actually stand up for each other more in the room, and so if you’re a junior female, and a senior female is speaking and gets interrupted by a male, the junior female can say, “I was interested in hearing the end of that pitch,” and neither of the women will suffer in that situation, according to the studies. I can’t promise you in real life. So I think banding together and sticking up for each other is really key.”
These changes will not only be good for women, they’ll ultimately be good for everyone from the writers to the viewers. Scovell drew an analogy to corporations that have benefitted from diversity. “In corporate America, when there are more women in leadership positions, they’ve shown that there is less harassment, there’s better work/life policies, and there’s actually even better profit. So that gets to, ‘you should hire more women not ’cause it’s the fair thing to do or the right thing to do, but it’s the best thing you could do for your company.'”
With all the advice, and all the good intentions, ultimately, the answer is this. “You’re running a show. Hire her.” I think that that’s … Anyway, I’ll just leave it at that.
Nell Scovell’s “Just the Funny Parts” is available at amazon.com and everywhere books are sold.