One of the few women to write for Late Night with David Letterman recalls a hostile, sexually charged workplace when she worked for the show in the late '80s.
In a first-person piece for Vanity Fair, Nell Scovell notes that more women are serving on the U.S. Supreme Court than write for Late Show with David Letterman, The Jay Leno Show and The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien combined. "Out of the 50 or so comedy writers working on these programs, exactly zero are women," Scovell writes. "It would be funny if it weren't true."
CBS spokesman Chris Ender and Tom Keaney, a representative for Letterman's company Worldwide Pants, declined to comment.
Scovell said late-night writing staffs have long been boys's clubs, adding that old charges of sexism dovetail with new concerns about sexual harassment — precipitated by the alleged extortion plot that led Letterman to admit: "I have had sex with women who work for me on this show."
In a call for diversity, she says she has a dream — "that one day a late-night writers' room will be filled with poop jokes and fart jokes ... and everyone will laugh, including men and women of all creeds and colors."
Scovell, who's written for Murphy Brown, Monk, and N.C.I.S. and created Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, maintains: "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 says that pretty much summed up her experience at NBC's Late Night after she became only the second woman ever hired to write for the program. "When I applied for the job in 1988, I had no way of knowing how much the odds were stacked against me," she writes.
"In 27 years, Late Night and Late Show have hired only seven female writers. These seven women have spent a total of 17 years on staff combined. By extrapolation, male writers have racked up a collective 378 years writing jokes for Dave (based on an average writing room of 14 men, the size of the current Late Show staff)," Scovell calculates.
Without naming names or digging up decades-old dirt, she poses and answers what she deems "pertinent questions."
"Did Dave hit on me? No. Did he pay me enough extra attention that it was noted by another writer? Yes. Was I aware of rumors that Dave was having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Was I aware that other high-level male employees were having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Did these female staffers have access to information and wield power disproportionate to their job titles? Yes. Did that create a hostile work environment? Yes. Did I believe these female staffers were benefiting professionally from their personal relationships? Yes. Did that make me feel demeaned? Completely. Did I say anything at the time? Sadly, no."
Instead, she continues: "I walked away from my dream job."
Within months, she was working on the sitcom Coach. "I was still the only female in the writers' room, but the atmosphere was respectful and I stayed for several seasons. Since then, I've racked up a long list of credits as a TV writer, series creator, producer, and director. In short, I moved on. Until this story broke."
She says she decided to speak up now for three reasons: "1. People who have no knowledge of the situation are voicing opinions, so why not me? 2. Letterman himself opened this up to a public discussion. 3. I'd like to pivot the discussion away from the bedroom and toward the writers' room, because it pains me that almost 20 years later, the situation for female writers in late-night-TV hasn't improved."
She says she doesn't want a lawsuit, compensation or revenge — just some genuine diversity. "I don't want Dave to go down (oh, grow up, people). I just want Dave to hire some qualified female writers and then treat them with respect," Scovell says. "And that goes for Jay and Conan, too."