Nell Scovell is a champion for gender diversity in TV writers’ rooms.
She’s got the credentials. She was one of the first women to write an episode of "The Simpsons" (it's the one where Homer eats poisonous blowfish). She's written jokes for President Obama. She created the TV show "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" — and co-wrote "Lean In" with Sheryl Sandberg.
"But it all started with me writing sports," Scovell says.
Finding A Home In 'The Cube'
Nell Scovell’s joke-writing career could’ve ended in the third grade.
It happened at a parent-teacher conference.
"The teacher told my mom that I made too many jokes and asked her to please tell me to tone it down," Nell says. "So my mom delivers the message...on my 40th birthday — literally waits 32 years to tell me that my 3rd grade teacher had notes on my personality.
"That's the cultural bias — that girls shouldn't be funny, and it's unladylike. And I do wonder, boy, if she had just made me self-conscious about having a sense of humor, would that have changed everything?"
Nell grew up in Newton, Mass. When she wasn’t entertaining her classmates, she followed the Celtics and Bruins and Red Sox.
As a freshman at Harvard, she went to an intro meeting for The Crimson, the student newspaper. Editors from the News and Arts and Editorial boards got up and pitched the freshmen on joining their sections.
And then a senior in a rumpled overcoat stood up. He was holding a cigar.
"And he says, 'Anyone who’s cool, stick around. We’re gonna talk about writing sports,' " Nell recalls. "And I thought, 'I’ve never been cool in my life. This is my golden opportunity.' ”
Nell says the Sports Board didn’t make her cool – but deciding to spend her evenings in the cramped corner of The Crimson known as the Sports Cube was the right call.
(Full disclosure: I too am an uncool — but proud — alum of The Crimson’s Sports Board.)
Nell became an associate sports editor. Writing for the back page of the paper gave her a chance to do something that would’ve been forsworn on The Crimson’s more serious boards: she could be funny.
She worked jokes about Plato into women’s soccer stories.
"Well, you gotta know your audience," she says.
During her senior year, The Boston Globe hired her to cover high school sports. On Saturday mornings, while her roommates slept in, Nell drove to small Massachusetts towns to cover football games.
But the Globe wasn’t quite as game for random jokes about Greek philosophers – so, after graduation, Nell moved to New York and started writing for magazines. And then, one day, she ran into a former editor.
"And she says to me, 'Nell, I don’t mean this as an insult, but I think you could write for television,' " Nell recalls. "And it really was the first time I ever thought about it — because coming from the East Coast, I didn’t know TV writing was a job."
It was a job – but Nell would soon realize it was one held by few women.
Off To LA
Nell got an agent and wrote a spec script for “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.” She got a call to come to L.A.
"And I go into the office and I meet Garry Shandling," she says. "And he says to me, 'You write like a guy,' which at the time was considered a huge compliment. Because guys wrote hard jokes that made you laugh out loud. And women wrote amusing lines that might make you go, 'Oh, how humorous.' "
Nell’s script for Shandling didn’t end up getting made – but she started getting jobs in Hollywood. She was often the only woman in the writers' room.
Nell’s dream was to write for "Late Night with David Letterman." At that point, the show had only employed one female writer in its history – and she was Letterman’s ex-girlfriend.
But in 1990, Nell got an interview.
"Dave was, like, tossing a football in the air," Nell recalls. "He was wearing sweatpants. It was a Sports Cube vibe."
And here was Nell, who’d written for the best sports section in the country — as well as The Boston Globe. During the interview, Nell tried to prove she could fit into the boys’ club. She and Letterman talked about her sportswriting career and their favorite teams.
The concept of “culture fit” was normally used to exclude women in Hollywood, but Nell had the right credentials. She got the job.
"I was a good culture fit," she says. "I don't think I'm the funniest woman in the world — and I think my getting hired wasn't because I was special, but because something was really wrong there."
"I think my getting hired wasn't because I was special, but because something was really wrong there."Nell Scovell
Sports helped Nell get into the writers' room – and now she could see what it was really like. On her first day, another writer told her, “Before this over, I will see a tampon fall out of your purse.” There were rumors that Letterman was sleeping with female staffers.
Instead of speaking out, Nell just tried to blend in.
"So I dressed like a guy and ate junk food like a guy," she says.
After a few months, Nell’s option at Letterman was picked up. But soon she decided she’d had enough. She left the show.
Nell’s years as a sports fan and writer had helped her break into Hollywood. It had prepared her to live off bad coffee — and work in rooms full of men. And soon it would come in handy again.
A Secret Weapon
In 1998, Nell got her first directing job.
She was warned that the crew might not respond well to a female director — and, right away, she felt she wasn’t being respected by the director of photography (the guy in charge of the cameras). He’d roll his eyes at her directions or throw up his hands.
"I cried a lot in the hotel room at night," Nell says. "But not on the set. Never on the set."
And then, early in the second week of shooting, it started to rain. Nell got under a small tarp with a camera operator.
"And I turn to him and say, 'So where are you from?' And he says, 'Well, you won't know it. It's Parry Sound, Ontario,' " Nell recalls. "And I go, 'Bobby Orr's home place?' And he says, 'How did you know that?' And I said, 'I grew up loving the Bruins.' And he said, 'I don't believe you.' So I start listing: 'Phil Esposito, Wayne Cashman, Gilles Gilbert, Johnny Bucyk, Kenny Hodge --' And he's like, 'OK, OK! I believe you!' "
After that, Nell says the camera operator became her “secret weapon on set.” Whenever she and the director of photography disagreed, he’d help find a compromise.
But soon, Nell came up against forces that no amount of Bruins knowledge could overcome.
'It Would Be Funny If It Weren’t True'
In 2003, Nell was looking for work. When she and her agent talked about potential shows, her agent would tell her, “They’ve already got two women on staff, so they won’t be looking to hire another.”
At one point, Nell inquired about writing for the show “24”. An executive told her they wouldn’t hire any women. Nell says the executive told her the show had had a female writer before, and it didn’t “work out.”
"That was the 'explanation,' " Nell says
She started asking herself bigger questions.
"What do I stand for? Do I continue to work in this industry that has huge issues with people of color, with women? Or do I speak out?" she says. "And I chose to speak out."
In 2009, Nell wrote a story for Vanity Fair. It started like this:
“At this moment, there are more females serving on the United States Supreme Court than there are writing 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 on these programs, exactly zero are women. It would be funny if it weren’t true.”
Within six months, all three late-night shows had hired a female writer. Nell jokes that she helped bring back tokenism.
"It's like sports gave you the creds to sneak past, sort of, the guards," I say to her. "And then once you got past the guards, you could be the person to report back and say, 'Hey, these are the problems.' "
"Oh, completely," she says. "And think about it: standing on the sidelines — a journalist is both an insider and an outsider. And that's how I always felt."
'You Worry About Late Night TV'
Nell Scovell has continued to fight for gender equality. Recently she got to meet one of her personal heroes – Gloria Steinem. Steinem had just gotten back from India and was telling Nell horrible stories about the lives of young women there.
"And I say to her, 'I can't believe I care about late night TV when this sort of thing is happening in India,' " Nell recalls. "And she touches my shoulder and says, 'You worry about late night TV. I'll worry about India.'
"And she said it with a smile. And I worry that it sounds glib, because it wasn't. And her point was that there are issues of equality everywhere. And if you'll pardon the expression, we need man-to-man defense to fight it. And if what I knew best was late night TV, then it was good to put my energy into that."
Nell Scovell’s new book is “Just The Funny Parts...And A Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into the Hollywood Boys’ Club.”
This segment aired on May 12, 2018.