Tina Fey’s Bossypants has been my go-to, crowd-pleasing book recommendation ever since I read it, in a day flat, on my honeymoon in 2011. For me, it stood alone in the canon of celebrity memoirs—until now. Nell Scovell, a pioneer among women writers in Hollywood, who has worked on The Simpsons, Late Night With David Letterman, and Murphy Brown, as well as created Sabrina the Teenage Witch, sets a new standard with Just the Funny Parts...and a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking Into the Hollywood Boys’ Club (Dey Street Books). It is at once a hilarious showbiz memoir peppered with Scovell’s celebrity run-ins and a compelling #MeToo story about the sexism and hostile environments she experienced as the lone woman in many a television writer’s room (including a tense time in Letterman’s: After he admitted to sleeping with female staffers in 2009, Scovell wrote a story for Vanity Fair about the sexually charged atmosphere at the show).
Now, almost three decades into her career, Scovell writes that Hollywood still has a long way to go: “Sexual harassment is so embedded in show business, the industry even has a cutesy name for it—the casting couch,” she writes, “which does sound a lot nicer than the ‘rape sofa.’” But even in her detailed excavation of her past (Scovell includes script excerpts, magazine reviews, and all manner of fascinating primary sources), she doesn’t spare herself, making for at least one remarkable moment (I gasped; you’ll know it when you get there). Just the Funny Parts is an ideal read for right now: humor with an eye toward gender diversity. It helps that Scovell has the bona fides. She cowrote Lean In with Sheryl Sandberg, who has now penned the foreword of Scovell’s book.
Vogue spoke with Scovell by phone about making sexism funny (“Am I corporeal?” she recalls asking a rare female coworker on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, “You can see and hear me, right?”), confronting Letterman, and the power of women in high places helping each other.
You’ve been a private person, so it’s pretty new for you to put your personal stories out there. What possessed you to write this book now?
I’ve been asking myself that question a lot lately. I feel lucky that we’re in this time where people are paying attention to female narratives, and my life has been filled with some bizarre moments, from making Homer Simpson eat blowfish and thinking he was going to die to having Sabrina the Teenage Witch turn a cheerleader into a pineapple. So, I wanted to get the fun stories down. I’m also aware that it’s unusual that a female writer got to be in a lot of these rooms. There are so many times I felt like I was both an insider and an outsider at the same time.
You strike a perfect balance between writing very honestly about sexism in Hollywood and also being so funny about your experiences. How did you pull that off?
There’s a great old play and a movie called A Thousand Clowns by [Herb] Gardner, and in it, he says, “If life isn’t funny, then it’s just what it is, and it’s just a long dental appointment.” I’ve always had that approach to life.
Having been in Hollywood for so long, as you have…
I am very old.
No! But what does it feel like to go from being the only woman in the Letterman writers’ room to now seeing Frances McDormand on the Oscars declaring “inclusion rider”? You’ve probably been thinking about this stuff for decades, and now it’s going mainstream.
Oh, completely. And I don’t want to get too optimistic because for 30 years, I’ve been told, “It’s getting better, right?” And that’s always anecdotal. You can cherry-pick your data, but until we have sustained, statistical proof that things have gotten better for women, then I will remain wary. I do think women in their 20s are smarter about this than I was when I was at the same age. They grew up in a post–Anita Hill world, and that’s huge. When I went through my experience at Letterman, I had no vocabulary for that. I just thought it was fucked up. That was the technical term. And then, years later, Anita Hill comes along, and I’m watching her on television and a senator says to her, “Well, you know, if the workplace was so unhappy, why did you stay?” And she said, “I loved my job.” And I burst into tears in my bedroom because I had loved my job at Letterman, but I really didn’t see a way to stay in this atmosphere where I knew I was not going to thrive.
When Letterman’s scandal broke in 2009, you wrote a Vanity Fair story about the sexist culture, the hostile environment, and the lack of female writers on the show. Some of the response from readers was: “Shut up” and “You’re a fame whore.” You remind us in the book that there was sympathy for Letterman. Did it feel like a risk to be telling your story?
Writing that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It’s the only time I’ve really felt a compulsion to speak out. I couldn’t not write it. I tried to. I didn’t really want to. I was scared. My husband and I actually had a phone call with my accountant to say, “If Nell never works again, are we gonna be okay?” But it really went from being something I thought would be a terrible thing to one of the best things I’ve ever done in my whole life. There’s all this talk about being authentic, and I really felt like I was true to myself in that moment.
Years later, you had this heart-to-heart—as much as that’s possible—with Letterman, in which you asked him about sexism in late-night and he said, “I don’t worry about that stuff.” But then, in subsequent years, you write that he started to actually be more vocal and suggest a woman might replace him…
I’d like to note that his new Netflix show has five executive producers, and they are all male.
I was going to ask if you think you had a role in bringing him a little more awareness of gender issues.
He doesn’t worry about that stuff. When someone reveals themselves, believe them.
No spoilers, but one of the best parts of the book is when you tell the story of working with a “novelty singer” turned writer named Jim Stafford at The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. You write that Stafford had a “dim” view of women, boxed you out of creative decisions, and once crudely suggested you fellate the guitar great Chet Atkins. Why did you decide to go there, so to speak, about Stafford? It just occurred to me: Is he dead?
Well, he lives Branson, Missouri, so, pretty close. One of the reasons I told this story about myself was, there’s a tendency when we see someone who’s been successful to think they’ve sailed through and nothing bad ever happened to them. So I wanted to reveal that you can succeed, not because it’s all good, but because even when bad stuff happens, you keep going.
You tweet often about the Trumps and the current political circus. You wrote jokes for President Obama for multiple White House Correspondents’ dinners. If Stephen Miller called you and said, “Hey, Nell, can you write some jokes for President Trump?” What would you say?
I might say yes, and then send only jokes about how venal and hideous and corrupt he is. Like: “I tried to block Stormy Daniels from appearing on 60 Minutes, which means I imposed more sanctions on a porn actress than on Russia.” Or, “My first wife wrote in a book that I raped her. That hurt, but I learned from the experience. Now I make my wives sign NDAs.” Then I’d be like, “What? He didn’t use any of my jokes?”
Before I forget: What do you think about the Sabrina the Teenage Witch reboot?
I’m excited to watch it. You know, Sabrina and Buffy both came on at the same time, and I was a huge Buffy fan, so if this is sort of a combo thing, I think that sounds like fun. They’re rebooting three shows I’ve worked on: Murphy Brown, Charmed, and Sabrina. If it brings in a whole new generation, then that’s kind of interesting.
I was shocked that you could write about having a career drought in later years, after all the success you’ve had. Do you attribute that to the usual cycle of a Hollywood writer’s career,?or to sexism and ageism?
I turned 40 and things started to go south. One of the things I learned by writing the memoir was how often female executives came through for me, from Nina Tassler to Susanne Daniels and Chris Sanagustin. They continued to call to see if I was available for work, and I always was. So, this is another reason we need women in leadership positions—too many men in Hollywood appreciate the potential of young women more than they appreciate the experience of middle-aged women.
When you hear people say, “Women don’t have each other’s backs,” how does that strike you?
One of the greatest benefits to come out of Lean In was convincing women to help and support other women, not out of this sense of duty and that you’d be condemned to hell forever if you didn’t, but because it will make all your lives better. The way Gloria Steinem puts it is that “we are linked, not ranked,” which I’ve always loved. In Just the Funny Parts, I quote the line about how women who don’t help other women have a special place in hell, but I add that women who do help women should have a special cloud in heaven.
This interview has been edited and condensed.