Behind every funny man – and television show, it turns out – is an even funnier woman.
Nell Scovell is a Harvard graduate, journalist, television show creator and writer, and has spent years making some of the funniest people seem… well, funny. She’s written jokes for David Letterman, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, as well as for The Simpsons, Coach, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Monk, and Murphy Brown. Some of the funniest lines in television history were written by Scovell. Not content to just sit with comedy writing, she’s also written for primetime drama shows like NCIS.
Scovell made headlines back in 2009 when she wrote an article for Vanity Fair, following David Letterman’s on-air confession of sleeping with female employees. In the article, she brought up some of the crucial problems in the industry – like the power imbalances that created a hostile work environment and brushed over the sexual harassment that was going on, and that at the time there were more women on the Supreme Court than there were writing for Conan O’Brien, David Letterman, and Jay Leno combined.
This past March she released her memoir, Just the Funny Parts… And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into the Hollywood Boys’ Club. Finally, the woman behind the curtain has come forward – and she’s just as funny as you think she is. Her memoir is a bit like Scovell actually is: hilarious to the point of tears, deeply intelligent, and filled with blunt honesty.
BookTrib was able to chat with Nell Scovell briefly about her memoir, getting into the heads of characters, television shows she’s always wanted to write for, and the #MeToo movement.
BookTrib: In Just the Funny Parts, you mention this board that had all these jokes that weren’t used on Murphy Brown, and some others that weren’t used by Obama – and you get really struck by the fact that you’re the person who is behind all these television shows, late night hosts, politicians and others, who is writing the jokes and making them funny. Can you give us a glimpse into how you do that?
Nell Scovell: Getting into a character’s head is something I learned how to do that from Barry Kemp, who was the creator of Coach; he’s just a master at sit-com writing. But I think having empathy does help you get into different characters heads. One of the shows that I don’t talk about in the book is this medical drama called Providence. It was one of those strange shows where it got maybe the worst reviews of any show I’ve ever worked on, and yet it ran for five or six seasons as this huge hit.
It was a very sincere show, and I took the job because I had just had my second baby, and the hours on drama are better than comedy, but someone once said to me, “How could you work on Providence, which is the most sincere show on television, and work one The Simpsons, which is the snarkiest show on television?”. The truth is that life is both comedy and tragedy, and the good times slam right into the bad times. I don’t really see a difference between they two, really – they’re just both sides of life.
BookTrib: There’s an episode you wrote of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, where Sabrina turns Libby into a pineapple, and when she asks what she should do, Aunt Hilda grabs a knife and says “Chunks or rings?” But this moment has gone down as one of the most iconic moments on television. Would they still let you write that today?
NS: It’s interesting to think about because you have Sabrina who comes back with Libby as the pineapple, and Aunt Hilda just pulls out this knife and goes “Chunks or rings?” It’s a pretty harsh joke but it was funny. I don’t know if they would let me do that gag today.
BookTrib: You’ve been involved with writing all genres of television for years. How have you seen the industry change in terms of content?
NS: There’s definitely an evolution. I watched character comedy turn more into joke-delivery systems, and now I’m happy to say that I feel like the pendulum is swinging back. I just finished this last season of Broad City and I just loved Abbi and Ilana’s relationship. I think the best episodes are really well-plotted, and the humor comes out of the situation, and not just people saying sentences that have never been heard before. There was a point in comedy where you went from someone entering a room and being asked, “Hey, I’m making a tuna-fish salad sandwich. Do you want one?” to announcing, “I’ve got a deer draining in my bathtub, can I use yours?”. It all really just became “Hey, let’s just think of crazy stuff that’s never been uttered before and use that.”
One of the shows I’m crazy about is Another Period – I think it’s hilarious and goofy. I just did Michael Ian Black’s podcast, and I told him that I am just as invested in Mr. Peepers and Lady Dodo’s relationship as I am in the Outlander relationship!
BookTrib: You just mentioned Broad City and Another Period, both of which I love, so I have to ask: is there a show you would want to write for, or something that you wanted to do but just haven’t gotten to yet?
NS: That’s an interesting question. I would love to write for another period because i think it’s so goofy and weird. I’m obsessed with Outlander, – I love that show – but I think I love it too much to want to write for it. But you know, maybe because I’ve never done it before, I’d love to do a miniseries, with a really extended story line. Or, maybe because of my journalist background, something like the O.J. Simpson miniseries. I wanted to do one based on Barbara Walter’s Audition, but I couldn’t get the permission.
BookTrib: On a slightly heavy note, you write about the #MeToo movement, and sexual harassment and assault so bluntly and honestly – was there ever a moment where you had hesitations?
NS: Absolutely. Even 30 years later it’s hard to talk about being sexually assaulted, and I walked away as unscathed as anyone can, thanks to my privilege. And the privilege works both ways, because on one hand, I had a safety net, I wasn’t going to be on the streets if I didn’t get that job, but on the other hand, I think, “Wow, it happened to me, even with all that privilege.” And that does make me so empathetic to people who don’t have the power to say “No.”
In my situation too, it’s sort of fascinating to look back, because I was friendly with the boss and could have busted this guy, and I still didn’t. I kept the silence. It’s only years later, and one of the reasons to tell this story, is because I hope we can close that gap between transgression and reporting. I mean, ideally we would stop the transgression altogether, but that seems unlikely. Really, though, with the more women that come forward, we see how it will slowly change how women are treated in the office.
BookTrib: So, last question: I know that this book just came out but it was so good and so funny – do you have any plans to write another one?
NS: I want to! There’s a couple of non-fiction books that I would like to write. I guess I need to work on my proposals! But there are tons of stories that I’d like to write. My original draft of Just the Funny Parts was a 110,000 words and we cut 30,000. So if anyone wants a sequel, there’s already a third of the way done! I had this great Colin Firth story that I’m dying to tell but couldn’t fit in. So I’m just gonna leave it at that, and hope that catches someone’s eye!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Just the Funny Parts… And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into the Hollywood Boys’ Club is now available for purchase.
ABOUT NELL SCOVELL
Nell Scovell is a television and magazine writer, producer, director and collaborator on the #1 New York Times bestselller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to lead. She is the creator of the television series Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and her TV writing credits include The Simpsons, Coach, Monk, Murphy Brown, Charmed, and NCIS. She has directed two movies for cable television and an episode of Awkward. She has contributed to Vanity Fair, Vogue, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. She lives in Los Angeles and Boston. Learn more at nellscovell.com