Author Nell Scovell Talks #MeToo, Surviving All-Male Writers Rooms

In a new book, television comedy writer and 'Sabrina the Teenage Witch' creator Nell Scovell explains the ups and downs of the working life as a woman in Hollywood.
Courtesy of Dey St.

Nell Scovell may not be a household name, but these are: Murphy Brown; The Simpsons; Monk; Sabrina the Teenage Witch; Charmed; Late Night With David Letterman; Coach; NCIS. 

Across a three-decades-and-counting career, Scovell has written, executive produced, directed and created those titles and more. She's also worked for Spy magazine, co-written the bestselling book Lean In and penned comedic speeches for former president Barack Obama. Scovell has helped shape some of the most iconic and influential cultural titles of late '80s, '90s, '00s and '10s.

Now, Scovell is stepping into the spotlight with a new book about her career so far in Hollywood. In Just the Funny Parts: A Few Hard Truths About Sneaking Into the Hollywood Boys' Club (Dey St.), in bookstores today, Scovell recounts her experiences as an East Coast journalist-turned-West-Coast-TV writer, the sole woman in several TV writers' rooms, a first-time show creator and director and a whistleblower. (In 2009, she wrote an explosive opinion piece in Vanity Fair about her experience on Late Night With David Letterman that exposed the scarcity of women on late-night television writing staffs.)

Scovell's book is part memoir, part professional guide. It teaches lessons Scovell learned about Hollywood and television and comedy writing ("Being realistic about the odds doesn't mean you don't care about a project; it means you acknowledge that others control what happens to the project") and, in dialogue with the age of #MeToo, calls out a former boss who coerced her to give him a blow job and sexual favoritism in the offices of Late Night. It also tells a lot of stories, like the time Scovell played an impromptu game of ping-pong with Garry Shandling or lost a writing assignment to Stephen King, that flaunt her three decades' worth of experience writing jokes.

Scovell spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the #MeToo movement, Letterman and why she "lived like a guy" for the first part of her career.

Tell me a little bit about how this book came about and why you came to write it.

Why did I write this book? I've been asking myself that question a lot these days. I looked back and had these amazing opportunities I'd been able to put a tail on Miss Piggy and make Homer Simpson eat blowfish and think he was going to die and have Sabrina the Teenage Witch turn a cheerleader into a pineapple and I thought people would enjoy the stories. And it's a great time when people are listening to female memoirs. And we have so many great memoirs from women in front of the camera, from Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler and Amy Schumer. But not all of us are able to perform, but we still want to be part of Hollywood.

I saw it as an interesting Lean In case study, too, in part because my husband stayed home with the kids. That was such an essential part of the Lean In message — which was make you partner a real partner, and not only do we want the companies and institutions run by women, but we want the households run by men. I mean, that's true equality. So I thought that was a kind of interesting twist.

This book read to me as part-memoir, part-professional guide for comedy writers, for women in Hollywood and for other creatives in the industry. Who was your intended audience?

I really want men to read the book. And the ones who have already, have really enjoyed it. I think it's more eye-opening for them. Women nod along and men kind of stroke their chins. I basically lived like a guy for, certainly the first decade of my career, and I just wanted to blend in. I didn't want them to notice my gender because I wanted to stay in the room. I thought that if they don't notice that I'm the only girl here, I'll get to stay. So I'm hoping men will come for the [stories] and stay for the feminism.

In one passage you detail a moment when your boss coerces you into a sexual encounter at a party. I can't imagine that was easy to write. When did you write that story, and did the #MeToo movement affect any of that writing?

I wrote it before #MeToo, but I did have a chance go in between my first and second galley and add a paragraph about Harvey Weinstein, which is an extreme case. But you know, a recent survey said that 94 percent of women in Hollywood reported an instance of sexual harassment from a more powerful man. And 21 percent said that that included being forced to do a sexual act. So this is really pervasive. And the big switch for me is that I went from being scared about what people would think of me by telling my story to, like, I can't wait to join the gang. And the other thing I'd like to see is, if this behavior doesn't stop, can we shorten the time between transgression and reporting, so it's not 30 years but 30 hours?

There are several men that don't treat women well in the book, or ignore their wants and needs — like Letterman and Jim Stafford of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. If they read it, what would you hope they take away from your writing?

First I want to say there were so many men that did help me. When you start a memoir, you think, "I'm going to blast all the people who were mean to me." And then you start writing, and you go, actually, it's so much more fun to say nice things about people who were kind and generous to you. I hope the overwhelming impression is that so many amazing men advocated for me and mentored me.

The ones who didn't, I guess it'd be nice to get some empathy. Maybe this will help them understand how they wield their power. When you have power and authority and the ability to harm someone, you don't need to explicitly state that — like, we know.

You were an early and vocal advocate for bringing more women into the writer's room. What was it like to come out about the lack of women in the writers' room in a story in Vanity Fair in 2009, and has reception to the story changed in years since?

I do think women are being more outspoken. When I first wrote that piece, I got a lot of private emails saying, "Thank you for speaking out," and women sharing their own terrible stories. And I would write back, "You should say something." And most, understandably, did not feel comfortable doing that. So I look at Facebook now and I feel that women are far more outspoken about these things, and I give a lot of credit to [Lean In co-author] Sheryl Sandberg, who has been an incredible leader for this wave of the women's movement.

But when I wrote that piece, I thought it could end my career, and it ended up being one of the best things I've ever done. And so when I do get emails, they break your heart, women saying, "This did happen to me, what should I do?", I never tell them what to do because everyone has to make their own decisions, but I do always share that I felt so much better when I spoke out about the system, which is deeply biased.

Did working with Sandberg on Lean In change your perspective on your experience in Hollywood?

The Heidi/Howard study was so enlightening to me. This is a study that was done at Columbia Business School where a professor gave half of his class a case study about an entrepreneur named Howard, and the other half a case study about an entrepreneur named Heidi. It was the same case study, but he changed the names. So the next day the class comes in and he starts asking questions about this entrepreneur and all of the students love Howard — Howard was a great guy, and they all wanted to work for him. Heidi was a little out for herself, a little overly aggressive, and they didn't really want to work for her. What we learn from this, and what studies have proven over and over is that success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. So the more successful you are as a man, the more you're liked. And the more successful you are as a woman, the more you're disliked. And whenever I was in a leadership position on Sabrina the Teenage Witch or directing my movie, I always felt some pushback, not from everyone, but from certain members of the crew. I'm not saying I was perfect, but I realized the position made it harder for me to be liked. When we're not as well liked, it's less enjoyable. And so it was harder for me to push for a directing assignment when I felt like I wouldn't have all the support I wanted.

Given the transformational moment that Hollywood is in right now, what do you hope readers glean from your book at this particular moment?

I'd hope they gain a perspective, especially men who might not have experienced some of the things that women experienced. For young women, I hope they get a lot of advice and inspiration. And for my colleagues, it's amazing — Jane Espenson, who runs Once Upon a Time, she wrote me the nicest email saying how many parallels she saw between my story and her story and she said, "It's so sad we never worked together." And I wrote her back and said, "Of course we didn't, there was only one woman in the room." So I also hope it connects me with some of these amazing women that I haven’t crossed paths with. And I hope they'll let me direct again.

What are you working on now?

Well I wrote a pilot for CBS this year but it didn't go forward, so now I'm on a book tour and I'd love to direct one of the many scripts that are sitting on my shelf. I've never written a miniseries, which interests me. I hope it comes through in the book that I'm a bit of a challenge junkie, and I'm up for the next challenge, as long as I don't have to talk, write or think about myself anymore.

Since you are the creator of Sabrina The Teenage Witch, do you have any insight into the Riverdale spinoff Sabrina you can share?

I don't, but I'm excited. You know, Sabrina and Buffy came out at the same time and I was a huge Buffy fan and I'm a huge Sabrina fan, so if you put those two together, that sounds awesome.