“Tina Fey didn’t end sexism any more than Barack Obama ended racism in this country.”
On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, writer and comedian Nell Scovell talks onstage with Kara about her new book, “Just the Funny Parts.” Scovell, who has written for TV shows like “The Simpsons,” “Murphy Brown” and “Coach,” also co-wrote the hit book “Lean In” with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
MC: Please now join me in welcoming Nell Scovell and Kara Swisher to the Commonwealth Club.
Nell Scovell: Thank you, Marisa.
Kara Swisher: Thank you, everybody. This is so … I’ve never been to this location. It’s quite lovely.
Is everyone so hung over from all the Earth Day activities?
Thank you for coming. I have to read this part for the beginning of the Commonwealth Club. Welcome to the Commonwealth Club, tonight’s program is Inforum. I’m Kara Swisher, founder and executive editor of Recode. Tonight it’s my pleasure to be here in conversation with Nell Scovell.
Nell’s lengthy and incredible career — that means you’re old, I think — in Hollywood has spanned writing, producing, director, television and more. You know her words from “Sabrina,” “David Letterman,” Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” and many, many more places. She’s usually the woman behind the scenes, but today she’s here to discuss her own experiences and her new book, “Just the Funny Parts and a few hard truths about sneaking into Hollywood’s boys’ club.” I’ve got a lot of questions, so let’s get started.
So I want to know, this is called “Just the Funny Parts,” I do want to know the unfunny parts, if you don’t mind. I want to get to those. But I want to …
I almost called it “Just the Angry and Bitter Parts,” but that was like an eight-volume set.
So talk about why you wrote this. You’ve been in Hollywood for … You’ve had a very long career and I realize you actually wrote for “Larry Shandling,” that was one of your first ones. Talk a little bit about what got you to write it, what was the impetus.
Well, I realized if I didn’t write my memoir, who would?
Right, that’s a fair point. Okay.
And in some ways, my life is a Lehman case study, and because I’ve worked in pop culture, people might not be interested in me but they might care about David Letterman and Homer Simpson. And so I thought it was a good way to, you know, come for the pop culture, stay for the feminism. Because looking back, I realized … I mean, the book’s about the three things I love most, which are comedy, creativity and equality. And they’re all intertwined throughout.
Throughout your life.
Why don’t you start at … Talk to me about the beginning, because you go into … You obviously come from a funny family; you are all cracking up, you’ve got a pair of aunts that are very funny, your dad is funny. What got you going in the area? At one point you said you were gonna be a doctor, but your TA in college said, “No, no thank you,” because you sort of failed basic chemistry. Or didn’t do well.
I grew up in a very funny family. There’s this classic story of my sister Alice on the couch reading “Little Women” and my aunt walked by, tapped her on the shoulder, and said, “Don’t get too attached to Beth.” And my aunts had like this very dark sense of humor; it wasn’t self-deprecating, which is what I think a lot of female comedians were doing at the time. And they got all this positive attention for it.
So, you know, I was dipping my toe into those waters, and I came through this circuitous route of journalism and sports writing and …
We’ll talk about that a little. So you were going to college, you were thinking because you were … Was it your mother couldn’t be a doctor or your aunt couldn’t?
Grandmother! That’s right, your grandmother couldn’t be a doctor.
So none of my grandparents went to college, and they … Only one was born in this country and one finished high school.
Are they legal? Just asking these days, you know. So they came here, but you thought about going to be … To do what your grandmother couldn’t do.
Well, I grow up on the east coast, where, you know, you’re a doctor or a lawyer.
In Massachusetts, right?
And that doesn’t … When those don’t work out, journalist is the fallback position. So that’s how I got to journalism.
So you wanted to do what, tell stories? That was the concept. You worked on your student newspaper, you then continued …
But I get to college and the first day, when they’re telling us about the Crimson, a guy gets up and he says, “Anyone cool, stick around. We’re gonna talk about sports writing.” And I just had this flash that I’d never been cool and here someone was offering me an opportunity. And I’d grown up in Boston …
Right, so therefore …
… late ’60s, early ’70s, all the teams are great. I watched them, I knew a lot about sports.
And talk about doing that, because I have almost no sports ability; I have almost no sports … Well, I couldn’t write about sports. And I believe I’m the only lesbian who hates sports, but go ahead.
So sports are tribal and they’re very emotional; it’s the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
Yeah, I got that part. Yeah.
And you learned to care about the characters. It’s not about the box score, it’s about the towns and the people in them, and the hopes and the dreams. So it really did appeal to me more than other parts of the paper, plus they were very serious and it always seemed like if you screwed up, you could really get someone in trouble.
Right. That’s the point. That is actually the point.
Yeah, so I loved it. And you know, my fellow sports writer at the time was Jeff Toobin, who we all know on CNN, and so these were really entertaining people.
So talk about moving into TV and why that appealed to you. Now, you watched a lot of television, you talked about it. I’m gonna quote you from one of your favorite “Twilight Zone” … I think it’s a “Twilight Zone” episode.
Oh, “The Prisoner.”
“The Prisoner.” But we’ll talk about that in a minute because we’re gonna get to the Facebook part — just for Elliott [Schrage] sitting in the front row — and the writing of “Lean In,” because I have a lot of questions about how you got into that. But talk about going to Hollywood and what you were thinking; what was your dream of Hollywood? Because everybody has a concept of that life.
I had no concept, and it really … It wasn’t the stream. I moved to New York, I’m writing for Spy Magazine.
Which, the best.
The best. And Tina Brown then hires me away to go work on Vanity Fair in the late ’80s.
Her work is amazing, by the way.
And I think everything’s set when one day I bump into a friend who was an editor at Spy and she says to me, “Nell, I don’t mean this as an insult, but I think you could write for television.” And that was the first time …
Why did you shift? Because that was the place to be; like Spy and Vanity Fair was the spot.
Yes, although you make a lot more money in television.
So like here’s the thing about trying something new: It really should be the easiest thing in the world, because if you try something new and you succeed, it’s great, and if you fail you just say I’d never done it before. Like what’s the big deal?
So I try writing a TV script and I basically knew one person in Hollywood, but that’s all you need. And it goes to the Garry … “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” and they buy it. So you won’t get this, but it was like being a rookie getting a home run at his first at bat.
Okay, all right. Okay. I got it.
And then suddenly I’m like, “Oh, well this is interesting and challenging.” I’ve always liked the challenge. So I just kept at it, but I think it did help that I always knew I had this fallback of a magazine career, and I’ve always kept writing.
Yes, you have. So when you got there, did you have the concept of it … Let’s talk about the feminism. Like, did you understand what the writing room was about or understand the ecosystem there? I was just with a comedy writer who’s on a new Netflix show, and she’s one of the higher-ranking producers, but she said, “Oh, I got the woman slot.” You know, it’s like nine men and one woman, and it’s still … And I was like, “Still? This is still the situation?” And she goes, “Of course it is.” So did you have any concept of that?
Well, early on, I just wanted to blend in. I really loved it, it was fun, and I just thought if they don’t notice I’m a girl, they’ll let me stay.
Did they notice?
No, not for a long time, which was great, you know? And I like sports, I like science fiction, and by the way, I didn’t think those were male things; those were Nell things. So I did fit in, although I tell this story in the book about my first day at “David Letterman” where there’d been one female writer, Merrill Markoe, who’s from this area, and she’d also been Dave’s girlfriend. She leaves the show after five years.
Wrote an excellent book on dogs later.
So funny. And she invented dog videos, which basically means she invented the Internet, because that’s what it’s there for, right?
Right, right. Well, cat videos, but go ahead.
So she’s gone for two years, no women, and then they hire me. And I get there my first day, another writer stops by my office, we have a chat, and at the very end he says to me, “Before this is over, I will see a tampon fall out of your purse.” And I just was dumbfounded. And for 20 years I would ask people, “What do you think he meant by that?”
Well, what do you think he meant by that?
Sheryl Sandberg is the one who taught me what I think he meant by that, which is she taught me about stereotype threat. Which is when, you know, girls are told they’re not as good at math, so if you give girls and boys a math test and on the first page make them check off what their gender is, that creates anxieties and the girls will perform worse. And so I think he was reminding me of my gender and trying to kind of throw me off my game.
What did you wish you had said right then?
“Fuck you.” I don’t know, something clever like that.
You know what would’ve been good?
No, but I …
No, you know what would’ve been good? “I don’t have a uterus,” or something like that; the word uterus would’ve upset a man, I’m sure. “Uterus” always …
Oh, you know what would’ve really set him off? “I’m a free bleeder,” right?
Yeah, yeah. That’s better than no uterus, yeah.
So tell me about being in Hollywood, because one of the things is the boys’ club, this idea. And we’re gonna get to #MeToo, obviously; it’s a hop, skip and a jump right there. What was it like working in that environment? I mean, because you obviously had a great time; you made friends with Conan. You had the Wilton North, you had these great … Conan O’Brien, all these other people who were such … who moved to other things. Talk about that, what that was like. What’s that like, being the girl? Because you know, I’m thinking of this … It’ll date me because it was quite a bit earlier than me, but “The Dick van Dyke Show,” they always had Rose Marie in the room, you know what I mean? The wisecracking gal.
By the way, they had … A third of their writer’s room was female, so they were way ahead of what most of Hollywood was.
You know, I really tried to focus on the work, but it always astonished me that there were a few times when I did feel compelled to represent all womanhood. I was on this show called “Coach” and they came up with a story … A plot point where … Do people know that show?
So yeah, Hayden and Christine are about to get married, but it was too soon to let them get married; we wanted to save it to the end of the season. So we had to break them up, and so they guys were pitching a story where Hayden just says to Christine, “I’m not ready for this,” and she says, “Well okay.” So she’s like this independent, strong woman and I kind of go, “I don’t buy it,” like why is she okay with this? And all the guys in the room shouted me down and one said, “Well my wife would be fine with it.” And I was like, “I bet she would.”
You didn’t say that.
It was hard because you wanted to represent, but they didn’t always listen, and then it always became how hard do you fight? And that’s kind of the through line of this book, of like I start fighting more and more and more until 2009, when Letterman famously goes on air and says, “I’ve had sex with women who I work with,” and I decide to write this piece in Vanity Fair that calls out not just the harassment but the lack of women in the writer’s room.
So talk about that. What does it do? What happens to comedy when that’s the case?
The lack of women in the writer’s room.
Oh, well it’s … You know, a fairer sampling of humanity will always produce better comedy. And studies have shown that too in corporate, it always … You have less harassment, you have better work-life policies, and more profitability. You just have more experiences to draw from.
So talk about … When you think about that … Because it just doesn’t change; it doesn’t change here in Silicon Valley, it doesn’t change … Why doesn’t it change? Still in Hollywood. I want to get your thoughts on where we are in the #MeToo movement or the post … Whatever you want to call it.
I think it’s just very deep cultural bias that we’re all fighting. There’s a story I tell in this book about meeting Gloria Steinem, and she had just come back from India and was just telling these incredibly depressing tales about how there were five million girls missing … That boys and girls are born equal in India, but by the age of five, there are millions of girls missing, and she said why. And Sheryl was there and Sheryl’s nodding, and I’m like, “I don’t know.” It turns out these families won’t pay for medicine for the girls.
So this just hit me so hard and I said to her, “I can’t believe I care about late-night TV when things like that are happening in India.” And Gloria said to me, “You worry about late-night TV and I’ll worry about India.” And what she meant by that is there’s so much work to be done everywhere; we need man-to-man defense. So whether it’s in tech or finance or philosophy departments, wherever you can have an impact, you should try to have an impact.
But should it be your job, you know what I mean? Like it’s the woman’s job to do that. I remember Sheryl, when I interviewed her once, she was talking about being the woman who brings up women’s issues in Disney board meetings or wherever, and she does it because that’s what you do. Does it have to be you to do this or it just doesn’t happen?
Well, it doesn’t happen. I got a call not too long ago from a colleague of mine, someone I worked on a show with a million years ago. His daughter wanted to get into comedy writing and he asked me to help her. He’s a comedy writer.
I got it. And what did you say?
Well, what I wanted to say is, you know, “If you wanted to help your daughter back in the day when there were no women in that room, you would’ve hired some.” And instead I said, “Sure, I’ll talk to her.”
Right, right. Okay. So what, from your perspective, is the state of what’s happening now in Hollywood? Do you think it is … You know, I’m interviewing Ronan next week. Do you imagine that things have changed or is it just back to …
You can cherry-pick data to support that things are getting better. I haven’t seen sustained statistical data. The year after Kathryn Bigelow wins the Oscar for best director, there was actually a decrease in the number of women directing feature films. So, you know, Tina Fey didn’t end sexism any more than Barack Obama ended racism in this country, and sometimes I worry that when you see those high-profile people, you think, “Oh, it’s done,” and people actually stop working to make things better.
On the real things, so that they cleared up basically the worst of the group but not the real problem. So how does that change? How does that happen and change? And then I’d love to get your thoughts on where TV is right now because it’s sort of this idea of the golden age of television. Do you want to go back into it? We’ll talk about that, but what do you imagine happens next? That it does fade? That they got the bad guys?
Well, the worst-case scenario is because we’ve had Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, which are so egregious, that we end up in a place that if you haven’t raped a dozen woman, you’re a gentleman.
I mean, two of the producers who condemned Harvey Weinstein I know for a fact have both settled sexual harassment suits. So that doesn’t make me feel really good about the whole thing.
My personal opinion is that #MeToo is born out the feeling that women have nothing left to lose, you know? And we watched Donald Trump win this election or steal the election, and so now there’s no reason not to speak out.
So is that a good time for comedy or just complete depression?
Always. I mean, I think that yeah, you need it more than ever.
So talk about the state of where are we with comedy right now. It seems there’s a resurgence of journalism, obviously, a resurgence in a lot of areas. Do you think comedy has addressed that? Doesn’t seem like it.
I think Hollywood lags behind the times. I don’t think it’s at the forefront. The example I use is think of when Condoleezza Rice was secretary of state and how long it took to get to “Scandal.” You know? Like George Bush beat Hollywood.
Right. I hadn’t thought about that. It’s interesting.
But what do you imagine Hollywood needs to do now? Or are they not setting the tone anymore? Are they not the …
The studios are still all run by men and I do believe that leadership makes a huge difference. I tell a story in the book about working with Anne Sweeney at ABC, who Sheryl put me in touch with, and because Jimmy Kimmel only had one female writer — who was his wife — and they were moving to 11:30, and I thought that seemed like maybe not a good situation. And sent a bunch of writers to them, they hired two women, and they’ve done great. But think of all the firepower it took to get two women hired on the Jimmy Kimmel show.
We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. We’ll return to my conversation with Nell Scovell at the Commonwealth Club after this.
So where is television now? I mean, do you want to … It seems like, again, there’s so much Netflix is doing and all these tech companies are doing, and how do you look with the tech companies running it now? Or at least investing in it; we’ve got Apple, Netflix.
And paying $6 million an episode.
Right, exactly. Netflix, Amazon, obviously Google, Facebook are all moving in that direction. Will that change things or just make it even more bro-tastic? By which I mean bro-awful.
Yeah, I don’t know the business side so much. I do think Hollywood has always been more interested in the potential of young women than in the experience of middle-aged women, and that’s frustrating.
But when these tech companies get involved in funding these things, do you see a shift? There are more and varied shows on those platforms, it seems like it. Or not?
Well, Roy Price was a terrible example and he had just … It was so sad. He had just canceled “The Good Girls.” That was heartbreaking.
Mm-hmm. That’s a great show.
Yeah, it was good show. “Good Girls Revolt.”
It was about people who worked for …
Newsweek. And it was based on Nora Ephron’s …
It’s kind of “Mad Men-y” and …
Yeah, yeah. It was Nora Ephron’s experience, too.
Well, it was Lynn Povich’s.
Yes, it was, but all of them. I remember her talking about working there.
So do you imagine … What I’m trying to get at is, will it make any difference with these billions of dollars flowing in from elsewhere that’s not based the way Hollywood is set up? Will that actually change Hollywood?
I don’t know. I mean, I wish … No. I mean …
You spend a lot of time with tech people.
It’s still men. I mean, I think … And the hard part is when you’re pitching your experiences to men. I mean, I wrote a movie based on “Lean In,” I think it was a good script, and it’s in turnaround. I mean, that was a great title …
Explain that for the people.
… and instead they made female “Ghostbusters.” And one of the issues with that script was the lead woman wasn’t a mess, and they kept saying like, “Couldn’t you put in a makeover scene? Women love makeover scenes.”
What do you mean? Like trying on bridesmaid’s dresses?
Yeah. Oh, I see.
So it’s hard because not … And this was women giving these notes. And the problem is you look at what’s been successful; oh it’s “Bridesmaids,” she’s a mess and she’s trying to get her life together. That movie worked, all movies should be like that about women. And you don’t say that about men.
Well, “Wonder Woman” was not a mess. She was quite good from the start, right?
Wonder Woman. I’m trying to think of something.
Yeah, Wonder Woman.
She wasn’t a mess.
I liked that movie.
Yeah. Well she started off perfect and then went uphill, right?
But there was a makeover scene.
Was there? Where they made her up?
Yeah, when he first brings her to civilization.
Yes, that’s true. But they make her less sexy. It was the opposite. They did.
No, but she like shows up at the ball with the sword down her back.
Oh. Yeah, that’s true. Fair point.
All right, so when you think about that … Talk about “Lean In,” the movie thing. What was the plot? How did you make a plot out of that?
Well, it’s interesting, and I won’t go into too much detail, but everyone sort of assumed it was going to be about a group of women who are best friends and how they have … You know, some choose to go into the workplace and some choose to have kids. And I said no, it’s gonna be about two best friends who are graduating from law school at the same time, they both go to work for the same law firm. One’s a man and one’s a woman. How do they get treated differently?
Yeah. And also I loved the idea that the man and woman were best friends.
What happened? You’re not gonna say. Is it gonna get made?
Well no, it’s in turnaround. Maybe Amazon or Netflix will make it.
Right. And why do you think it had problems? Because turnaround means it’s just sitting there. Like lots and lots of movies are in turnaround, right? They just sort of sit there.
I don’t know. We did a reading with Kristen Bell and it was really fun and she loved it. You know, Hollywood is … I’ve worked in Hollywood for 30 years and it’s still a mystery, and I do think it’s one of the reasons I wrote this book was I’m still trying to figure it out.
Confused. Because you’ve had a number of hits. I mean, of all these, I’m looking on these, what was your favorite of these? “Sabrina”?
Well, “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” I created it, so I got along with the boss best on that show. And then second was “Murphy Brown.” I loved working on “Murphy Brown.”
Great show, great show.
And that had a great cast.
It did. They’re bringing that back supposedly, right?
They are. Know what I realized the other day? Murphy comes out in the ’90s, she has a kid out of wedlock, Dan Quayle criticizes it.
Yeah, Dan Quayle.
We got the same vice-president.
No, exactly. Worse, actually.
Right? I mean, he would …
I want Dan Quayle back, if you can believe me, you know? I remember I was living in Germany at the time when “Murphy Brown” had the kid out of wedlock, and then Dan Quayle was arguing with Murphy Brown. And the Germans just didn’t get it and they’re like, “Why is your vice-president arguing with this character Murphy Brown?” And I said, “Well she’s fictional.” “Why is he arguing with a fictional person?” I said, “Because it’s America.” I didn’t know what to say! I was like, “You’re right, it’s ridiculous.” It’s fucking ridiculous. Like I don’t know why.
And I remember Candice Bergen once saying, “As an actress, you want to be on the front page of the Arts section, not the front page of the News section.”
Right, right. Which is impossible now, right? I mean, think about that now. It’s interesting when you think about like how … But that had a massive impact on people because it was disgust, you know? In television when it’s its best, like “Ellen,” “I’m gay,” that kind of stuff.
And NCIS was fun because it was so popular and 20 million people would see your writing.
What do you think has changed about television in terms of how they’re gonna write for the audiences? You know, we both have teenage kids. How do you think about that now? Do you think the people in Hollywood are prepared to entertain this next cohort?
Well, you are seeing more of these like mini-series and short series because I think that is the wave of the future.
Mm-hmm. Do you think this group of people are different in watching and listening? I don’t necessarily. Because I can see my kids, they like “The Simpsons,” which you’ve worked on. They like the normal way things are done, it’s just they watch it differently or they consume it differently, I would say.
Yeah. I was shocked. So I have two sons and like one watched every episode of “Scrubs.” And I was like, “‘Scrubs”? Really?” I don’t even know how it started. But yeah, no, it’s different. And I do wonder at a certain point, do you just go, “We have enough content”?
Because when I was a kid, you couldn’t … You know, if you missed “Batman,” you missed “Batman.”
Are you worried about sort of the economics of Hollywood in that way? I know you’re not as involved in it, but when you think about the way people are consuming, they’re using social media, they’re using all kinds of things, and entertaining themselves through reading Twitter or wherever. Do you imagine Hollywood having to change? Because the costs are enormous in Hollywood right now to make things.
Now I don’t … See, the last show I was on was “The Muppets,” and we had the same problems in the writer’s room with everyone’s watching videos and on their phones. So I think that all feeds into it also.
How do you consume now? I watch everything on my phone, I think. Almost everything.
You know what’s amazing? I remember 10 years ago working on a show, HDTV was just coming out, maybe 12 years ago. And we had to go to like a seminar to teach us about how they said makeup was gonna change and sets were gonna have to change. And now everyone’s watching on their phones. Like they got it so wrong.
Yeah, it’s true. Well it’s gonna be immersive; you’re gonna have VR, you know? It’s gonna be more immersive, presumably, it’s gonna be. It’s interesting, people are working … Like I did a podcast with Jon Favreau; not the political one, the other guy.
He was doing a lot in VR. Oddly enough, I was sitting at a table and Viola Davis was talking my ear off about VR and I was like, “Okay. Can you say a line from ‘How to Get Away with Murder’ for me, please?”
People still like stories, so …
Yes, yeah. But she wanted to be immersive; she wanted to do Shakespeare in VR, which I would listen to that.
And I do kinda think technology beats content, and here’s my theory why that’s true: It’s called the Gutenberg Bible, right? Gutenberg got top billing.
Oh, that’s a really deep joke. That’s a really … That’s an east coast joke really, in a lot of ways. It’s almost European.
So I want to talk about “Lean In” a little bit, about you, looking at it … How many years now? Is it five years?
Five. I know, it’s astonishing.
Four million copies.
Yeah. You were talking about that. Like this book is not selling four million copies? You could call it “Just the Funny Parts of Leaning In” or something like that. I wanted you to …
Well, Sheryl wrote the forward.
Yes, she did. She did. I wanted you to write a sequel called “Fall Over.” “Lean In” and “Fall Over,” and then just put them next to each other.
My joke was always if I … You know, without Sheryl, if I had written something like “Lean In” alone, I would’ve called it “Barge In” and nobody would’ve read it.
So talk about, when you’re thinking about it, your involvement with it. Because you were more involved than a … You know, there’s lots of people who do ghost writing and there’s a lot of people who do co-writing.
No, it was a collaboration.
Yes, it was. Right. So how do you look at it now? Because obviously it still has controversies attached to it and what the messaging in it is, but when you look back on it, what do you think of it?
Well, there’s nothing I’m prouder of working on than that.
Okay. Tell me why.
It was a mission and we … I say it’s the book I wish I’d read at 25 instead of helped write at 52. I watched Sheryl’s TED talk in 2010 and I learned more in those 14 minutes than … She just crystallized so many things and she brought up issues … I always thought it was me personally.
So one of the things she says in that TED talk is, you know, sit at the table, which I always loved because it’s both literal and metaphorical. And I tell the story about when I’m the story editor at “Newhart” and all of the writers are sitting at the table, I’m the lowest level, no one waves me over. So even though I’ve written the episode, I go and sit with the assistants. Now I always thought that was me being shy, and then Sheryl’s talking about women not sitting at the table and I go no, there was some cultural pressure that was telling me to go do that.
And then she also talked about Heidi and Howard’s study, which is how success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. So I’m the showrunner of “Sabrina” and I’m trying very hard to be nice to everyone, polite to everyone, listen to everyone, and I’m still just getting pummeled all the time. And again, I thought … And it’s not that I never made any mistakes, but I watch Sheryl and I go oh, I was up against this really stiff wind, and she just made me feel so much better.
So what should you have done in that case?
Well, I think if I had been more aware, there are ways to surface it and I wouldn’t have felt so personally frustrated.
Yeah. I think likeability is overrated. That’s my policy. No, I’m serious.
But that too, right? If I had just embraced it, would’ve been the other way to go.
Yeah, yeah. Well you have to embrace who you are; like if you enjoy being dislikeable, it’s fine. If you don’t, it’s you know. Yeah.
I’m on the fence.
Yeah, I’m not a pleaser. I don’t know if you noticed that.
So there’s a lot of controversy around “Lean In,” the idea that … You know, a lot of feminists attacked it. How do you look … What would you change from them and what do you think of some of the criticisms? And I could go through them at length, but you know them; it’s your fault, you’re responsible for it. There’s all kinds of criticisms, even at the time it came out.
What’s amazing is we tried to get ahead of that, and in the book, in “Lean In,” deal point blank with, “People will criticize this book for being X,” and that so many of the criticisms came from people who hadn’t read the book or hadn’t read it closely. The good news is it started conversations, which even if it put “Lean In” on the defense, it was …
You know, someone once said to me, what did we say before we said lean in? And we didn’t talk about women being ambitious because it was considered a bad thing.
Yeah, there were some concepts around that idea, but you’re right. Would you do anything differently in the … Something you would correct. What would you change?
Well, you know, Sheryl wrote that incredibly honest post about after Dave died and feeling like she didn’t realize how hard it was for women who don’t have partners, and to have addressed that more. You know, it’s so hard because on one hand … Who speaks to everyone? Nobody speaks to everyone.
Right, right, in terms of what you’re doing. But what would you stress now, like in ensuing years? You know, with #MeToo happening and the Trump victory? Is there some other message you think women need right now? What would it be called?
Well, I do think …
“Lean Further In”? “Keep Leaning”? Or what?
No, the book I would like to write is for men and it’s called “Make Room.” Because I do think women can lean in all we want, but if men aren’t making room at the table, then it doesn’t translate.
So explain that. What does that mean? Like just get out of the way? My book would be called “Get the Fuck Out of the Way. I’m coming through.” I have two sons and literally …
Move back, I’mma coming through.
I literally was walking around the streets with my sons and they were taking up the entire frigging sidewalk. And it’s like … We were in New Orleans and I was like, “Move out of the way.” They’re like, “What? I’m sorry, I didn’t notice.” Do you know what I mean?
I was in New York recently and it was raining and I was obsessed … Men have these huge umbrellas.
Yeah. Like the manspreading on the subway but with umbrellas.
Right, okay. Yeah, well, there’s a lot of that.
So I think that … Well, just, you know, making room. Boy, if you’re a guy and you’re 60 and you’re on three corporate boards, how about dropping off a couple and saying you want your spot filled by women?
Right, that’s a fair thing.
So what do you want to do next? Besides writing this, what’s your next thing? And I know you’re gonna read a section about peeing, I’m hoping, right? Is that the one?
I would love to direct again. I have a chapter about directing. My mentor was Arthur Penn, who directed “Bonnie and Clyde,” and I directed two crappy cable movies. But I say in the book, it’s like saying Michael Phelps to teach your 5 year old how to swim, which is kinda crazy, but if he says yes, why not? So I have all these amazing emails that Arthur sent me while I was directing in Vancouver.
So I really like that and that’s unfortunately … It was hard for me to get those jobs and my agents were not supportive of me directing; I made more money writing for them. And it was hard to sell a woman as a director, especially, you know, I started 20 years ago. So I haven’t made my 10,000 hours.
So what do you have to do to get that? What would you like to direct? A TV show, a movie?
Well, you know, I have a sack full of scripts that I would love … Because it’s more fun … Because directing is like writing in 3-D, and once you’ve written for long enough, you see it in your head.
Yeah. And you didn’t want to do that at a beginning, from the start.
No. I say in the book that one of the things that compelled me to direct was I had worked with so many bad directions. And I knew I wouldn’t be great, but I knew I could be better than mediocre. So that’s what I was shooting for: Better than mediocre.
So how do you get there now? How does that happen then for you?
You know, you get in touch with producers and it’s … I’ll look into it.
I mean, one of the things you did say in the book …
When my book tour’s over.
When your book tour’s over.
You were saying that you have 11 years … There was a point where you said you have 11 good years as a writer or something like that.
Yeah, no, that’s the average career span for a TV writer.
Right, because? Because that’s just it.
Well, people drop out. Actually it’s probably a little longer now because there’s so much TV that I think people are having longer careers. But they’re also … So the book is structured according to this old Hollywood joke about the four stages of every writer’s life, which are, I’ll use my name: Who is Nell Scovell, get me Nell Scovell, get me a younger, cheaper Nell Scovell, and who is Nell Scovell? You know, you cycle through.
Yeah. So where are you on that now?
Well I hope I … I want to loop back to get me Nell Scovell.
Possible, possible. Let’s move into politics just a tiny bit and then I want you to read. We actually, maybe … The section you want to read from …
So one of the chapters of the book are about the ones that got away, about shows that I almost worked on or people I almost worked with. I mean, if you like disappointment, Hollywood is a great career.
Yeah. Rejection all the time.
So this is one where I was submitted to work on “Seinfeld” after its first season, and people forget …
It wasn’t good. The first season was not good.
It wasn’t good and it was really on the bubble. So the executive wrote my agent back and said he enjoyed my “Newhart” and “Simpson” script very much, and he would hope to … “Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David would consider her for next season. As you know, the bigger issue is whether we have a next season.”
So I have this hanging in my office because it’s such a good reminder. And I say … “Seinfeld” was on the bubble. It scraped by for two more seasons before breaking into the Nielsen top 30. A meeting never happened, but I held onto the Castle Rock letter because it offered encouragement early in my career. Now it hangs in my office as a reminder of how the greatest success story in the history of television came close to getting canceled.
I did eventually get a chance to work with Larry David. In 2007, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” threw out a net soliciting ideas for the upcoming season. I typed up a few notions, including one where Larry needs to bring flowers for a hostess gift and decides to steal them from a roadside memorial.
That seems right.
Larry bought the concept and turned it into Season Six, The Ida Funkhouser Roadside Memorial. The show didn’t onscreen credit, but they paid me $2,000. Larry also gave me his word that the show would pay writers better in the coming season. With this incentive, I pitched some additional story areas. Larry seemed interested in one concept, but it didn’t move forward.
A year or so later, we both attended a book party. Our mutual friend Kimberly Brooks introduced us; “Larry, do you know Nell?” “No, of course I know Nell,” Larry said. “In fact, I was just talking about you today.” Whoa, Larry David was talking about me? That felt good. “Really? How come?” I asked. “Well, one of the producers said you’d sold us two ideas for episodes, but I insisted it was just one. We argued about it, and now here you are! You can solve the mystery.” “Oh,” I said, a little disappointed. “It was just one.” “Yes!” said Larry, happy to have been right. “But you did like another idea of mine,” I added quickly, trying to save face. “Which one?” “The one about the pee drinker.”
Larry looked confused, so I re-pitched the idea. Larry’s at a party with a guy who won’t stop talking about all his thrilling adventures. The guy goes hiking in the Himalayas, helicopter snowboarding, sailing around Tierra del Fuego, and in every story he runs into complications and recounts how, in order to survive, he was forced to drink his own pee. Later, Larry sees the thrillseeker go into the bathroom with a near-empty bottle of beer, and when he comes out, the bottle is filled to the brim. Larry watches as the guy takes swigs from the beer bottle and becomes convinced that the guy is drinking his own urine. The great adventures are just a cover; the truth is, the guy is purposefully putting himself into life-or-death situations because it’s the only socially acceptable way to drink your own pee.
I didn’t say ta-da at the end of the pitch, but it was implied. I looked at Larry expectantly. He shook his head and offered one long drawn out syllable: “No.”
It would’ve been a good episode.
I think it would’ve been funny.
And you know what, right now topical. Allegedly.
In any case, I had one more thing I wanted to ask you about. On the back of the book, it says who is Nell Scovell and you give your history, and then it said the millionth woman to have an awkward conversation with Larry David. And I would agree with you, that was quite awkward.
Mostly because of you and the pee situation.
So one of the things you said, your love of science fiction extended to TV shows. I do want to ask you about this because you have worked for … You worked for Facebook for awhile. Did you work for Facebook or just Sheryl?
Well, I wrote jokes for Mark Zuckerberg, who was very funny.
Right. Good luck with that. Wow, good, okay. What’s your best joke you wrote for Mark Zuckerberg?
Oh, probably when he was on “SNL.” I wrote a version of the joke, “I invented poking.” It became, “I invented poking”; Mark tweaked it and made it … It got a big laugh.
Okay, all right. I gotta go back and look at that. I don’t remember laughing heavily in that one. But anyway … But I’m sure it was funny.
So you were talking about liking Star Trek and Twilight Zone, and so “The Prisoner’s” defiant Number Six declaration; “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own.” Watching the hearings last week, I need a joke. What did you think of them, the hearings? Because that was about being numbered and briefed and …
With the Facebook hearings?
Yeah. Yeah, those.
Oh, I didn’t see them. I’ve been traveling a lot.
What do you think about the controversy right now around social media?
So I was an early adopter of Facebook, like back when you needed a .edu address, because I had a niece who was at Harvard. I think she was two years behind Mark. So one day, my sister calls me and says, “Emma just joined this thing called Facebook. She won’t let me join.” So I joined to nark on my niece.
Because you got a Harvard address because you went there, right?
Yes. And I, you know, as a writer who prefers to communicate through words, it’s been a wonderful thing for me. I’ve been on the site probably every day since then, so social media works for me and I love it.
And are you worried about any of the privacy or the Russians, for example?
Well, yes. Although I think … We wouldn’t blame the telephone because people were plotting a robbing over the phone.
I think that’s the best defense of Facebook I’ve ever heard from anybody.
Including you, Elliott Schrage. Honestly, you should be working there because otherwise their defenses are really bad.
No, I mean, we have big problems. I saw the burning swastikas in Georgia yesterday. That’s the big problem.
Yes, of course. Absolutely 100 percent.
We’re gonna take another break now. We’ll return to my conversation with Nell Scovell, the author of “Just the Funny Parts,” after a word from our sponsors.
All right, questions from the audience.
You in the back here, let’s start right there. Right here.
MC: Okay, so we’re gonna start with a question from social media.
All right. Which social media? The Twitter or the Facebook?
MC: It’s from Twitter. But the question is, “There’s still a very large lack of women in late-night comedy, especially in the people that front late-night comedy; it’s almost all men now that we’ve lost Chelsea Handler to Netflix. So I’m wondering who you would like to see on a late-night television show, a woman?”
So right now it’s just Samantha Bee, right? Is that correct?
Oh, that’s such a good question.
It’s just Samantha Bee right now.
You know, I did … This is interesting because I recently was talking with an executive producer of one of those shows, and he said, “I know, we’re trying to do better.” But all the hosts are white men, and so what do you say? That the rooms have to write for them. And I said, “The writers aren’t writing for the host,” and he said, “They’re not?” I said, “No, they’re writing for the audience.” And someone’s gotta figure … You know, make that change.
Desi Lydic is on “The Daily Show,” if you watch that. She’s amazing. I think she’s hilarious. I mean, they want like specific names?
MC: That was just the general question, but I think that is a good answer.
MC: All right.
There’s plenty of people that could do it.
Oh yeah. I mean, like Ali Wong is super funny. There’s so many.
Questioner 1: Thanks for coming tonight. I was wondering how you feel being in the spotlight after so many years behind the scenes?
Oh, I am so sick of talking about myself. It’s so hard. And I was on “Colbert” the other night …
Yeah, talk about that.
Well that was … I was just through the looking glass. And you know, I’ve been on the sets a thousand times but never with the cameras on, and he did something that was so nice of him. So I’ve written jokes for President Obama and I wrote for the White House correspondents dinner for five years, and sometimes I get asked, like, would you write for Donald Trump? And I always say I would not, but then the question became could I write for Donald Trump? So I sent in a bunch of jokes trying to get inside his head, very roomy. And so Stephen … I was sitting there and he read a couple of the jokes. So writers are always in the wings when the jokes get told, and to be able to have the experience of like sitting onstage and feeling the audience laugh.
Recite some of the jokes.
Recite some of the jokes.
Oh, well one of them was people got upset because I said Stormy Daniels was smart and reminded me of my daughter. In my defense, I couldn’t say she was smart and reminded me of my sons.
Well my theory is Trump … So people say he doesn’t have a sense of humor. I disagree.
I would disagree. I think …
I think he’s mean.
And he tells jokes at other people’s expense.
Right, right. So he’s like a Don Rickles kind of character, right?
I mean, he didn’t do this one, but one I wrote was, “I have two daughters, Ivanka and the other one.” But that’s not funny; he does that right now.
So another question?
MC: If any of our live audience members want to ask a question, please come back here and feel free to jump in. I’m gonna ask another one, which is what … I know you spoke about how there’s a lot of content right now, but I’m curious about what TV shows perhaps you would like to be working on right now that are out there?
What do you like?
There’s a show, “Another Period,” that was created by Riki Lindhome and Natasha Leggero, which I just adore. It just makes me laugh.
What’s it on?
Right, okay. What do you like about it?
Oh, it’s so absurd. I mean, it’s like the Kardashians living at the turn of the century.
And what else do you like? What among the popular shows do you think are pretty good?
I don’t watch a lot of regular television. I love the “Outlander,” I’m obsessed with “Outlander,” but I wouldn’t want to work on it because I like it too much. I’m actually good … Like I know some writers always guess the plots; I’m not like that. I’m not on the clock, they’re not paying me, I’m not gonna guess your story.
Do you like “Westworld”?
I haven’t watched that. I watch John Oliver and Samantha Bee every single week. I never miss those two shows.
Right, yeah. Anything else?
And Seth Meyers, I watch his “Closer Look.” I watch Colbert.
So you stick with comedy? There’s no dramas or like “Homeland” or “Game of Thrones” or …
Oh, “Game of Thrones,” but that hasn’t been on for like a decade.
Yeah, that’s true. That’s a fair point. I like, for some reason, “Madam Secretary,” but I don’t know why. It’s because their clothes are really nice. I want her to be secretary of state too.
Questioner 2: In the book, you say that if you’re a comedy writer and you haven’t insulted anybody, you haven’t tried hard enough. When you get to that point where you’ve offended somebody, how do you realize it and then what do you do next? Do you apologize?
Right, well, the quote I say is that if you’re a comedy writer and no one’s ever said you’ve gone too far then you haven’t gone far enough. And if they’re constantly saying you’ve gone too far then you’re an asshole. I wanted to write then you’re Bill Maher, but I didn’t.
You know, I think it’s a hard line to learn.
Where did you go too far? Give me a go too far.
I just did on Twitter the other day.
What did you do? What did you do on the Twitter?
Go ahead, yes, of course. I just asked. You’re compelled to answer.
You’re compelled to answer. I compel you.
I took it down. I took that photo that was from the funeral which had the Obamas and the Clintons and the Bushes and Melania, and I Photoshopped in one of Melanie’s nudes into it. And the crazy part was the Photoshop part wasn’t the first lady oiled up and nude, right?
Right, okay. Yeah, okay. And what did you say?
And I said, you know, one of these people graduated from Yale law school, one from Harvard law school, one has her Master’s degree from University of Texas, and one posed nude for a living. Guess which one.
Oh, yeah. That’s too far.
That was too far.
Yeah, that was too far. Melania.
Melania. Well, she’s having a nice dinner tonight with the French. She must be like, “Macron wife, yay, you’re here.” Emmanuel.
Questioner 3: I wanted to ask about timing and delivery because, I mean, you write for other mouths but usually it’s an actor or something. What’s it like when you’re writing for Obama or Hillary? I mean, do you get to tune them up and say you’re delivering this wrong or do you just sort of … What’s it like watching that?
Well, Obama’s got like Johnny Carson’s timing. He’s so good at delivering a joke. I wish he would do a late-night talk show. That would be amazing, right?
There was one moment where I wrote a joke which required Obama to wink at the end, and I realized that, you know, he’s the leader of the free world and I had compelled him to do that. So for a millisecond, I was the most powerful person on the planet.
He can wink. You can tell him to wink.
Yeah. And Hilary, I wrote jokes for the Al Smith dinner and right before the election. She had her highest poll numbers the next day, so a week before Comey’s letter came out. And she’s very self-deprecating; I thought she did a great job.
She is, yeah. I told an inappropriate joke to her once.
Oh, did you?
Yeah. We came offstage at Code … I guess I could tell it now. We came offstage and she really was very … She was great, she was mad, and said a lot of the Russia things that have now come to pass and nobody believed her at the time. But she gave this interview and it was really tough. And I came offstage and I said, “Oh, you’re gonna get a lot of trouble from Fox.” Like, “You were just on fire, Hillary.” And she’s very self … People don’t know she’s very funny and stuff like that. I said, “You’re really in trouble now,” and she goes, “What do I care? They think I’ve killed four people.” And I said, “Well, Anthony Weiner’s still alive, proves the Clintons don’t kill people.”
And she looked at me and went “Wa-hah!” and laughed. It was like a millisecond of I was like, “Oh my god, I went too far.” But I didn’t.
I could read some jokes that she didn’t deliver at the Al Smith dinner: Donald defines non-traditional marriage as between a man and a brunette.
That’s a good one.
On Doctor Oz, Donald said that he gets exercise from moving his arms while he speaks. When I heard that, my eyebrows got a great workout. Whoever wins, I think it’s fair to say that the quality of basketball in the White House will drop.
All right, good ones. The brunette one’s my favorite.
Go ahead, right here. Just two more questions, I guess. Go ahead.
Questioner 4: Nell, you’ve recommended women writers to a lot of different jobs, not just the one you mentioned. I was wondering what catches your eye in a writer, reading a script or something like that? What attracts you to that writer?
Well, I guess two things is, you know, something that just makes me laugh out loud. The only problem with that is then you’re just looking at someone who has the same sense of humor as you, right? You know, Jill Twiss, who’s now on John Oliver, would tweet, “I feel sorry for gluten-free pigeons.” Like that really appealed to me. But then sometimes I look for jokes I wouldn’t ever think of making, and that’s … Because I think that’s the broadness that you want to see. So it’s not just like, “Oh they’re funny like me,” but, “They’re funny in a way that’s different from me.”
MC: And we’re just gonna wrap up with this last audience question.
Questioner 5: As the last question, the New York Times specified there are women who you helped find jobs for, writers who you’re now corralling and helping and mentoring, and I was just wondered if you’d give a shout-out to people you want to acknowledge? Mentors and teachers of yours.
If I had to name one, I’d go with Barry Kemp, who created “Newhart,” he created “Coach.” I was coming off “Letterman,” which was an unpleasant experience; it had been my dream job and then five months later I quit. And I landed on “Coach,” and Barry was … He taught me that kindness and strength can go together, and I just had never really seen that. He was also the funniest person in the room.
I tell this story about how when a joke didn’t work, he would always put a question mark next to it, and then we’d go back into the writer’s room and pitch out new jokes. And it took me awhile to realize his question mark meant no; it’s what other people would do with an X, but he was so respectful of other writers that he didn’t do that.
Oh, that’s great. That’s a great story.
All right, now you have the last thing.
Oh, that’s right.
That’s right. You got that? Okay. It’s now the Inforum traditional to ask all their speakers the following question: What is your 60-second idea to change the world now? What is it?
Well, I’ll go with men making room, men acknowledging that we can’t wait for the next generation. I have a pet peeve when the movement — women do this too — say we need to do this for our daughters, and what I always hear is we’re putting it off for a generation. And so I think anyone who cares about equality, look around your room, what if we started every meeting by stating what the makeup of the meeting was?
I do that.
How many people of … What?
I do that.
Do you really? That’s amazing! Just like make everyone aware how many people of color do we have, how many women are in the room, and then change it. Because I thought awareness would lead to action, but too often I see awareness leads to defensiveness. And let’s all admit we’re culturally biased and change it.
All right. Make room.
All right everybody, let’s give a big round of applause for Nell.
I survived Kara Swisher!
Oh, I was being nice. That’s because you’re funny. I’m gonna save it for Mark Zuckerberg, for example. You’re a lovely person. I’m very happy to be here.
Anyway, this is a great book, “Just the Funny Parts.” It’s on sale and she’ll be signing copies in the lounge shortly. Thanks for coming tonight to this beautiful spot and I’ll see you next week. But again, Nell Scovell.
Thank you all for coming. Thanks for having me.
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