Comedy Writing with a Side of Sex
Former "Late Night with David Letterman" writer Nell Scovell's excellent Vanity Fair piece about the show's hostile work environment is juicy reading, and illuminating, too. But it's worth mentioning that the point Scovell makes from the inside -- that "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" -- is one Nancy Franklin made nearly a month ago in The New Yorker:
Did a bomb go off and kill all the women comedy writers and leave the men standing? The other night on the Emmy Awards broadcast, the names of the nominees for best writing on a comedy or variety series were read, and, out of eighty-one people, only seven were women. Leno has no women writers on his show. Neither does David Letterman, and neither does Conan O'Brien. Come on.
Score another one for Franklin, who worked that eloquent little cri de coeur into her takedown of Leno's prime-time show, just as the Letterman extortion attempt was grabbing headlines.
One of the great things about scandals is their function as catalysts for evolution that's long overdue. Is it too much to hope that, in the wake of Letterman's sexual-harassment debacle, the comedy-writing clubhouse will go co-ed for good, and the behavior of those who toil there will become professional at last?
Sexual attraction is natural; it happens in every workplace. But adults are expected to have some impulse control, and funny people are grown-ups just like the rest of us. Feeling attracted doesn't have to mean acting on it, especially when acting on it is illegal. No one should have to compete sexually at work -- and that's exactly the dynamic that's set up for the entire staff when superiors and subordinates sleep together.
Separate but related is the trouble female comedy writers have getting in the door in the first place (and, as this week's headlines remind us, the trouble persists even in fields perceived as relatively female-friendly, like dance and independent film).
"I just want Dave to hire some qualified female writers and then treat them with respect," Scovell writes. "And that goes for Jay and Conan, too."
Comedy writing jobs are just that: jobs. This whole discussion is, at bottom, about the right to work, and to work unmolested, literally and figuratively. For most men, that's the status quo; they take it for granted, and they ought to. It shouldn't be any different for women -- but at the moment, it still is.