As a Harvard student, Nell Scovell was too intimidated to write for the classic comedy-writer pipeline The Harvard Lampoon, so she began working as a sports reporter instead. Still, her joke-writer’s sensibility managed to find its way into her work. For the opening line of a story about a track and field event, Scovell wrote, “If a tie for first is like kissing your sister then a tie for second is like French kissing her.” (Her editor cut the line.)
Scovell went on to write for Spy magazine and amass an impeccable resume of television writing credits, including The Simpsons, Murphy Brown, Coach, and Late Night With David Letterman. She was the showrunner on Sabrina the Teenage Witch. She’s written jokes for Jane Fonda, Mark Zuckerberg, Bette Midler, and even former President Barack Obama.
Her memoir — Just the Funny Parts — is (obviously, unfailingly) funny, but it’s also a fascinating and blisteringly honest glimpse behind the scenes of the usually closed doors of Hollywood: the sexism, the criticism, and the failures that go into a decades-long career. Of the doublespeak and fake smiles in the entertainment industry, she writes, “Eventually I cracked the code: if something seems like good news, it’s probably a lie.”
For a wannabe TV writer, Scovell’s book is equal parts memoirs and essential how-to guide. Her chapter on writing a script for The Simpsons follows every development of how the episode came together — how storylines and jokes changed and evolved, from pitch to air. But Scovell — the co-author of Lean In, with Sheryl Sandberg — also tells an essential story about sexism in Hollywood. Two things are astonishing: how much has changed, and how far the industry still has to go.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve had such a long and varied career. What do you think was the most formative writers’ room for you to work in?
NELL SCOVELL: I talk about how experiences in each show break into each category: the people, the product, and the process, and probably the most enjoyable experience was either at Sabrina the Teenage Witch because I got to be the showrunner and I tended to agree with my own creative decisions. But after Sabrina, Murphy Brown was the most fun room and the most productive room to be in. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it had the most diversity of gender that I’d ever worked in up to that point.
One thing that’s striking in your book is how working in all-male writers’ rooms forced this impulse to prove that you’re “one of the boys.” Do you think that’s still something female writers are dealing with?
As the only female in the room, you do have an additional burden of feeling like you represent all women. I remember once we were breaking a story in the Coach run where I was the only full-time female writer on staff, and the story was that Hayden, who was played by Craig T. Nelson, was engaged to Christine, who was played by Shelley Fabares, and we realized if they got married when we said they would, then we had no place to go. So we needed to break up the engagement so we could get a little more out of that story — they did eventually marry, but at this point we wanted them to break up.
The guys’ pitch was that he just goes to her and says, “I need more time,” and she says, “Okay! Fine.” And Christine was a really strong character — she was a newscaster, so she had this big job. And I decided to speak up and say, “You know, I don’t buy it. I think she would need more of an explanation and I don’t think she would accept it so blithely.” And all the guys shot me down.
Even when you’re the only woman, it doesn’t mean you get listened to. Because they’re more of an authority on women than you are. It is kind of the ultimate mansplaining: let me tell you how a woman would feel.
Writing a memoir means going back and looking at your life through a magnifying glass. Do you have any regrets with regards to your career?
Oh, a ton — just a ton. It is called Just the Funny Parts, and I didn’t want to beat myself up too much, or other people up too much. I did a lot wrong, but I did a lot right.
One regret I had: In 2008, I had a script called Let Go that I really wanted to direct. We had some offers for money and actors attached but the deal wasn’t coming together. My husband said I should just make it with our own funds. I couldn’t bring myself to do that. Later, when I read Jill Soloway’s story about how she jumpstarted her career by self-financing Afternoon Delight, I realized I should have bet on myself.
What are you most proud of?
You know, Sheryl Sandberg says the most important decision a woman makes concerning her career is who her partner is, and I nailed that one. It took me a couple of tries, but I did find the most incredible partner and I feel really lucky I was able to have a career and a family side by side.
You talk about the harassment you faced while working on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour from head writer Jim Stafford. Why did you want to tell that story now?
I think there’s a tendency when someone’s been successful that nothing bad has ever happened to them, and I don’t want to overblow, so to speak, my #MeToo story, but I hope it is in some ways inspirational — that I moved on and didn’t let it slow me down. And the other hope for telling it: we need to narrow the gap between transgression and reporting. Thirty years is not acceptable and if we can narrow it from 30 years to 3 days, that would be so much better. It would be so much better to eliminate the behavior completely, but if it happens, I want every woman to feel comfortable speaking out about it.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
I love what my friend Amy Hohn said, that the only way to move forward creatively is to allow yourself to be judged. It’s hard, it’s painful to be judged, but especially if you’re writing for an audience, you’ve got to get that feedback. The other advice I love came from Barry Kemp who told me, “Writing is not an act of creation, it’s an act of discovery.” No one writes anything that comes out perfectly full-blown from their head. It’s a process and you have to enjoy the process and trust the process, and see where an idea takes you.
So what’s next for you?
Who are you, my father? Isn’t a book enough?
Just the Funny Parts … And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking Into the Hollywood Boys’ Club is available now.