Sex and favoritism at the "Late Show"

A former writer for the show dishes on working with Letterman and calls for him to hire women writers

Published October 27, 2009 5:28PM (EDT)

One of the few women to write for the "Late Show" just poured gasoline on the smoldering embers of the David Letterman sex scandal. In a Web exclusive for Vanity Fair, Nell Scovell explains what it was really like behind the scenes in the early 1990s as the second female writer ever hired at the show. Now, those of us who were reserving judgment on the matter for lack of information, may find cause to judge away. She writes:

Did Dave hit on me? No. Did he pay me enough extra attention that it was noted by another writer? Yes. Was I aware of rumors that Dave was having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Was I aware that other high-level male employees were having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Did these female staffers have access to information and wield power disproportionate to their job titles? Yes. Did that create a hostile work environment? Yes. Did I believe these female staffers were benefiting professionally from their personal relationships? Yes. Did that make me feel demeaned? Completely. Did I say anything at the time? Sadly, no. 

That, in a nutshell, is all she has to say about her experience at the "Late Show." Well, that and the fact it was such a demeaning atmosphere she was led to do the unthinkable: quit her dream job. Scovell isn't interested in delivering a juicy tell-all, she refuses to name names, nor is she seeking revenge or compensation. "I just want Dave to hire some qualified female writers and then treat them with respect," she says. "And that goes for Jay and Conan, too." It's an exceedingly reasonable request. After all, if you combine the current writing staff for all three late night programs, know how many women you'll find? None. Nada. Zip, zero, zilch.

She may be re-igniting the Letterman controversy -- yet another sex scandal that so many of us were hoping would soon die out -- but she's doing it for a damn good reason. In her own words: "I’d like to pivot the discussion away from the bedroom and toward the writers’ room, because it pains me that almost 20 years later, the situation for female writers in late-night-TV hasn’t improved." Behind all the sex and alleged favoritism is a fundamentally imbalanced staff; that's where the problem starts. When the writers' room is all-male, it inevitably influences the sexual culture of the workplace as a whole. It's no secret, either: A male executive producer with an all-male writing staff once said while discussing a job for Scovell, "I wonder if having a woman in the room will change everything."

If writers and producers can get beyond that "fear of feminine disapproval," as Scovell puts it, she has a few simple suggestions for balancing out the writers' room: Publish submission requirements on the Web site for all to see, instead of relying on "current (white male) writers to recommend their funny (white male) friends to be future (white male) writers," and reach out to "talented bloggers, improv performers, and stand-ups." That's all, those are her only requests -- and it took so little to make her commendable appeal heard. All she had to do was dish the sexy insider scoop and then sneak in the feminist propaganda. Bravo, well played.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

MORE FROM Tracy Clark-Flory

Related Topics ------------------------------------------