Late-night's real problem

Comedy writers -- male and female -- dish about the strange, men-only world of late-night TV

Published January 11, 2010 2:01AM (EST)

If we can agree on anything following the week of the big Leno-Conan shakeup, it's that late-night these days is, well, kind of lame. Leno moving to 11:30? That's like getting back together with the dumb boyfriend you finally dumped last year. There are so many weak links -- corporate meddling, dwindling viewership, multimedia competition, a spectacularly un-21st-century monopoly of male hosts -- that there's no one quick fix. But those hoping to try something new might heed the advice of former David Letterman scribe and sitcom veteran Nell Scovell, who, in the wake of the Letterman sex scandal last year, made a convincing case on for improving late-night comedy. Her bold, call-me-crazy, whacked-out suggestion? Hire more women.

Indeed, if aliens landed tomorrow and analyzed the writing staffs of late-night comedy shows -- Earth's daily dose of mainstream humor -- they might draw the conclusion that laughter is almost exclusively the domain of the human male. "It pains me," Scovell wrote, "that almost 20 years [after leaving Letterman], the situation for female writers in late-night-TV hasn't improved." And this isn't so much about political correctness as it is about quality entertainment (to say nothing of simple fairness and equal opportunity). Because let's face it, if aliens analyzed certain late-night ratings, they might conclude that Earthmen actually aren't that funny at all. The bottom line here is what makes better comedy. And as Scovell says, "It's been my experience that a room with a fairer sampling of humanity will always produce funnier material."

The conversation about women and humor is legendarily fraught -- and nearly as old as the one about the chicken and the road. And recently we've picked it up again, with a round of articles -- even before Scovell's -- taking these shows (and, gently, the Onion) to task, and not for the first time, for their blatant, even bizarre, dude-centricity. "Did a bomb go off and kill all the women comedy writers and leave the men standing?" asked the New Yorker's Nancy Franklin not long ago. "Leno has no women writers on his show. Neither does David Letterman, and neither does Conan O'Brien. Come on." A look at industry statistics bears this out. The 2007 Hollywood Writers Report by the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW), found that not only had women and minorities not made any hiring gains since 2005; in some areas, they had actually moved backward. And the 2009 report found little improvement, with women "stuck" at 28 percent of television employment and 18 percent of film employment. (Also see New York Times critic Manohla Dargis get medieval on the dearth of women in film here.) "These findings are clearly out of step with a nation that elected its first African American president in 2008, a nation in which more than half of the population is female and nearly a third is non-white," the report states. "America will continue to become increasingly diverse -- this much is guaranteed. And reflecting these changes in staffing and stories is just good business."

But if you ask people who work on late-night shows right now, as well as sitcoms and other comedies (and I asked a lot of them), you'll find that some writers and producers are getting pretty tired of such charges. It's not necessarily true that they don't want to hire women. Truth is, there are far fewer women applicants; that's in part a problem with late-night's principal farm team -- stand-up comics -- who, for reasons that could fill a whole separate article, also heavily skew male. As Bill Carter noted in the New York Times, "The Daily Show" has made an explicit effort to get women to apply for jobs often filled through a guy-heavy grapevine; other writers interviewed for this piece say they "know for a fact" their show is looking for women. Women TV comedy writers generally love their jobs, fart jokes and and all. So if women want to be there, and the shows seem to want them there, what's going wrong?

Well, speaking of fart jokes, let's start in the writers' room. It is the crucible where TV comedy is forged, and, though show cultures vary widely, "late-night writers' rooms are not fabulous places to be," says Jonathan Bines, currently a writer for "Jimmy Kimmel Live." "They're miserable for everyone." As many writers describe it, what goes on in the room -- even for safe-for-prime-time shows -- is basically the bullying, trash-talking big brother of what more conventional professions call "brainstorming." Kinder and gentler exceptions abound, of course. But the basic model is this: Writers pitch ideas like chimps hurl turds; only from that aggressive, competitive -- and, most to the point, uncensored -- free-for-all, they say, does comedy gold emerge. That's what makes TV comedy unique -- and especially challenging -- when it comes to bringing in women. Ladying up any male-dominated industry is a complex process; now try it in a place where "whore" and "cunt" jokes are an accepted part of a normal business day. Accepted by men and women. "My experience at Conan was great," says Janine Ditullio, who in 1995 became the first woman hired to write for Conan O'Brien (and before that, the first woman to write for the original 1993 "Jon Stewart Show"). "One time we had this sexual harassment guy come in from H.R. and explain what not to do -- and it was ludicrous because we were so far beyond the line. He was like, 'Be careful about complimenting someone on her clothing,' 'Don't make comments about people's body parts,' but we were just being lewd and disgusting all the time. A lot of it is just being loose enough to be creative."

"If you're not comfortable with sexual humor or with crudeness or with all sorts of people being really honest about certain emotions, then yeah, this job is not for you," says Daley Haggar, a woman who has written for comedies including "The Big Bang Theory" and "South Park." "People say all sorts of things that, in a normal corporate environment, would be beyond the pale but in a comedy room are part of the process." (Even the California Supreme Court agreed, ruling in 2006 -- against a female "Friends" staffer -- that writers' room grossness did not add up to sexual harassment.)

So yes, this is a pretty rarefied context. "To call a writers' room misogynist is sort of misleading," a (male) late-night writer says. "It's an environment that thrives on the inappropriate or extreme. At the risk of sounding like a baby to people who break up concrete for a living, I'd say that writing comedy all day, every day, can be mentally exhausting and stressful. The writers' room tends to function like a shock absorber for that stress. Also when you spend your time working in comedy, you start to take a kind of cold, clinical approach to it. So sometimes the only things left that really make you genuinely laugh anymore are the shocking or absurd. The writers' room tends to be a forum for that kind of humor. I rarely see it as misogynist (or racist, or homophobic) -- it's just crude. Crude and immature, and tearfully funny."

Crude we can deal with, women in the business insist. Viciously sexist too, even, in context. "That's what's fun. That's why we get into comedy: to mess around with comedians all day. I'm sure there are lines that get crossed -- part of what makes comedy fun is crossing those lines," says Ali Waller, who has written for "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" and "The Showbiz Show With David Spade." We can stand the heat, they say. We like the heat. That's why we're here. "It's a very aggressive medium, and it's not the medium for fragile flowers," says the venerable Janis Hirsch, who calls herself the oldest living female sitcom writer. (Two words: "Square Pegs.") "It's a job. It's not a perfect world. Women have to either nut up and get into the spirit of it or not look for a job on a show that's all about men."

Still, even some of the most florid trash-talkers -- Hirsch included -- also said that other lines do get crossed. And that's where things get tricky. With so many bitch, asshole and cocksucker stories already flying, of course, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly when that happens; that's the problem. But some women do say they've felt it like a sucker punch when everyday chain-yanking makes the leap from "process" to personal. Just one example of many, from an experienced female writer: Once, in the writers' room, she told a couple of jerky ex-boyfriend stories she thought could be good script fodder. This prompted another writer to start ranting -- angrily, not riffing -- about how women "always date jerks." Another narrowed his eyes at her. "A guy acting like an asshole?" he said. "That's what makes you spread your legs?"

Her observation: "When a guy tells a story about an ex-girlfriend screwing him over, he gets laughs and maybe sympathy. When a girl tells a story about a guy screwing her over, she gets a lecture, or worse. The whole discussion becomes a referendum on women's sanity," she says. "I call this 'nice guy misogyny,'" she goes on. "Overt sexism is easy to deal with. Someone zings you, you zing him back. The real problem comes from the supposedly 'nice married guys' who secretly resent women for being on their turf and take it out on them in various subtle ways." In a place where personal misery becomes professional hilarity, everyone brings a back story of pain -- mommy issues, a nasty ex, hatred for the head cheerleader -- so perhaps it's especially easy to become a lightning rod when you're the only one in the room with two X chromosomes.

Indeed, some women believe that resentment began a whole lot earlier than pilot season. "My theory is that some guys at a very early age don't feel like they'll ever get women, so they say, 'OK, humor is gonna be my thing.' But they never lose that bitterness toward women. Any woman who could reject them is the enemy," said one experienced female sitcom writer. "So a lot of what goes on in these rooms is this defense mechanism from fucking middle school.'"

(When I ran this by a few guys, they didn't entirely disagree. "Men are always afraid of being judged by women," said one male alum of both Comedy Central and late-night. "I could see an insecure guy at least feeling stifled by a woman in the room even if there was no actual stifling going on.")

Speaking of stifling, women writers say they rarely holler foul when something sets off their own personal too-far-o-meter. "It's hard to speak up and say, 'I'm offended as a lady,' because the whole point is you're trying not to be different," says one female writer for comedy variety shows. (Aside: When she interviewed for one recent job, the executive producers had the following conversation right in front of her: "We already have a woman. Do you think she'll mind?") So -- perhaps putting to rest some alleged male fears -- women may sometimes wind up going along with stuff they wish they hadn't. As sitcom writer Corinne Marshall put it in an essay on the Huffington Post: "While off-color humor suited my palate just fine, there were times when I felt I was selling out, taking something a little too far just to impress the boys. For example, joking about an actresses' weight. In my mind, it's never OK to talk to guys about how fat a girl is and yet I found myself doing just that. Later, I felt really shitty ... because I had betrayed a principle just to 'be down.'"

There is pressure to prove that you're impossible to offend, women say, which causes some "to overcompensate by being incredibly dirty," said one female sitcom writer. "It's like you're trying to convey to your boss, 'Hey, don't worry. I'm not that chick from 'Friends.' I won't sue you for saying the word 'cunt.''"

For related reasons, they sometimes also keep some material to themselves -- sometimes even the good stuff. "Even if I thought I had a really great dating joke I think I wouldn't put it out there because I'd be afraid of being pegged as a little too boys-and-pizza -- you know, girls-in-pajamas stuff," said the comedy variety writer. All of that said, writers and producers, male and female, say that actually -- no, really -- they do want women in the room. It's a matter of fairness, yes, but it's principally about craft. They agree with Scovell: Comedy comes out better that way. As a general rule, if you need to write a woman's role, women writers come in handy. ("Whenever you see a mother sitting on a couch reading a magazine, you know there are no women writers on that staff," says Hirsch.) But it's not just about woman-particular "perspective" -- of course, there's no one such homogeneous thing, anyway. Having women in the room (along with anyone else outside the white Yale male profile) simply gives you "a greater diversity of takes," says one male head writer. Well, sure. We may never cross the fart barrier, but that doesn't mean the writing isn't better with chicks in the room.

For that to really work, though, there have to be chicks, plural. Not just one woman who's therefore the woman and -- as in some cases -- diverted from the free-wheeling fart-topia by the demands of constant triangulation: pipe up, shut up, nut up?

"Being the only woman can be lonely, but you get used to it," says one woman who's written for several late-night shows. "Then you work with another woman who's cool, and it's like, wow, this is great. This is what it's like to be a male writer, all the time." But let's dream even bigger, shall we? "Even more important than stocking any given staff with female writers, women have to make the effort to become show runners who set the tone and create their own projects. That's where you get real diversity," says the writer who got called out for dating jerks. (According to the WGA (PDF), women are half as likely as men to be show runners.) "Tina Fey doing what she does, that's what really changes the landscape." (Also, hi, Wanda Sykes.)

Tina Fey has changed the landscape. But she can't do what she does without writers. (As of this Variety article, "30 Rock" had four women and seven men.) Neither can the guy hosts, whose monologues have, for better or worse, the power to help shape the cultural conversation -- even the election -- of the moment.

"The mystery to me is why any sort of general audience gives a shit about this issue," said one accomplished (male, woman-writer-friendly) late-night scribe. "We're talking about a total of like 80 jobs in America."

But, arguably, late-night does matter. Or, at least, it has mattered. From now on, that's up to the powers that be. 

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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Conan O'brien Feminism Jay Leno Women Writers