After two years of false starts, I started to feel like I belonged in Hollywood. By June 1990, I’d racked up “written by” credits on both Newhart and The Simpsons. I knew my way around the freeways, and I’d already had the obligatory threesome with Warren Beatty.
O.K., that’s an exaggeration. But I did have dinner with Warren and one other guy. Still, I missed living in New York, so on a whim, I sent a packet of material to Steve O’Donnell, the head writer at Late Night with David Letterman. After weeks with no word, Steve called out of the blue to say he’d received my material and they had an opening. Could I come to New York and meet with Dave?
I was in shock. Late Night was known for being a frat house—a Harvard Lampoon frat house, but still. At that point, Merrill Markoe was the only woman who’d ever worked on the writing staff. Bitingly brilliant and inventive, Merrill served as head writer in the early years and is widely credited with co-creating the show.
“What’s the difference between Johnny Carson and David Letterman?” Merrill once joked. “Me.”
Merrill and Dave were also a couple, but after seven years and four Emmys, she walked away from both the job and the relationship. There’d been no female writer hired since.
I’d seen photos of Dave’s office in magazines, so the first thing I did when I arrived to meet him was look up at the dangling pencils that he famously tossed into the acoustic tile ceiling. For the rest of the meeting, the pencils hovered above me like little swords of Damocles. Dave sat behind his desk, wearing sweats and clutching a football. I’d prepared some jokes, but my main task was to convey that I could fit in. I mentioned my background as a sportswriter for The Boston Globe. We talked about favorite teams while Dave tossed the football into the air. When an employee walked in, he threw the ball at her without warning. She caught it.
The meeting seemed to go well. Later that day, my then agent Gavin Polone called. He sounded angry.
“Congratulations. You got the job. Now turn it down.”
Writing for Late Night would mean a 75-percent pay cut for me (and by extension, less money for him). Gavin tried, but he couldn’t talk me out of it. This was my dream job and my chance to work for the funniest man on television.
On my first day, I settled into my office, located on the main hallway of our offices at 30 Rock, across from the copy room. Other writers started streaming past my door. Most waved and kept going. One stopped to introduce himself and chat about mutual friends. It all seemed friendly until just before he exited, when he made an offbeat prediction.
“Before this is over,” he said, pointedly, “I will see a tampon fall out of your purse.”
I felt strangely shaken as he walked away. Over the years, when I’ve repeated this story, friends have usually reacted with confusion.
“Why would he have said that?”
I had no idea until about 20 years later, when I was helping Sheryl Sandberg write Lean In and she taught me about “stereotype threat.” It turns out that when members of a group are made aware of a negative stereotype, they are more likely to conform to that stereotype. For example, our culture perpetuates the myth that girls don’t excel at math, so when asked to check off a box marked “M” or “F” before a math test, girls perform worse than their male peers. Simply reminding them that they’re girls creates anxiety, which disrupts cognitive processing.
Our culture also perpetuates the myth that women aren’t funny. Maybe this is why the male writer went out of his way to remind me of my gender that first day. If he had been simply trying to shock, he could’ve said, “Before this is over, I will hear you fart.” It’s the same joke construction (i.e., in the future, some bodily function will embarrass you), but gender-nonspecific. I don’t think that writer acted consciously, but by mentioning a tampon, he singled me out by what set me apart.
Every day I caught a glimpse of the boss when he passed my office at about 10:50 A.M. Dave walked the halls briskly, like a guy hurrying home in a rainstorm. In those days, Dave rarely set foot in the writers’ room and preferred to hear pitches over the car phone on his drive home. The writers would generate ideas during the day, and then we’d break for that night’s taping. After the show, Dave would return to the office for a postmortem. We’d wait until we saw him hustling past the writers’ room, head fixed straight ahead to avoid any eye contact. About seven minutes later, Steve would gather his papers and say, “Well, I guess I’ll go call Dave.”
Even this minimal interaction was reduced in 1993, when Dave and his staff left NBC to create Late Show for CBS. In the Late Show offices, at the Ed Sullivan Theater, Dave and the writers were no longer on the same floor. At first, a locked glass door to the executive suite opened with a swipe of any of the writers’ security badges, but supposedly Dave kept forgetting his, so they installed a thumbprint-recognition system. At CBS, relations between host and writers grew even more strained. A former intern told me that Dave once dispatched him to hand back pitches for the top 10 list to the writers with the message, “Like this. Only funny.”
Despite Dave’s bullying tactics, everyone in the office was eager to please him. It was practically built into the job description, which boiled down to, “Make Dave happy.” When you’re working that hard to please one person, it starts to feel like infatuation, and the women—and men—who worked on the show routinely fell in love with the boss.
Since retiring, Dave has grown a long white beard and looks like his home address is a deserted island. But back in the day, he made sneering sexy. Dave combined a Midwest “aw-shucks-ness” with a New York City “fuck-you-ness,” and the result was irresistible. Movie stars threw themselves at him. Julia Roberts and Drew Barrymore openly flirted with him on camera. Behind the scenes, a stunning, Emmy Award-winning blonde actress once complained to a Late Night producer, “Why won’t Dave f--k me?”
Dave was catnip to non-famous, brainy women, too. A book editor friend once pleaded with me to get her a date with my then boss.
“He seems so miserable on the show,” she told me. “But I think I could make him happy. We’d have fun!” My friend’s complete confidence that she could fix Dave led me to coin a proverb: “A woman who thinks it would be fun to date David Letterman is a woman who knows nothing about show business.”
Show business attracts performers driven by the need for attention, the need for praise, the need for approval . . . see the through line? The creative process is often wrapped up in bottomless anxiety, and when the world applauds the product of that process, it soothes the anxiety. Briefly. Then the anxiety returns and even intensifies. Dave’s superpower was being able to maintain his neurotic insecurity in the face of staggering success. It made no sense to me. He was consistently funny and the best interviewer in late night. Yet his perception seemed to be that every joke tanked and every show was lame. One Friday, Dave finished taping what I thought was a fine and entertaining hour of television—a perfect kickoff to a weekend. A few minutes later, I heard Dave storming from the elevator to his office.
“You know what I’m gonna do?” he bellowed. “I’m gonna go to Connecticut, shut all the doors and windows, and pump my house full of snot!”
Another time, Dave was so distressed that during the show’s postmortem, he made a group of producers and staffers line up. He stood at the head of the line and announced that he wanted each of them to take a swing at him. Nobody wanted to hit their boss, but apparently, he insisted. He moved down the row, stopping in front of each staffer and encouraging them, “Harder. No, harder!” as they delivered uncertain blows to his shoulder. That episode perfectly captures Dave’s unique spin on the power dynamic: he’s the bully who makes you punch him.
Still, Dave made a point of treating me with kindness. Sometimes while racing to his office in the morning, he’d break his stride and pause outside my door.
“Hey, how’s it going? Do you need anything? Would you like some soup?”
Once Dave dropped in to let me know that one of my top 10 list pitches surprised him. I looked forward to the occasions when he stopped by, until one day in the writers’ room, we landed on a timely idea. Some of the writers wanted the head writer to pitch it to Dave immediately so we could run with the premise that night. Steve seemed reluctant. He preferred to wait and call Dave in his car.
“Or,” he said, “perhaps Nell could pitch it to Dave the next time he’s in her office.”
It was just an offhand comment, but I took it as an insinuation that I was forming a less-than-professional relationship with the boss.
My response was to start shutting my door at 10:30 so that when Dave strode down the hall, there’d be no reason for him to pause.
My hypersensitivity probably stemmed from a #MeToo experience on another show, which left me with a deep distaste for colleagues who blurred the line between personal and professional—and they were blurring that line like crazy at Late Night. To me, the office resembled Versailles. It was a culture of palace intrigue with whisper campaigns, shifting alliances, and sexual liaisons. Dave reigned supreme, enjoying the rights and privileges of the monarch. It was admirable of me to shut my office door to remove any appearance of impropriety. It was also incredibly stupid. I cut myself off from having direct access to the king.
Four months after I started, Steve let me know that the show was happy with my work and picking up my option for the next cycle. That night, I couldn’t sleep. The thought of spending more time at Late Night made me feel uncomfortable. I couldn’t quite pinpoint the problem, but the sexual politics were unnerving and the overall mood was unhappy. This wasn’t just my perception. Years later, Dave would greet a new writer by saying, “This is a terrible job, but it will look good on your résumé.”
Less than half a year after I got my dream job, I quit. On my last day, I was summoned to Dave’s office. “I hear you’re moving on,” Dave said. “Seems like you just got here, so I was wondering why.”
I considered pouring out my frustrations, but Dave’s office door was open, and his assistant, one of his rumored mistresses, was sitting within earshot. I figured any complaints I voiced would be repeated and used against me, so I dodged the question.
“I just miss L.A.,” I said.
“You’re welcome back anytime,” Dave said. I glowed. Like everyone else, I wanted the approval of the king.
My first joke that ever aired on Late Night was for a list of “Top 10 Least Popular Summer Camps.” My contribution—“Camp Tick in beautiful Lyme, Connecticut”—squeaked in at No. 10. Like a trip to Camp Tick, my time at Late Night faded into memory like a short session at a dicey summer camp.
On October 1, 2009, Dave sat at his desk and informed his TV audience that he’d been the victim of a blackmail attempt. The crowd thought it was a joke and laughed. Dave continued, dead serious. He explained that “a guy,” Robert “Joe” Halderman, had threatened to expose him for doing “terrible, terrible things” and also “some creepy stuff.”
“And the creepy stuff,” Dave elaborated, “was that I have had sex with women who work for me on this show. My response to that is, yes, I have.”
The audience applauded wildly.
No one who worked on the show was surprised by this news, although we were shocked that Dave admitted publicly what we’d been whispering about for decades.
Dave’s openness about the blackmail plot earned him lots of sympathy, as it should have. Blackmail is such an ugly word, and Halderman had committed a criminal act. At the same time, Dave pretty much got a pass for his own underlying misconduct. No one seemed to think the “terrible things” he’d done were terrible at all. On The View, fellow TV host Barbara Walters staunchly defended Dave’s decision to have sex with staffers.
“He’s a very attractive man,” Walters explained to her viewers. “Where do you meet people? In the workplace.”
Sensing a teachable moment, the National Organization of Women (NOW) put out a statement: “As ‘the boss,’ [Letterman] is responsible for setting the tone for his entire workplace—and he did that with sex. In any work environment, this places all employees—including employees who happen to be women—in an awkward, confusing, and demoralizing situation.”
The same week that the Letterman blackmail scandal broke, Nancy Franklin published an article about The Jay Leno Show in The New Yorker. Near the end, Nancy noted, “Leno has no women writers on his show. Neither does David Letterman, and neither does Conan O’Brien. Come on.”
Zero female writers? Nancy’s observation shocked me more than Dave’s confession. I searched IMDb for the last female writer at Late Show. For four years, they’d had an all-male staff. Even tokenism was dead.
And then came insult to injury.
Rob Burnett, one of Late Show’s many executive producers and the head of Dave’s production company, Worldwide Pants, Inc., decided to push back against the criticism from NOW. He issued his own statement, which included this claim: “As an employee of David Letterman’s since 1985, I have personally found the work environment on his shows to be fair, professional, and entirely merit-based at all times.”
My soul did a spit-take. Professional? Dave had just admitted on the air that he was sexually involved with staffers. Plus, I’d heard rumors that other high-level producers enjoyed their own female “intern sleepover parties.” Still, what chafed the most was Burnett calling the work environment “fair” and “entirely merit-based.” “Fair” implied women had the same opportunities as men, and “entirely merit-based” meant that in the past four years, not a single female writer who had applied to the show was funnier than the least funny male on staff.
By 2009, we’d elected an African American to occupy the Oval Office, but not one person of color had ever broken into Letterman’s writers’ room. If the show was “entirely merit-based” then Burnett’s statement implied that since 1985, not a single African-American, Asian, East Asian, or Hispanic writer—male or female—merited a spot on that staff. As Nancy Franklin would say, “Come on.” I felt a compulsion to speak out. I considered the downsides. Dave was a towering figure in television, and if I did so I might never work for CBS—or any network—again.
I called Nick Kristof, a college classmate and columnist for The New York Times, and pitched him a story about sexual favoritism and the lack of diversity in late night. Sexual favoritism occurs when employees get special benefits by giving special benefits. If you’ve ever watched a work promotion be given to an unqualified colleague who happens to be sleeping with the boss, then you’re already aware of how favoritism can make women feel demeaned and can create a hostile work environment for both men and women. Nick listened, then paused.
“O.K., my first question is this,” he said. “Why aren’t you writing this story, Nell?”
“Because you write about women and people will listen to you,” I said.
What I didn’t say was, “Because I’m scared to death.” I knew speaking up would bring me both attention and criticism. It felt safer to hide behind Nick. He wouldn’t let me.
“It’s your story,” Nick said. “There’s no one who will tell it better.”
I took his advice, grabbed a chocolate donut for courage, and started writing. By 2009, our country boasted three female Supreme Court justices, even as the top three late-night shows couldn’t find a single woman they considered good enough to hire. Burnett and other male head writers have suggested that women and people of color just don’t apply for these jobs. But that’s in part because the shows relied on current (white male) writers to recommend their funny (white male) friends. I personally knew of a hilarious female writer who submitted a packet of material to the show, along with recommendations from two hugely respected comedy performers. She never got a response, which suggests that gatekeepers preferred to complain about the dearth of female applicants rather than do anything to encourage them.
I finished writing my piece, “Letterman and Me,” and it went live on vanityfair.com at 12 A.M. on October 27. The next morning, I opened my laptop. My inbox was flooded. The story had been picked up by several Web sites, and requests for appearances came pouring in. I turned down The Today Show, and then hours later, my phone rang. I picked up and heard a familiar voice.
“Nell? Hi. This is Matt Lauer. My producer tells me that you don’t want to come on the show, and I was hoping to change your mind.”
Matt was smooth and charming. He walked me through why I should accept his offer to tell my side of the story.
“The problem,” I explained, “is that people want to hear about interns in the bedroom, and I want to talk about gender in the writers’ room.”
“We can talk about anything you want,” Matt said.
“So, you’re O.K. if I don’t discuss Dave sleeping with interns?”
“Hey, I couldn’t be held to that high a standard,” Matt said with a chuckle.
Matt’s “joke” made me queasy. With apologies, I passed a second time.
My criticisms of late-night TV blew up some old friendships and sparked some new ones. Female staffers on Late Show wrote me on the sly to say they hoped the piece would trigger a confidential, external investigation. It didn’t. Worldwide Pants conducted its own internal review and—surprise!—found no wrongdoing.
For me, there was a lingering question: had Dave read the article? And if so, was he furious? My job at Late Night had been to make Dave happy, so making him unhappy still felt wrong. I had a fantasy. One day, my phone would ring. I’d answer it.
“Hold for Dave,” says one of Dave’s 83 assistants. I brace myself for Dave to start yelling (because even in my own fantasy, people are mad at me), but instead, he thanks me. We have a long-overdue conversation about including women and people of color in the writers’ room. Dave agrees with everything I say, and we’re joking and having a great time until I have to run because my dead mother is calling on the other line.
Both those phone calls had the same odds of happening.
I resigned myself to never having a clue about Dave’s reaction. The only public reaction from the show came when an “anonymous male staffer” smeared me in the press, telling the New York Daily News that I never got any jokes on the air and that I quit because I was going to be fired. Both points were lies and struck me as ironic. After speaking out that I’d felt demeaned by the show in 1990, the show’s knee-jerk response was to demean me again.
The same brave, anonymous soul also offered this wan defense of the show’s hiring: “Right now, there’s almost an affirmative action policy [at Late Show]. Most likely, the next job will go to a woman.” The key word in that quote turned out to be “almost.” The next hire ended up being another white male.
It took a while, but speaking out about how women and people of color got boxed out of late-night writers’ rooms went from being one of the scariest things I’d ever done to one of the best. A few months later, I started hearing some positive news about staffing. While there’d been hundreds of dads writing comedy for late night over the years, I believe Laurie Kilmartin became the first mom to join their ranks when Conan hired her in 2010.
Even my fear that CBS would never hire me again proved wrong. In the fall of 2014, writer Lewis Friedman wrote to say that the CBS special The Kennedy Center Honors was looking for a female writer to help with a tribute to Lily Tomlin. Was I interested?
I said “yes” so fast I sprained my tongue.
Two days before my flight to Washington, D.C., for the taping of the live performance, Lewis called. “Hey, I thought you should know this,” he said. “David Letterman just narrated the Hanks film.” Tom Hanks was one of the Kennedy Center honorees.
“O.K.,” I said.
“That means he’ll be appearing on the show, and we need to write some jokes for him.”
Adrenaline surged through my body. I didn’t expect to ever cross paths with Dave again. Now, backstage at the Kennedy Center, there would be no avoiding him.
And that’s what we in the TV business call a cliffhanger.
Adapted from Just the Funny Parts: . . . And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into the Hollywood Boys’ Club, by Nell Scovell, to be published next month by Dey Street Books; © 2018 by the author.