Where Are the Women Comedy Writers on Late-Night TV?

I was expecting horror tales of discrimination and sexist exclusion when I attended a gathering  of some of the most talented women late-night TV writers in New York City last week. Instead, what I heard was that there just aren’t enough funny women submitting material and applying for comedy writing positions.

That late-night comedy is a largely male dominated field is widely known. But all of the panelists–Ann Cohen (Best Week Ever), Jill Goodwin (The Late Show With David Letterman), Hallie Haglund (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart), Morgan Murphy (Late Night with Jimmy Fallon) and Meredith Scardino (The Colbert Report), plus moderator Allison Silverman (The Colbert Report, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Late Night with Conan O’Brien)–downplayed sexist explanations for the gender gap. Said Cohen:

It’s the ability and desire to write material for others that limits the pool of writers, whether they’re women or men.

Scardino contradicted the assumption that comedy writing is full of hostile men:

There’s not that much testosterone in the writing room, the men I work with are very sensitive.

On the other hand, she can’t help but notice she’s the only woman writer on her show:

I can come up with ideas that are too girly that won’t resonate with Colbert, and I have to deal with jokes that constantly reference Star Wars and comics I haven’t read.

Meredith Scardino, left, and Allison Silverman

Haglund was the only one of the writers who gathered at The Paley Center for Media under the auspices of the Writers Guild of America East who recounted having trouble making fun of certain women. While on the Daily Show staff during the ’08 campaign, she had a hard time hearing some of the jokes about Hillary Clinton:

Looking at the clips of her as the only woman with all those men, I felt it mirrored my own position as a lone woman among men and it was hard not to take the punches on her personally.

Whether or not men are socialized more than women into being funny was debated as a possible explanation of the low rate of women aspiring to the comedy-writing profession. Scardino weighed in:

When boys hang out together they make fun of and heckle each other in a way that’s training them for comedy. Girls are definitely a bit more supportive.

Ditto for Haglund, who described life in the writing room:

For me it feels like I’m at work pitching jokes, but for men it seems to feel like they’re with their friends.

I would liked to have seen more discussion of the social structures behind the low rates of female comedy-writing applicants, and an extended dialogue about the fact that the majority of late-night hosts are men, which obviously impacts the number of women on their writing staffs. It’s also easy for traditionalists to hold on to the belief that women aren’t as funny as men when the official representatives for comedy–all those late-night hosts–are overwhelmingly men. More spotlight needs to be shown on the hilarious women writers and performers that are out there; and then, hopefully, we’ll see a woman holding down a late-nightly spot on the air as well.

Above: Illustration of Tina Fey. Quote from her interview in Esquire. Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/35442027@N08/ / CC BY 2.0. Photo of Scardino and Silverman by Yvesmarie Vilain, courtesy of Writers Guild of America East.

Comments

  1. Wow, I went to high school with Meredith Scardino, I had no idea she wrote for Colbert. That’s awesome.

    Anyway, this same issue exists re. women running for office. There is a lack of women representatives holding elected office, however, there is also a lack of women deciding to run in the first place. I wrote an article about this in November 2008, and Dr. Carol Nackenoff of Swarthmore College said: “If women run for office, they seem to win at about the same percentages as men. Women seem reticent to run or to think themselves qualified to run.” (I can give you link to full article if you want)

    Kudos to these women writers, who are giving us some of the best comedy on TV in quite some time!

  2. Jen Morgart says:

    I agree with this article but just needed to ask… Why no mention of Tina Fey?!?!

  3. I was also at the panel and thoroughly enjoyed it, although we weren’t getting the whole story. I’m in the comedy biz, and I have a lot of writer friends–male and female–who write for late night, and it isn’t always the friendliest environment for women. It’s a world dominated by Ivy League, frat types, and it’s a boys club. I am not saying all of these women are being abused or anything, but I’m sure they all have their war stories. I can understand why none of them, with the exception of Ann Cohen, the more senior one in the group, didn’t share them. They’d have to deal with it at work the next day.

  4. Not enough women applying??? I’d like to apply. I’m brilliant. And I’m hilarious.

    My guess is that there are plenty of women like me but the “not enough women applying” is really “not enough women with the (exact type of) talent we are looking for”, which turns out to be the kind of talent that, no matter how it comes out, somehow looks “better” when guys have it.

    I’d love to see the following experiment: have a dozen women apply for a comedy writing job on different shows. Then, get them to dress in drag and see what happens. Of course I know what I would expect to happen.

  5. @Karen yes, it’s exactly the same thing, why we need to give more attention to the women working in these fields. I hope to see more events like this one, where women in male dominated professions get to talk about their experiences of it and thus demystify prejudices about their job that might discourage women to consider it a possibility.

    @Jen Morgart Tina Fey is a great comedian and I definitely think she has encouraged a lot of women to consider careers in humor, but she’s not currently a late night comedy writer nor talk show host, why it didn’t feel relevant to mention her. In a longer analysis of the issue she would unquestionably have been included.

  6. Just because there are not enough women applying doesn’t mean there are not enough women who want the job. They aren’t given the opportunity to apply. I am an aspiring TV writer (though my goal is to work on an hour-long dramedy, not late night) and I can tell you that in all the classes I took more than half of the students are women — usually 70 to 80%. Men were definitely in the minority in these classes, yet TV writing staffs consist primarily of men. In fact, many have no women on staff at all. The problem doesn’t seem to be that women aren’t funny. It’s that, for whatever reason, we aren’t getting our foot in the door.

  7. I run a comedy show in San Francisco. The city itself has an amazing talent pool for comedians however very little opportunity for paid work. With that said the pool for talented women in San Francisco is small compared to the men running around the city. I make sure to offer as much stage time as possible to women in the city as possible but I still have double the amount of men trying to get on stage.

    Even with that; comedy is widely known to be discriminatory against women. As women we need to continue to push ourselves and sell ourselves to even out the playing field. It isn’t easy but self-promotion is our only friend right now.

    My advice: keep pushing, keep writing, don’t give up.

  8. What you perceive as obstacles, are. The women in the jobs may not retell their war stories, because they see them as hickies, not war wounds. They’re “in” not because they conform but because they think they belong there, even if it’s in their own way (at work pitching jokes, not hanging with friends). Shifting the paradigm is someone like Tina Fey – she wrote for Saturday Night Live as recently as last year with Sarah Palin. And being willing to write for a man/host requires a willingness to take on his persona – which can be a challenge for any writer.

  9. yoteech says:

    Three women did a comedy/variety show about 35 years ago. It was hilarious. Never brought to re-runs. Never again mentioned. Why? I think it is b/c when men make fun of women we just take it. When women make fun of men, men do not like it. Since men run the industries they make sure consciously or unconsciously that women have little or no voice to turn the tables on them.

    • Gloria Allen says:

      I am a woman who was very talented at writing comedy. I have written some very funny material (Seinfeld skits; screenplays and a very humorous article on jogging) but have never been able to get my foot in the door, to get my work read or to be taken seriously. It has been absolutely heart-wrenchingly depressing for me. I feel that there is just this enormous heavy iron door that is impossible to nudge open. They won’t let me in. The “they” is men . They just don ‘t want women to be funny. They want all those good-paying jobs for themselves. They just want to keep women out. Writing comedy very much feels to me like an all-male
      club.

      So instead of killing myself, I play congas and percussion with two men in a band.

      But I have just started with another woman to form an all-female kick-ass band. We are on New Mexico and looking for other women musicians who might be interested.

      Now I am also writing kind of humorous greeting card material, hoping that I can sell that.

  10. geminiwalker says:

    And then there is Wanda Sykes who is a late night talk show host…! Why no mention of her, the funniest lady on TV! Also Julia Louis-Dreyfus, although not late night – who writes for these women? I suspect more women than most – I would be curious to find out. Reba McIntyre is a very funny woman who has a brilliant sitcom on Lifetime – and a fabulous cast working with her. I will bet her writers are fabulous as well. Someone just culled the field to suit their own design, I suspect, for this “conference.” Not uncommon. Just sad.

  11. @yoteech: Sing it, sister! I think you’re on to something there. Wasn’t The Daily Show originally created by women?

    Speaking of The Daily Show, as much as I enjoy it and Jon Stewart in general, it is VERY sexist and sometimes hard to watch because of that. I wonder how the lone woman writer feels when that kind of “humor” is bandied about.

    There are reasons for why there so few women in the pipeline for both politics and comedy (and many other professions as well). The entire structure of informal training is not set up to encourage women and so much of learning the business skills and getting exposure is dependent on who you know. Mentors for women seem to be few and far between.

    Although I understand why the panel participants may have been reluctant to tell their war stories, it really bothers me that they gave what seemed to amount to mere lip service about gender discrimination. It may be subtle or blatant but it’s there and to dismiss it is to give the wrong impression to women wanting to enter the biz.

  12. This is an old one. At the beginning of the contemporary women’s movement there were “not enough women writers” to warrant teaching them; there were “not enough women applicants” to warrant hiring professors in my field. One colleague was more honest, when he said, “There are not enough good women writers to warrant teaching them.” You get the picture: plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose.

  13. Brenna Kearney says:

    I am currently taking writing classes at Second City in Chicago and I have to say that there is a feeling of being a woman coming into a man’s world. Oddly, there are three girls in my class of nine, which is pretty unusual at Second City. However (and maybe there are lots of reasons for this, and maybe I am just more sensitive to it being the minority), but we are preparing for our show and all three women (talented writers all) had fewer sketches considered for the show than almost all of the men in the class. And it is a frustrating problem. All of the girls in the class have also said that they have felt that their material is reviewed not as comedy material but comedy material written by a woman. I think this definitely a problem. I also have to say that I am sure there are quite a few women applying for positions as comedy writers but when the people reviewing material and resumes are men, women will always have an uphill battle.

  14. Michael says:

    Some jobs are just better suited for one sex or the other. When was the last time we heard of a panel of male nurses get together to talk about how nursing is a girl's club. Just because a group is underrepresented doesn't mean there is a problem. Are we going to have concerns if every profession isn't 50/50 men and women with the correct proportion of ethnic minorities?

    • There are more nurses that are women than men because the patriarchal medical system didn't allow women to be doctors. That's an enormous difference from being underrepresented.

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