Former Late Show Writer: Damn Right It Was A Hostile Environment

A few weeks ago, I said I felt it was premature to assume that David Letterman's workplace affairs necessarily led to a hostile work environment, but if an employee came forward to say it did, I'd quit defending him.

Hey, guess what time it is!

Writing for Vanity Fair online, Nell Scovell, one of only seven women ever hired to write for Letterman's late night talk shows, not only confirms that the sexual politics at the office sucked but reminds us all that the boys' clubbiness of comedy writing in general systematically excludes and demeans women. About her experience as a staff writer on Late Night with David Letterman, his old NBC show, she writes:

Without naming names or digging up decades-old dirt, let's address the pertinent questions. 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.

I hereby rescind any reservations I once had about condemning Letterman for, as a NOW statement put it, "setting the tone for his entire workplace... with sex" and raising "serious issues about the abuse of power leading to an inappropriate, if not hostile, workplace environment for women and employees" with his behavior. As a general principle, I still think it's a good idea not to leap to conclusions, but Scovell's piece removes the "leaping" element entirely and places us knee-deep in conclusions. Game on.

Having said that, Scovell lists among her reasons for coming forward, "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." Not a bad idea. So what is the situation? "At this moment, there are more females serving on the United States Supreme Court than there are writing for Late Show with David Letterman, The Jay Leno Show, and The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien combined."

Translation: Among all three shows — which have a combined writing staff of about fifty people — there are zero women. That's not the result of any single factor, but a perfect storm of elements that devalue women's (not to mention people of color's) contributions, including sexual politics, lazy networking ("the shows often rely on current [white male] writers to recommend their funny [white male] friends to be future [white male] writers"), a lack of transparency about the application process, and the desire of male writers to "be able to scarf an entire bag of potato chips while cracking fart jokes and making lewd comments without fear of feminine disapproval."

Scovell makes short work of that last one ("Crack a decent fart joke and, as professionals, we will laugh."), but in my experience with such complaints about lady energy throwing off the comfy vibe in a boys' club, chips and fart jokes are offered up as a proxy for the real problem, which is harder to articulate without sounding like the world's biggest douche. To wit, "Girls make us think about sex. That's distracting!" (I don't know how underrepresented gay men are among the white malefest, but I'm gonna go ahead and guess that they are.)

And that, unfortunately, brings us right back into the bedroom — via a detour through the larger culture. When we're all constantly told that women's primary worth lies in our sexuality, and that men sizing up our fuckability everywhere we go — train, park, grocery store, dentist's office, workplace — is not a culturally sanctioned method of demeaning women but an inevitable consequence of male-female interaction (hardwiring!!!), then of course men think women in the office automatically equals distracting sexy thoughts. And of course some people will start having distracting sex, fucking up the entire office environment if they're not painfully discreet and/or equally low on the food chain. And of course, to a guy who has never considered that maybe the problem here is a culture that believes there is no context in which evaluating a woman's fuckability is anything but the inevitable consequence of interacting with one, the logical conclusion will be that the fewer women there are in the workplace, the fewer problems along those lines we will have.

Before anyone points out that women often enthusiastically participate in workplace sex (and idly evaluating co-workers' fuckability), as if that negates the above point, let me remind you that I'm talking about cultural factors, not individual decisions. As I said in one of my earlier Letterman posts, I had a 4-year relationship with a guy who started out as my boss, and I neither regret nor apologize for it. But it doesn't change the fact that our societal conditioning encourages men to focus on women's sexuality, in damn near every context, to the extent that it frequently overshadows our talent, intelligence and hard work. Put it this way: How many straight women do you know who would fear working in a primarily male environment because they might be driven witless by sexual temptation? And how many times have you heard exactly that argument in reverse when it comes to the military, for instance? A large number of men in one workplace are not automatically regarded as a sexual smorgasbord (except perhaps to homophobes arguing against allowing gays in the military). A large number of women — like, more than one or two — however? Well, that's just asking for trouble.

I'm not completely against office relationships, any more than I'm against encouraging existing employees to recruit their friends, or eating chips and cracking fart jokes in the workplace. I have, at times, had good results with all of those things. But when they combine to create a glaring overrepresentation of only one kind of person among a large staff, it's time to change, even if it means relinquishing the comfort of the status quo. That the discrimination in question may be merely passive, not the result of conscious and active bigotry, doesn't make things a damn bit better for women or people of color trying to break into a writer's room full of white dudes. And even if you lack an inherent sense of justice and fairness, there's still a good reason to rectify that situation. As Scovell says, "it's been my experience that a room with a fairer sampling of humanity will always produce funnier material."

Letterman And Me [Vanity Fair]

Earlier: Feminist Leaders Slam Letterman; Lawyer Claims Evidence Of Harassment