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Among late-night writers, few women in room

Some women in the business argue that, as long as the hosts remain almost exclusively male, so will the writers.
Image: Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead
Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead in New York in 2008. “More guys than women are in comedy,” she said. When she and Madeleine Smithberg sought submissions for writers on “The Daily Show,” more than 100 came in and “only about three or four were from women.” Konrad Fiedler / For The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

In many ways, television today is about women more than men.

More women watch television than men; female producers and writers have had huge success in prime time and daytime; in January, women will occupy two of the three seats as anchors of network evening newscasts.

But there is one glaring exception: very few women make it inside the writing rooms for late-night television hosts, despite that women make up a larger proportion of their audience than men.

There are no female writers on the new “The Jay Leno Show,” none on “Late Show with David Letterman,” none on “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien.”

The lack of women in late-night writing positions was pushed again to the forefront by David Letterman’s confession of sexual relationships with his staff members.

In an article for Vanity Fair’s Web site, a former writer for Mr. Letterman, Nell Scovell, described her experiences in the late 1980s, citing what she called a “hostile work environment,” including Mr. Letterman’s romantic relationships with women on the staff.

“Writing for late-night talk shows is a great entry-level TV job, and if you deny women that opportunity it reduces the chance for them to pursue careers in comedy,” she said in an e-mail message. Her article was cited in motions filed with the court this week by the lawyer defending the man accused of blackmailing Mr. Letterman.

In the 1980s, Mr. Letterman pioneered the kind of college-age male humor that dominates late night. But now, his audience is almost 55 percent women; Mr. Leno’s is more than 53 percent, and Mr. O’Brien’s just over one half. Yet the writing room and sensibilities of the show itself remain largely male.

Steve Bodow, head writer for “The Daily Show,” conceded that the preponderance of male writers had not changed much in recent years, although his show hired two women writers in September.

“We shook the trees a little,” Mr. Bodow said of the special efforts the show made. “Women have a different perspective, which we like on the show.”

But perspective is not the same as sensibility. Some women in the business argue that, as long as the hosts remain almost exclusively male, so will the writers.

“When you’re writing for late night, you’re writing through one person’s prism, and that person at the shows you’re looking at is always a dude,” said Hallie Haglund, one of the new writers on “The Daily Show. “ Allison Silverman, who has served as the only woman writer first on “The Daily Show” then on Conan O’Brien’s staff, said she had no trouble assuming the voices of male hosts. But she added, “I don’t think the issue of sensibility is off base. The hosts and the staffs I worked on often resembled one another. Have you seen how many tall Irish people are on Conan’s staff?”


Night People

In what seems like a paradox, “The Daily Show” was in fact created by two women, Lizz Winstead and Madeleine Smithberg, in 1996 for Comedy Central. And one of the most influential writers in the history of late night is Merrill Markoe, Mr. Letterman’s previous longtime girlfriend who was also his full partner in the invention of his breakthrough late-night show in the 1980s.

Those women acknowledged that recruiting and hiring female writers was a daunting challenge for them at the time.

“It’s the law of averages,” Ms. Winstead said in a telephone interview. “More guys than women are in comedy.” When she and Ms. Smithberg sought submissions for writers on “The Daily Show,” more than 100 came in and “only about three or four were from women.”

Ms. Markoe recalled the pressure she was under to hire writers for Mr. Letterman. “I didn’t have any leeway to put bullets in the gun that were going to misfire,” she said in an e-mail interview. She, too, had hardly any submissions from women.

“Bad odds do not help the situation,” she wrote, adding: “Back then it simply never occurred to me that there would be a pattern of all guys because I wasn’t a guy. Instead I was focused on: Let’s get this thing running so Dave will relax a little.” That, she said, “never happened of course.”

Ms. Markoe said she believed what she called “an odd shift toward more boys’ humor” in the ’90s might have kept some women from landing late-night jobs. “The massive popularity of Howard Stern might have had something to do with that,” she said.

Whatever the reason, late-night seemed to take on the flavor — some say aroma — of a boys’ club.

“I would walk into Lizz’s office, where the writers were assembled to hear the day’s jokes, and would want to exercise my executive producer privileges by sending half of them home to shower,” Ms. Smithberg said in an e-mail message. “I wonder if the corollary we should be examining is between body odor and humor rather than gender and humor.”

Writers’ rooms have always had a reputation for crude behavior. Ms. Silverman described both “The Daily Show” and Mr. O’Brien’s show as “really good experiences” — though rife with crudeness.

“There were plenty of penis jokes,” she said. “On occasion I’ve told them myself, though my penis jokes were rarely good. I don’t quite have the feel.”

Ms. Winstead scoffed at the idea that a strong woman writer would be offended by the writers’ room. “I have no sensitivity to off-color humor,” she said. “I only have a sensitivity to bad humor.”

Those who dispute a deliberate tilt in late-night television point out that women occupy positions of real power. Mr. Kimmel and Mr. Leno both have female executive producers — Jill Leiderman in Mr. Kimmel’s case, and Debbie Vickers in Mr. Leno’s — and Mr. Letterman’s show has three, Jude Brennan, Barbara Gaines and Maria Pope.

Ms. Silverman was co-head writer and executive producer of “The Colbert Report” until stepping down in August.

But Ms. Smithberg called the women-as-producers argument an inadequate defense.

“Vis-à-vis women in producing rather than writing roles,” Ms. Smithberg said, “there is an inherent dynamic not dissimilar to a marriage: male writers and late-night hosts tend to need the care of female nurturers, whom they routinely undervalue.”

One woman who does have a late-night show, Chelsea Handler on the E Channel, has five women writers on her staff of 10.

Craig Ferguson of CBS found an ideal female match for his comic sensibility: his sister. Jimmy Fallon on NBC hired three women on his initial staff of about a dozen. “The Colbert Report” currently has one.

There also is only one woman currently writing for Jimmy Kimmel — Molly McNearney, the co-head writer. Ms. Markoe, who is regarded as one of the best writers to ever work in late-night television, said she never experienced any resentment toward her on the Letterman show.

“In my weird crossover capacity I may have added a level of communication between the host and writers that hasn’t taken place since,” Ms. Markoe said. “I can remember a few times following him into the bathroom, postrehearsal, preshow, while he showered and got ready. I stood there, reading him lists of jokes or rewritten ideas for things to do on the show.”

She added, reflecting on the recent headlines: “I guess over the years there has been an assortment of other women who continue to have that sort of access to him. But from what I read, it doesn’t appear that their duties include reading him joke rewrites.”

This article, first appeared in The New York Times.