Nell Scovell and Adam Zwar.
When US writer Nell Scovell started out in the late 1980s, frequently she was the only female in the writers room.
By the time she graduated to writing for such shows as Murphy Brown, Coach, The Simpsons and Late Night with David Letterman , women’s voices were better represented.
But in her view the industry then went backwards and she was often the lone female among the writers on NCIS.
“We were back to the social norm,” Nell tells IF on a visit to Sydney where she conducted workshops at Jungle Entertainment including a Q&A with Adam Zwar, who got in touch after reading her memoir Just the Funny Parts.
While her career has flourished as the creator/showrunner on Sabrina, the Teenage Witch and with writing credits on Charmed, Monk and The Muppets, she says: “For women it’s a constant struggle. No one will give it up.”
Among her other endeavours, she co-wrote the book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and was a joke writer for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Her favourite zinger for Clinton was a riposte to President Trump after he had mocked her as sickly and lacking resilience. Clinton began one speech by declaring: “This is such a special event I took a break from my rigorous nap schedule.”
Asked if she could imagine writing gags for Trump, she demurs: “I would have to get inside his head, which is quite roomy.”
She is especially proud of the episode she wrote for The Muppets revival which for the first time revealed Miss Piggy’s tail, exposed when there was a wardrobe malfunction with her evening dress. “I’m a lady, not a pig,” the character said.
“The episode was about body-shaming and her coming to grips with her piggyness,” she says. The US ABC network cancelled the show after one season, blamed by Scovell on having “too many Swedish Chefs (a character performed by Bill Barretta) in the kitchen.”
Nell described the process of selecting writers for a room as being a lot like casting. You need the comic, the person with big ideas, the person with heart and the person who can storyline. There needs to be a baseline sense of humour for each but joke-writing is often a skill that is overly valued.
On her first visit to Sydney she was pleased to learn the Australian screen industry has made great strides towards gender equality, spurred by initiatives such as Screen Australia’s Gender Matters.
But she was told that while women are well represented in TV dramas, they are less prevalent in comedies.
“Rebel Wilson and Hannah Gadsby are two of your biggest stars so I hope you can develop more female writing talent,” she says.
“Too often young women are regarded as having more promise than older, experienced women. I am sure the talent is out there.”