Leno? Conan? Who cares? Late night TV hasn’t been funny since… well, I can’t remember. But if you think the jokes are lame, brace yourself: a recent piece in Salon.com suggests that perhaps the reason the suck-o-meter seems to be stuck on high might have a little something to do with diversity in the writers’ room. Or, more accurately, the total lack thereof. (Did you know that if you added up all the women writers for Leno, Letterman, and Conan O’Brien, the grand total would be… zero? No, that–alas–is not a joke.) In her piece about the not-so-funny world of late-night comedy writing, Lynn Harris says:
…The 2007 Hollywood Writers Report by the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW), found that not only had women and minorities not made any hiring gains since 2005; in some areas, they had actually moved backward. And the 2009 report found little improvement, with women ‘stuck’ at 28 percent of television employment and 18 percent of film employment…[The report states] ‘America will continue to become increasingly diverse – this much is guaranteed. And reflecting these changes in staffing and stories is just good business.’
Harris goes on to describe the comedy writing process, in all it’s crude, immature, sometimes offensive, presumably very funny glory. And then, some stuff that’ll turn that smile upside-down:
Crude we can deal with, women in the business insist. Viciously sexist too, even, in context. That’s what’s fun… We can stand the heat, they say. We like the heat. That’s why we’re here. ‘It’s a very aggressive medium, and it’s not the medium for fragile flowers,’ says the venerable Janis Hirsch. ‘It’s a job. It’s not a perfect world. Women have to either nut up and get into the spirit of it or not look for a job on a show that’s all about men.’
Still, even some of the most florid trash-talkers – Hirsch included – also said that other lines do get crossed. And that’s where things get tricky. With so many bitch, asshole and cocksucker stories already flying, of course, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly when that happens; that’s the problem. But some women do say they’ve felt it like a sucker punch when everyday chain-yanking makes the leap from ‘process’ to personal. Just one example of many, from an experienced female writer: Once, in the writers’ room, she told a couple of jerky ex-boyfriend stories she thought could be good script fodder. This prompted another writer to start ranting – angrily, not riffing – about how women ‘always date jerks.’ Another narrowed his eyes at her. ‘A guy acting like an asshole? That’s what makes you spread your legs?’
Her observation: ‘When a guy tells a story about an ex-girlfriend screwing him over, he gets laughs and maybe sympathy. When a girl tells a story about a guy screwing her over, she gets a lecture, or worse. The whole discussion becomes a referendum on women’s sanity,’ she says. ‘I call this ‘nice guy misogyny,’ she goes on. ‘The real problem comes from the supposedly nice married guys who secretly resent women for being on their turf and take it out on them in various subtle ways.’
But it’s not only that. The fact that these women are so outnumbered is also likely to blame for a return to the old-school, blend-in style of Women at Work, an ethos that comes with its own buzzkills:
‘It’s hard to speak up and say, ‘I’m offended as a lady,’ because the whole point is you’re trying not to be different,’ says one female writer. (Aside: When she interviewed for one recent job, the executive producers had the following conversation right in front of her: ‘We already have a woman. Do you think she’ll mind?’) So – perhaps putting to rest some alleged male fears – women may sometimes wind up going along with stuff they wish they hadn’t. As sitcom writer Corinne Marshall put it in an essay on the Huffington Post: ‘While off-color humor suited my palate just fine, there were times when I felt I was selling out, taking something a little too far just to impress the boys. For example, joking about an actress’ weight. In my mind, it’s never OK to talk to guys about how fat a girl is and yet I found myself doing just that. Later, I felt really shitty… because I had betrayed a principle just to be down.’
For related reasons, they sometimes also keep some material to themselves – sometimes even the good stuff. ‘Even if I thought I had a really great dating joke I think I wouldn’t put it out there because I’d be afraid of being pegged as a little too boys-and-pizza — you know, girls-in-pajamas stuff,’ said the comedy variety writer.
Ugh. The truly offensive kicker in all of this: according to the piece, the late-night shows are all consciously looking for more women writers. I wonder if it’s ever occurred to the honchos at the helm that, perhaps one of the reasons more women aren’t banging down that door is because they’re still expected to check that second X chromosome before entering it? No matter how much they might “like the the heat”–might, in fact, thrive on the heat–these women are outnumbered, and, by virtue of that token status, feel forced to endure sexist missives, to out-gross-out the guys–even when they hate themselves for doing it–and to keep their mouths shut for fear of being called out as ‘that girl.’ With all that to contend with, it’s a miracle these women are funny at all. Imagine how funny they’d be if they could just be themselves.
It’s an extreme version of what so many of us face every day, when “trying not to be different” forces us to walk the line, dwelling in the space marked by the tension between blending in while trying to beat them at their own game and standing out and striving to change the rules altogether. And I’d venture to say such circumstances make our choices harder. After all, who (okay, who other than Sarah Silverman) would want to put herself in such a position? And, as it is with the writers, I wonder: how much does our performance, our contribution, suffer, when we’re expending so much energy managing our image? How much better could we be?
But the thing is, the more of us there are–and not just (wo)manning the pen, but everywhere–the more likely things will change. And that behooves everyone:
For that to really work, though, there have to chicks, plural. Not just one woman who’s therefore the woman and — as in some cases — diverted from the free-wheeling fart-topia by the demands of constant triangulation: pipe up, shut up, nut up?
…The bottom line here is what makes better comedy. And as [former Letterman scribe Nell] Scovell says, ‘It’s been my experience that a room with a fairer sampling of humanity will always produce funnier material.’
And that might just be worth staying up for.