To watch television is to unconsciously consume the life’s work of people like Nell Scovell.
Onscreen, it’s Homer Simpson, Murphy Brown or Sabrina the Teenage Witch who deliver a line, get a laugh or otherwise move the plot along. Offscreen, writers like Scovell mine their talent and life experiences to put the right words in the right mouths to bring us joy. To entertain us is their high calling.
Part memoir, part how-to and part something else entirely, Scovell’s new book, Just the Funny Parts, explores that calling and Scovell’s preeminent body of work as a TV writer for shows including: The Simpsons, NCIS, Murphy Brown, Newhart, Coach, The Critic, Monk, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return, Sabrina the Teenage Witch (which she also created), Late Night with David Letterman and The Muppets.
The book also examines the caveats and downsides of being a woman in Hollywood. However, Scovell didn’t write Just the Funny Parts because of the #metoo and #timesup movements currently decrying sexual harassment, abuse and assault in the workplace. Though she’s an advocate for accountability, inclusivity, reform and relates her own personal #metoo story within its pages, the fact that the book was released amidst this particular cultural discussion is more of an accident than anything else.
“I’ve been making pop culture for 30 years,” she says. “I got Homer Simpson to eat fugu; I showed Ms. Piggy on the red carpet having a wardrobe malfunction; I made Sabrina the Teenage Witch turn a cheerleader into a pineapple. I thought it would be fun to pull back the curtain and show how the sausage is made.”
She pauses, then adds: “By the way, Ms. Piggy hates when I use that expression. It gets her where she lives.”
Befitting its title, Just the Funny Parts is an exceedingly funny book. At its outset, we’re introduced to a young Scovell and pass through the narrative as if we’re palling around with her the whole while. We’re in the room during her early career moments as a writer for Vanity Fair, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and something called The Wilton North Report with a young Conan O’Brien. We’re by her side, nodding, when she comes to this realization: “Writing for TV made way more sense than writing for magazines. And by sense, I mean money.”
We’re also behind her, gripping her shoulder and feeling her frustration when, time and time again, she is treated unfairly by an industry and culture that limits opportunities for women and minority voices, telling them, straight up, they’re not funny.
“I grew up with these two hilarious aunts and watched Joan Rivers on The Tonight Show and thought she was much funnier than Johnny Carson,” she says. “So I don’t know why [people think that]. It makes no sense.
“Kurt Vonnegut boiled it down to seven words: ‘some people are funny, some are not.’”
In this vein, Scovell astutely reminds us that while Bob Newhart was the star of his eponymous show, “Suzanne Pleshette and Marcia Wallace topped him all the time,” and that one only need watch Jean Hagan’s performance in Singin’ in the Rain and Myrna Loy’s in The Thin Man to know that Hollywood has always known that women are funny, witty, droll and whatever else.
To Scovell, the whole conversation about who’s funny and who’s not is really just a conversation about power.
“I get very frustrated when the emphasis is put on training programs, especially for women, because I think our culture loves the potential of young women more than they like the experience of middle-aged women,” she says. “There’s nothing threatening about a young woman with potential, but an older woman with expertise is very frightening.”
In Scovell’s view, the reckoning that Hollywood is currently experiencing vis-à-vis its abuse of women is the natural product of an industry that purposely limits the opportunities provided to women and minorities, which in turn limits who can achieve any sort of power and influence.
“There’s this deep cultural bias that we’re all soaking in, and that’s men and women, and we’re just waking up to this awareness of that bias. I don’t see it as a pipeline problem. I think we have a broken doorbell problem, where there’s so many people of colour and women who are capable of doing jobs and we’re standing on the doorstep ringing the doorbell and that door isn’t opening.
“It isn’t just about Hollywood,” she continues. “This is about where all of us work.”