"I think you're great, and you write like a man." It was the first audience question to a panel of women late-night comedy writers last night, an evening of similarly uncomfortable and (in this case, unintentionally) revealing moments.
Writers for The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Late Show With David Letterman, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and the recently-canceled Best Week Ever assembled for the panel, moderated by late night veteran and former Colbert executive producer Allison Silverman.
Most of the panelists were quite young, and all were white. And because their status as females in late night comedy is very much a pending question for them, especially as mostly recent entrants — there was a distinct cautiousness in the air. Maybe it was the fear of seeming ungrateful to or otherwise alienating their male bosses and mentors. The audience did include more men than I've ever seen at a "where are the ladies?" event. (It was sponsored by the Writer's Guild Of America East, which represents a, you know, male-dominated field.) Or maybe, as the few who have succeeded in the field, they've grown a thick skin.
Jill Goodwin, of Letterman, and Meredith Scardino, of The Colbert Report, are currently the only women on their writing staffs, and the numbers don't improve much from there.
"When are you most aware of being the only woman?" Silverman asked.
"In the showers," deadpanned Morgan Murphy, of Jimmy Fallon.
"The only limits I feel like I have is Lord of the Rings and Star Trek," said Scardino. "I didn't fall in love with that stuff growing up. Not to sound really girly, but I could come in with a killer Bachelor pitch. But it may not resonate as much. Then again, I end up writing a lot of sports news and there are guys on the show that cannot do that whatsoever."
She added later that even though the writing staff is almost all male, there are plenty of female staffers around, from producers to the field staff. Plus, "there is not a lot of testosterone on our writing staff. They're very sensitive men…. Before I was coming here, I was asking them about what to talk about. When I was leaving, they were trying to harass me and it was the most pathetic thing I've ever seen."
Hallie Haglund of The Daily Show said she didn't necessarily think it was easier for all of the male writers to channel the mind of a male host. That said, "I do think there is a huge element of shared experience. So much of our show is comic book shit that I have no idea what people are talking about, or something from Star Wars I've never seen. And I can come in and help out on Sex And The City guest questions like I did yesterday."
Beyond the shared experiences, there's the fact that succeeding in the writer's room means pitching in a highly charged environment. Goodwin admitted, "I don't know if it's because of being a woman or because I'm newer, but it's all about the confidence with which you pitch things. I'm still new, so I talk it down before I even open my mouth. You know it's like, ‘Well, this isn't going to be any good, but I'll say it anyway.' And that's something that I have to get over. And yeah, if there were another woman in the room to say, 'Come on Jill, you can do it,' you know, be supportive, that would be great. But there's not right now."
"In our room, I've often given myself that excuse – you know, there are all these guys and they're so loud," said Haglund. "But the other female writer on the show is actually a lot more outgoing than I am. And seeing her has helped me tell myself, you can't write yourself off or make excuses for yourself. It's not about that — it's about the decision you make to be aggressive."
Scardino said, "I've never been in a room where it was all women, but I wonder whether there'd be slightly more politeness. Just like, 'Okay, what's your idea?' In our room — which I totally enjoy the way it is — there are times where you sort of have to shout to be the loudest voice to have the floor for a second. I don't know if that's the default setting for how a lot of women would operate."
It's hard to know, because so few women even submit writing submissions to apply for a position. Goodwin said, "I'm friends with a ton of funny ladies who could probably easily write for a show out there. And they just don't put themselves out there. Maybe they know, or think, that the odds are against them. By seeing a couple of people here and there, different staffs of different shows, maybe that will give a girl here or there to even go for those jobs. "
Scardino said she had a theory that men tended to submit more often because the writers' room was closer to the way they socialized with each other. "When boys hang out with each other is that they make fun of each other, which is comedy practice as far as I'm concerned. I mean, this is total generalization. But I think when girls hang out with each other, they're sort of default-ly a little bit more supportive. They don't pick on each other. It's not a competition of who can bust each other more. When you're a guy and you realize you're the best of that in your group of friends, it might encourage you to start pursuing comedy."
Haglund agreed: "I guess I wonder when we're in the writer's room, whether... for the men in the room it feels a lot more like when they hang out with their friends than it does for me when I'm with my friends… In that room, it feels like I'm doing my job."
As for the theory that increased diversity of writers' rooms would mean less misogyny or racism in the content, the picture was mixed. "Do you ever feel a difficulty of writing a joke about a woman?" asked Silverman.
Said Goodwin, "I think if you have an opinion on something, you're not thinking about your opinion. You're thinking, Will that be funny for Dave to say or Jimmy to say? If it's a joke making fun of a woman, I'm not going to not make the joke because it's about a woman."
But Hagland, who wrote one of the funniest sketches of recent Daily Show memory, on Chatroulette, disagreed.
"I feel like that hasn't been entirely true for me. I was not a writer, but I was a writer's assistant during the 2008 campaign, during the primaries," she said. "I was in the writer's room with an all male staff. And I was a Hillary supporter, and I took it very personally, the jokes that would go on, because I felt like the jokes would go to, whether you were an Obama or a Hillary supporter, easy jokes made about her being fat or having a chip on her shoulder. And I felt a lot of times… we would watch these debates and I would see her doing something that I felt like was being mirrored in that room, that she was the only woman with all these men on the stage, and I was the only woman in this room of men. And so anything that was said about her, I did take very personally."
Silverman asked, "Were you in a position to say anything? Did you ever say anything?"
"I did say things once in awhile," Haglund said, "and I wasn't able to articulate myself very well because I felt very defensive. But I sometimes felt like there was defensiveness in turn. Because when I said something, it was like I was accusing people of being sexist. Which I kind of was."