Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Worldwide Pants down III: Uglier and uglier

Boy, that Dave. This Letterman thing won’t go away, and it’s not just because of people like me. The flap about his serial dalliances with at least some and possibly several of the women who work for CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” and the toweringly dumb extortion plot that followed — had begun to quiet down. There’s so much else going on, and, ironically enough, we need Dave to make sense of things, like we pretty much always have since men wore skinny ties with a straight face.

Except that, right now, we can’t make sense of things with Dave. Not yet. His previous admission of sex with his staffers seemed to be something that was utterly mutual, consensual, a consequence of being with a small group of people for twelve hours a day, or longer.

Nell Scovell thinks otherwise. Scovell, a former staffer on the “Late Show,” made that pretty clear in an article in the latest issue of Vanity Fair. What Scovell (a longtime VF contributor) documents is both a sexual free-for-all in the upper end of the “Late Show” ranks, and an atmosphere charged with something that tiptoes up to the line of sexual harassment.

In the article, Scovell looks at the reflexive crouch taken by some in the media elite who rallied to Letterman’s defense. She takes issue, for example, with ABC’s Barbara Walters (“The View”) that Letterman’s peccadilloes weren’t sexual harassment.

“Actually, it may be,” Scovell writes. “There’s a subset of sexual harassment called sexual favoritism that, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, can lead to a ‘hostile work environment,’ often ‘creating an atmosphere that is demeaning to women.’

“And that pretty much sums up my experience at Late Night with David Letterman.”

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What comes next can hardly be considered flattering to the pleasantly madcap, topically acerbic Letterman mien.

"I was the second female writer ever hired at Late Night," Scovell writes. "When I applied for the job in 1988, I had no way of knowing how much the odds were stacked against me. In 27 years, Late Night and Late Show have hired only seven female writers. These seven women have spent a total of 17 years on staff combined. By extrapolation, male writers have racked up a collective 378 years writing jokes for Dave (based on an average writing room of 14 men, the size of the current Late Show staff)."

It was Scovell’s dream job; she’d just landed a gig as a story editor for the "Newhart" show and had written for "The Simpsons," but she more or less immediately decamped from L.A. to New York when the callback from the "Late Night" wishing well arrived.

After the high of getting the job, things went “downhill” after that, she writes.

Scovell (who moved on to write several feature films and TV projects) cuts to the chase on the main issues at hand — the issues that could become the basis for any action in the legal arena, if it comes to that:

“Did Dave hit on me? No. Did he pay me enough extra attention that it was noted by another writer? Yes. Was I aware of rumors that Dave was having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Was I aware that other high-level male employees were having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Did these female staffers have access to information and wield power disproportionate to their job titles? Yes. Did that create a hostile work environment? Yes. Did I believe these female staffers were benefiting professionally from their personal relationships? Yes. Did that make me feel demeaned? Completely.”

Scovell got through a 13-week probationary period, and “The Late Show” kept her on. “[T]hen, about two months later, while looking for a nicer apartment, I realized I didn’t want to commit to a yearlong lease. I’d seen enough to know that I was not going to thrive professionally in that workplace. And although there were various reasons for that, sexual politics did play a major part.”

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That’s the part of this that gets, to borrow from Dave himself talking about another topic entirely, uglier and uglier. The consensual side of such dalliances is problem enough; Scovell’s account suggests a problem at the institutional level, something built into the “Late Show” DNA, a basic imbalance of gender (and almost certainly racial) representation that pervades the entertainment industry. The kids in the hall are nearly always white males.

“At this moment, there are more females serving on the United States Supreme Court than there are writing for Late Show with David Letterman, The Jay Leno Show, and The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien combined,” Scovell wrote. “Out of the 50 or so comedy writers working on these programs, exactly zero are women. It would be funny if it weren’t true.”

Here’s hoping that David Letterman and the late-night industry in general take a look in the funhouse mirror, and get a clue. Comedy is tragedy plus time, someone once observed. This has become a kind of tragedy right out of the box.
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Image credits: Letterman, Late Show title box: © 2009 CBS/Worldwide Pants. Scovell: © Colin Summers.

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