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‘Commentary!: The Musical’: The Commentary
Talking With Lost’s Ultimate Superfan, EW’s Doc Jensen

Women Comics and the Late-Night Writers Room

  • 1/12/10 at 11:00 AM

Read Lynn Harris's excellent piece in Salon about the environment for female comedy writers in late-night comedy. It's smart, nuanced, and filled with on- and off-the-record quotes from both men and women, describing the dirty-talking creativity of the writers room and the complex side effects for women comics. An excerpt:

...women writers say they rarely holler foul when something sets off their own personal too-far-o-meter. "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 for comedy variety shows. (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 actresses' [sic] 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.'"

There is pressure to prove that you're impossible to offend, women say, which causes some "to overcompensate by being incredibly dirty," said one female sitcom writer. "It's like you're trying to convey to your boss, 'Hey, don't worry. I'm not that chick from 'Friends.' I won't sue you for saying the word 'cunt.''

Reading Harris's essay brought me back to a book I haven't seen since back in college: Titters, an anthology of women's humor edited by Saturday Night Live writers Ann Beatts and Deanne Stillman. Check out the very seventies cover.

I've always wondered if the old-style female comedy writer in the brilliant 30 Rock episode "Rosemary's Baby" was inspired by Beatts, although I have no evidence the writer lives in Little Bosnia. Here's a fascinating bio of Beatts: Among other things, she created nerds Todd and Lisa and Fred Garvin, Male Prostitute, then produced Square Pegs. But my favorite bit in the bio concerns her time at the Harvard Lampoon, where she met fellow dark comic and live-in boyfriend Michael O'Donoghue: "Beatts's audaciousness was already in evidence; she wrote an infamous ad parody showing a capsized Volkswagen with the headline, 'If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he'd be President today.' Volkswagen sued. Life was good."