Letterman's Woman Problem: It's Not Us, It's Him


David Letterman will be leaving late night television soon, which prompted the Paley Center to organize a conversation with the writers of his show this weekend. During the discussion, head writer Matt Roberts tried to explain why The Late Show‘s writers room has historically been chock full of white men. He couldn’t do it.

Per the Hollywood Reporter (who noted that the writers on stage were all white men except for one white woman, Jill Goodwin), they Roberts said the show has “tried” to diversify their writers room:

“This is a problem that we’ve dealt with and all of late night…deals with. It’s a frustrating problem, actually, because there’s not really any particularly easy answer or solution to the problem and we have tried,” Roberts said. “We have possibly the most open application process in late night. I mean, other shows require people to have agents to make writers’ submissions. We’re kind of one of the last places where you can basically call up the switchboard and say ‘How do I write for the show?,’ and you’ll get sent out a release form and instructions and you can take a stab at sending in some material and we’ll look at it. It will go in the same stack as the veteran writer who’s being represented by William Morris or CAA or whatever…It’s a serious issue…We’ve paid a lot of attention to this, we’ve asked agencies…’Please encourage your women writers to submit to our show.’ The numbers are just surprising. You’d be shocked. We get about 25 submissions from men for every one submission we get from a woman. So just by the numbers alone, that’s how it shakes down.”

Roberts might find the lack of submissions from women writers surprising, but he’s in a small minority. Jill Goodwin, the one woman writer on the Letterman staff right now, had been an assistant on the show, first to the EP and then in the writers room, since 2005. (She was joined by Jena Friedman, who left to go to The Daily Show.) Goodwin didn’t exactly follow the trajectory that Roberts is laying out, of someone who was hired from the outside; she had to slowly work her way into a position as a writer.

This is what we call “a culture issue.” As Nell Scovell, a former Letterman writer (and sometimes Jezebel contributor), outlined in her 2009 Vanity Fair piece about her time at the show, The Late Show might perceive their application process as “possibly the most open application process in late night,” but if they’re still not getting applications, it’s probably not:

One frequent excuse you hear from late-night-TV executives is that “women just don’t apply for these jobs.” And they certainly don’t in the same numbers as men. But that’s partly because the shows often rely on current (white male) writers to recommend their funny (white male) friends to be future (white male) writers. Targeted outreach to talented bloggers, improv performers, and stand-ups would help widen the field of applicants. I’m also aware of several worthy females who have submitted material and never heard back. In fact, I’m one of them. Back in June, I heard Late Show was considering hiring a contributing monologue writer who could work from home, so I submitted six single-spaced pages of jokes. I’ve yet to receive any response. (I’ve since signed on to two other TV projects, so I’m no longer available.)
Late-night shows shouldn’t relax their standards for women, but why not give feedback and encouragement if it’s warranted? Maybe a writer will nail the tone on her second try. I’d also like to see each show post submission-packet requirements on its Web site so everyone has equal access. Obvious, right? Unless the shows would rather complain about the dearth of female applicants than do anything to encourage them.

By saying they don’t understand why women aren’t applying to write for Letterman, Roberts is denying that he understands that women face unique challenges in the comedy world. He’s denying that he understands that they lack the necessary connections in the white male-dominated comedy world. Letterman might have a totally open application process, but people interested in working there still need to know the right people to even know that the show is hiring (I highly doubt very many people have gotten jobs writing for Letterman by calling up and asking if the show was hiring, though maybe more should). And if The Late Show‘s process is so open, how come they are lagging far behind their other late night shows, like Jimmy Fallon, in hiring women/people of color? (Though it should be noted that Letterman’s replacement, Stephen Colbert, has only one woman on staff right now.)

Roberts is also ignoring the fact that women in many fields have trouble advocating for themselves. He’s basically shrugging his shoulders at the idea that Letterman might have to do more than just prop open a door to get women on staff: they need to be specifically invited inside.

There’s one more thing that Roberts is ignoring here, and it’s perhaps the biggest issue: women comedians know that Letterman hasn’t hired women in the past. They’ve likely heard that the environment of the show has been toxic for other women. Why would they want to work there? In trying to defend the show’s commitment to diversity, Roberts has given a softer version of the “it’s not me, it’s you” argument. Sorry bro, you’ve got it wrong: It’s you, not them.

Image via CBS

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