“We do want to write on it, though.”
May 15, 2018 11:11 AM   Subscribe

David Letterman Just Can’t Figure Out Why He Never Had Women Writers.

TV writer and producer Nell Scovell: “David Letterman has hosted over 6,000 hours of a talk show, which means he should be good at talking. So I was surprised when he raised the issue of women in comedy with Tina Fey on his Netflix series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, and triggered an awkward conversation... In addressing the issue with one of Hollywood’s most successful comics, he could have admitted his failings. Instead, he attempted to dodge past criticisms. And while delivered with an air of complete logic, Letterman’s argument is a master class in distortion.”

Bonus reading: Nell Scovell On Being a Woman in the Late-Night Boys’ Club
posted by roger ackroyd (52 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
I emailed Markoe, a friend, and asked her why she thinks she may have slipped Letterman’s mind. She wrote back, “Because we were having sex, maybe he remembers me as an intern.”

BOOM
posted by saladin at 11:15 AM on May 15 [152 favorites]


Because he’s part of the problem, that’s why.
posted by 41swans at 11:16 AM on May 15 [5 favorites]


I was about to post a comment about Merrill Markoe, only to discover that Letterman himself had apparently forgotten to bring her up too. Not that the exception of a single female writer disproves the rule, naturally.
posted by Strange Interlude at 11:20 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Others will have better takes on the meat of this stupidity than I do, but I'd just like to note how fucking stupid it is for Letterman to have initiated this conversation and carried it out the way that he did knowing full well that Merrill Fucking Markoe was obviously going to get a phone call about this interview and would consequently have an opportunity to fucking nuke him from orbit, and he still did it. Like, imagine that kind of arrogant shortsightedness. Jesus Christ.
posted by saladin at 11:22 AM on May 15 [35 favorites]


I loved this aspect of it:
And while delivered with an air of complete logic, Letterman’s argument is a master class in distortion. Here are the first 170 words of the conversation. See if you can spot the different types of manipulative rhetoric — I counted at least ten.
posted by Lexica at 11:28 AM on May 15 [20 favorites]


It’s not true that he “never had female writers.” Between his two shows, he had...half a dozen? Including the author of this article. That’s still just a tiny drop in a massive ocean of men, so I don’t mean to excuse what is clearly a VERY strong pattern, but it’s not the zero it’s being presented as.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:35 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]


I've always thought he was an arrogant asshole but after watching a few episodes of this show I've concluded I was wrong. He's an arrogant, sanctimonious asshole. An arrogant, sanctimonious asshole who trots out his love for his child and his regret for his infidelity in every single episode as some sort of twisted bona fides to show that he's vulnerable and authentic. Or something. I don't know. But yuck.
posted by HotToddy at 11:46 AM on May 15 [16 favorites]


I think the only question here is why Letterman asked the question in the first place. Maybe he felt safe with Tina Fey, a fan.

Anyone who ever watched Letterman during the show's glory days in the 80's would have seen the obvious undercurrent (sometimes blatant) of misogyny on the show.

And the David Letterman Show was all about David Letterman, and nobody else. Reading Jason Zinoman's biography of Letterman, it's also pretty clear that by the end of the 80's, Letterman had lost it, becoming increasingly bitter.

Why didn't he hire more female writers? Because he was an asshole?

I say this as someone who was highly influenced by Letterman as a teen in the 80's. Unfortunately.
posted by JamesBay at 11:50 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]


I tried to watch his new show, and only got through part of the Obama episode, which I thought was odd; I enjoy watching Obama in a more casual setting--he has one of the driest, slyest senses of humor of anyone I've ever seen, and of course the nostalgia for him in The Current Situation--but maybe it was Dave all along that rubbed me the wrong way.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:52 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]


so I don’t mean to excuse what is clearly a VERY strong pattern, but it’s not the zero it’s being presented as.

I don't think anyone is taking the point as literal? Not sure if this clarification is really useful.
posted by Think_Long at 11:53 AM on May 15 [26 favorites]


I've always thought he was an arrogant asshole but after watching a few episodes of this show I've concluded I was wrong.

Yeah, definitely this. I never got why people liked Letterman, he always felt very smarmy to me and I just had a bad vibe about him. To be fair I also felt that way about Leno. I was more of a Craig Ferguson devotee.

None of this surprises me though. I saw that clip and Letterman looks so tone deaf and unaware, it'd be sadder if his ignorance wasn't so insulting and arrogant.
posted by Fizz at 11:54 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]


Scovell's book is well worth reading for a broader overview of how Hollywood treats women; she's had quite a variety of experiences outside of her Letterman gig. Plus she's funny as hell.
posted by Flexagon at 11:56 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]


Markoe wasn't just another "Late Night" writer, either. I've heard her described more than once by people closely associated w/the show as central to its success, having come up with many of the recurring, popular segments (e.g. "Viewer Mail", "Stupid Pet Tricks"), its pacing, tone, structure etc.

She was also the head writer on the failed but critically well-received "David Letterman Show", which got Letterman the shot at a late night spot.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:59 AM on May 15 [19 favorites]


Yep, I've said it before, he's a fucking tool. "...if I was a woman I'm not sure I'd want to write on my little nickel-and-dime dog-and-pony show..."

From Wikipedia (Late Show with David Letterman - Ratings and revenue)
"In February 2013, TV by the Numbers reported Late Show averaged about 3.1 million [viewers] per show..."
"In 2009, the show led other late night shows in ad revenue with $271 million.[65] In February 2014, Advertising Age cited Kantar Media and Nielsen in reporting that for January to October 2013, Late Show attracted $179.6 million in advertising for CBS, higher than its seven late-night competitors on NBC, ABC, Comedy Central, and E!"

As Cher said, "...if people come on that he doesn't like or doesn't want to respect, he's an asshole." She's much nicer than she should be.
posted by Zack_Replica at 12:09 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]


And if female writers were an “oversight,” then writers of color were a total blind spot — his writing staffs never included a person of color.
Never.

Not one.

Of any color besides white.

That is blindness of a very particular (and sadly, not uncommon) type, and it cannot be answered with "Well, we didn't think anyone who wasn't white wanted to work here...".
posted by Etrigan at 12:18 PM on May 15 [34 favorites]


> As Cher said, "...if people come on that he doesn't like or doesn't want to respect, he's an asshole."

The interaction in question.
posted by CheapB at 12:19 PM on May 15 [5 favorites]


I never got why people liked Letterman, he always felt very smarmy to me and I just had a bad vibe about him.

The smarminess - the knowing mockery of TV tropes, conventions, and pomposity - was a big part of the appeal, in context, in the early/mid 80s. It's hard to remember now just how dull, self-satisfied, and lifeless network TV was in that era, and how different the early Letterman show was. It was a media landscape without a lot of options and, at least to me, as a young teenager, the sarcastic, anarchic air of "Late Night" was electrifying.

It wasn't just, or even primarily, Letterman, though - Chris Elliot, Calvert DeForest, writers like Markoe, Jim Downey, and Steve O'Donnell - it pulled together *a lot* of talent. It also gave a national platform to people like Captain Beefheart, Andy Kaufman, Crispin Glover, Harvey Pekar, the young R.E.M., etc., etc.

But it calcified and became more conventional over time, as did Letterman himself. For the host of a show that worked its best as an ensemble production, he was often not good or gracious about sharing the spotlight. It ended up being just another guy-behind-a-desk show in its last few decades.

So, yeah, Letterman is a flawed person and needs to acknowledge how much his fame was dependent on the talent and work of others (including some very funny and forward-thinking women). But those early years were pretty magical.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:25 PM on May 15 [38 favorites]


I liked David Letterman a whole lot less after that part of the Tina Fey interview. It was just so stilted and ugly, and I think he thought he being honest by admitting he didn't know but he was being dishonest by implying he'd thought about it really, really hard before deciding he didn't know. It's not that hard and he's not that dumb.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:27 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]


If you're interested in Letterman and Markoe and her (huge) contribution to his success, And Here's the Kicker is a great book of interviews that a) has a really good, extended interview with her and b) explains via many of the other interviews exactly why Letterman was considered to be so damn important. As someone who grew up at a time when I wasn't really able to make any huge distinction between Letterman and Leno (they were the old guard at that point and iirc Conan was the big new deal) it was sort of mind-blowing to see all these (admittedly almost entirely male) writers I enjoy crediting his show with basically changing the face of comedy and comedy writing in the United States.

I have no, like, personal regard for or attachment to Letterman but reading about what his show did to the TV landscape was like finding a new part of American history no one bothered to tell me about.
posted by griphus at 12:45 PM on May 15 [8 favorites]


It ended up being just another guy-behind-a-desk show in its last few decades.

I guess that's what I'm mostly remembering. Aside from some Top 10s that were politically sharp in their satire, he just felt so very "like every other" late night host and that just wasn't a thing for me, but I get what you're saying. I guess some things age well and some don't.
posted by Fizz at 12:46 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]


His next guest needs no introduction because it's always himself, with some other person who just happens to be sitting across from him. I didn't watch his show back then, and only watched the Obama episode because it was Obama. Give HIM his own talk show. That man is wonderful.
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 12:51 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Male comedians tend to become utterly humorless and sanctimonious as they age. It’s like their soul just withers up. I don’t know why they can’t just go away and leave us alone when they’re done being funny. Or at least make an entertaining drama if they don’t want to be funny anymore.
posted by bleep at 1:02 PM on May 15 [11 favorites]


I know this isn't what you meant, bleep, but I immediately thought of Robin Williams who turned to drama and then went away and left us alone. :(
posted by ODiV at 1:06 PM on May 15 [6 favorites]


RE male comedians, I can think of several counter examples, though. Many from the Golden Age of TV comedy — the generation preceding Letterman — aged superbly well into their humor. Milton Berle, Jack Benny, Dick van Dyke, Jonathan Winters, Don Rickles, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Buddy Hackett...

If it’s a thing, maybe it’s a generational thing?
posted by darkstar at 1:17 PM on May 15 [5 favorites]


It’s not true that he “never had female writers.” Between his two shows, he had...half a dozen? Including the author of this article. That’s still just a tiny drop in a massive ocean of men, so I don’t mean to excuse what is clearly a VERY strong pattern, but it’s not the zero it’s being presented as.

So what you're saying is that his writing staff was "not all men?"
posted by mikesch at 1:18 PM on May 15 [28 favorites]


As a young woman I knew a lot of dudes who really idolized him growing up, and as a young woman I was sort of subconsciously proud of having “good taste” in things like comedy and music and books, so I was sort of disappointed that I didnt get it. I didn’t at the time realize that what “having good taste” meant to me was that new boyfriends and their friends approved of my taste, were impressed by it, and that almost all the things I liked were made by men.

Anyway, as I got older and more aware of this, I periodically kept trying Letterman and eventually realized that I couldn’t enjoy him because he always reads to me as deeply, frighteningly, angry. The kind of angry you dont want to be around because it might turn on you, or maybe it’s that it already has, but you’re locked into this pantomime of pretending it hasn’t. Idk, maybe the difference between enjoying Letterman and not is whether you identify with him, or with the object of his disdain.
posted by mrmurbles at 1:49 PM on May 15 [39 favorites]


My girlfriend desperately wanted to write for Letterman. When she was in high school, she incessantly wrote comedy sketches for his show and sent them in. She actually managed to meet him after the show and handed him some of her writing, which he immediately passed along to an assistant with a nonsense "I'm not allowed to read it" excuse.

She only ever heard back once, from another assistant, who suggested she apply for the internship program -- which, as it has become obvious, was not a mechanism for becoming a writer on the show, but instead a mechanism for becoming a sex object for Letterman.

I met my girlfriend just a few years after this, and she was then the funniest people I had ever met. She still is, and is my writing partner on a lot of my projects, because I'd be foolish not to take advantage of that sort of talent.

I don't know how she compares to the professional writers on her show. I suspect she would have been as good as any of them. Now she feels like she dodged a bullet.

I wonder how many other women were like her, constantly applying to Letterman and constantly being rebuffed. I suspect a lot. I suspect too many for him to pretend he didn't know about them, and doesn't know why they weren't in the room.

They weren't in the room because they were systematically excluded or siphoned into his intern program, and that came from the top.
posted by maxsparber at 1:52 PM on May 15 [60 favorites]


I watched the Tina Fey interview and was struck by how she owned her SNL Charlottesville routine's problems yet he repeatedly attempted absolved her, I guess with his white male comedy pope authority, of the responsibility she was already taking.

It was gross.

And I like Letterman because he was part of my childhood struggle against the relentless boredom of suburban life, bedtimes and pop music.
posted by srboisvert at 1:53 PM on May 15 [4 favorites]


Male comedians tend to become utterly humorless and sanctimonious as they age.

I think it's largely that they're still behaving as if it were the 70s or 80s socially, politically, and are getting cranky and angry that that doesn't work anymore. Those sorts of self-justifying "I don't knows" used to be common place in the 80s. A generation of activists, academics and writers have plumbed the depths of those "I don't knows", but Letterman (and others) still expect them to work as they always did, then get offended when they don't pass muster any more.

In the 80s Dave was far more progressive and transgressional than anything else on TV. In the 90s he was middle of the road and kinda dull and behind. Now, he's a horrible dinosaur. But he's still, more or less, in the same place he always ways, just mad and weirded out that it doesn't work any more. He's never learned, as many (but not all) people do past 30, to move past where he was emotionally or politically.
posted by bonehead at 1:54 PM on May 15 [19 favorites]


Letterman. Ugh. He always struck as "cooler than thou", and his smugness drives me crazy. None of this surprises me.
Of course, I grew up with Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, and Dick Cavett, and none of them were ever especially "cool".
posted by dbmcd at 1:57 PM on May 15 [4 favorites]


I tried to watch his new show, and only got through part of the Obama episode, which I thought was odd; I enjoy watching Obama in a more casual setting--he has one of the driest, slyest senses of humor of anyone I've ever seen, and of course the nostalgia for him in The Current Situation--but maybe it was Dave all along that rubbed me the wrong way.

Not to discount the possibility of an offputting Letterman but that episode was also edited *terribly,* I felt. The cuts and jumps completely destroyed whatever conversational flow there might have been. What the hell was their rush -- it's on Netflix for crying out loud, it's not like they needed to cut for commercial.

I compared it unfavorably to Obama's turn on Comedians in Cars..., a show I don't even much enjoy, or his turn on WTF (which I do generally enjoy). In both of those it seems the hosts/whoever was making the editing calls chose to let the dang thing breathe a bit and run long if needed.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 2:05 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]


But it calcified and became more conventional over time, as did Letterman himself. For the host of a show that worked its best as an ensemble production, he was often not good or gracious about sharing the spotlight. It ended up being just another guy-behind-a-desk show in its last few decades.

I loved Letterman in the 80s. It was like the class smartass somehow got a national TV show and was mocking the very idea of talk/variety shows. During the 90s was this, as you put it, when the calcification began, but when Letterman moved to CBS, he really jumped the shark.* His CBS show was huge: the theater itself was massive, so what used to get laughs from a hundred people then got a crowd reaction of I dunno, thousands? Every damn joke would get applause. That intimate feeling of watching a friend do satire totally left when he moved to that big theater, something Letterman apparently wanted. He wanted the big crowds. I guess it had to do with jealously of Jay Leno? He is a smartass at his core, and the satire was still there and would surface time to time, but it was drowned out by the massive scope of the show.

*Hey it's a useful description. Don't judge me.
posted by zardoz at 2:05 PM on May 15 [8 favorites]


He certainly turned in to a crotchety old fuck. But, who else had guests like Brother Theodore, recurrent characters like Larry "Bud" Melman, and threw things off of the roof? No one.

The fact that an old guy from Indiana doesn't get it? Not so surprising, really.

Still, sad to see how clueless he is about obvious things...
posted by Windopaene at 2:16 PM on May 15 [4 favorites]


I guess it had to do with jealously of Jay Leno?

He had expected to inherit The Tonight Show from Johnny Carson.
posted by JamesBay at 2:23 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]


deeply, frighteningly, angry.

I recall the moment when I realised this about Letterman. I hadn't watched him in a few years, this was 1994, and one night I decided to check who he had on. He was interviewing Linda Fiorentino and she jokingly flirted with him. It was pretty obvious but it was way too aggressive for Letterman, you could tell he was not pleased. He went to commercial and when they came back Fiorentino was white as a sheet and appeared to be cowering in her seat. It was shocking how terrified she looked. Letterman looked as if nothing had happened and was his jokey self and he closed out the show.
posted by Ashwagandha at 2:27 PM on May 15 [14 favorites]


Never liked him, always thought that he was a mean petty control freak. Best thing that I ever saw on his show was Martin Amis cut him down into tiny pieces before the commercial break.
posted by ovvl at 4:01 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]


just another guy-behind-a-desk show
These things may have at one time been revolutionary, but now they're just empty calories. The formula is so boring I'm surprised they need writers anymore.

Yes, Letterman was part of the problem, but instead of forgiving him, can we just forget him?
posted by krisjohn at 4:25 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]


I saw a video somewhere that had Michael Stipe talking about the early days, and he was about to refer to being on Letterman and then paused and said “It doesn’t really matter.” I wonder if he reached some of the same conclusions in this thread.
posted by 4ster at 5:43 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


This would be a lot more valid if Nell has not consistently trashed other women, both in her writing career and professionally. Take a look at her old Spy pieces sometime.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:47 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]


> Markoe wasn't just another "Late Night" writer, either.

She was head writer on the short lived morning show. Her appearance in Stupid Writer Tricks on the last episode of that show.
posted by ASCII Costanza head at 6:03 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]


God, I never really saw him when he was on the air but he's absolutely insufferable in this show, and has shown multiple times that he's absolutely incapable of self-reflection.

In this interview with Tina Fey, it was that particular conversation about how he didn't think female writers wanted to work on the show (hahaha), but it was also his comments about how he didn't see anything wrong with her SNL skit that she was apologizing for, as well as the complete inability to pronounce her name (wtf is so hard about Stamatina?).

Then there was the straight up Orientalism of his interview with Malala. "Will the Muslim world ever have a female leader again?" Yeah, right, Dave, 'cause you're such a feminist. There was also the repeated otherizing of her Pashtun culture (or as he kept calling it, Pashtun), and then the belittling comparison of her struggle to his friends who had cancer.

In the Obama episode, it was his lament during the segment with John Lewis where he was all "Oh, man, what was I doing in 1965? Why wasn't I in Selma?" Pretty sure it's 'cause you were a detestable privileged white guy then just like you are now.

The only moment of this show I have thoroughly enjoyed is the look on Letterman's face when Jay-Z mentioned his staff after Letterman was going on and on about parenting his only child for the umpteenth time. We get it, Dave, you have a kid.
posted by spicytunaroll at 9:12 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]


I cannot find the article, but I remember reading years ago about a woman who got in line early to see Late Night (was one of the first) but ended up in the balcony due to a mark on her ticket by the staff. Turned out that Letterman only wanted "attractive" women in front. This has informed my view of him ever since.
posted by obliquity of the ecliptic at 8:53 AM on May 16 [2 favorites]


Pretty sure it's 'cause you were a detestable privileged white guy then just like you are now.

While he was certainly more privileged than others, Letterman had an obscure background. Father was a failed comic and florist. Mom worked in a church. Around 1985 Letterman would have either been stocking cans in the supermarket, or been in the first year of broadcast school at Ball State.

It wasn't exactly privilege that kept him from going to Selma so much as it was apathy and the insular nature of life in the Midwest.
posted by JamesBay at 9:05 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


Yes, Letterman was part of the problem, but instead of forgiving him, can we just forget him?

Why not neither? We can remember him for his titanic contributions but we can also remember his deep flaws. Yes, very little of his comedy has any entertainment/political value in 2018, but his influence is massively significant.

We manage to continue to admire flawed people from history while acknowledging those flaws. I think the same should apply to entertainers. (Like, up to a point, not Jimmy Seville or Roman Polanski.) Letterman was just shitty in the way that most men from his era - shit, most men from the CURRENT era - were.

Maybe it will be easier when people like this are dead and we don’t have to worry about rewarding them emotionally or financially with whatever praise we give them. I dunno.
posted by mellow seas at 9:47 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


It wasn't exactly privilege that kept him from going to Selma so much as it was apathy and the insular nature of life in the Midwest.

Being apathetic IS a form of privilege. Not having to care about shit is one of society's greatest gifts to white dudes.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:58 AM on May 16 [18 favorites]


If we’re going to make “didn’t travel across the country as a teenager to participate in protests that risked your physical safety and arrest record” into something that makes you a shitty person...

Can we maybe admire good people for doing great things instead of crapping on people who did nothing? I know how MLK felt about the “white moderate” but you can’t take that judgement to the extreme of evaluating someone’s entire character.

It IS somewhat lame of Dave to act, half a century later, like, “oh, man, I meant to go, but things were CRAZY that week...” but, whatever.
posted by mellow seas at 10:09 AM on May 16 [3 favorites]


Maybe when you deride Dave for not recognizing his privilege in the matter, that’s all you’re doing, and you’re not declaring him an irredeemable person for it, and I’m over-applying the extent of your own judgement. That probably DID happen so I’m sorry.
posted by mellow seas at 10:12 AM on May 16


If we’re going to make “didn’t travel across the country as a teenager to participate in protests that risked your physical safety and arrest record” into something that makes you a shitty person...

Letterman broached the topic and wondered why he didn't go. It's not like anyone here just regularly brings it up as a gotcha.
posted by maxsparber at 11:04 AM on May 16 [4 favorites]


It wasn't exactly privilege that kept him from going to Selma so much as it was apathy and the insular nature of life in the Midwest.

This is true, and that probably wasn't fair of me to say. I get that he was a teenager at the time, not even an adult. It's more so his tone deafness in even commenting about it which, to me, shows a total inability to actually be a good interviewer (which would mean expressing an interest in somebody else's story). Rather, he just makes everything about himself, and what he knows or doesn't know. Sorry, nothing in Malala's life is equivalent to your friends with cancer.
posted by spicytunaroll at 11:14 AM on May 16 [6 favorites]


That Cher interview linked above is sickening to watch. After she challenges him and calls him an ass hole, the first thing he does to move on is say "You look wonderful tonight," and then when she doesn't respond warmly, he starts to invade her personally space repeatedly. Then suggests her tattoos were a drunken mistake. WHAT A NIGHTMARE
posted by sweetjane at 12:20 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]


I was barely watching that Cher interview out of the side of my left eye because I was playing Klondike on the other monitor, but I definitely noticed him trying to climb into her chair with her. It was making me so uncomfortable I couldn't sit still, and I am pretty sure I lost at Klondike today because of David Letterman.
posted by Don Pepino at 12:29 PM on May 16


The first thing he does to Cher when she sits down is comment on her perfume and you can see her entire demeanor change. She crosses her arms and leans away from him. And Dave did not like the fact that she was more interested in talking to Paul than him.
posted by elsietheeel at 1:42 PM on May 16 [5 favorites]


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