As It Happens

How this writer got an apology from David Letterman 10 years after she called him out

A decade after Nell Scovell wrote about the "hostile, sexually charged atmosphere" behind the scenes at Late Night with David Letterman, she finally got an apology from the comedy host.

In 2009, Nell Scovell wrote that Letterman fostered a 'hostile, sexually charged atmosphere' at work

TV writer and producer Nell Scovell, left, got an apology from late night host David Letterman, right, after meeting to discuss an article she wrote in 2009 for Vanity Fair. (Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Vanity Fair, Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

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A decade after Nell Scovell wrote about the "hostile, sexually charged atmosphere" behind the scenes at Late Night with David Letterman, she finally got an apology from the comedy host.

The TV writer and producer penned a scathing article for Vanity Fair in 2009 called "Letterman and Me," in which she described her stint as the show's lone female writer.

The article came out just after Letterman admitted on air that he'd had sexual relationships with women who worked for him, and that someone was using that information to blackmail him. 

Ten years later, with the #MeToo movement in full swing, Scovell sat down with Letterman for another article in Vanity Fair. She spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about that conversation. Here is what she had to say. 

You got an apology from David Letterman all these years later. What did he say to you?

I had written an article in 2009 that was pegged to his blackmail sex scandal, but the pivot I made was to the gender discrimination in the writers' room, because it [was] 2009 and there [were] zero female writers on the Letterman showon Conan O'Brien's show and on Jay Leno's show. And I was just appalled to discover this.

I do think there's an umbrella of misogyny and exclusion that embraces both harassment and discrimination. So I wrote about it, and it was widely shared, this article. And yet Dave, who was the president of the production company, never read it. And so my piece did not have the impact I hoped it would have.

It was the 10th anniversary, Oct. 27, of my writing this piece ... and I thought, well, what would be a nice way to revisit this situation?

I reached out to Dave's people and I said, "Would he ever sit down and talk to me?" And, you know, I was pretty surprised that he said yes.

So did he read the article?

We sat down and he said, "So I read your article last night."

And I said, "Well, it took you long enough."

And he proceeded to let me know that it hadn't angered him and that he thought everything I wrote was true.

And what I'd written was that the writers' room being exclusively white male — in 34 years, that show never hired a writer of colour, which, like, literally you cannot do worse — and he again, you know, professed ignorance, told me that it was never the intention, that it was sloppiness, that it was inertia.

But he also admitted it was wrong.

Scovell is a TV and magazine writer and producer. (Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)

In the Vanity Fair article, the recent one, you write about this encounter after all these years, you describe the tone of this apology or this admission, that it's really classic David Letterman gosh-golly, isn't it?

[laughs] He gets very Midwestern when discussing his own self-failings.

I think there is self-reflection that has entered his life in his 70s now that he's not on that treadmill of making a television show every day, which is an incredible grind.

And while it's lovely to see someone grow emotionally, you know, it doesn't change a fact that so many careers started and came out of that late night writing staff, and it really did exclude women and people of colour.

Are you saying that it had not occurred to him until this meeting you had with him that this is the atmosphere that had been created, that this exclusion was a part of this company?

I don't want to speak to what's in his head. The bigger point, though, that I really tried to make in this piece is the importance of sitting down ... and having hard conversations, because there's so much confusion these days in the workplace about what can men say, what can women say.

And I desperately want the message to be that, you know, women should be able to voice discomfort without fear of retaliation. And at the same time, I think it's really important that men see there's a difference between criticism and condemnation.

What were the consequences for you writing that article? Did that affect your career?

Oh absolutely, and it's all very subtle, but there's no question, given comments that have been made to me in subsequent rooms, that people were wary.

So in that way, personally, to have Dave sort of say out loud, "What you said was correct," it meant a lot because that message doesn't only go out to other women who were wronged. That message goes out to all the defenders and enablers of Dave.

Do you think it [was] understood [in 2009], as I suspect it's more understood now, that when somebody as powerful as David Letterman is getting sex or asking for sex from women in the office, that he has a tremendous amount of power over them?

I hope I've done a little bit of my part in getting that information out to the public. And in this latest piece in Vanity Fair, I talk about how it's like when a bank robber comes in brandishing his gun and tells everybody to get down on the floor, and you get down on the floor because ... even though the gun isn't at your head, the threat is obvious.

And that to me is a similar feeling to when someone very powerful who can hire and fire, you know, makes an advance.

Did it occur to him that the women who were sleeping with him were doing that because they suspected their jobs were on the line?

Most sexual harassment policies do say that the threat can be implicit or explicit. I do think that ... when you are the head, the boss, there is always an implicit threat.

I want to go back to 1990 [and] the five months you spent working there as the only woman [writer], and second woman [writer] ever. What was it like?

There were parts I loved about the job. When you're writing jokes for a Top 10 list every night, it's like Comedy Writing 101. It really honed my joke writing, and there were some really nice people there.

But I describe it as like working in a soap opera. There was a lot of, you know, assistants crying at their desks and women. There was this air of sexual favouritism, which is when you're in a workplace where there's a lot of relationships going on between ... well, in this case it was all higher men and lower women, although, you know, it can be flipped.

I saw people getting benefits and having information above their pay grade. And that makes it a less pleasant place to work and it is demeaning to other women.

I was just there to write jokes.

Ten years later, sitting down with Dave Letterman, did you get an indication he's changed, that at least he understood your concerns?

He listened, and that I appreciated. I think he will think about these things differently. I hope he was able to see things from my perspective in a way that he hadn't.

There's this faction of feminism that believes, you know, the quote is, "It's time for men to shut up and listen." And I get that. I really do. Because women were silenced for so long.

But it worries me because I think if everyone's going to their opposite corners and just, you know, smoldering, we're not going to fix this problem. And I do think this is something that we as a society, men and women together, need to fix.

Why was it so important for you to hear David Letterman out?

I have written hundreds of thousands of words about women in the workplace and what it really boils down to is just six, and that's: believe women, hire women, respect women.

So what was lovely about sitting down for Dave was he believed me. He told me I had told the truth. And I guess that mattered. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.