Leaning In with Nell Scovell
Advice from the Sheryl Sandberg collaborator
and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch creator
What do you do when presented with the opportunity to interview Nell Scovell, writer and feminist who has worked on everything from Sabrina, the Teenage Witch to co-writing Lean In? Well, after you stop freaking out about talking to the woman who co-wrote a book with Sheryl Sandberg, you lean the heck in and ask what you want to know.
Nell started as a sports reporter, worked her way through the ranks at late-night talk shows, produced her own network series, and helped to write a "feminist manifesto." She's seen and lived through it all—and has the resume, and wisdom, to show for it. Read on for tips on how to fight through sexism in the workplace, not plan for the future, and keep creating in the face of obstacles.
What have you been working on recently?
Sheryl is publishing a new book, called Option B, and it’s about resilience and bouncing forward after tragedy. She worked with Adam Grant, who’s a professor at Wharton. I edited the book, continuing that partnership that’s been such an important part of my life since 2010. So actually, not that long. It’s weird because Sheryl and I are so close, and yet it feels like a friendship of a lifetime rather than a friendship of six years.
I also just wrote a new pilot that involves witches. It’s been twenty years since Sabrina, the Teenage Witch premiered so it’s fun to return to “the Other Realm.”
Between speech writing, TV writing and producing, blogging for Vanity Fair, writing jokes for POTUS, and, of course, co-writing a “feminist manifesto,” you’ve have had an incredibly varied career. What has surprised you most about your career?
The plan was to be a journalist, which I did in college. I worked on the [Harvard] Crimson from freshman fall semester. To me being a journalist is the greatest job because you get paid to be nosy. You’re supposed to ask rude and disturbing questions. But at the same time, I loved comedy—I grew up adoring Monty Python and Steve Martin—and so I always gravitated towards the less serious aspects of journalism.
After I graduated college, I moved to NY and struggled for a couple of years and then landed at SPY magazine and a year later was hired by Vanity Fair. Then one day, I bumped into a magazine editor in New York, on the streets, and she said “Nell, I don’t mean this as an insult, but I think you could write for television.”
It was the first time it had ever occurred to me. I sat down and I wrote a spec script. It sold, which was kind of unusual. Then I went another year without selling anything. Still, that little bit of positive reinforcement made such a difference. Now I’m in my 30th year as a TV writer and although my road’s been bumpy, I’ve always had just enough positive reinforcement to keep me going.
In New York Magazine’s 2013 profile of you, you describe having had a “mild heart attack” when the LA Times labeled you as a “feminist comedy writer.” How do you feel about that label today?
I still prefer “comedy writer who is also a feminist.” I don’t really write “feminist comedy” the way Amy Schumer or Abbi and Ilana do. I’ve worked on far more stereotypically male shows, between Letterman and The Simpsons and Newhart and NCIS. They were predominantly male staffed, I was usually the only woman in the room.
Although I think Sabrina was empowering—it was women in all the top executive positions in that show, our writing staff was more than half women—it was a feminist experience, but it wasn’t feminist comedy. It was witch comedy, which is not the same as a feminist comedy.
Being a successful, trailblazing women, you’ve certainly met your fair share of roadblocks and criticism. How have you dealt with these roadblocks? Any advice for, as Beyonce puts it, “Twirl[ing] on the haters”?
Most of the up-and-coming writers in their twenties are so much smarter and more aware than I was at their age, and that gives me hope. Someone like Megan Amram, who is a delight, or Jorden Reddout, who I worked with at The Muppets—they see the landscape in a way that I didn’t. When I entered comedy in the '80s, there was this bubble of female-created shows—Designing Women, Murphy Brown, Golden Girls—and they were all being nominated for Emmys and I really thought that that sexism was all solved.
When I ran into those roadblocks, I didn’t know what’d hit me. And now, maybe in part because of Lean In, others are so much more aware. And they’re so much more supportive of each other. They help each other, tell each other about jobs. There’s just a lot more loyalty. That makes me so happy to see. My other advice is to make stuff. Don’t wait around for people to tell you to do it, to give you permission. Make stuff, speak out, lean in.
By Becca Young, 21