Nell Scovell '82 (Writer, Producer, & Director, LEAN IN, SABRINA)
By D. Dona Le '05
Nell Scovell '82 is a true Renaissance woman: comedy writer, magazine writer, blogger, producer, director—and most recently, co-writer of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.
When asked how she feels about being known as a feminist comedy writer, Scovell grins. "Well, it’s only recently that I came out as a woman.”
Funnily—and appropriately—enough, Scovell was put in touch with Sandberg through Facebook, which she joined in 2006 at her sister’s request to check out her niece’s activities on the then-new(ish) social networking site.
"I loved Facebook immediately as a way to connect to people, and one of the people I reconnected with was Elliot Schrage, who was a year ahead of me in Eliot House.”
Schrage is Vice President of Communications and Public Policy at Facebook, and he asked Scovell whether she had seen Sandberg’s well-known TED talk.
"Seen it? I’d memorized it! I thought it was incredible, and it was the backbone for Lean In,” says Scovell. Schrage asked her whether she’d be interested in working with Sandberg as her speechwriter.
"I’d always written for TV, but when you’re writing speeches for Murphy Brown, it’s not that different from speeches for Sheryl Sandberg. It’s about capturing someone’s voice, attitude, and point of view—only it’s a real person.”
Co-writing Lean In naturally followed the speechwriting and was a true collaboration between the two who exchanged more than 2000 emails in nine months. The result was a best-selling book that urges women to lean in to their careers and men to lean in to their families.
The message of Lean In resonates strongly with Scovell because of her creative experiences in film and television, especially late-night television.
"I had a similar awakening as Sheryl; we grew up thinking the problem [of sexism] had been solved, that we could do anything that we wanted. Along the way, I discovered that wasn’t completely true and gender still played a part in the workplace. I assumed things would get better, and then one day someone pointed out there were exactly zero female writers working on the three biggest late-night television shows. That was really disheartening.”
Scovell knows what she’s talking about: in 1990, she became the second female writer hired by the Late Show with David Letterman. She relocated from Los Angeles, where she’d already received a significant amount of writing work, and returned to New York. After half a year, Scovell quit the show for reasons she details in a widely read Vanity Fair article about her experience with Letterman.
Back in Los Angeles, Scovell returned to writing and producing for Coach and Murphy Brown, continuing the momentum she’d gained in Hollywood since her first foray into TV writing.
Originally, Scovell did not intend to be a television writer—or even a writer. She entered Harvard as a pre-med student with the aim of becoming a surgeon.
"Now, when I speak at high schools, I always tell the kids, ‘Don’t follow your dreams; follow your talents … because my dreams were way off.”
During her first semester at Harvard, Scovell decided to try sports writing on The Crimson. "Sportswriting offered a way to be part of journalism but also encouraged writers to be creative and funny. On the sports page, you’re expected to not just report the news, but be poetic, and emotional, and all that fun stuff.”
Raised in Newton, Massachusetts with a father who was a "sports nut,” Scovell was more than familiar with the Bruins, the Celtics, and the Red Sox. Sports writing came naturally to her, and by sophomore year at Harvard, she was The Crimson’s associate sports editor. By senior year, she was covering high school sports for The Boston Globe. She wrote about that experience for Grantland.
After college, she pursued her interest in journalism and moved to New York City, where she was the first staff writer hired at Spy magazine. After one year there, Tina Brown hired her to write for Vanity Fair, but that initial Spy connection proved fateful. A chance encounter with her former Spy editor got Scovell thinking about writing for television.
"My old Spy editor said to me, ‘You know, Nell, I don’t mean this as an insult…but I think you could write for television.’”
Scovell quickly clarifies, "Today, college students can major in television writing at NYU, but back in the mid-80s, it was just starting to be something that an East Coast person would even consider.”
So Scovell wrote a spec for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and sent it to a couple of story editors who were friends of a friend. Her contacts passed along her spec to their bosses, who bought it. Her first staff job was as story editor on the last season of Newhart. In fact, one of Scovell’s jokes is featured in the final episode of that series—an episode considered to be among the best series finales in TV history.
In 1996, Scovell was approached by ABC about creating Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. It premiered with an astonishing 18 million viewers and went on to surpass the network’s expectations in popularity.
In addition to creating Sabrina, Scovell has been staffed on numerous excellent television series, and her writing credits include The Simpsons, Charmed, Monk, and NCIS. She also co-wrote Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves, the third movie in the Disney franchise.
Perhaps her knowledge and familiarity with sports prepared her for a career in TV writing, which she describes as "a team sport.”
"You sit in a room where people are playing off each other. Someone says something and someone else makes it even funnier and someone makes that line even funnier and then comes up with the next line—it’s collaborative. I like feeding off that energy. Every show is different, every room is different, and what keeps it interesting is always feeling like you’re learning.”
Given her extensive experience as a writer and executive producer, Scovell had little trouble learning how to be a director for two films, Hayley Wagner, Star (Showtime, 1999) and It Was One of Us (Lifetime, 2007).
"If you’re an executive producer on a TV show, you’re spending a lot of time on set, you’re spending a lot of time with the director, and you’re actually looking at the video screens. The hardest part of switching to director when you’re a writer,” concedes Scovell, "is that as a writer, you hear lines in your head, but then actors are hired who may or may not deliver them that way.”
Perhaps Scovell’s ability to slip on the director’s hat so easily stems from her understanding of the fundamental difference between television and film.
"Movies are to books what television shows are to magazines. I love that experience when you don’t stop for advertisements in the middle of your creativity. You have that chance to get inside someone’s head, create a world, and lead them through it. TV doesn’t do that: TV’s social, TV’s something to talk about.”
Although Scovell welcomes future opportunities to direct again, her ultimate love is comedy writing—especially character comedy—for many reasons.
"There’s no better job on the planet: you’re sitting in a room with people who are getting paid to make each other laugh,” says Scovell. "I was the middle of five kids and we used to tease each other mercilessly, and that was the best training for being in a comedy writers’ room I could ever ask for. I definitely had a tough skin and that helped.”
According to Scovell, a tough skin and persistence are necessary to be successful in Hollywood. Even today, her own success surprises her. In answer to whether her robust writing career has been unexpected, Scovell responds with an immediate yes.
"I always kept writing for magazines because that was my backup plan. Hollywood seemed ephemeral. Everything in my career has been unplanned…and it still isn’t planned. That can make it scary. I’ve been out of work and convinced I was done, but you keep churning out spec scripts, you keep checking in with your agent … eventually, it will be over, but so far, something’s always popped up.”
That tenuous stability and the constant challenges presented by comedy writing are also breeding grounds for great ideas.
"Comedy is subjective. You don’t know how an audience will react to a joke, and that’s part of what’s so exciting. The inspiration I get is just from the craziness and hypocrisy of life—the good times slamming into the bad times, the emotional whiplash that we all feel.”