David Letterman may be a legend of comedy and a titan of the Late Night format, but not even he is above constructive criticism.
While appearing on Letterman’s new Netflix talk series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction—for which he is earning a whopping $2 million per episode and $12 million overall—Tina Fey steered the conversation toward gender inequality in the entertainment industry. As anyone plugged into the Late Night scene these days can see, it’s a landscape dominated largely by men. But what audiences cannot see are the writers’ rooms built for each show, which skews largely male as well.
Under Letterman, The Late Show was notoriously one-sided on this issue. Writer/author Nell Scovell was just the second woman ever to write for the show when she was hired in 2009. It’s a sticking point of Fey’s during their still friendly but constructive conversation.
“I didn’t know why there weren’t women writers. There was no policy against women writers,” Letterman explained. “I always thought, well, geez, if I was a woman I don’t know if I would want to write on my nickel-and-dime, dog-and-pony show anyway because we’re on at 12:30.”
But Fey would not let him off the hook so easily: “Yeah, we did want to write on it, though.”
Her take squeezed out an apology from Letterman as he added: “But that is my ignorance, and I feel bad for that and it’s changing, has changed.”
It’s no secret in film and television circles that Hollywood has been failing women on multiple fronts for a while now.
According to last year’s The Celluloid Ceiling, an annual study sponsored by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State, 88 percent of the top 250 films of 2017 had no female directors. Just one percent of top-grossing films employed 10 or more women in key behind-the-scenes roles, while 70 percent of films employed 10 or more men.
Overall, women comprised only 18 percent of directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers working on the top 250 grossing films in 2017. This is virtually the same percentage of women working in these roles 20 years ago (17 percent in 1998).
Coming off the year that gave fans Patty Jenkins’ superhero blockbuster Wonder Woman and Greta Gerwig’s Oscar contender Lady Bird, the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival was proud to boast a near 50/50 split in terms of male/female directors.
On the strength of the #TimesUp movement and leaders in the community such as Fey, the equation should be more balanced moving forward, although the industry still has much further to go.