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.
Letterman’s history with “women in comedy” is fraught. In the 33 years that his show aired on NBC and CBS, female writers and stand-up performers were grossly underrepresented, struggling to make up 10 percent of inclusion, onscreen and off. When I joined the writers room in the show’s ninth season, at least 24 male writers had passed through it; I was only the second woman.
There’s also the matter of Letterman’s 2009 on-air announcement: “I’ve had sex with women who work for me on this show.” In the pre-#MeToo era, Letterman (mostly) got a pass. 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. 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.
David Letterman: I know this is a topic you don’t like talking about and it’s a topic without an answer, but women in comedy. And I know you’ve been very generous to women, in correcting an oversight. Now, when I had a television show, people would always say to me — I would do an interview with something somewhere, and they would say, “Why didn’t you, why don’t you have women writers?” And the best I could come up with was, “I don’t know.”
Tina Fey: Yeah.
Letterman: I didn’t know why there weren’t women writers. I don’t know. There was no policy against women writers.
Letterman: And I always thought, “Well, geez, if I was a woman I’m not sure I would want to write on my little nickel-and-dime dog-and-pony show anyway cause we’re on at 12:30.”
Fey: Yeah, we do want to write on it, though. [Audience laughs and cheers.]
Letterman: Yeah. But that is my ignorance. And I feel bad for that, and it’s changing. Has changed.
Watch the clip from My Next Guest Needs No Introduction here.
Before Letterman gets to the first comma, he concludes that he’s raising “a topic without an answer.” This is hyperbole. Actually, this “unsolvable” problem could be fixed tomorrow. The answer is shockingly easy: Hire more funny women. They’re all over the place.
Letterman continues by acknowledging that Fey has championed many funny women, which he describes as “correcting an oversight.” This is a fine example of rhetorical trivialization. An “oversight” is when you don’t get an invitation to a party. Letterman’s “party” went on for 33 years. 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.
After only two sentences, we’ve learned that from Letterman’s standpoint, the problem of not hiring women is both (1) unsolvable and (2) not that big a deal. Still, “people” kept forcing him to consider the issue and, after giving it a lot of thought, he’s come up with this insight: “I don’t know.” Letterman’s a smart guy so this strikes me as him playing dumb. It’s possible he’s trying to throw doubts on the legitimacy of the entire topic or simply distance himself from the “oversight.” This seems disingenuous, since he had the power to choose his writers. (Before I was hired, I was called in to meet with Letterman and get his approval.) To me, he looks like the kid whose face is smeared with chocolate and has “no idea” what happened to the last cupcake.
Next he claims, “I didn’t know why there weren’t women writers” and here’s where it gets weird. Earlier in the interview, Letterman notes that Fey was the first female head writer of Saturday Night Live, but technically the first female head writer in late-night variety was Merrill Markoe who co-created Late Night with her then-boyfriend, Letterman. (Fun fact: the show’s writing staff won Emmy awards every year until Markoe left the show in 1987. After that, Late Night never won another Emmy for writing.) Did Letterman forget about Markoe? This seems to go beyond memory lapse into disinformation. 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.”
After creating a straw-man argument that women just weren’t interested in working on an award-winning TV show, Letterman sets out to further absolve himself of guilt. “There was no policy against women writers,” he says. Would someone please explain de jure versus de facto discrimination to the 71-year old Letterman? The implication is that if women weren’t there, it must be their own damn fault.
Scapegoating is ugly and perhaps Letterman realized this, because he quickly changed tactics. Instead of dismissing women, he starts dismissing himself: “Well, geez, if I was a woman I’m not sure I would want to write on my little nickel-and-dime dog-and-pony show anyway cause we’re on at 12:30.” There’s so much going on rhetorically in this one sentence: generalization, self-deprecation, false humility, and obfuscation.
In short, it’s nonsense. Why was the 12:30 show okay for men but not for women? The staff — which along with Markoe, featured George Meyer, Andy Breckman, and Jim Downey — was hardly filled with cut-rate talent. All the writers started at Writers Guild minimum, which is higher than most non-TV writing jobs, and it also offers a pension and health benefits. Letterman’s argument also implies that when the show moved to 11:30, the number of women could have changed. It didn’t. When Letterman left the air in 2014, he had one female writer on the staff — exactly the same number he had when his show launched.
Fey refuted Letterman’s fallacy that women didn’t want to work on his show with her beautiful and simple, “Yeah, we did want to write on it, though.” If he was looking for absolution, he didn’t get it. This left Letterman no choice but to return to playing dumb. “But that is my ignorance,” he responds. “And I feel bad for that …”
Or maybe not. In 2014, I was writing on The Kennedy Center Honors when Letterman showed up to honor Tom Hanks. After the show wrapped, my old boss and I had a brief moment alone, and I asked him point blank about the lack of diversity on his writing staff. When the cameras weren’t rolling, Letterman’s answer was less sympathetic. “I don’t worry about that stuff,” he told me. And that, I believe, is the truth.
Letterman may think he deserves points for raising a difficult topic. Instead, he gets points for offering a perfect illustration of what women and people of color are up against. If in the previous three decades, Letterman had hired greater numbers of diverse writers, he would have transformed the comedy world. He chose not to, and that’s part of his legacy.
Letterman finally bails on the topic with a blanket claim that, “…it’s changing. Has changed.” He offers no evidence to back the claim up and, if things have changed for women in comedy, it’s no thanks to him. Letterman’s new Netflix show doesn’t credit any writers, but it does list four executive producers. They’re all men, so, lesson learned. (And that’s sarcasm, direct from the home office.)