TV Writer Nell Scovell on the Professional Rejection That Launched Her Career
At 26, I was single, living in Manhattan, and working as a journalist at Vanity Fair. I was Carrie Bradshaw … in sensible shoes. Then a chance encounter sent me on a different trajectory.
One day I bumped into a friend on the street. She had seen some of my oddball humor pieces and said to me, “Nell, I don’t mean this as an insult, but I think you could write for television.” The notion had never occurred to me. I’d grown up on the East Coast and knew nothing about the entertainment business. Intrigued, I reached out to a friend of a friend who wrote for TV. He told me to do a script on spec for a show that’s already on.
Now, the popular shows at the time were The Cosby Show and The Golden Girls, but my favorite was It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. The comedy was absurdist, and the concept broke the fourth wall. Genius stand-up Garry Shandling played a guy named Garry, who addressed the audience directly. I got a few examples of scripts and wrote one. Sometimes not knowing what you’re doing allows you to do things you never knew you could do.
My script found its way to writers Al Jean (now showrunner at The Simpsons) and Mike Reiss, who gave it to their boss. A week later I got a call from the show’s producer, Alan Zweibel, who said, “We want to buy your script.” I felt like a rookie in the major leagues who had hit a home run in her first at bat.
The show flew me to L.A. to get notes. I was sitting in Alan’s office when Garry walked by. He did a double take and asked, “Who’s this?”
“This is Nell,” said Alan. “She wrote that spec script about the party line that we liked.” Garry nodded in acknowledgment. “You write like a guy,” he said. I beamed at what was clearly a compliment in the ’80s.
Garry joined us in the office, but the meeting didn’t go quite as planned. Garry didn’t feel like giving notes and gave me a tour of the set instead. A Ping-Pong table was set up for an episode, so we played a game. (Garry was a competitive player, but I was able to keep up because my brother and I used to play Ping-Pong after dinner almost every night when we were kids.)
I returned to New York and found a message on my machine from Alan. He and Garry had talked about it more, and they weren’t going to move forward with my spec script. Instead, they had a new idea for an episode they wanted me to write. I wrote another script in a week and sent that in. A few days after that they called me and said, “We’re not going to produce that script either, but we’ll pay you for the work you did.”
I hung up the phone and felt like my home run had turned into a long foul. Still, I was more encouraged than disappointed. I had met a comedy hero, and he had praised my writing. More than that, I learned that I enjoyed churning out two scripts. Not to get too literary, but there’s an amazing essay by Albert Camus called “The Myth of Sisyphus.” As the myth goes, the gods punished Sisyphus by forcing him to roll a rock to the top of a mountain every day, only to watch the stone crash back down to the bottom. The labor is meant to be torture, but Camus argues that Sisyphus knows exactly what he needs to do, which makes him “the master of his days.”
“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” Camus argues. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
The Shandling experience made me realize that I couldn’t control whether people would send the rock crashing down, but they couldn’t stop me from going back to the bottom and starting the process again. A few months later I was hired to work on a new late-night show on Fox. Sadly, that job didn’t last long, but, happily, my friendship with the writers in the office next to mine—Conan O’Brien and Greg Daniels—did.
A year later my Shandling spec script got me a job on the final season of Newhart, starring the great Bob Newhart. The Newhart job led to a script for The Simpsons, which led to a stint on Late Night with David Letterman. Now, more than 30 years later, I’ve made a career in TV on shows ranging from Sabrina, the Teenage Witch (which I created) to NCIS. It turns out I was Liz Lemon, not Carrie Bradshaw.
As Sheryl Sandberg wrote in the foreword to my book: “Nell’s story is inspiring, not because she was unstoppable, but because when she did get stopped, she found ways to keep writing, [and] continue being creative … ”
Give me a rock and I will roll it.
Scovell’s memoir, Just the Funny Parts, is out on March 20th.
For more stories like this, pick up the April issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download Mar. 16.