346 – Nell Scovell: From Old to Original: How She Took Tired Ideas and Made Them New

If I hadn’t read her book, I honestly wouldn’t have known her name. Nell Scovell. But I do know everything she’s worked on.

The book is called, “Just the Funny Parts… And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into the Hollywood Boys’ Club”.

And reading it gave me an excuse to have her on the podcast.

She’s a comedian, but in a different way. She writes for television. Not the stage.

So, I had a living piece of television history in the studio.

You may remember: “Murphy Brown”. “Monk”. “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”. “Newhart”. “Late Night with David Letterman”. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (one of my favorite shows ever). These are all classic shows Nell’s written for.

She has 30+ years of experience. And she even created a show in the mid 90s (“Sabrina the Teenage Witch”) back when television was still very much so a male dominated industry.

But before there was “Sabrina,” Nell was writing for magazines like “Vanity Fair,” “Spy” and “Rolling Stone”.

“How’d you transition?” I asked. “What was the motivation?”

“I had a really nice career as a magazine writer,” Nell said, “and then one day I bump into a friend who was an editor. And she says to me, ‘Nell, I don’t mean this as an insult, but I think you could write for television’.”

“Why did she think it might be an insult,” I asked her.

“Well it was the 80s and I don’t think TV was as respected as it is now,” she said. “It made it sound like you’re not an intellectual.”

I feel it’s really hard to go against the grain. But she tried it anyway. She wrote a spec script. And someone ended up buying it, although it never got made.

I learned a lot from Nell. And the way she bounced back from that “failure” is actually the first lesson that made me feel like I could improve:

1. She taught me that positivity = possibility

“Part of the story of my life is getting just enough positive reinforcement to keep going,” Nell said.

It’s a choice, I think. Being positive is a choice. You can either be rejected and give up, or be persistent and find the positive lifeline in all of this, which she did. Nell consistently found the positive.

And new opportunities kept presenting themselves. The best opportunities.

She worked on “Newhart” (the last season). “And eventually became a writer on “Late Night with David Letterman”.

“It was THE show to work on in the 80s and 90s,” Nell said, “Dave was the funniest guy on TV.”

But she didn’t love it. (Lesson #2).

2. You Don’t Have to Want “The Dream”

She had the chance to write and pitch jokes that would be performed on live TV. And the impact of these jokes were immediate. Unlike the sitcoms she worked on.

“The idea of just getting in a joke or two every night was just not as exciting,” she said.

She was coming from writing whole episodes of “Newhart.” Plus she also wrote an entire episode of “The Simpsons.” Not all success is created equal. So she left.

And she even writes about the experience of leaving Letterman in her book, but I wanted to know HOW she ultimately got the courage to quit and move back to her first love: sitcoms.

I needed to ask while she was sitting in my studio.

“I really felt like I wasn’t going to thrive at Letterman,” she said. “Mostly because I wasn’t part of the inner clique. I compare it to the court of King Louie. There were a lot of whisper campaigns and backstabbing. I didn’t want to play the game.”

And she had other opportunities.

“In that way, I knew I was privileged. I knew I was going to get another job.”

Not everyone has this security. But knowing what you don’t like is step 1. Knowing what to do next is something else. I think that ultimately comes down to just trying.

3. Don’t Repeat. Reinvent

At some point, on her way back to sitcoms, Nell created and developed “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” She took tired stories and did something totally original.

“It was absurdist,” she said. “We got to run all the tired plots through this new magical blender.”

They could go completely outside the box. And be as ridiculous as possible. Because it wasn’t just a show about a teenage girl. She introduced magic.

The show was ultimately: “I want to be normal and I’m not.” NOT “I want to be popular and I’m not.” See, THIS is how she turned an old, worn out concept into something new. She put it through the blender.

“It was a big breakthrough for me. When you start, you just want to be original all the time. And if something’s been done you don’t want to do it. That’s your instinct,” she said.

Everyone knows the classic storylines: the prom date, the ski trip or ‘I wish I was popular.’ It’s overdone. You know the story and the eventual lesson. So Nell began combining these old concepts together in new ways.

“I learned there aren’t a zillion original stories. So what you have to do is take an old story and make it original. Put your own spin on it,” Nell said.

I’ll give you an example:

She did an episode where Sabrina needed a date to the prom. So her aunts, Hilda and Zelda, made her a date. Literally, made her a guy out of dough. And magically brought him to life.

This was how they made something go from old to different and exciting.

And this technique can be used in any area of life. It’s not just for TV writers. It can be useful for entrepreneurs, inventors, employees of any company who want to show their creativity.

All you have to do is want to make something new. Look at what’s around you. And ask, “what happens if I blend this with that?”

4. Think About Relatability & Draw Connections

“If you were writing an episode of “Sabrina” today what would it be about,” I asked

“Nobody’s ever asked me that before,” she said.

I like when I catch my guests off guard. I feel like I get the most authentic and genuine answer.

She told me the first thought that popped into her head. “I argue with my own sons about checking their phones so much,” she said. “So what if there’s a spell that every time she checks her phone she gets a shock.”

“Oh!” I said. I was getting into it. Like improv.

I said, “So a cute guy at school is trying to text her, but now she has to find a new way to communicate and that could lead to humorous situations?”

Something was wrong with my idea. I could sense it on her face.

“What did I do wrong?” I asked.

“It’s the assumption that the cute boy is the target,” she said.

I was learning.

She was trying to make a broader statement.

Nell wanted to convey a metaphor for missing out on the real world. And technology getting in the way of how our teenagers are developing. It was speaking on a larger issue, not just boys. And this is what she did with every episode of the series.

5. Recognize What YOU Bring to The Table

Nell built a new kind of culture in the television industry in the mid 90s with “Sabrina”.

“We had an overwhelmingly female writers room,” Nell said. “And an overwhelmingly female cast. That was vastly different than the shows I’d worked on. There is a different set of experiences because of that.”

She told me about an episode she wrote for “Sabrina” that she recently rewatched. It’s about Sabrina going on a date on Mars (another example of old idea in the absurdist blender). And the guy leans over to kiss her. She pulls away.

And he says, “I sense you’re uncomfortable. Do you want to go back to the lodge?”

“That was me modeling consent for all these young women,” Nell said. “That comes from my own experience. And I’m not sure a male writer would have made sure that if she pulls back, the guy should acknowledge it.”


I could go on and on about Nell’s career. It’s one of those hidden gems. She’s contributed so much to TV and entertainment. She’s even written jokes for Barack Obama and helped Sheryl Sandberg write her bestseller, “Lean In.”

Nell’s lived a dream career. Not “THE dream career.” She lived HER dream career.

And maybe that’s the easiest way to get control or peace or whatever I’m looking for in life. Maybe that’s the ultimate reinvention: take tired ideas. Make them new. Make them yours. Give them magic.

 

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  • JSwan

    James please review the content of this podcast.

    There are so many inaccuracies with biased leanings. “What did we say before we said ‘lean in’ and the speculation goes on to insinuate that women weren’t allowed to be ambitious before. That’s absolute garbage. Look at the NASA women, look at the women of science in the late 1800s and all of 1900s. How about Suzanne B Anthony?

    You both agreed that Trump is the reason for the #MeToo movement, without any consideration on the great length tv execs went to hide stories about male exec / leading actors for years. Harvey, one of Hillary Clinton’s largest supporters could be sole responsible for ending many women’s careers. I’d say he had a bigger impact on the #MeToo movement than anyone else. Oh and Nell eventually blamed the #MeToo movement on UBER, but you both walked right by that instead of correcting yourselves about Trump.

    James be agnostic otherwise you’ll find yourself losing fans. We are inspired by these people stories of trials and tribulations and how they succeeded, not their or your political leans.