David Letterman tried to talk to Tina Fey about women in comedy. He got it very wrong.
David Letterman has no idea why there were so few women writers on his late-night talk show.
At least, that's what the veteran host revealed on an episode of his Netflix interview show "My Next Guest Needs No Introduction." What Letterman seems to have taught his audience with this particular episode is how far things still have to go in terms of diversity and equality in the writers room.
In speaking with Tina Fey, Letterman (kind of) asked the celebrated writer/actress/comedian/producer about her thoughts on how Hollywood has treated women.
"I know this is a topic you don't like talking about, and it's a topic without an answer, but women in comedy," Letterman said. "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 ... 'Why didn't you, why don't you have women writers?' And the best I could come up with was, 'I don't know.'"
Letterman seemed to have raised a subject he clearly didn't really want to talk about.
If you're scratching your head about what Letterman's talking about, you're not alone. Because what happened seems to be Letterman trying to ask a question, answer it, and absolve himself of any guilt under the guise of ignorance.
As former "Late Night with David Letterman" writer Nell Scovell wrote, this kind of bluster "may have gotten a pass" in the time before #MeToo and #TimesUp. But owning up to "I don't know" isn't enough anymore.
"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," Scovell wrote.
Image via Netflix.
Tina Fey wasn't about to let the moment pass though.
While Letterman seemed ready to move on, Fey wasn't letting it go so easily. Especially when he suggested there was "no policy" against women writers, completely ignoring that, while there may have been no official "no women allowed" mandate, an overwhelming amount of evidence makes it clear how hard it has been to be a woman in comedy.
"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,' Letterman says by way of apology. (Although, what does the show's time has to do with it? Are women not allowed out past 10? This show didn't start in the '50s.)
Fey, however, was having none of it: "Yeah, we did want to write on it, though," she shot back.
Letterman truly missed an opportunity here.
Here's the thing: If you're going to raise a sensitive subject, you're going to have to grapple with all the uncomfortable feelings that come along with it. If Letterman had, this conversation could have been productive and even transformative. It would have been refreshing to have a powerful man in comedy own up to his mistakes and recognize that it wasn't just "the time" that was an issue (Scovell points out that even when Letterman moved to an earlier time slot, he still only had one woman on the writing team) and that discrimination is a real issue to which the answer isn't "I don't know."
If anything, Letterman's response is a master class of what not to do when discussing equality and diversity.
While Letterman ended this uncomfortable segment with a vague apology about his ignorance and a statement about things getting better, that's not going to change things. What's going to change things are in-depth conversations about this topic. And that doesn't start with apologies and absolution; it starts with listening and recognizing that change is not only necessary but beneficial.