How John Oliver tried to shake up the late-night writers' room
Writers' rooms for television shows have been historically dominated by white men with previous TV writing experience, but HBO's "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" took measures to up the diversity quotient of its writing staff.
Oliver's team, including showrunner Tim Carvell, narrowed down applicants through two rounds of blind selection, the host of the late-night news parody show told Cosmopolitan editor in chief Joanna Coles in a Q&A session at the Hearst Tower yesterday evening.
Numbers were assigned to applicants' packets of material, which contained potential jokes for the show, during both rounds of elimination.
“The numbers were for what?" Coles asked. "So you find people from different places and you weren't biased toward names—“
“Yeah, exactly," Oliver said. "You don't want to kind of be prejudicial when you're reading it. ... You're just trying to blend the voices, like some that were clearly going toward deep research or heavy, aggressive jokes, some that were sillier.”
This slightly unconventional method of selecting writers (the first round is typically blind, if not those following it) assembled "an eclectic bunch," Oliver said. "There's not a huge amount of experience—in a good way."
Staff writer Jeff Maurer used to work as a speechwriter for the Environmental Protection Agency. Juli Weiner's last job was blogging for Vanity Fair.
The show's recruiting process for talent was also unique in that former "Late Night with David Letterman" writer Nell Scovell actively encouraged women writers with no experience in television to apply. Typically, applicants find out about open positions through their agents and friends in the business.
But Scovell, who wrote an essay for VanityFair.com in 2009 calling for late night shows to hire women writers, "actively sought out people online, or in magazines, or anywhere she thought there were funny women writing, and she went after them saying you should be working, if you want, in late night comedy," Oliver said.
A 2012 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that broadcast TV shows employed women as 20 percent of their writing staff during the 1997-1998 season. More than a decade later, during the 2011-2012 season, women made up 30 percent of staffers.
"[Scovell] was incredible for us," Oliver continued, "because it meant that we could get, even in the blind stage, we could get people that were not naturally in the kind of agency—'Oh, look we have 12 writers that you should look at that have worked at late night shows before.'"
Of course, a blind process doesn't prescribe a result. In a writers' room of nine, "Last Week Tonight" has two female staffers, Weiner and Jill Twiss.