Stephen Falk, a longtime writer and producer on Weeds, recently had what is in Hollywood a relatively common experience. He wrote a television show, a comedy about a shock jock starring Dane Cook called Next Caller Please (which against my better judgment, I rather enjoyed). He sold it to NBC. NBC, which buys lots of shows every year, decided to put his show in production along with a small number of other comedies and dramas. And then the network, which had planned to air Next Caller Please in January as a midseason replacement, decided not to air it at all.
No matter how common, it’s still a devastating blow for any writer, one that Falk decided to detail in a long and wonderful blog post, in which he laments having uprooted many talented people for a job that ended up not materializing. Like I said, though, none of this is surprising. What is surprising is that Falk decided to use this post, the kind of thing that, for its charming candor, will be circulated a lot, to champion the cause of getting more women in television writers’ rooms:
I will brag about something for a second, though. I can now say with certainty: if you ever find yourself in the position to get to put together a comedy writing staff, and then you complain that you can’t find enough funny women … Nay, if you already have a show on the air and you have like 12 guys and 2 women: you didn’t look hard enough. I insisted on having as near even as possible ratio of females to males (not including me they were 5:4), and aside from getting to be smug about it, it just makes for better energy and perspective in the room to have an even gender balance. Do it.
According to the latest figures from San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, 30 percent of the writers employed on broadcast television shows during the 2011-12 television season were women. That figure doesn’t sound so terrible until you realize how much those employment figures fluctuate. During the 2010-11 season, women had just 15 percent of television writing jobs. And even in the 2011-12 season, when things were better, 68 percent of television shows on broadcast networks weren’t employing any women writers at all.
It would be nice to think that the networks are embarrassed by this and working to change it. But because networks buy most of their shows from the studios that produce them, and showrunners hire their own writers, the networks may not even be particularly aware of who’s writing the shows they ultimately put on screen. This doesn’t absolve the networks, of course—there’s plenty of blame to go around—but it’s really the showrunners, nearly all of who are men, who can change the numbers.
Falk and Community creator Dan Harmon both ended up in situations where they worked with more women—Falk by choice, Harmon, after he was told he needed to add female perspective to his staff—and both ended up converted to the idea that the presence of those women made their staffs stronger and sharper. In 2011, Harmon told the AV Club:
It doesn’t keep anybody polite. We’re not doffing our caps or standing up when they enter the room. They do more dick jokes than anybody, because they’ve had to survive, they have to prove, coming in the door, that they’re not dainty. That’s not fair, but women writers, they acquire the muscle of going blue fast because they have to counter the stigma … I think women are different, and I think having them in the room is crucial to a family comedy, ensemble comedy, television comedy, where half the eyeballs on your show are women … I think we have to stop thinking of it as a quota thing and think of it as a common-sense thing.
Now if only someone whose show hadn’t been canceled before it even aired, or who hadn’t gotten fired from his critically-acclaimed-but-low-rated sitcom could speak up. Chuck Lorre, the female television writers of America turn their lonely ears to you.