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Nell Scovell Thinks More Men Should Be Leading the Women’s Movement

Men and women have different reactions to Nell Scovell’s memoir, Just the Funny Parts…And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking Into the Hollywood Boys’ Club. Scovell, an accomplished writer, producer, and director who created the 1990s–2000s sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch and has written for The Simpsons, Murphy Brown, and Late Night With David Letterman, to name just a few, has picked up on this trend: “The women say, ‘Oh my god, I nodded along throughout the whole thing,’ ” she tells me over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “But for the men, I think it’s really eye-opening.”

Just the Funny Parts tracks the highs and lows of Scovell’s thirty-year career in television, which began after a short stint in the late 1980s writing for Spy and Vanity Fair, where she is still a contributing writer. Scovell grew up in Massachusetts, and attended Harvard, but was too intimidated by the aggressively critical dudes of the fabled Lampoon. Instead, she wrote for the sports section of the Harvard Crimson. Her television career took off when a journalist friend suggested she could write for TV — and clarified that he didn’t mean it as an insult.

A memoir that doubles as a how-to guide for aspiring TV writers, Just the Funny Parts is full of juicy stories about celebrity encounters and red-light warnings for women in particular. There was the time Garry Shandling told her she writes “like a guy”; the meeting with a Fox exec who discouraged her from trying to write for her favorite show, because “24 won’t hire a woman. They had one and it didn’t work out”; and the staff party for a TV show she worked on, early in her career, that ended with the head writer pulling her into his bedroom (“This is so, so hard to admit but…Reader, I blew him”). Scovell’s experiences, particularly when cast against the harsh glare of the #MeToo moment, have led her to an apparently contradictory conclusion: We need more men to lead the women’s movement.

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“I think Time’s Up has done amazing things here in Hollywood,” Scovell says of the organization, launched in January by a coalition of high-profile female stars, that aims to eradicate sexual harassment, particularly at work. “But the one thing I’d like to see them do is include more men. I think we need men to lead the women’s movement, along with women. There’s a great book by Brooke Kroeger called The Suffragents, and it’s about how men, mostly husbands of the women in the suffrage movement, worked to help get women the vote. It’s about equality. They’re part of the equation.”

There’s a reason, beyond her years in Hollywood, that such issues are at the forefront of Scovell’s mind: In 2013, she co-authored a little book called Lean In, with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. “I saw how my life was kind of this Lean In case study, where I continued to work and my husband raised our kids,” Scovell remarks. It wasn’t just the division of labor at home that allowed her to thrive at work. While Scovell writes about realizing, years later, that it was mostly female executives who hired her in her forties, after she had kids, most of her mentors have been men — which is perhaps not so surprising, considering Scovell was often the only woman in the room.

“Men did more than just mentor me, they advocated for me,” Scovell notes. “There’s a difference. It’s great to encourage someone, but it’s even better to hire them.”

Scovell and Conan O’Brien, who both wrote for the short-lived Fox talk show “The Wilton North Report,” in 1987

Just the Funny Parts is filled with concrete examples of how women’s voices enhance the writing of a show, particularly in comedy, Scovell’s bread and butter. The book includes drafts of rejected jokes she wrote for Hillary Clinton to deliver at the 2016 Al Smith Dinner — because, she writes, “they illustrate why a female perspective can lead to joke areas that male writers might overlook.” (One joke Hillary passed on: “Donald defines nontraditional marriage as between a man and a brunette.”) Scovell quotes Samantha Bee, who appeared as a correspondent on The Daily Show while pregnant and who told New York magazine that working in such a state will “add to your comedy in ways that you never expected.”

One of my favorite anecdotes in the book tells how Scovell came up with the backstory for Sabrina’s mother on Sabrina the Teenage Witch, which premiered on ABC in 1996 and starred Melissa Joan Hart as a sixteen-year-old living with her aunts who discovers she has magical powers. The ABC executives wanted to explain the mom’s absence by suggesting she’d died in childbirth. But Scovell pushed against this — Sabrina’s dad, after all, wasn’t dead, even though he wasn’t in the picture, either. Eventually, the network relented, although they insisted the mother not be away from her child by choice. Scovell’s solution: Sabrina’s mom, a mortal, is on a dig in Peru, and the Witches Council forbids her from seeing her daughter for two years after Sabrina has become a witch. Otherwise, her mom will turn into a ball of wax. I always liked that detail; I never knew its feminist origins.

And then there’s David Letterman. Scovell first wrote about her brief stint writing for Late Night in a 2009 Vanity Fair article that was published shortly after the comedy legend admitted live on air that he’d had sex with women who worked on his show. (Someone threatened to blackmail him with this information, so he beat him to the punch.) Although Barbara Walters defended Letterman on The View, and insisted that his behavior did not amount to sexual harassment, Scovell disagreed: “There’s a subset of sexual harassment called sexual favoritism that, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, can lead to a ‘hostile work environment,’ often ‘creating an atmosphere that is demeaning to women,’ ” she wrote in the article. “And that pretty much sums up my experience at Late Night With David Letterman.

Perhaps the most insightful line in the book comes toward the end, when Scovell points out that only after they were no longer helming late-night shows did David Letterman and Jay Leno publicly cop to the fact that the TV industry needs to hire more women. Letterman even told Tom Brokaw, “I don’t know why they didn’t give my show to a woman,” and in a 2015 event alongside directors Bennett Miller and Spike Jonze at his alma mater, Ball State University, he questioned the two men on the subject of Hollywood’s “pervasive sexism.” When Miller demurred — “I’m not a studio executive” — Letterman pushed back: “Having been very, very successful, now can’t you devote your career to help others who struggle to be successful?”

Scovell shrewdly theorizes what prompted Letterman’s and Leno’s apparent change of heart: arriving at the “intersection of ageism and sexism. The two former hosts now know something every woman learns early in her career: it sucks to be pushed aside by a less-experienced man.”

And yet, Letterman returned to television earlier this year, with a monthly Netflix interview series called My Next Guest Needs No Introduction; all five executive producers are men. “No lesson learned there,” Scovell says. “He had a chance for redemption and did not take it.” (Letterman did not respond to a request for comment.)

We often hear about how important it is for women to have each other’s backs. And at this point in her career, Scovell has devoted much of her time to helping other female writers — like Bess Kalb, who writes for Jimmy Kimmel Live!, or Last Week Tonight With John Oliver’s Jill Twiss — find staffing jobs. But Scovell’s experiences illustrate how important it is that men get involved in the fight for equality. Scovell told me that with one exception, she has been interviewed about her book exclusively by women. “I find that really troubling,” she admits, calling into question the knee-jerk habit to put women’s stories in a separate category from men’s. “It just creates an us-versus-them dynamic, which is exactly what we’re trying to fight,” she says, adding, “That’s why men really need to mentor women — a) there are more men in senior positions, and b) women are so overloaded.” Even in two-career households, women still take on more childcare and housework than their male partners — not to mention what Scovell calls “housework at work,” such as organizing parties or clearing out the office fridge. “We’re supposed to do it because we’re communal and we love helping others,” she says. “And then on top of that you have to mentor women? Come on, men! Step up!”

Just the Funny Parts…And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking Into the Hollywood Boys’ Club
By Nell Scovell
Dey Street
336 pp.

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Sofia Rei

This leading light of Latin jazz had the most infectious smile at the 2012 Winter Jazzfest. The Buenos Aires native infuses the traditional music of Argentina with edgy harmonies and odd time signatures, but even for the non-Spanish speaking, the warmth that goes into every syllable communicates it all. Cumbia, currulao, fandango, and other rhythms of Colombia get special treatment here, but as a member of John Zorn’s multicultural vocal group, Mycale, this is only a starting point. Also, in a memorable segment, she taught Conan O’Brien how to drink mate, the Argentine national beverage. His response? “You’re like a dream.”

Thu., Jan. 19, 2 p.m., 2012

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Max Weinberg Big Band

No longer content to provide the backing music to the Masturbating Bear (the Conan O’Brien character–not his boss, the Boss), drummer Max Weinberg quit late-night TV last year to continue playing with the E Street band and start the ensemble he’s leading tonight, the Max Weinberg Big Band. What began as an one-off in December–when the 12-piece group played the music of Count Basie and Buddy Rich–has led to a Monday residency at the Hiro Ballroom beginning tonight. Were that not enough, curious fans can also ask for a “Mighty Max cocktail.”

Mon., March 7, 7 p.m., 2011

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MAKE ME LAUGH

What do John Hughes, Chevy Chase, and Conan O’Brien have in common? If you answered that they’ve all made you pee in your pants at some point in your life, you’re getting warm. All three started their comedic careers at the Harvard Lampoon, and its spin-off, the National Lampoon Magazine. Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: A Tribute to the National Lampoon dives into this historic and iconic publication and its stage show that saw the likes of John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Bill Murray, and many of their contributors, rise to fame on Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, and other shows and films. Tonight’s talk with original Lampoon alums includes artist Rick Meyerowitz, writer Danny Abelson, the Lampoon‘s “poet laureate” Sean Kelly, cartoonist Arnold Roth, and former Lampoon editor Mike Reiss, who will serve as the moderator.

Thu., Nov. 11, 8:15 p.m., 2010

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OFF THE AIR

Check out the TV rejects of Conan, Ben Stiller, and Judd Apatow
Ever find yourself hypnotically fixed to the couch, rounding out the third hour of an overly laugh-tracked sitcom binge (we, um, surely don’t) and wondering in awe at what manner of programming didn’t make the cut if this piss-poor excuse for entertainment did? Well, incidentally, it’s the awesome stuff that gets cast aside, at least according to The Other Network, a festival of the best unaired TV pilots ever made. For two nights, never-before-seen shows will be screened that were either too controversial, like 1998’s Five Houses about a gay couple moving into a suburban neighborhood; too hilarious, like the original Saturday TV Funhouse, a sketch show hosted by a drunken clown; or just too weird, like Ben Stiller’s masterpiece Heatvision & Jack, in which Jack Black plays an ultra-smart ex-astronaut with a talking motorcycle sidekick voiced by Owen Wilson. See other denied titles by Judd Apatow, Brent Forrester, and Conan O’Brien and decide for yourself if the network execs were right.

Fri., July 23, 7:30 & 9:30 p.m., 2010

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LONG LIVE COCO!

When Conan O’Brien was recently interviewed on 60 Minutes, the now-bearded redhead took the high road and didn’t talk any shit about king douchebag Jay Leno. We’re expecting tonight’s Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour stop, his first New York appearance since he left for L.A, to be a little more truthful on the matter. O’Brien, being the Irish fighter that he is, is hitting the pavement hard on this grassroots campaign to rally for his TBS late-night debut, and tonight’s show should have lots of tears, lots of laughs, and, of course, lots of special guests. A life without Coco isn’t worth living.

Tue., June 1, 8 p.m.; Wed., June 2, 8 p.m., 2010

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Barack Obama is Golden, Rush Limbaugh is Screwed — Predictions for the Year of the Tiger!

By Fatimah Surjani Ortega

Yes, Tiger, this could be your year
Yes, Tiger, this could be your year

Sunday ushers in the Year of Metal Tiger, which sounds like a golf club. That’s actually appropriate, because things look auspicious for Tiger Woods — as long as he can keep his dick in his pants.

Just in time for Chinese New Year, the Voice offers up this celebrity-centered translation of what’s in store for all you furry animals. We’re basing it on the teachings of none other than the Feng Shui Grand Master himself, Singapore-born Tan Khoon Yong.

Let’s start at the beginning, with those of you born in the Year of the Rat (1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008): Your advice for 2010? Pray hard, and pray often.

Governor, you're screwed
Governor, you’re screwed

You have a rough road ahead. Being a rodent, you tend to run and hide from big things. That’s not the game plan for this year. You need to find some courage and bluff your way through this year’s maze. Only through sheer self-confidence, and, well, assholery are you going to find your way to the cheese. Be brave, be a jerk, stay supremely self-assured, and you won’t end up some pussycat’s lunch. If people bitch and moan about you, put on earphones and turn up the volume.
In for a bumpy ride: Ben Affleck, Cameron Diaz, David Duchovny, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford

Year of the Ox (1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009)

The future is bright, Barry
The future is bright, Barry

Barack Obama, an Ox, won the presidency in the Year of the Rat, which was a very lucky year for him. He took office in his own year, 2009’s Year of the Ox, which sounds just perfect, doesn’t it? Actually, it predicted disaster: when you meet your own year, Tan Khoon Yong tells us, you challenge the Grand Duke Jupiter God, and although we aren’t really sure what that means, it sure doesn’t sound good, does it? Well, that’s all over with now, and the GOP can really start sweating. Tiger and Ox get along just fine, and Obama should have a monster year. For all you Oxen out there, just keep this in mind: Don’t mix work with pleasure. You tend to work too hard, you lose focus, and your health suffers. Find time to chill. And men, treat your wives well and keep your eyes off the cute cows at the office.
Ready for a bull market: Susan Boyle, George Clooney, Mos Def, Heidi Klum, Barack Obama, Meg Ryan

Year of the Tiger (1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998)

It's not Rush's year
It’s not Rush’s year

Sorry, Tigers, but you’re fucked. The Feng Shui masters say you’ll be offering up a challenge to Tai Sui, the Grand Duke Jupiter, or God of the Year, and with every freaking thing you do, you’ll have to watch your back. This is not a year to take chances, and if things aren’t going your way you’re going to feel like crap. All the time. But don’t lose hope entirely. This is a year to count on yourself, because you won’t find help from others. Create your own opportunities through careful, logical planning, and count on your imagination for ideas. Be cautious and wise, and you can give Grand Duke Jupiter — and everyone else — the finger.
Who’s in deep shit: Tom Cruise, Jenna Jameson, Jay Leno, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Sanchez

Year of the Rabbit (1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999)

Get tanned and rested, and then make them pay, Conan!
Get tanned and rested, and then make them pay, Conan!

The lovable hare. Your charm makes you popular, and you feel good, but you might be looking for trouble. The new year should start with a plan to fix some lingering problems. Why? Hare men tend to cheat. And when you’re both rabbits — we’re looking at you, Brangelina — well, the tabloids may be in for a banner year. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that Tiger Woods is a randy rabbit, but if he’s really determined to change his ways, this year is on his side. Rabbits, stop trying to charm the rest of the world and use your powers instead to improve things at home and at work. And get some sun. Vitamin D can be the difference between a gloomy or glorious year.
Who needs some beach time: Angelina Jolie, Michelle Obama, Conan O’Brien, Sarah Palin, Brad Pitt, Alex Rodriguez, Tiger Woods

Year of the Dragon (1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000)

Keep the change, Fiddy
Keep the change, Fiddy

You self-obsessed lizard, you thought everyone was having a shitty 2009. Well, there has been a recession on, but things were tougher on you than others. And you aren’t getting a break any time soon. Yes, it’s another tough year for the dragons, and watch out for unpleasant surprises, all related to your usual shortcomings (you know what they are). But fuck it, don’t listen to this prediction. You did survive the worst recession in a generation, and if you did that, you’ll be fine. Cheer up, Smaug.
Keep your wings tucked and your head down: 50 Cent, Courtney Cox, Bret Easton Ellis, Courtney Love, Liam Neeson, Reese Witherspoon

Year of the Snake (1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001)

John, you ignorant slut
John, you ignorant slut

Things look good for snakes, but don’t get pleased with yourself just yet. Serpents tend to celebrate success with sexual adventure, and some of you will be determined to turn this into the Year of the Slut. Down, boy! Try to redirect that energy into your career or something, because giving in to your impulses is not a good idea this year.
Who’s champing to whore around: Mike Bloomberg, Tina Brown, John Edwards, Maggie Gyllenhaal, John Mayer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Taylor Swift, Oprah Winfrey

Year of the Horse (1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002)

Stay warm-blooded, Kristen!
Stay warm-blooded, Kristen!

Healthy as a horse? Tell that to Barbaro. Yes, it’s going to be that kind of year, Seabiscuit, and you better watch it. Trouble is looking for you, and it’s your health that’s likely to suffer. Avoid disputes, particularly anything involving documents that have your name on them, and gallop away from a deal that isn’t guaranteed. That said, a modest investment in real estate might be wise, and whatever you do, donate some charity or at least some blood while your health still holds.
Constitutionally challenged: Halle Berry, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Cynthia Nixon, Gov. David Paterson, Kristen Stewart

Year of the Goat (1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003)

Everyone loves you, Steve
Everyone loves you, Steve

So long, bad luck, here comes good fortune. If Steve Jobs knew what was good for him, he’d have delayed introducing the iPad until after Chinese New Year (and given it a better name!). At least he’ll have a good chance to gain some weight this year. Goats are in luck: other people will favor them this year, and they’ll find assistance from places they didn’t expect it. But Billy, don’t be a show off. Play things right, and you’ll gain back more than you lost last year.
Not scapegoats this year: Anderson Cooper, Benicio Del Toro, Steve Jobs, Rupert Murdoch, Michael Musto, Liev Schreiber

Year of the Monkey (1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004)

Jen knows from bad luck
Jen knows from bad luck

Monkey, your cycle of good luck has run out. Like the Tigers, you’re also offending the grand god of the year, and 2010 looks like twelve months of suckage. But monkeys often find ways to outsmart their misfortunes — except that they’re also accident prone. So figure things out with that nimble and creative mind, but don’t take risks or you’re likely to slip on a banana peel.
In the jungle this year: Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Aniston, Daniel Craig, Salma Hayek, Jason Schwartzman, Will Smith

Year of the Cock (1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005)

Time to make the big move, Jay-Z!
Time to make the big move, Jay-Z!

We know, we know, it’s always the year of the cock, at least in the Village. But this year, seriously, you roosters have much to crow about. The stars have all aligned, and you need to make your big moves RIGHT NOW. Andrew Cuomo? Nothing can stop you, certainly not the likes of David Paterson and Rick Lazio. The feng shui masters say that this is the year for cocks to lay the foundation for a brighter future (and yes, they really do talk like that, so stop giggling). Don’t mess up this opportunity. Be smart, but be bold.
Who wins: Beyonce, Gerard Butler, Andrew Cuomo, Jay-Z, Spike Lee, Taylor Momsen, Gwen Stefani, Tila Tequila

Year of the Dog (1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006)

These dogs won't hunt
These dogs won’t hunt

Sorry, puppies, you’re in the doghouse this year. Not only is your luck poor, other people are going to shit on you all year long (and not pick up after themselves!). But look, there’s only one way to deal with it: Don’t complain, don’t whimper, take your losses in stride, and stay out of other people’s business. Don’t drive yourself insane waiting for your luck to turn. There’s an end to this, and it’s just twelve months away. Until then, just take it like a mindless, happy puppy.
Bad dog, no biscuit: George W. Bush, Kelly Clarkson, Bill Clinton, Joseph Fiennes, Queen Latifah, Anna Paquin

Year of the Boar (1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007)

No one needs to tell Dave this is his moment
No one needs to tell Dave this is his moment

Boars have had it tough. Hard work didn’t pay off for political pigs Eliot Spitzer and Hillary Clinton in 2008. Last year, 2009, was also supposed to be a lousy one for porkers, but somehow David Letterman watched it happen to the other guys. For the rest of you pigs, 2010 might just be your year. Shrug off the uncertainty and make this a year you take a chance. Sure, others think you’ve been beaten — but now is the time to surprise them with your resilience. Spitzer wants to run again? Do it, man, and not just in your socks.
Who gets a break: Lance Armstrong, Hillary Clinton, Nicky Hilton, Mila Kunis, David Letterman, Ewan McGregor, Eliot Spitzer

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FINE ‘TOONING

From the foreplay robot 4-Playo to Jesus’ evil half-brother, Pagus, to the money-loving boy band Boybank, cartoonist Michael Kupperman has the kind of wicked sense of humor that attracts such loyal fans as Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel. Tonight, meet his many characters at the release party for his hilarious new book, Tales Designed to Thrizzle Vol. 1, published by Fantagraphics. Kupperman, whose work has appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, and McSweeney’s, will give a PowerPoint presentation in which he will perform his way through several of his comics, doing all the voices himself. The show includes an adventure with the absurd duo Snake’N’Bacon (about a hissing snake and a talking strip of bacon, obviously) and his 3-D comic from Nickelodeon Magazine “Hercules vs. Zeus”; 3-D glasses will be provided.

Tue., Aug. 18, 7 p.m., 2009

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Noise From The Front

Happy birthday to Conan O’Brien, born April 18th, 1963.

The Postmarks
Looks Like Rain,” from The Postmarks (Unfiltered, 2007)
[Music listing for Thursday, April 19]

Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers
Berro e Sombaro,” from Bustin’ Loose (Source, 1978)
[Music listing for Thursday, April 19]

Fountains of Wayne
Fire in the Canyon,” from Traffic and Weather (Virgin, 2007)
[Music listing for Tuesday, April 24]

New Riders of the Purple Sage
“You Angel You,” from The Best of New Riders of the Purple Sage (1971)
[Music listing for Thursday, April 19]

Jarvis Cocker
From Aushwitz to Ipswich,” from Jarvis (2006)
[Music listing for Sunday, April 22]

Peter Stampfel
Balance the Budget,” from New Prohibition (Viper, 2001)
[Music listing for Saturday, April 21]

Todd Rundgren
Can We Still Be Friends?” from The Very Best of Todd Rundgren (Bearsville, 1997)
[Music listing for Sunday, April 22]

John Vanderslice
Lunar Landscapes,” from Cellar Door (Barsuk, 2004)
[Music listing for Wednesday, April 18]

Norah Jones
Be My Somebody,” from Not Too Late (Blue Note, 2007)
[Music listing for Wednesday, April 18]

Third Eye Blind
Never Let You Go,” from Blue (Elektra, 1999)
[Music listing for Tuesday, April 24]

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Good Mourning America: Presidential Assassination Folklore

Despite the morbid topic of her new book Assassination Vacation (Simon & Schuster, April), Sarah Vowell is having a really good time. For Vowell, the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley offer an irresistible bounty, with “so many good stories hiding inside their lore.” A self-proclaimed “nice girl,” Vowell is “fascinated by egomaniacs, not just the self-absorbed weirdos who kill presidents, but also the self-absorbed weirdos who run for president.” “Totem poles, mummies, religious cults, [and] Herman Melville” are just some of the bizarre artifacts that crop up in her travels from one assassination site to the next.

This American Life personality Vowell is engaging her showbiz side by recording the audio version of Assassination. Celebrity guests include Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart, Stephen King, and Tony Kushner, who talks about “things like ejaculatory crisis.”

In the opening chapter, a stream of murderers and their presidential victims sing and dance in a production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins, which Vowell attends as part of her research. The antithesis of a serious historian, Vowell “can’t stand staying in frilly rooms with a jillion throw pillows but no TV.” Her book is as much a travelogue replete with breaks for grits as it is legitimate historiography. Vowell’s wit never abandons us to the potentially oppressive subject matter; she considers it her duty “not to be a total drag” while helping us understand these presidents’ lives and untimely deaths.