The Late Night show has undergone quite the evolution since its original inception. From a post-Broadway event to mainstream entertainment to a cathartic means of coping with politics gone haywire, the market for this show remains active. But it’s still a cutthroat market dominated by masculine competition and the fear that networks might not bring your act, or even a fellow writer, back after a few months. Late Night, the latest Mindy Kaling-written project, explores this market with a story that, while hilarious and heartfelt, feels a bit too simplistic. It recognizes the highs and lows of running these programs in the face of shifting tastes and sexist media practices, not to mention promoting diversity in the workplace. But whether these themes go beyond the punchline is a matter of discussion.
Two women are the focus of Late Night: Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), a 30-year veteran host of the talk show Tonight, and Molly Patel (Kaling), a chemical plant employee seeking a future in comedy. Molly applies to Tonight on a whim and, to her surprise, is hired. Not so much for past comedy experience- the closest Molly got to standup was making jokey announcements into the plant microphone- but she’s an avid fan of the show. Rather, Katherine needs to expand her writing staff beyond its white male roster and Molly just so happens to be the diversity hire. It doesn’t help that her ratings have been tanking for almost a decade. So much so that the head network executive (Amy Ryan) intends to have her step down, with the likely replacement being a Tosh.0, frat boy-type douche by the name of Daniel Tennant (fittingly played by MADtv alumni, Ike Barinholtz).
If you’ve watched The Devil Wears Prada, the scenario might feel familiar. Katherine is like Miranda Priestly with a comedy background rather than fashion and Molly, as the Andy stand-in, is encouraged to assist Katherine as much as possible, even though she’ll reject said help at first. As Kaling put it during the Montclair Film Festival Q&A, Thompson knows how to blend humor with a sense of gravitas that underlies the toll of keeping oneself relevant in this entertainment position. Her status holds even more weight when you consider how niche Katherine’s fictional voice in the entertainment industry must seem to real-life network television, whose lack of female hosts, let alone one who held the position for decades, remains an understandable topic of scorn.
When paired with Molly as her comedic foil, Katherine starts opening up. She isn’t necessarily a fan of working with female writers and barely remembers the names of her male writers save for her assistant, Brad (Denis O’Hare), instead, addressing them by numbers. By contrast, Molly is earnest, bubbly, and deeply admiring of Katherine’s body of work— the type of fangirl who recognizes when her hero was on top of the world and where she went astray. And like most shows about comedy, it’s the monologue bits, whether in front of a large network audience or a small gathering for charity, where we see the vulnerability beneath this “perfectionist” reveal itself. One woman has the talent to make it big and the other has been at her game for so long that she fears having to change the usual comedic routine. Together, their interactions make for Late Night’s strongest moments.
The writing staff characters, however, are far less fleshed out. In fact, much like Katherine, I don’t think I caught most of their names, let alone personalities. These men adhere to a sitcom-like trajectory of first treating Molly with scorn and skepticism, mostly for having no professional experience, before gradually embracing her ingenuity as a co-worker. Even John Lithgow’s solid performance as Katherine’s husband, Walter, a pianist suffering from early stages of Parkinson’s, feels detached from the main cast. In all honesty, it feels like the film crew could only afford him for a few days of shooting before switching back to the workplace scenes. These characters understand the business practices and turmoil of late night comedy but I didn’t get to know them all that well.
What Late Night gets right the most is its portrayal of a talk show workspace striving to crank out good comedy each night. It’s a hectic procedure of writing various jokes and compiling a select number of them into a monologue that sets the show’s tone for the next hour. And sometimes, your best joke might not make the final cut or, even worse, be rejected on stage— a disappointing feeling for any writer. At least, that’s what we learned from MFF moderator, Stephen Colbert, a fellow Jersey resident whose tenure on The Late Show warrants maximum authenticity. Colbert’s visual font is all over Tonight’s in-universe marketing and even its set design which makes sense given The Late Show’s influence on modern televised comedy. Personally, I’d be all up for having every late night host watch this film in a room and compare notes on whether it reflects their work schedule.
Verdict: 3 out of 5 Stars
Late Night makes for a funny workplace sitcom but I wouldn’t call it an original dramedy. More like an extension of Mindy Kaling’s work on The Office that discusses modern social topics by framing them like… well, a sitcom. Make no mistake, messages like this need to be addressed and made a reality but Late Night feels more surface-level in its host/audience dynamic compared to Katherine and Molly’s personal bond. Perhaps, with the upcoming fall debut of Lilly Singh’s late show on NBC, these changes will come sooner than expected. After watching an Indian voice discuss this industry’s workplace struggles, it’ll be poetic to see the first Indian woman host of such a show on the Big 4 networks.