(Note: Be sure to check out Paste’s full review of Late Night.)
A relation lamented to me recently that every high-level meeting at his company was “White Dude Names Mad Libs.” That’s the story in a lot of places I’ve worked. Late Night, written by and starring Mindy Kaling, is a look at a world where there might be one shred of hope to have one meeting room where an Indian-American woman isn’t considered a “diversity hire.” Kaling, working with director Nisha Ganatra (The Last Man On Earth, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Fresh Off the Boat, Future Man), manages to make the point that this is directly related to the other factors that make a toxic workplace unbearable while still making a solid comedy with a light touch.
Kaling envisions a world in which late night comedy has one female star, Emma Thompson’s dry sophisticate, Katherine Newbury. In this bizarre alternate history, a woman has been hosting a late night show for so long that her writers go by dictates that include “nothing funny happened after 1995” and a scandal late in the film makes it into Bill Maher’s monologue. Thompson’s show is in a well-known slump—or at least, a slump well-known to everybody but her. When she fires a long-suffering writer on a whim for daring to ask for a raise for his growing family, he snaps back that she’s surrounded by the same kind of people, writing the same kind of dumb jokes. The network’s CEO wants to fire her unless she stops booking “boring” guests like Doris Kearns Goodwin and start booking Avengers. Something has to change, and so on another whim, she hires Molly Patel (Kaling), an amateur standup comedian currently working at a chemical plant with zero professional writing experience.
Thompson is bearing a lot of thematic weight in Kaling’s script. She’s simultaneously an example of the late night host going through the motions of their sinecure with maximum complacency, the Sorkin protagonist wailing at the dumbing down of the world, the Prada-wearing devil terrorizing her office, and the scandal-plagued woman in the spotlight. (It’s actually fun to imagine how venomously she and Maher would hate one another in real life, and it’s a credit to Thompson’s skills that her character feels genuine enough you would even think this.)
That complexity manages not to confuse the proceedings, but give them nuance. It would’ve been easier (and way lazier) for Kaling to write Newbury as a man who embodies every ill of late night television. That we get to contemplate how one of the most exclusive and visible jobs in the country would be different for a woman working within the male-dominated comedy field that Kaling knows intimately. It also means Molly isn’t some Nobly Suffering Great Man’s muse.
In some ways, not so differently, it turns out. Newbury is a prima donna, one easily recognizable to a writer like me who is now several years into jobs that involve putting words in the mouths of people who are very much the arbiters of their own brands. Molly and the other long-suffering writers in Thompson’s writer’s room are explicitly there for a very specific set of directives: to write stuff that doesn’t challenge anyone, doesn’t reveal anything meaningful about the person delivering it to the audience, that this exacting performer also doesn’t think is bad, and oh, right, that people might think is funny. It’s Kaling’s apology for comedy writing at the same time it’s a pointed criticism of it from an accomplished practitioner.
And, as Molly finds out, you can fulfill all these seemingly contradictory dictates perfectly and still have your joke cut for being too damn real, as Thompson does with a more overtly political jab that is Kaling’s first successful pitch for the monologue. When that joke finally makes its debut, it signals the completion of a major arc for both Molly and Newbury, and their relationship to one another.
That change manifests itself in the late night show itself, where Thompson starts freshening up her routine at Kaling’s direction, but it also shows in how she opens up to her staff and starts treating them like human beings after flat-out abusing them for the entire movie. It’s that change, almost as much as leaning into segments where she ironically embraces her white privilege and tweets her audience’s complaints to heartless corporations, that signals her growth as a character and why that growth is actually important.
As a snobbish tyrant enabled by a completely homogenous staff with no incentive to grow or experiment, Thomspon’s character has isolated herself not just from people and their complications, but from the ways in which they might actually help her be a better comedienne and do right by her audience and coworkers. As a more inclusive and empathetic boss, she finds that her staff does better work and everybody benefits. Molly brings those changes to the office while also being a character with her own clear motivations and agency, which she doesn’t subordinate to Newbury without demanding respect in kind. It’s almost like they have a mutually beneficial relationship founded on professional distance, clear boundaries, and presumably adequate compensation.
I’ve worked in really diverse offices and in totally homogenous ones, in respectful and accommodating offices and in every kind of toxic one. No workplace is perfect, but these two things make all the difference, and determine whether I stick around for years or slink out after a few months. Diversity is sneered at like almost nothing else, but it makes the office more understanding, the brainstorming sessions more meaningful, and means a white guy of mixed descent like me doesn’t need to deal with fucking racist jokes to his face. It means the shitty aspects of any one sort of person are not enabled and amplified by every damn one of their coworkers, such that the office becomes a feedback loop of deficient personalities. A respectful boss working from a clear set of time-off rules sends the message that employees’ time is valuable and valued, that it is okay they have lives outside the office. That’s one underlying statement in a movie that’s otherwise about marriage drama, peering behind the veil of the writer’s room whose product the entire country sees every night, and a statement on what would make the format fresher.
You notice how it wasn’t another white dude who brought it to us?
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