Mindy Kaling's Late Night celebrates individuality in a cutthroat industry—an empowering message for humor writers like me
I write jokes for a living. Well, I also write food reviews, local features, and technical content about cloud computing (I’m fun), but my income these days is about 65 percent jokes. As a humor writer with the ultimate goal of working in late-night TV, I was eager to check out Late Night, Mindy Kaling’s new comedy about a veteran late-night host (Emma Thompson) and her scrappy new writer’s room hire (Kaling). The comedy industry is slowly becoming more inclusive, but Late Night—an industry film penned by a woman—is long overdue. It didn’t disappoint.
Thompson is at the center of Late Night as Katherine Newbury, an extremely British late-night veteran clad in the most exquisite suits I’ve ever seen. Katherine has built a career on her dry, erudite humor and her personal motto: “Excellence without compromise.” She has decades in the business, a sumptuous sitting room packed with Emmys, and one serious problem: Despite her sharp humor and obvious influence, Katherine has become irrelevant. That’s due to a few things, most notably her all-white, all-male writer’s room that looks like a caucus of the Harvard Lampoon’s most ardent boat shoe devotees. Early on, Katherine’s stage manager, Brad (Denis O’Hare), tactfully suggests that the room is less than inclusive. “I don’t think you think you hate women,” he says lightly.
Enter Kaling’s character: Molly Patel, a Pennsylvania chemical plant quality control manager whose comedy experience is limited to the occasional quip sprinkled into her factory loudspeaker announcements. Katherine demands that Brad hire a woman, and Molly is simply the first one to show up for the interview. She gets the job, a fact that infuriates Katherine’s bro-centric writing staff. “I wish I was a woman of color so I could get a job with zero qualifications,” moans one of the writers. It’s a little on the nose, but it’s a complaint I’ve heard before from white colleagues who would rather bash diverse hiring practices than put in the work to make themselves more competitive candidates.
Molly fumbles her way into the room on her first day, dreamily quoting Yeats and toting boxes of cupcakes for her waspy coworkers–even sitting on an overturned trash can instead of asking for a chair. Despite her earnest nature, which Katherine describes as “hard to be around,” Molly quickly proves that she’s more than a diversity hire. With no one willing to teach her the rules of the room, Molly makes her own, injecting her own ideas into the tired, murky world of late-night. Molly’s perspective becomes even more valuable when network CEO Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) announces her plan to replace Katherine with truly heinous dude comic Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz). Faced with losing her show, Katherine accepts Molly’s advice to ditch her uppity tone and meet her audience on their level.
Like Molly, I’ve also been described as uncomfortably earnest.
I’m unmistakably Midwestern, with a penchant for consuming baked goods and “sneaking past” people who are in my way. However, that’s where my similarities with Molly end. I may be accommodating to a fault, but I’m also pretty gross. I write jokes about yeast infections and salami; I torment my partner with songs about butts. As a kid, I was often described as “too much,” wearing underpants on my head to get laughs at sleepovers. (If you didn’t wear underpants on your head at slumber parties you’re legally not allowed to submit late-night packets.)
Though I’ve found solace in the comedy community, I’m still occasionally besieged by anxiety when I think about my chosen field. I didn’t attend an Ivy League school, and despite increased diversity in the industry, things are still looking pretty rough. That’s why Late Night is such a delight. Yes, this industry is still incredibly nebulous, with social and professional norms that are sometimes impossible to interpret. Yes, writer’s rooms are still largely dominated by the Harvard Boat Shoe Coalition. But doors are opening. Some of my favorite writers–Ariel Dumas (The Late Show With Stephen Colbert), Karen Chee (Late Night with Seth Meyers) and Jaboukie Young-White (The Daily Show) to name a few–are skirting traditional joke formats and emphasizing kindness and vulnerability in the industry, making way for a whole new wave of diverse writers with unique stories to tell.
The rise of these writers affirms the core message of Late Night: The industry is craving diversity and authenticity.
While the film certainly speaks to the challenges of working in a white male-dominated field, it comes across less as a scrappy women’s story and more as a testament to individuality. By the end of the film, Katherine discovers that her motto–“excellence without compromise”–needs some reshaping. This is, of course, because excellence looks a little different for everyone, and the only way to make truly powerful satire—satire capable of telling important stories and tackling traditional power structures—is to include diverse perspectives. Whether that comes from a Pennsylvania chemical plant worker or a reformed underpants hat model like me, new perspectives move the industry forward.
And let’s be honest: If Emma Thompson can go from snaggletoothed childcare professional to fabulous platinum-coiffed late-night host, anything’s possible.