Between 1992 and 1998, over six seasons and 90 episodes, The Larry Sanders Show chronicled the backstage drama surrounding its titular late night talk show, delivering some of the best satire seen on screens big or small. What could be added to the talk show milieu that wasn’t covered in the late Garry Shandling’s signature show? Well, how about the struggles of a woman in the male dominated world of late night American comedy? Enter Tina Fey in 2006 with 30 Rock, which couldn’t sustain its quality across its subsequent seven seasons but was the funniest show on TV at its height.
Arriving in the wake of two such totemic cult comedy shows, Late Night pales in comparison. It’s an uninsightful, unfunny peek behind the curtains of a failing late night talk show hosted by Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), an English emigre comic who has hosted the show since 1991. When her assistant, Brad (Denis O’Hare), accuses her of hating women, Newbury orders him to immediately add a woman to her all-male writing staff.
Enter Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), a chemical plant worker with no experience in comedy but who has managed to wrangle an interview with Brad through contacting the network’s parent company, which also happens to own the plant that employees her. As Patel is the first woman interviewed for the role, and Newbury is in such a rush to fortify her pseudo feminist facade, Patel is hired on the spot. Facing opposition from both Newbury and her resentful writing staff, Patel battles to have her voice heard and save the ailing show.
Late Night is essentially a message movie on the theme of workplace inclusion, but it’s so inconsistent and contradictory in how it delivers that message that it ultimately gives ammunition to opponents of diversity. For a start, there’s the elephant in the room that is Newbury. In America, female late night talk show hosts are as common as flying unicorns, yet the film presents Newbury as part of a unimpeachable system of privilege. Making a female late night talk show host, which isn’t a real thing, an avatar of the status quo is a truly baffling decision. We’re told Newbury has been hosting the show since 1991 (yeah, right), which means she would have had to battle through the same systemic sexism Patel faces in the writers’ room, yet the film - which seems to think simply being white, regardless of your gender, automatically opens unlimited doors - never acknowledges this. Patel keeps calling out Newbury on her privilege, and I found myself increasingly rooting for the latter to turn on the former and tell her exactly how tough she had to be to arrive at her position.
The film is equally inconsistent regarding Patel’s eligibility for the role she lucks into. During her job interview, Patel overhears Newbury instructing Brad to hire the first woman he comes across, yet she spends the rest of the movie behaving as though she landed the role on merit. Her male colleagues (a bunch of stereotypical Ivy League ‘bros’) have their noses put out of their joints by having to work on an equal footing with someone with none of their qualifications, and can you blame them? Through the character of Patel, Late Night adds fuel to the fire of those who claim women and minorities are only advanced to fill quotas, and the movie can’t even decide whether being a woman of color is a hindrance or an advantage in the workplace. In a standup routine, Patel jokes about how being a woman of color makes her “unfireable”, but this scene comes immediately after we’ve seen her fired by Newbury!!!
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It often feels as though the script, penned by Kaling herself, was written by two writers who didn’t have access to each other’s notes. The movie opens with Newbury collecting the latest of many comedy awards, only to then tell us that her career is on the rocks! It’s implied that Patel is struggling financially, but as is so often the case in American mainstream comedies, she lives in the sort of New York duplex CEOs of tech firms would struggle to afford. I’ll say one thing for Late Night - it’s consistent in its inconsistency.
Even if Late Night could get a grip on its theme (it doesn’t), and even if it were funny (it’s not), it would still suffer from a central narrative that’s difficult to get behind. Newbury prides herself on having intelligent discussions with guests from the world of politics and journalism, but in order to boost ratings and save her job, Patel goads her into dumbing down her show, interviewing YouTube ‘celebs’ and engaging in silly skits. At the same time, Newbury refuses to make jokes about political subjects. What? It’s 2019; that’s literally all late night talk shows do now.
What’s most difficult to swallow is the idea that in 2019 a female talk show host would find her position under threat from a right wing male comedian, as represented by Ike Barinholtz’s crude standup, who makes jokes about defecating in peoples’ shoes and boasts of sleeping with co-eds. Can you imagine the outrage if Ellen DeGeneres became the host of The Tonight Show and found herself in danger of being replaced by Dennis Miller? Late Night seems to exist in both an alternate future where women host late night talk shows and in a past, more conservative era of comedy. It’s a mess. Larry Sanders’ catchphrase was “No flipping!”, encouraging his viewers to stick around during commercials, but if you come across Late Night on TV, you’ll be compelled to flip channels by its first commercial break.
Late Night - 1 ½ stars out of 5
Directed by:Nisha Ganatra; Starring: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, Amy Ryan