There are many dramatic moments in Late Night in which a character takes a stand. A too-demanding job is walked out on, a subordinate is coldly deemed inconsequential, fists are raised in the face of “white oppression.” And yet by the end of the film, it’s hard to know what exactly this movie is trying to say, despite the swooning music cues and tough-talking monologues that proliferate it, if other than that the worst stereotypes about women in comedy are apparently true.
Late Night has the markings of what could be a biting satire on bro-filled writer’s rooms and the unbearable whiteness of late night television. Mindy Kaling, who co-stars in the film, wrote the script inspired by her experiences as the lone woman working in The Office’s writing room. In the movie, she plays Molly, a bubbly aspiring comedian who works at a chemical plant with no work experience in comedy, who dreams of working for Kathryn Newbury (Emma Thompson), a lone woman in the late-night talk show genre and a veteran comedian with a room full of Emmys.
Thompson’s biting performance as Kathryn is easily the best part of the film, resorting to calling the writers in her room simply by numbers since she can’t bother to remember their names, and rolling her eyes at the profiles of her boss that make sure to qualify her as a “female” executive. But she has a serious problem: she’s going to be fired. The show is irrelevant, in part because of Kathryn’s bland, all-white dude, Ivy League-bred writers room, and her unwillingness to stay current with social media and pop culture. She decides she needs to hire a woman, and any one will do. Molly gets the job, not because she’s talented, but because she’s there.
“I wish I was a woman of color so I could get a job with zero qualifications,” one of Molly’s coworkers groans. It’s a common gripe among white people, especially men, who truly feel like people of color with their same jobs (or better) got there through calculated, tokenizing means. But the problem is that, Molly did literally have zero qualifications, and not just in the bullet-point, resumé sense. There’s no real sense of who Molly is as a comic in this film, other than a vehicle to bring a non-white, non-male edge to the show. Is she even funny? She brings cupcakes to work on the first day and hangs up earnest inspirational posters at her desk, and this is a woman who was dying to work with a host who makes her employees shake in fear. That Kaling could write such a hollow depiction of an aspiring comedy writer, a woman of color who got a job just because she was there, fuels the worst stereotypes of women working in comedy: they’re not hired for their talent, but for the fact that their identities cross off a box for the company. “You have to be useful to her,” Molly is advised by a coworker. “That way even if she doesn’t like you, she needs you.”
Molly helps the show by infusing it with ratings-bait political commentary and a self-awareness regarding Kathryn’s old, whiteness, but not without a breaking point from Kathryn. During an impromptu stand-up set, some cranky material on Twitter being bad just isn’t cutting it with the crowd, and Kathryn gains laughs by talking about her age. “I’ll play the mom in the Sean Penn movie where Emma Stone plays his girlfriend, his childhood sweetheart,” she says. “I’m going to need face work to do voice work.” Suddenly, joking about herself is in, and it’s also her only way out of being fired.
Molly’s prevailing idea about how comedy should be, and how Kathryn’s comedy should be, is that it should reflect one’s self; Molly’s favorite stand-up of Kathryn’s is an old vintage special where she talks about being depressed. As for Kathryn, she thinks Molly’s generation’s “obsession with catharsis borders on narcissism.” As the movie progresses, there’s a noticeable pull in the film for viewers to take Molly’s side on this issue, positioning Kathryn as the cold boss who disposes of writers like used pieces of tissue. And yet all of Kathryn’s anxieties as a performer, that she doesn’t want to lean into cheap gags, that she doesn’t want to write material about her personal life, especially not pinned exclusively to her gender or her age, are completely warranted.
That Kathryn can make jokes nobody else on Late Night can make (meaning, a politically charged joke about loving menopause in the face of a misogynistic society actually rings true) is presented as a step forward for her and for the show, but every woman knows that self-deprecation, especially in comedy, has a price. Joke too often about your female-ness, or exclusively about it, and it becomes everything you are, overriding your personhood. Not only does the film present this transformation clearly as a virtue for Kathryn, it presents the idea that in order for her to be successful again she must be “likable.” At one point, Molly even asks her if she can even smile.
The irony here is that, in watching Molly, I get the sense that Kaling is also quietly resisting playing a real “raw” person. Nothing about Molly, on paper, is designed to be unlikable, but she also seems unreal, perhaps cast from a rom-com era of film that Kaling idolizes. She is naive about love and work. She is not mean. She does benefit shows for lung cancer, because that’s how her dad died. She writes jokes with a political message, but nothing too out-there. I kept waiting for Molly’s breaking point, that she and Kathryn would influence each other equally, and Molly would finally become a sharp, funny ball-buster so many actual women comics are. But she is a portrait of feminine goodness, one on which the film hinges its retrograde ethos about good comedy.
In Late Night, women are still not allowed to just be. They can not simply be writers, nor comedians. In Late Night, women are hired not for their talent, but for the fact that they are simply there. Is this a satire of women in comedy, or bait for the men who hate them? Perhaps it doesn’t matter, as long as women make sure to smile while watching.
Late Night hits theaters on June 7.