We need more comedies. The comedy seems to disappearing more and more from theaters and is showing up more and more on streaming services like Netflix. That’s not a Netflix dig! Without them, we’d have barely any comedies at all. But, at least for me, the best communal experience in a movie theater is a comedy. It’s fun to laugh with other people! I sometimes forget this because of the scarcity of comedies these days. And it’s usually at the Sundance Film Festival when I remember how much I enjoy this experience. Two years ago it was The Big Sick that had audiences roaring. This year it’s Mindy Kaling’s new vehicle, that she both wrote and stars in, Late Night.
Directed by Nisha Ganatra, Kaling plays Molly, a quality control specialist at a chemical plant that, through a bit of a scheme, lands an interview for a late night talk show writing gig even though she has no experience in comedy. The show in question is Tonight with Katherine Newbury and Emma Thompson plays Katherine Newbury as, well – maybe the most direct comparison might be David Letterman in his later years. She’s not the easiest to be around and barely knows her own staff anymore. She refuses to do any comedy that would involve leaving her desk and she’s even involved in a scandal involving with sleeping with one of her subordinates. Her show, once celebrated, has gotten stale and bad as Katherine just kind of goes through the motions – at least until the network also decides her show is stale and wants her out in favor of a hotshot comic whose jokes involve defecting in shoes. (This comic is played by Ike Barinholtz, who is very good at playing a dipshit comic.) Also, in retrospect, after writing all that out, this does feel a lot like Letterman’s last couple of years.
Molly is hired after Katherine is confronted with accusation that she doesn’t like working with women. Now, what makes Late Night work is Kaling’s own experiences being part of television writing rooms. Yes, it’s all men who work for the show. When Molly is hired, some are supportive, some are dismissive, some don’t seem to care one way or another – which, yes, is probably actually the way this would all happen in real life. Not everyone is going to gang up and automatically hate Molly because they all probably secretly hate (or, at least, are envious of) each other anyway. And the overall consensus seems to be more of confusion as to why someone who was working in a chemical plant is now a writer on the show.
Maybe the worst thing ever made about late night comedy was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. (For as much as I loved The West Wing, Studio 60 was just so … pompous.) Writing rooms aren’t usually filled with people who think they need to change the world with their comedy. Instead, it’s people just trying to get their joke on the air. That’s pretty much it. And Kaling’s writing captures this really well. And it’s most likely even worse when the show has become stale. People are phoning it in. What’s smart about this movie is when Molly arrives, her presence doesn’t immediately do much of anything other than earn her a few dressing-downs by Katherine for not knowing what she’s talking about. It’s only after Katherine realizes she’s going to lose the show do things start to change. One writer can’t do much if the host is checked out.
There are a couple of huge plot points that seem to be resolved maybe a little too quickly and unexpectedly. (With one of these, there’s a line of dialogue that says something to the effect of, “I bet you’re surprised!” I appreciate everyone realizes this was wrapped up abruptly, but that line doesn’t excuse it from being wrapped up abruptly.) But, regardless, Late Night is really funny and I do hope it winds up receiving a theatrical release. I really do miss the communal experience of laughing with strangers. And I shouldn’t have to come to Utah every year to remember what that’s like. Late Night is going to wind up being one of the best comedies of 2019.
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