At the post-screening Q&A of her new movie, Late Night, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, writer and co-star Mindy Kaling joked that audiences might assume her character Molly’s rough experience in a late-night talk show writers room reflected her own experience on The Office.
The confusion is understandable: The fictionalized late-night show at the center of the film is staffed with a majority of white men, and the writer’s room of Kaling’s long-running NBC sitcom looked nearly the same. Late Night, directed by Nisha Ganatra, questions that paradigm through biting satire, an angle that grabbed Amazon during the festival; the company bought Kaling’s film for the record-setting figure of $13 million.
In Late Night, late-night host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) doesn’t put much thought into the diversity of her writers room — even as a trailblazing female host herself — until she’s called out by a male (!) writer at the beginning of the film. Katherine assigns her head writer Brad (Denis O’Hare) to find a woman to hire. In comes Molly Patel (Kaling), a former chemical plant employee who won an essay writing contest and finessed the win to get an interview for the show. With no experience but a lot of enthusiasm, she lands the job, to the chagrin of her all-white and -male colleagues.
Molly is treated by her co-workers with skepticism and a lack of respect. The microaggressions are often funny, but Kaling’s uphill climb runs parallel to real life. Size up the late-night landscape: It took until 2014 for the first Black woman (Amber Ruffin) to write for a late-night show on broadcast TV. More diverse late-night hosts like Trevor Noah, Busy Phillips, Samantha Bee, and Showtime’s Desus & Mero have brought about more diverse writers rooms. And even late-night shows on broadcast networks have started mixing up their rooms and making writers more visible (see: Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert). But the industry seems to agree, echoed by Kaling’s film, that there’s still work to be done.
Despite the initial hostility, Molly doesn’t shy away from being pushy about her point of view. A continual highlight of Late Night is that Molly is never afraid of calling out the source of her co-workers’ rudeness. In one scene, she tells the head monologue writer that something he said came from the “WASPy pillars” of the white privilege handbook.
Molly also isn’t afraid to leverage her tokenism to her advantage. At a press party at Katherine’s house, Molly saves her boss from tough questions by happily posing alongside her as The Only One™. There are few writer-performers out there like Kaling, who can turn a difficult subject into a hilarious, relatable scene for other people of color who’ve been tokenized.
Late Night makes sense as an Amazon Studios pickup. After comparing the $13 million film with the company’s other acquisitions, there’s a common thread among awards darling The Big Sick and fellow Sundance-premiering film Troop Zero, starring Viola Davis. All three are comedies that utilize humor to work through real-life situations, and all three handle those complex themes without easy answers or joke-diluted explanations.
Like The Big Sick, Late Night will most likely have a release that will be fueled by strong word of mouth. But there’s potential for this to go further with the bigger names of Kaling and Thompson leading the ship. And if it does, we may even see the world of Late Night reflected on our TV screens.
Joi Childs is a freelance writer and sarcasm enthusiast. Born and raised in NYC, she loves writing and talking about the intersection of marketing and nerd life. Her work has appeared at The Hollywood Reporter, The Verge, Okayplayer, and many other outlets.