Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is the long-running star of a network late night show, the only woman in that position, but she hasn’t done much for others of her gender along the way. She also has a reputation as a bit of a tyrant (echoes of Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada”) who’s so out of touch with her staff that she doesn’t even know the names of the writers, who have never been allowed in the studio during the taping of her show. They write their jokes and bits, pass them along to Brad, Katherine’s producer (Denis O’Hare), who runs them by her and then back to the writers to fix.
That’s actually not an unusual setup in television. David Letterman had his writers’ material filtered through a head writer, and Jackie Gleason went even further, forcing the staff to merely slide their scripts and jokes under his door without ever meeting him face to face.
Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) has no experience in comedy or television, but becomes a diversity hire because Katherine’s writing staff is made up exclusively of white men, and something has to change. Again, there’s a basis in reality here. For decades, there was no place for women in late night shows’ writers rooms, a trend that has only been changed a bit in the last decade. As an outsider now on the inside, Molly is also the only one who will tell the empress she has no clothes, pointing out what’s wrong with Katherine’s show and helping devise ways to fix it.
The biggest problem with “Late Night” is that, like so many prior movies about TV hosts and standup comedians, none of the supposed comedy professionals says anything funny when on stage or on television. I wrote about this at length in my review of Robert DeNiro in “The Comedians” in 2017 (read it here). If you want to see the difference, go back and watch “The Big Sick,” which is full of comedians — including star Kumail Nanjiani — saying things that actually make you laugh (my review of that one is here).
One of the big plot points is that Katherine is being pushed out of her show by network honcho Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan), who is tired of Katherine’s ratings declining for nearly a decade. Ten years of dropping ratings and she’s only now facing cancellation? Her replacement will be Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz), a brash, Dane Cook-like standup whose career is seemingly super-hot — but the clips we see of his act reveal him to be an obnoxiously offensive jerk who no network would ever hire to lead a late night show. And, again, we never witness him saying anything remotely amusing.
Emma Thompson is a wonderful actress who can be naturally funny, but she’s neither a comic nor a broadcaster, the two must-have qualities for anyone hosting a late night comedy show. She’s so much better in the dramatic scenes than in the ones where her character is performing. As for Mindy Kaling, she has proven her comedy chops before, and it’s great that she gets to star in a movie she wrote and got green-lighted. If only it were funnier — although some of the humor is ruined by bad editing.
Director Nisha Ganatra has worked almost entirely on TV sitcoms, where the studio audience’s laughs fill in the beat after a joke. In “Late Night,” in scenes with an audience, their reactions aren’t natural and come too quickly, as if they knew the lines ahead of time. In others, she doesn’t allow for the laugh beat, which clips the punchlines too abruptly.
As for the supporting cast, there are subplots involving two of the male writers played by Hugh Dancy and Reid Scott, who look so similar, I couldn’t tell them apart. The always solid John Lithgow plays Katherine’s stalwart husband, but he’s not given much to do. There’s a a clever scene with Kaling and Seth Meyers, playing himself. And Annaleigh Ashford (Betty on “Masters Of Sex”) appears as a YouTube star Katherine is forced to book as a guest to talk about her insipid videos, which have garnered a huge online following.
Oh, one other nit-pick. The late night show in the movie is called “Tonight with Katherine Newbury.” Nope! No one’s gonna use “Tonight” as the title of a late night show except for NBC — which has owned that word in that daypart for almost 70 years.
“Late Night” wants to be inspirational and satirical at the same time, a combination too difficult to pull off. Garry Shandling already shredded this corner of the TV world on “Larry Sanders” more than two decades ago. That sendup was both biting and hysterical, a standard “Late Night” only aspires to.
As much as I admire Thompson and Kaling, I can’t recommend “Late Night.” I give it a 5 out of 10.