Four Surprises to Keep an Eye on in Mindy Kaling’s Late Night

Mindy Kaling’s love letter to late-night television Late Night doesn’t hit theaters until June (in NY and LA on the 7th, nationwide the following week), but last night crowds across the country got to see the film early, and were regaled with a streamed Q&A after the movie. Moderated by Variety’s Jenelle Riley, the conversation dove into the origins of the film, its long road to the big screen, and fun behind-the-scenes details. Among the ones that will undoubtedly endear you to the project before it’s release:

  • Kaling’s roots are in the late night world.
    Most know Kaling for her first major writing credit, NBC’s The Office. She parlayed a prolific and critically received tenure in that writing room into her own TV show, Fox/Hulu’s The Mindy Project. But her career actually started in late night, when she interned for Conan O’Brien at 19. What’s more, she calls herself a devotee of the genre, staying up-to-date on the late night wars of the 90s and continually keeping an eye on the form out of live.To Riley, she mentioned the major challenge she set for herself in writing the film, namely writing dialogue, monologue jokes, late night sketches, and standup-style jokes – all within the same script. It was a tall order, and she jokingly lamented giving herself such a complicated assignment. But she ensured authenticity in the late night writing portions from female late night writers across the spectrum. Writers with Fallon, Kimmel, and Colbert all weighed in at table reads, and her commitment to authenticity shows through for their input and her attention to detail.
  • …and Emma Thompson’s are in standup comedy.
    In the film Kaling plays Molly, a new and naive writer for aging and increasingly irrelevant late-night legend Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). Newbury faces an inflection point in her career when she’s billed as frigid and out of touch. The role calls for Thompson to deliver monologue style jokes and even do a bit of standup – including some written to go over…poorly.

But this is closer to Thompson’s wheelhouse than most viewers might know. Kaling recalled the challenge of staging a scene when Molly is caught watching archival footage of Katherine’s act from the 80s. They debated using CG to age down current footage or even casting a younger actress to create this key moment. But then Thompson made an offer: “I have tapes of my old standup.” As it happens, there was an “extremely small window” of her career where she performed standup, and its careful documenting contributes to an important moment in the final film.

  • Female-led doesn’t mean anti-male.
    It would be incredibly easy to write a version of Late Night that vilifies the all-male comedy writers’ room. But Kaling wasn’t particularly interested in that version of the story. While there are perils to these spaces, both professional and personal, she’s also quick to acknowledge that men in these precise roles “gave [her] her career.” One, Mindy Project co-showrunner Jack Burditt, was honored with a namesake in the film.Instead, she plays with the many archetypes that appear in the film, encouraging these characters to reckon with their privilege while also making them multi-dimensional. She does the same for the tougher female characters, providing the heart needed to keep them from being cartoonish. Why? Not only is it easier to cast that way – you get solid performers like Amy Ryan, John Lithgow, and Reid Scott to sign on by writing good parts – but also to recognize that the people we know and work alongside are more than just one “thing.”
  • Is Mindy a Molly or a Katherine? She’s actually both.
    A relatively inexperienced female writer of color joining an all-male writing staff is a scenario that obviously shares similarities with Kaling’s onetime circumstances. And yet, when asked who she identifies with in the film, Molly isn’t the totality of her answer. In Katherine, Kaling was able to write some of the tougher parts of her personality – namely the struggle she felt early in her career to create space for women once she’d ascended to a space of power. In the film, it is not the writers’ room, but Katherine, who is most vocal about having other women in the room. Mindy once admittedly shared that mentality.As she matured, however, she realized that there’s no value in existing in those spaces of power alone. To that end, she has consistently tried to create substantive opportunities for other women in front of and behind the camera. Late Night’s crew was more than 50% female, a process she insists “wasn’t hard, there was no going, ‘Where will we find them?’” And by the end of the film, a walk through the offices of the show takes a quiet but significant look at how Kaling aspires to work, staff, and nurture her offices.

Late Night arrives in theaters June 7th in New York and Los Angeles, and opens wide the following week. Tickets are on sale now.

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Amma Marfo

Amma Marfo is a writer, speaker, and podcaster based in Boston, MA. Her writing has appeared in Femsplain, The Good Men Project, Pacific Standard, and Talking Points Memo. Chances are good that as you're reading this, she's somewhere laughing.
Amma Marfo
Amma Marfo
Amma Marfo is a writer, speaker, and podcaster based in Boston, MA. Her writing has appeared in Femsplain, The Good Men Project, Pacific Standard, and Talking Points Memo. Chances are good that as you're reading this, she's somewhere laughing.