You don’t necessarily expect to hear gasps while watching a comedy—but that’s exactly what happened during one of the scenes in Late Night. The highly-anticipated film about a late night talk show had just panned to a shot of said show’s writer’s room, which was filled exclusively with white men. The audience, myself included, was stunned.
A few years ago, this scene wouldn’t have elicited much of a response. After all, it’s reflective of the majority of the television writer’s rooms throughout history (and many of them today) and, as Vanity Fair‘s 2015 cover featuring late night hosts reminded us, things in front of the camera aren’t much better. But while the “unbearable whiteness of late night” has long been the rule, audiences are now are taking exception to shows—and hosts—that don’t reflect a broader audience.
— VANITY FAIR (@VanityFair) September 14, 2015
That’s the world, and the shift, that inspired Mindy Kaling’s Late Night, a film she wrote (while filming The Mindy Project, nbd), produced, stars in and sold to Amazon Studios for one of the highest price tags in the Sundance Film Festival’s history. What that casual $13-million deal reflects is a change in what studios and audiences value: diversity, representation and fresh perspectives—which all take centre stage in Late Night. The film tells the story of fictional late-night host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) who, after decades on the air, discovers that her ratings are down and her all-male, all-white staff is no longer cutting it. In an effort to revamp her show—and save her job—Katherine realizes she needs to hire a woman. Enter Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling).
This entire film feels relatable on a whole new level, perhaps because it’s was largely inspired by Kaling’s real-life experience as a “diversity hire” on The Office. I found myself writing down lines in the hopes that next time someone asserts that being a WOC makes it easier to get a job, I would have a Kaling-approved clapback at the ready. Everything about Late Night feels reflective of the recent essays, headlines and stats we’ve been seeing about the makeup of TV and film—but what really excited me about this movie is that it’s a story that, in a very real way, is about to come true.
Though it couldn’t have been predicted, Late Night foreshadows what audiences are going to see play out IRL in September when Lilly Singh becomes the first woman of colour late-night talk show host on a major network. (A reminder, it’s 2019.)
It’s official. Ya girl is getting her own @nbc late night show… A Little Late with Lilly Singh. Thank you so much for being here. I am truly so grateful. ❤️
— Lilly Singh (@IISuperwomanII) March 15, 2019
In March, Singh was announced as NBC’s newest talk show host, taking over from Carson Daly (as if anyone even remembered he was still on the air) with a 1.5-hour show called A Little Late With Lilly Singh. The announcement was immediately applauded for the level of much-needed representation Singh, a bisexual Indo-Canadian woman, brings to the very male, very white late-night space. (Is this sounding familiar yet?)
Early on in Late Night, Molly makes a similar observation, pointing out that Katherine is the only woman in late-night comedy. While being a minority is all too often a disadvantage in the workplace (and in life), Molly flips that narrative and encourages Katherine to embrace her identity because it makes her stand out from her all-male competition. Molly pitches a bit quipping about menopause and abortion, and when Katherine is reticent, she notes, “You’re the only late night talk show host who can make that joke.”
Similarly, Singh, who’s set to become the only woman, the only woman of colour and the only openly queer person fronting a late night show on a major network, will have a lot of material that her competition can’t touch. “With such an absence of women at the forefront of late night, the hot topics covered were and continue to be almost exclusively presented from a male perspective, effectively ignoring the lived reality of half of the American population,” wrote CNN’s Melissa Blake in her piece explaining why Singh is what late night comedy needs.
But don’t be fooled. Singh didn’t get this gig because her identity ticks boxes. Sure, like chemical-plant-employee-turned-talk-show-writer Molly, Singh doesn’t come from a traditional late-night background of standup comedy, an Ivy League college or general whiteness. Instead, the Scarborough influencer cut her comedy teeth on YouTube, where she has amassed more than 3 billion of views and become one of the highest-paid stars on the platform, even as she spoke out about issues of race, sexism and mental health.
The importance of bringing yourself to your work, which Singh has done since the inception of her YouTube channel, is repeatedly shown in Late Night. “The best comedy comes from truth,” fictional YouTuber Mimi Mismatch (Annaleigh Ashford) tells Katherine Newbury at one point. And the truth is that women like Singh and Kaling are *actually* changing things in the way that we see in this film.
Kaling is actively walking the walk in terms of the film’s message of diversity and inclusion. She hired Indo-Canadian director Nisha Ganatra to helm the film and for her upcoming Netflix drama about an Indian-American girl, she posted an open casting call for desi ladies. According to Vanity Fair, Kaling’s writer’s room for that project is mostly South Asian-American women. Similarly, Singh is using her platform to open doors for new voices. “I am meeting with showrunners, directors, writers, head writers to try to build a team that not only is super talented but is representative of the world,” Singh told The Canadian Press.
What’s seen in Late Night, as well as in Kaling and Singh’s real-life careers is what the Canadian not-for-profit organization Women in View describes as the “Showrunner Effect,” where TV series showrun by women were observed to have statistically much higher likelihood of having gender balanced writer’s rooms compared to productions showrun by men. As noted in their 2019 report, “Series shownrun by women of colour or Indigenous women not only had gender balance, but also employed women of colour and Indigenous women in far greater numbers than other series.”
Change begets change. We’re finally seeing shifts happen, and happen quickly. In fact, when Kaling first wrote Late Night, she noted that putting a Thompson in the role of late-night host Katherine Newbury felt somewhat radical on its own.
“I remember growing up and watching Conan O’Brien and David Letterman and I was so impressionable I was like, ‘Whatever they think, I also think,'” she told Variety. “So it was a fun fantasy to have a woman have that role because I never was able to see that growing up, I thought, why not just invent it?”
But it turns out, what Kaling thought was a fantasy was actually foreshadowing the world that women of colour are building. And it’s one is worth watching.
Lilly Singh Is the First WOC to Host a Late-Night TV Show and We’re Pumped
Mindy Kaling’s Commencement Speech Is the Pep Talk You Need Today
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