Comedy “late night” in the cinema: the joke of the evening

The gag fireworks are set off on an upside-down trash can: "Late Night" is a media satire about a quick-witted anchorwoman.

Host Katherine Newbury with guest on her talk show Photo: Entertainment One

Would the world be a better place if there were a prominent woman of stature among the many male voices keeping the Anglo-Saxon "Late Night" program alive with their witty commentary? The meta-comedy "Late Night" answers this question as instantly as it does crystal clear – with a no.

The fictional character of Katherine Newbury, played by Emma Thompson, a British woman with an almost 30-year career in the U.S. TV business, is at the beginning of a classic career low point, as comparable male heroes with show business jobs also tend to have: dwindling ratings and growing conflicts with superiors.

But the film also highlights that she does everything else like her male colleagues: Her writing team is all men, her guests are shown to be mostly men, and like many middle-aged men in her industry, she cultivates a resentment of social media and the like from the standpoint of an imagined intellectual superiority.

There is nothing to suggest that this Katherine Newbury has at any point in her illustrious career made any effort to stand up for women as a woman; on the contrary, it is considered an industry secret that she "doesn’t like women." And paradoxically, this all seems like the most realistic element of this late-night character – after all, in the public sphere, it proves time and again that where opinion and influence really count, it’s those women who tend to avoid the "women" aspect who get farthest.

The intrigues of a late-night show, a few rashes against the evil, cynical media business – it’s all put into shape here in a reasonably amusing way.

Nevertheless, against the backdrop of a reality in which only real nerds can think of names like Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Stephen Colbert, and, for my sake, Harald Schmidt, as well as Samantha Bee’s, a Katherine Newbury, with a decades-long career to boot, stands out as a real one-off.

Now there would be nothing to say against the fact that a satire, which "Late Night" also wants to be, makes an unrealistic assumption. To distort to the recognizability, it is called nevertheless so beautifully. Nevertheless, it is irritating from the beginning that the film makes nothing, nothing at all, out of the solitary status of Thompson’s Newbury. Instead, the film – written, by the way, by Mindy Kaling, who made it big as the exceptional woman in the "Writer’s Room" of the U.S. edition of "The Office" – counters the one big improbability with an even bigger one: When Newbury decides to combat her career slump by hiring a woman for the writing team, she resorts to an amateur comedian and factory worker, Molly Patel, played by Mandy Kaling herself.

The plot details leading to this decision, bewildering in their nonsense, are instantly forgotten. Since Kaling as an employee of a chemical factory seems almost less credible than the figure of a middle-aged woman with a 28-year "Late Night" career, viewers can safely abandon the search for references to reality at this point and leave themselves to the now unfolding story.

"Late Night". Directed by Nisha Ganatra. With Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling a. o. , USA 2019, 100 min.

The again follows from then on the somewhat familiar paths of the "workplace comedy". Kaling as Molly crashes the not at all amused party of the exclusively male writers. They don’t even offer her a chair at the beginning, but Molly is so enthusiastic that she even makes do with an upturned trash can.

The fact that the gentlemen use the hitherto completely unused ladies’ room on the floor for all sorts of their own intimate needs soon even works to Molly’s advantage. And between the cold boss Newbury and her spirited "token woman" a dynamic develops beyond the usual obstacles, which between "Catfight", "Girlfriends" and "Odd Couple" takes on surprising and occasionally even enlightening features.

Acceptance speech at the Golden Globes 1996

The intrigues behind the scenes of a TV late-night show, prepared in sitcom style, with a few swings against the evil, cynical media business – all that is brought into shape here in a reasonably amusing way. Though director Nisha Ganatra lets her vast series experience be felt almost too much with staging so routinely slick that the occasional rougher gags get lost along with it.

Late Night" suffers most from its self-imposed claim to tell the story of successful joking in a funny way. The material just isn’t good enough. Why Katherine Newbury should be a late-night legend with "standards" she doesn’t want to betray – it’s just as hard to understand from the film as it is that she could turn things around and become "relevant again" thanks to Molly Patel’s ideas.

It’s not the actors’ fault: Mindy Kaling is a wonderfully offbeat comedienne who can’t be forced into any cliche. And Emma Thompson performs so confidently and with such striking timing that one wonders why this woman doesn’t have her own show, in which she picks on Boris Johnson every night, apes Nigel Farage and tauntingly expresses her overwhelming anger at Donald Trump. Emma Thompson greeting her audience with a comedic monologue on the G7 summit and then leading into a laugh-out-loud conversation with Brad Pitt and Meryl Streep – now that would be an exciting evening program.

You only have to watch Thompson’s acceptance speech at the 1996 Golden Globes, which she delivered in the form of a letter from Jane Austen, to know that she could well write some of the material herself. The further you spin this idea, the more you realize that all the essentialist considerations about the different humor talents of women and men can be safely forgotten until women get more opportunities in the late-night humor business, too.

In the end, "Late Night" is one of those films that is worthwhile because it gives you good ideas.