Katherine Newbury, the fictional broadcast talk-show host played by Emma Thompson in the new movie Late Night, shares a few things in common with her real-life analogs. Like James Corden, she’s an English native who’s managed to translate her sensibility for audiences across the pond. Like Jimmy Fallon, she turns to inventive, participatory segments to break her format’s hidebound monotony. Like Stephen Colbert, she channels her political rage into a monologue that expresses her point of view instead of riffing on trivial news items.
But Katherine is very different from her hypothetical peers in at least one respect: She’s a she.
Written by, produced by, and costarring Mindy Kaling, Late Night is simultaneously an escapist fantasy and a hard-nosed reality check. On the one hand, the story takes place in a world where a middle-aged woman has rested comfortably at the top of her male-dominated industry for decades. On the other, she’s still the only one, because institutional sexism is very much a thing even in Late Night’s alternate universe—practiced, often enough, by Katherine herself. Katherine may be a woman, but her writers’ room is composed entirely of (white) men. The MC is happy enough to deploy feminism as a galaxy-brain excuse for denying an employee a raise, but she’s loath to use it as a framework, let alone a set of obligations. Only a mixture of desperation and spite finally compels Katherine to bring on a female writer, Kaling’s gung-ho Molly Patel.
Even before the third-act Seth Meyers cameo, Late Night’s world convincingly resembles our own. Under Peak TV, female late-night hosts exist, though none currently headline the major network franchises that continue to dominate the genre. In the 70-plus-year history of American broadcast television, there has been only one exception: Joan Rivers, who infamously torpedoed her relationship with Johnny Carson by leaving her gig as permanent guest host of The Tonight Show to launch the then-nascent Fox’s competing series in 1986. Rivers’s tenure lasted all of seven months, and was a failed experiment broadcast’s executive class would never bother to repeat. Earlier this decade, late night experienced a near-total turnover of talent, a torch-passing that presented a chance to reimagine the archetype of a dapper white guy in a suit. But while Corden, Fallon, Meyers, and Colbert have each contributed something new to the medium, demographic diversity isn’t among them.
Late night, along with the rest of television, has expanded significantly in recent years, a trend that’s enabled some women to join the boys’ club, if not so many or for as long as some may have hoped. Chelsea Handler’s Chelsea Lately ran on E! for seven years, though the comedian went on to become the first of several casualties, including The Break’s Michelle Wolf, as Netflix tries to make the talk show work for streaming. Busy Philipps’s ultra-femme Busy Tonight, also on E!, was recently canceled after seven months; Robin Thede’s BET show The Rundown met the same fate last year. Only Samantha Bee’s weekly TBS show Full Frontal—a righteously caustic bat signal to fellow liberals who are mad as hell and can’t take it anymore—has found long-term footing since its debut in 2016. In this respect, and their shared taste in androgynous blazers, Bee may be Katherine’s truest analog.
The two also have the same strategy for launching and reinvigorating their shows, respectively. Considering how hard Katherine balks at the mere mention of menopause in a Molly-written monologue joke, it’s impossible to picture her calling the first daughter the c-word. But when threatened with cancellation by Amy Ryan’s new network president, the solution Molly offers—and that Katherine eventually, reluctantly signs onto—is for the host to embrace her individuality, both as Katherine Newbury and as the only woman with her job description. (Ryan’s role in the proceedings is slightly less of a hypothetical than Thompson’s; in figures like Disney’s Dana Walden, Amazon’s Jennifer Salke, and Channing Dungey, TV’s C-suite has somehow proved more welcoming to women than its post-10 p.m. time slots.) Katherine starts talking about abortion. She does man-on-the-street segments, like “Katherine Newbury: White Savior,” that play with her bossy, imperious image. She does monologues sourced from her own opinions, not generic jokes supplied by writers she barely interacts with, and refers to by a number system when she does.
Some of these tweaks are echoes of actual changes to late night’s stale, tradition-dictated norms. Fallon’s YouTube-friendly style is explicitly cited as an inspiration for Katherine’s revamp. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Colbert discussed how he and his writers rethought their show’s opening segment: “We never do setup, punch, setup, punch. Instead, it’s always, I’m going to tell back to you what happened today.” Meyers left his own mark by merely sitting down, an almost parodically minor gesture he nonetheless told The Ringer “became this sort of catalyst for what our show was. It was this very simple move, but as the world gets crazier, I do feel like the show became a little bit more grounded.”
Unlike these evolutions, however, Katherine’s isn’t catalyzed by the introduction of a new face—in front of the camera, at least. The prospect of Katherine’s replacement is instead framed, conveniently and not entirely plausibly, as a step backward. Her network’s preferred candidate is Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz), a chauvinist stand-up whose humor appeals to the lowest common denominator. Tennant reads like a throwback to an early-aughts strain of puerile prankster that’s since drifted out of the zeitgeist. Presumably, his show would be a more mainstream version of Tosh.0 or The Man Show, a tragic artifact even cocreator Jimmy Kimmel seems happy to leave in his past. But the culture has already moved beyond both the days when Dane Cook was America’s most successful working comic and the generation of dignitaries Katherine represents. The truth is that the quickest route to Katherine’s fresher, nimbler show would likely be without Katherine.
Late Night’s treatment of the host herself is considerably less tidy, and the movie is all the stronger for it. Thompson and Kaling are under no illusions that Katherine’s gender would make her any gentler, kinder, or more empathetic, including and maybe even especially to other women. On the contrary, it makes her more protective of what she’s attained, and more disdainful of those who haven’t, i.e. everyone else. (She’s basically Selina Meyer plus competence.) The script doesn’t shy away from showing this, either: Katherine is demonstrated to be a terrible boss, an inattentive partner, and even an objective loser in a battle of wits—the only contest Katherine purports to care about—with a teenage YouTube star, who rightly calls out the MC’s condescension on national television. The character feels true to the defense mechanisms acquired by older, successful women, and the subsequent generation gap with younger ones.
The version of an outspoken, unapologetic host presented in Late Night can’t help but feel a little anodyne compared to the ones we already have. For escapism and relevance’s sake, Katherine’s adversaries end up being nameless Republican senators, a strike that doesn’t land as hard in a world where Wolf has already smeared Sarah Huckabee Sanders to her face. Sometimes, Late Night feels like it’s making a case for a standard that’s already been set: that of entertainers freely sharing their views and the histories that inform them, uniform as those histories might be. Wealthy and lily-white as she is, Katherine represents only the slightest expansion of that template. But rom-coms—and Late Night is, in many ways, a professional rom-com, between mentor and mentee—are more in the business of expressing the status quo than challenging it. Besides, in an ascendant comic like Molly, Late Night has traces of a pipe dream even more audacious than a Katherine type reviving her career by centering her identity: a world where such a distinction is harder to achieve, because a female late-night personality is no longer, by definition, the only one in the room.