In the Room Where She Happens: On “Late Night”

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)
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WHILE THE WRITERS’ ROOM is typically understood as a male-dominated studio space, women writers have always inhabited a small but important place in it. After all, if you can’t speak to women viewers, how can you corner enough of the advertising market to stay on the air? Lucille Kallen was, with Selma Diamond, one of only two women to write for the comedy-variety show Your Show of Shows (NBC, 1950–1954), which starred Sid Caesar and graduated such illustrious writers’ show alumni as Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Carl Reiner. While those men continued to have careers in Hollywood for decades to come, Kallen would instead go on to write novels, including the C. B. Greenfield mystery series. As she would explain to a Newsday reporter in 1993: “I used to sit there [at Your Show of Shows] when everybody used to tear into whatever it was I had done […] and I’d say ‘Someday I’m going to write something that Sid can’t get his hands on.’”; she would similarly recall “wanting to get away from the domination of all those guys.” Television is often referred to as a “writer’s medium,” but the follow-up question must be: which writers?
The problems and possibilities of being the only Indian-American woman in the room full of entirely white and mostly male writers is the ostensible focus of Late Night, Amazon Studio’s recent theatrical release. In it, Mindy Kaling (also the film’s writer) stars as Molly Patel, a quality control specialist and comedy superfan who wins a contest to write for the failing late-night show Late Night with Katherine Newbury. Kaling, not unlike her creation Mindy Lahiri on The Mindy Project (FOX, Hulu, 2012–2017), is hyper-literate when it comes to romantic comedies, and Late Night borrows elements from many. Jane Austen, Broadcast News, 30 Rock, and Pretty Woman all surface in the movie’s DNA, but Late Night is not a romantic comedy. And while several scenes are set in a clean, nondescript boardroom where the writers work, it’s not a writers’ room movie either. Late Night fails to fall into any neat genre category and is best described as a romance between a girl and her job. Even more precisely, it is a Hollywood update of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, where our heroine teaches a room full of emotionally stunted television writers to whistle while they work, even as she needs a room of her own to get the job done.
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In “The Culture Behind Closed Doors: Issues of Gender and Race in the Writers’ Room,” Felicia D. Henderson establishes an ethnography of the writers’ room in which “cultural privileging […] creates a clique of the Included — […] and the Excluded — those othered writers who are not members of this group.” The Excluded generate the most scathing industry satire, as we see with the show The Comeback (HBO, 2005, 2014), created by actress Lisa Kudrow of Friends and gay showrunner and Sex and the City creator Michael Patrick King. In The Comeback, aging sitcom star Valerie Cherish (Kudrow), is continually demeaned by her show’s head writer, an overgrown frat boy with the detestable name of “Paulie G” (Lance Barber). The show’s executive producer warns Valerie not to complain about her lines for fear of having the “hate machine” unleashed on her, referring to the punishing, misogynistic nature of the writers’ room. Kudrow was well aware of this dynamic; in 2004, a writer’s assistant filed a very public sexual harassment lawsuit against the writers of Friends, claiming that the crass and explicit language created an inhospitable work environment. The actress would later tell the Chicago Tribune that she stayed away from the writers’ room as much as possible because she is not an “activist.”
But those women who cannot avoid the room — because they want to write — must find their own ways of navigating institutional sexism. Autobiographical accounts from Tina Fey, Kaling, and others detail the uneasy ecosystem of the room, defusing any of these tensions through their prose. Fey, for examples, writes in Bossypants that the male writers of Saturday Night Live would urinate into jars rather than frequent the men’s room, leaving their pheromones strewn about in the process. While these men were, in some primal sense, marking their territory, Fey remained the show’s head writer, losing the battle against hygiene, but, in her own limited purview, winning the war against Hollywood sexism. Similarly, Kaling’s account of writing for The Office — her battles with the showrunner, her fears that all the men in the room were a band of brothers determined to exclude her — reads from the safe distance of her crowning achievements and long-time friendship (or whatever it is) with fellow Office mate B. J. Novak.
The potentially toxic writers’ room does not lie at the film’s heart, which is warm and fleshy, as opposed to the hard, black organ belonging to the average comedy writer. Katherine may call the writers by numbers instead of names, but Thompson wears her cruelty lightly — the accent helps. And Molly’s experience in the room is about as grueling as a girl’s first day at a new middle school, her low status signaled by her having to sit on an overturned garbage can. One bearded teddy bear of a TV writer gripes out of her earshot that he wishes he was a woman of color so that he could have any job he wanted, regardless of qualification; his bigotry passes as quickly as a head cold, though, and the fact he already knows to say “woman of color” signals to the audience that we should prepare for a character 180°. Late Night is written and directed by two women of color, director Nisha Ganatra being a lesbian, but, unlike The Comeback, it has no axe to grind. Late Night is an exceedingly gentle depiction of the television business: racism and sexism are annoying but fixable. This is also a world in which a major late-night host and the network president (a criminally underused Amy Ryan) are unabashed, Lean In (white) feminists. Rewriting Hollywood in a this vein means that, while Late Night poses tough questions around the politics of discrimination and even sexual misconduct, it does not have the time or the backlog of fury to answer them.
Yet, the movie performs its own quiet subversion; while marketed as an unlikely female buddy comedy, it is, instead, the story of two women who respect one another’s creative solitude. Molly and Katherine’s shared love of writing, their desire to disappear into the work, and, not unrelatedly, a predisposition toward clinical depression is what bonds them. Beneath this slick cheerfulness of Late Night — its bright colors, stylish clothes, and chic locales — it is this aspect that provides the movie’s most compelling ingredient.
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It is telling that Kaling’s first foray into film from the more collaborative mode of television writing would be a tribute to the pleasures of writing by oneself. This constitutes a departure from Kaling’s brand as confident and endearing extrovert. In Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), Kaling offers, first, a staged photograph of her impressive, pristine desk and, second, a (likely also staged) photograph of her in bed, typing away on her computer. The first is how she wishes she worked, the second is how she “actually” writes … but aren’t all Nora Ephron’s rom-com heroines adorably messy? Writes Kaling: “It’s always been incredibly challenging for me to put pen to page, because, writing, and its heart, is a solitary pursuit, designed to make people depressoids, drug addicts, misanthropes, and antisocial weirdos.”
She further explains that she has always preferred company to solitude, endless chatter to companionable silence. And while this was true of her previous characters — of Kelly in The Office and Mindy in The Mindy Project — that is not Molly Patel. Molly, like Katherine, suffers from depression and is most content scribbling in a legal pad and watching old comedy routines on YouTube, always alone and often late into the night. The writers’ room is where you show off the fruits of your solitary labor, not where the magic happens, especially with all those disruptive guys around.
More than product, this movie is a tribute to process. The character of Molly is endlessly disciplined and productive, freely admitting that she is “not a genius.” This is perhaps best because the only joke we see her write — about stodgy pro-life Republicans and menopause — is not as edgy as we are meant to think it is. Molly’s tireless work ethic echoes that of Kaling’s, who told the Guardian: “Maternity leave is so great for writing because you have these pockets of time while the baby is sleeping. Working four times a day at an hour and a half is not a bad day’s work,” the reporter adding that she “mak[es] early motherhood sound like a peaceful writers’ retreat.” (As a new mother myself, my only response to this would require profanity and emojis, neither of which is appropriate for this venue.)
The idea that perpetual work is a means toward achieving contentment — and that balance is a crutch for wusses — may read as neoliberal bull, and maybe it is. But in the context of women in the entertainment industry, it takes on new meanings. It celebrates women writing without forcing them to pretend the workplace is made “for them.” Both Molly and Katherine enjoy their work, and most of all — most importantly — they like to work alone. Whether basking in the blue glow of a computer screen or the yellow warmth of a spotlight, Late Night is packed with luminous single shots of Kaling and Thompson thinking, writing, and performing — by themselves and for themselves. It is the kind of love story only an antisocial weirdo could fall for.
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Annie Berke is the film editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books and is the author of Their Own Best Creations: Feminism, Authorship, and Postwar Television, under contract at the University of California Press.
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