There are so many things to love about Mindy Kaling’s new movie Late Night. It’s unabashedly feminist and empowering. It’s hilarious. It’s inspiring. And above all else, it will make you love Kaling and her co-star Emma Thompson even more than you already do as they kick ass and take names.
It's enough to put a giant smile on your face, but you’ll also find yourself wondering if Thompson’s character, accomplished late night talk show host Katherine Newbury, is based on a real person. And while Kaling may have been inspired from famous talk show hosts throughout history to create aspects of Newbury’s personality and career, Thompson’s character is a complete work of fiction. In your heart, you already know why. And in your heart, you're also probably already frustrated.
The thing about Katherine Newbury is that even in essence, she straight up doesn't exist. While she plays alongside John Oliver and Seth Meyers in Late Night's fantasy rendering of the TV industry, there is currently no female late night talk show host on a major broadcast network. There aren't even that many women writing late night shows (see this truly disheartening graphic from the LA Times if you want to be even sadder).
Samantha Bee’s show Full Frontal on cable network TBS is the lone exception in the all-male talk show host roster (thanks to Busy Philipps' Busy Tonight being cancelled after one season), but take a look at all the major broadcast networks and you’ll see a maddening trend of white male talk show hosts: Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, James Corden, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Bill Maher, and Conan O’Brien. The last time a woman led a late night network television talk show was all the way back in the late 1980s, when Joan Rivers’ The Late Show aired on Fox. That’s why in the fictional comedy Late Night, Kaling had to write a reality in which a female late night talk show host was not only a legend but also a pioneer in her field, hosting her show for decades and breaking all kinds of barriers.
“She’s a woman late-night talk show host, so it’s basically science fiction,” said Thompson when she went on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. "Sneaky, sneaky little political remark there from Dame Thompo." Thank god she made a joke, because if we didn’t laugh at this whole thing, we’d definitely be crying.
But thankfully change is (slowly, slowly) coming. Back in March, NBC announced that Indian-Canadian YouTuber Lilly Singh will be taking over for Carson Daly’s Last Call With Carson Daly with her own network television show A Little Late With Lilly Singh, which debuts in September. It's just one show, but it's progress! Hopefully that means we’re not far off from a character like Katherine Newbury becoming reality — but hopefully with (mild Late Night spoiler alert!) a little less scandal and a little more shattering of the glass ceiling.