Mindy Kaling’s new movie “Late Night” may operate in a strange world where a woman (gasp!) actually gets a slot as a late-night host, but one of its story lines seems very true to life. Emma Thompson stars as that host, a comic who has been telling inoffensive, middle-of-the-road jokes for nearly 30 years — but now has to decide whether to get political.
The issue comes up as a network executive coldly informs Katherine that it’s her last season. The show has been failing for a long time, and it’s time to replace her with a younger, edgier male comedian. Katherine, who can’t imagine an existence where she is not on air anymore, turns to her writing staff for help. All of her writers are fairly lame, except for new hire Molly (Kaling), who hears Katherine go on an entertaining rant about why she hates beauty pageants and comes up with an idea: Katherine clearly has a point of view, so why doesn’t she branch out into some mild political humor?
Molly pitches her on a riff about abortion — about how the men who want to police women’s bodies are generally the ones who are having the least amount of sex, and how the whole debate makes Katherine grateful she’s going through menopause. But the show’s producer, Brad (Denis O’Hare), is unnerved about going so topical: Perhaps they could start at fracking and “work their way up” to abortion, he suggests?
The scene calls to mind conversations that may have played out in late-night writing rooms, well, about three years ago, before the Trump era entirely enmeshed politics with pop culture. In a review of “Late Night,” the Houston Chronicle argued that Katherine’s avoidance of politics is a reason that “the premise of the movie seems a bit off in 2019.”
“We’re told that Katherine doesn’t do any political humor — a plot point is will she/won’t she do a tepid abortion joke Molly has written for her — but what late-night network host doesn’t touch on politics these days?” wrote reporter Cary Darling. “How did she survive this long without being canceled long ago?”
During the run-up to the 2016 presidential race, Stephen Colbert had no problem diving right into politics — neither did Trevor Noah or Seth Meyers. Meanwhile, Jimmy Fallon steered clear. His friendly, softball interview with Trump in 2016, in which he ruffled the candidate’s hair and asked no tough questions, prompted a career-scarring backlash. Fallon later told the Hollywood Reporter that the torrent of criticism made him “depressed.”
“I don’t want to make anyone angry — I never do and I never will,” he said. “It’s all in the fun of the show. I made a mistake. I’m sorry if I made anyone mad. And looking back, I would do it differently.”
Unsurprisingly, Trump lashed out at Fallon for apologizing, tweeting that the host had called him later to crow over the episode’s “massive ratings.” Fallon went on air to deny he ever called Trump.
“By the way, Donald. I don’t know if you’ve seen my ratings the past two years — you didn’t help my ratings,” he added. “But really, thanks a lot. Thanks for nothing.”
It’s true: Fallon’s ratings have dropped, while Colbert’s shot upward as he doubled down on politics and Trump. Jimmy Kimmel also experienced a ratings uptick after he spoke candidly and emotionally about the Affordable Care Act after his son underwent heart surgery as a newborn. However, he told O Magazine that being so open “cost me commercially,” according to polls he saw.
“That’s not ideal,” he admitted. “But I wouldn’t change anything I said.”
In the end, although Katherine initially gets cold feet over Molly’s political bit, she eventually tells the joke — and, as you might suspect, the audience loves it.