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Film How Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson are busting open the lily-white boys’ club of late-night television, one monologue at a time

Emma Thompson as Katherine Newbury in Late Night.

Emily Aragones/Courtesy of eOne

If this article were a monologue from a late-night talk show, it might go something like this:

Host (someone in the David Letterman/Conan O’Brien mould): “Hey, uh, so, giggling sidekick, have you heard this one? About this new movie called, er, Late Night?”

Sidekick (perpetually giggling, in the Paul Shaffer/Andy Richter style): “Ah, Late Night, ah, no. What? What! What?”

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Host: “Well, it seems this movie about the world of late-night television – what you and I do every night, yeah? – well it sold at the Sundance film festival for something like ... get this ... $13-million!”

Sidekick: “$13-million? Can I get some of that?”

Host: “Amazon bought it, so not unless you up your Prime membership. Or become friends with that Bezos fella. [Pause for laughter] And get this: It’s about late-night TV, right? But it’s about a female host! A woman, and her new writer, an Indian-American woman. Late Night, it’s called!”

Sidekick: [uncontrollable giggling]

And scene. And also: good evidence why I’m not a writer for television myself. But Mindy Kaling is, and Late Night is her shot at using her experience toiling in the heavily male and lily-white writers’ rooms of series such as The Office to break into the feature-film world. The new movie, which indeed sold for a near record-breaking $13-million to Amazon at Sundance earlier this year, is written by and stars Kaling as Molly Patel, a “diversity hire” for a flailing late-night network TV talk show hosted by Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). As both women form an uneasy alliance to save their show and themselves, Kaling and her director, Vancouver’s Nisha Ganatra (Transparent), craft a workplace comedy that is actually interested in workplace dynamics.

New movies on Netflix and in theatres this week, including Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan doc, Mindy Kaling’s Late Night and Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die

Ahead of the film’s Canadian release this Friday, The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz spoke with Kaling and Thompson about comedy, politics and the politics of comedy.

Mindy, I’ve read that you said you see much more of yourself in Emma’s character than your own.

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Kaling: I think I should correct myself, and say that I see myself in both, but I do find a lot of Katherine’s journey that I can relate to. You’ve had a show for a while and you’re the star of a show, like [The Mindy Project], and that might make you complacent and impatient with those around you.

Is that sense of complacency what compelled you to write this film?

Kaling: Mostly it was because I had so many ideas about relationships and settings that I wanted to experiment with in the feature format, having only written for half-hour TV. This might sound silly, but the thing that was very easy about this was the dialogue, which flowed easily. There are many characters here who, well, I know these guys from my life. But screenwriting, it is hard. The sheer length of the document alone!

Molly (Mindy Kaling) is hired as the one woman in Katherine's all-male writers' room.

Emily Aragones/Courtesy of eOne

At CinemaCon this year in Las Vegas, you told the audience that you wrote Katherine with Emma in mind, which seems like a gamble.

Kaling: Emma had a lot of gambling debt, so I knew she needed to work to pay it off. She was just like, ‘Don’t show me the script, just send me the cheque and I’ll be there.’

Thompson: It’s true. No, but I was sent the script and it feels relevant to both of our generations. And it was one of the best things I’ve read in years.

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Late-night television has never had a female host, aside from brief stints by Joan Rivers, and now Samantha Bee, and Lilly Singh to come. But Katherine’s been in the game a long time here. Did you think of her as a riff on one kind of host in particular?

Thompson: Because she’s a woman, she’s a sort of science-fiction in a way, her having this show for 30 years. There’s no one I can base this on, and as she says herself in the film, she’s been using the same format and cadences as many of the men. The people I looked at were the men Katherine would’ve grown up watching, like Johnny Carson. That seemed to be the right mixture of wit, intelligence and urbanity. Less so the jokey, larger-than-life characters like Jay Leno or Conan O’Brien. I didn’t have any exposure to those men myself, though. First of all because I was born in 1959, and second because I wasn’t allowed to watch any of the few television channels we had. My first exposure to late-night talk shows was having to go on them to promote something.

Mindy, how cathartic was it here to mine your time in writers’ rooms?

Kaling: Being a writer is nice, because you have these highly traumatic things that happen to you when you’re younger and then you give yourself a nice enough time to write about it. And that’s what a lot of this movie is doing for me.

There is a lot of talk, and jokes, in the film about Molly being a “diversity hire” for Katherine’s show. But as someone who is now a showrunner herself [The Mindy Project, the forthcoming Four Weddings and a Funeral miniseries], how important is it for you to ensure the writers’ room is as diverse as possible?

Kaling: It’s a necessity for the well-being of the show. A lot of time we talk about giving people opportunities in the workplace, and it’s always from the perspective of the employer being a benefactor who is helping someone. But they help me. My show is better because of them.

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What’s interesting about this movie is it’s about a fan like Molly who is on the outside of the industry and breaks in. We’ve seen that story before, but it’s been from the view of a single white dude.

Kaling: Fandom for comedy in the United States has always been this one pervasive look, which is the 14-year-old boy who grows up loving Bill Murray. That’s who has been put forth as the type of person who loves comedy, and obviously that’s not the case. Growing up, my parents loved Elaine May and Mike Nichols and listened to their comedy acts for hours, or on 12-hour drives to Niagara Falls. Comedy fandom can look so many different ways, so I love that this Indian-American woman can be such a fan and then finally have success.

And to have a director like Nisha who understands that perspective must have been crucial, too.

Kaling: We interviewed a lot of people, and Nisha just had so much passion for it. She said, “I am Molly, I identify with her.” As an employer who should put my money where my mouth is, I can’t talk about equal opportunity in the workplace and then, when I’m given the opportunity, not hire someone with that perspective.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Late Night opens June 14 across Canada.

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If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

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