A late-night talk-show host suspects that she may soon lose her long-running show.
Katherine Newbury is an acclaimed talk show host with an extensive career in comedy, but lately, her show’s ratings have seen a steady decline. The network’s president, Caroline Morton, tells Katherine to fix up her show, or she will be replaced. In an attempt to revamp the show, Katherine has Molly Patel hired to her writing staff, mainly on the basis that she is an Indian woman while the rest of the writers are older white men. Although Molly struggles at first, she proves her worth by giving Katherine good material to work with on her show, as well as ideas on how to reach out to a bigger audience. The results prove to be successful.
Katherine learns that Caroline wants to pick young popular comedian Daniel Tennant to replace her as the new host, but Katherine doesn’t want to since Daniel’s comedy is vulgar and borderline misogynistic. With backup from her writers, Katherine defies the network’s demands and decides to stick around.
An email from one of the writers, Charlie, gets leaked, in which it is revealed that Katherine had an affair with Charlie after her husband Walter was initially diagnosed with Parkinsons. In the midst of the drama, Katherine fires Molly when she tells her she is acting poorly in the wake of the news. Eventually, Katherine makes amends with Walter, as well as the other writers, before she admits her affair to her audience, but her sincerity and passion for the show convinces Caroline to let her stick around, as long as they keep the show running the way it has been recently. Katherine later apologizes to Molly and hires her back.
One year later, the show’s team has diversified, Molly is promoted to co-lead monologue writer, and Katherine’s show has never been more successful.
The film starts with award-winning talk show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) starting a new episode of her acclaimed, long-running program. In addition to her decades-long career in television, Katherine is happily married to Walter Lovell (John Lithgow), a beloved writer who is currently suffering from the early stages of Parkinsons.
Katherine and her assistant Brad (Denis O’Hare) meet with one of the show’s writers, Gabe Eichler (Lucas Caleb Rooney), who requests a raise due to the fact that his wife just had a baby, and they could use the extra money. Katherine refuses and doesn’t think Gabe is deserving of a raise for his work, even comparing his baby to a drug problem that he is depending on for money. She fires Gabe, but before he leaves, he calls her out and says that her feminist tirades are bullshit since she hates other women. Katherine tries to defend herself to Brad, but even he feels that she may have some kind of issue with women. She then demands that a female be hired to the writing staff.
Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) arrives at the studio for an interview. Originally coming from Philadelphia as a chemical plant employee, she hopes to be chosen as part of the writing staff, as she is a huge fan of Katherine’s show and earlier career in comedy. Brad interviews Molly, who is bombing the interview, but a phone call from Katherine demanding a female writer gets Molly hired on the spot.
Katherine is surprised in her dressing room by the network’s president, Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan). She informs Katherine that since her show has seen declining ratings over the last decade, as well as Katherine’s refusal to appeal beyond her usual demographic, this year will be her last on the show, and she will be replaced soon unless the writers find a way to revamp the show for a broader audience.
Katherine and Brad meet with the writers team – Mancuso (Paul Walter Hauser), Reynolds (John Early), Kastner (Mark Kudisch), Hayes (Luke Slattery), Burditt (Max Casella), Charlie Fain (Hugh Dancy), and Tom Campbell (Reid Scott). She can’t be bothered to learn their names, so she refers to them by numbers. Molly enters late, and the others are stunned at the presence of a woman in the room. She awkwardly makes her way to find a seat. When Molly makes a suggestion for changes to the show in the monologue, Tom defensively objects, as he has been the head monologue writer, and his father got him and Hayes (his brother), jobs at the studio. Katherine is open to Molly’s suggestions and orders her and the other men to come up with ideas. She also fires a late writer, McCary (Blake DeLong), which allows Molly room at the table. She is given her own office to share with Burditt.
Predictably, the other men don’t take too kindly to Molly working there, calling her a “diversity hire”. She overhears this from Tom and hits back that she worked hard to get there while he was a case of nepotism.
During another meeting, Molly makes suggestions to Katherine on how to appeal to a bigger audience. Katherine then asks to hear what solutions she has written for her problems, but Molly says she doesn’t have any. Katherine berates her for appearing overconfident with nothing to show, causing Molly to walk out of the room and go cry under her desk. After some encouraging words from Burditt, she decides to keep going.
In between work, Molly starts to get to know Charlie better. He is an aspiring stand-up comic, and she catches one of his shows. Afterwards, they make out, but Molly doesn’t immediately want to sleep with him.
Molly writes a joke for Katherine’s monologue about an abortion bill being passed, which is significantly more politically charged than the usual jokes Katherine tells. Molly goes to the stage and stands next to Tom as she waits for Katherine to say it, but as the card for the joke comes up, Katherine passes it over for the next joke, which disappoints Molly. On the show, Katherine has a YouTube celebrity named Mimi Mismatch (Annaleigh Ashford) as a featured guest. Her claim to fame is a video of her sniffing her dog’s butt and fainting. Katherine makes a snarky quip about Mimi’s work, which leads to Mimi laying into Katherine by saying she’s washed up and that she needs Mimi more than Mimi needs her. Although the staff tries to cut this out, the video of the incident goes viral by the next day.
Brad hires a publicist named Robin (Megalyn Echikunwoke) to help make Katherine look better. During a party, a reporter asks Katherine about how she treats her writers, and Molly is asked about it when she is pointed out as being the new female writer. She lightens the mood with jokes and convinces the reporters that Katherine isn’t a total monster.
One night, Molly is ordered to work late, even though she was committed to a charity event. Katherine tells her that if she leaves, she can’t come back. Molly accepts the terms and heads to the event. There, she performs stand-up for a bit, and Katherine arrives to watch. She likes what she sees from Molly and then goes up to perform herself, not having done stand-up in years. Her first joke is an attempt to appeal to the millenials, but it falls flat. She then becomes sincere about herself and tells everyone she is going to get replaced before making jokes about being a woman her age in Hollywood, which wins the audience over. Afterwards, it’s clear that Molly is back in her good graces.
Katherine starts to use Molly’s jokes, and the abortion one kills during her monologue. Molly’s influence becomes more noted among the other writers, and they even start trying to work with her individually. Katherine even starts adding segments to her show where she interacts with civilians in an attempt to get her name out to a younger demographic. However, she does feel a bit bad when Katherine says she basically WAS a diversity hire.
During another show, Katherine has a young actress, Zoe Martlin (Halston Sage), as a guest. She stars in a schlocky teen vampire show, but Katherine is nice to her and even praises Zoe’s work. Zoe is elated and asks to hug Katherine, which she allows.
Katherine and the writers attend a party where she meets “frat boy” comedian Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz), whose comedy Katherine has seen and was repulsed by. She soon realizes that Daniel is the favorite to replace her, and after meeting with Caroline, it is confirmed. Caroline admits she doesn’t find Katherine funny, but Katherine couldn’t care less what she thinks. Despite her efforts, Brad later tells Katherine that they want her to officially announce Daniel as her replacement.
After a meeting with the writers, and Molly stating how messed up it is that they are trying to take her show from her, Katherine goes on her show with Daniel as the guest. She tells the audience how Daniel is the pick to replace her, but she flat out states that she doesn’t want to go. She even gets Daniel to say on TV that she should stay (just so he won’t look bad), and so Katherine declares she is staying, to the delight of the audience but the frustration of Daniel and the producers. Molly later tries to celebrate with Charlie, until she sees that he already has someone over.
Later on, Charlie’s emails get hacked, and it is revealed that he had an affair with Katherine after Walter was diagnosed with Parkinsons. This causes more talks about getting Katherine replaced, to which she seems to not care for anymore. Molly tells Katherine she is acting stupid by not defending herself and her show, so Katherine fires her. Tom later goes to find Molly to cheer her up, now having eased up on her.
Katherine later talks to Walter about the incident. Although he is dismayed at the fact that Katherine felt the need to cheat after the diagnosis, he doesn’t want to throw away all the good times they had together over this one little slip-up.
Katherine has one apparent last meeting with her writers (they have gigs lined up if the show is done), and even calls them all by their names (except for Hayes, he’s still 6). She goes to do her show and come clean to the audience about her infidelity, but also notes that the show has been her whole life, and that it has been an honor to entertain her audiences. She signs off with her signature, “I hope I’ve earned the privilege of your time.” Impressed, Caroline tells Katherine that she can keep her show, as long as she keeps it going as well as it has been lately.
Katherine goes to find Molly, who has moved to Brooklyn with her mom and cousin. Knowing she is still upset with her, Katherine apologizes to Molly for how she treated her, admitting that she has hated herself and wanted others to feel the same. She tells Molly she wants her back and how she misses all the things that she did while working there, which leads Molly to realize that Katherine actually cares a lot about her (though she won’t admit that). Molly then agrees to go back to work for Katherine.
One year later, the show’s staff has become more diverse and inclusive. The show is more popular than it has ever been, and Molly and Tom now work together as head monologue writers (and it’s implied they are dating). Katherine then goes up to begin her show to an adoring crowd.