sundance 2019

How Accurate Are the Fake Vulture Headlines in Late Night?

Late Night. Photo: Emily Aragones/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

My first night at Sundance served me up a cold lesson, as I was turned away from Friday’s world premiere screening of Late Night just because I got there “late” and it was “full.” This was unfortunate not just because it meant I had to wait one more day to see this delightful workplace comedy, but also because it turns out I had some clout I didn’t even know about: It turns out that Vulture dot com, this very website, plays a pivotal role in the film, essentially making me, in a sense, one of the cast. Don’t you know who I am?

Late Night is not A Star Is Born: The movie is hyper-aware how the central relationship between grumpy middle-aged late-night host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) and her sole woman-of-color staffer Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) will play in the media. Katherine doesn’t want to be a dinosaur, Molly doesn’t want to be a token, and neither of them is above using this dynamic for their own ends. Which is where we come in. With apologies to E! and Jake Tapper, when this movie needs to reflect the court of public opinion, it turns to a Vulture headline to express the voice of the people.

But how accurately did Kaling’s script capture this voice? As Vulture’s unofficial headline puncher-upper, I feel I am uniquely qualified to pass judgment on this specific issue. Let’s begin.

The first time Vulture enters the picture, Katherine has just had a disastrous interview with a young female YouTube star. She’s trying to appeal to the youth, but she can’t hold in her condescension, and her guest eventually storms off on live TV. Greeting her the next morning is a classic Vulture thinkpiece:

“Katherine Newbury Is Your Least-Favorite Aunt”

This is … *furrows brows, purses lips, while everyone waits in suspense* … wonderful. If a 23-year-old associate editor pitched this headline, I would know we made the right choice. If an intern wrote it, we’d hire them immediately. It’s biting in its specificity, and it doesn’t spell everything out for you. It’s a little mean, but hopefully not too mean. (She’s an aunt, she’s still family.) It makes sure to get a “you” in there — relatable! And it’s only 45 characters, which is great, because it’s not 2015 anymore. Fine work all around, Kaling.

The second Vulture headline comes near the end of the second act, and it involves a lot of spoilers, so here is your chance to click out while you still can.

Okay, so: Later in the film, it comes out that Katherine had an affair with a hunky staff writer (Hugh Dancy) who’d also slept with Molly. This story, too, emerges in a Vulture headline, complete with one of our signature splits. Here’s how we break the news:

“Workplace Romance: Racy Emails Leaked”

First off: It’s unclear whether Vulture is the site that leaked the emails, but since that’s not really the kind of thing we do, I’m guessing we’re just aggregating someone else’s news here. But this one needs a lot of work either way. While this kind of headline might work on a front page, in web, it’s usually worthwhile to put your subjects’ names in there. You might think the image does this job, but people and bots scrolling the feed need a proper noun to anchor them. I don’t want to be too harsh on this issue, though: I’ve learned that the movie originally planned on including both Katherine and the writer’s names, but cut them, perhaps for ease of readability. (The post is only onscreen for a second or two, so the headline can’t be too long.) I generally wouldn’t advise using Dancy’s character’s name anyway, as he seems like he’s kind of a Who.

“Racy,” too, feels off. We have used it, but rarely in headlines, and not for a long time. Same with “workplace romance” — it’s a delicate situation, and that wording feels a little too for us. I think the direction we’d end up going here would depend on how we were feeling about Katherine Newbury at this moment in time. If we decided this news meant she’d been kicked out of the club, we might go snarky, something like:

“Katherine Newbury Proves Female Late-Night Hosts Can Sleep with Their Employees, Too”

But by this point in the film, public opinion has turned in favor of Katherine, and the Vulture audience seem to be sympathetic to her. (Slate runs an essay calling the controversy “slut-shaming.”) In that case, we’d probably play it fairly straight, getting the news to the very front. We’d maybe go with “slept with” or “had affair,” but I think we’d probably go punchier. Something like:

“Katherine Newbury Had Sex with Male Staffer, Leaked Emails Reveal”

So in the end, we’ve got one near-perfect headline, and one that needs work. That’s about as good a ratio as a new writer can hope for on their first attempts, so congratulations Mindy Kaling, you’re hired as Vulture’s newest associate editor! Your salary starts at $65,000 a year.

How Accurate Are the Fake Vulture Headlines in Late Night?