Lilly Singh just wants to be herself.
The homegrown YouTube sensation is now officially a history-making TV personality south of the border. In the wee hours on Tuesday, Singh became the first “woman of colour” to host a late night show. That phrase, “woman of colour,” was a conspicuous turnkey as the premiere of NBC’s A Little Late with Lilly Singh rumbled to life with energy, promise and a few rookie mistakes.
After months of hype, and presumably oodles of time to set the tone, the debut opened with a sketch. Singh saunters into a network boardroom, eager to discuss her new gig with execs who are exclusively white and male. They drone on stereotypically, wondering if she should wear a grey or navy suit while outlining their vision for the show. This includes a topical opening monologue and presidential jokes. In other words, what most late night shows are now doing.
“That’s not really my style, you know?” says Singh. “I was thinking I could actually share my perspective, especially being a woman and all.”
To which one exec replies: “I’m not sure if people will relate to that.”
Singh: “I’m not sure that I related to 10 seasons of Friends.”
And then a few seconds later: “Guys! I just want to be myself!”
Then a phone rings and the sketch turns into a feminist rap video.
The lights dim, the backbeat thumps and Singh jumps atop the table and spits out her mission statement in rhyming couplets: “Hello, my name is Lilly and I ain’t no white man / My skin’s got some colour and it ain’t no spray tan.”
After promising to put some “melanin up in your late night,” Singh also rattles off her pioneering bona fides, including creating a writers room that is 50 per cent female and includes “people of all races.” In a few jangly minutes, she heralds public breastfeeding, pro-choice, diversity, her Canadian roots and cultural representation.
“This is the new standard, so take notes Hollywood.”
Late night has never been this woke.
But is progressive DNA enough to animate a comedy?
For all of the revolutionary spirit in that opening sketch, the rest of the premiere cleaved to the enduring framework of a late night show: monologue and interview. A studio audience of millennials greeted Singh as she strode on stage in a crimson shirt and blazer with ruffles and wide lapels. She beamed. She looked poised. She wondered if her presence would leave viewers believing their TVs were malfunctioning: “Why are they playing Slumdog Millionaire after Seth Meyers?”
“Hey, Middle America, I’m so glad you’re here,” Singh said, again raising the issue of not being a “traditional” talk show host. “The media has mentioned that I’m a bisexual woman of colour so much that I feel I should just change my name.”
She gave a shout-out to the “women of colour who led the way” — including Michelle Obama and the show’s very first guest, Mindy Kaling — and took a few more shots at the “whiteness” of the crowded field she had just joined.
“If you put every network late night host in one room together and then add me and Hasan Minhaj, we look like the IT department at the law firm…”
Get more opinion in your inbox
Get the latest from your favourite Star columnists with our Opinion newsletter.
There was also a bit in which she reimagined a “minority remake” of popular TV shows and films, including HBO’s Girls with an all-Indian cast: “There’s no sex or nudity, just really suggestive hand holding. And all the relationships are arranged by their parents.”
Singh ambled to her desk, a modern piece with a ring of purple light around the base that looked like it was salvaged from the Starship Enterprise. The set is bright and geometric. The only picture on her desk is of a dog — and a white one at that.
There was a cameo by Rainn Wilson. Continuing with the show’s fixation on race, he came with a “gift.” It was a “white noise machine” and the “sounds” included the pitter-patter of Birkenstocks, brunch at a farm-to-table bistro in Brooklyn and “a white girl getting vacation braids the minute she lands in Saint Thomas.”
You get the idea.
When Kaling took her spot on the couch, she wondered aloud if NBC “ever had this many Indian women on at one time.” She reveled in Singh’s groundbreaking role.
“It was like loving something that didn’t love you back,” said Kaling, referring to the lack of representation on late night when she was growing up.
So now the question becomes: will network viewers love Singh as much as her massive fan base on YouTube? Will she revolutionize a stodgy medium or get sucked into an old-timey engine? Can she be a cultural agent of change while not fumbling what should be the ultimate goal, which is to make people laugh?
We shall see. Late night shows are living things that evolve over time and require a shocking amount of creative protein to maintain forward momentum. On Tuesday, Singh came out sprinting. But make no mistake, she’s at the start of a marathon.
And while there were no first-night jitters, there were a few stumbles, including her staccato interviewing style. Other gags and bits in the half-hour — including a street-lingo game with Kaling, “What’s The Word?” — fizzled into awkward silence. Producers will also need to remind Singh this is not YouTube and she does not need to break any walls by side-eyeing the camera, especially when conversing with guests. It is also not clear if her hyperactive vibe — she’s basically a human double-espresso — will prove endearing or off-putting to those viewers in Middle America.
But if she set out to be herself in her network debut, mission accomplished. Singh established her POV and made it clear she intends to shake up the genre. She thrust her own identity into the spotlight.
Now the hard work begins: cutting through the noise, white and otherwise.