Lilly Singh is well aware of her unique place in late night. After kicking off her first episode with a rap dedicated to the fact that she is not, unlike every other network late-night host, a straight white man, Singh walks out onto her own stage and addresses it with her audience directly. “I get it…I’m not your traditional talk show host,” she says, grinning in a bright red suit. “The media’s mentioned that I’m a ‘bisexual woman of color’ so much that I feel like I should just change my name.” At this point, the graphic above her shoulder shifts from “A Little Late with Lilly Singh” to “A Little Late with Bisexual Woman of Color.”
It’s a fair shot. Singh’s inauguration as the latest comedian to take a stab at hosting a network late night show has led to many emphasizing those biographical points about her over and over again, to the point where it was impossible to tell from the conversation what Singh is actually like as a performer. That’s obviously proven a little frustrating for her, but she also knows that being A Bisexual Woman of Color — not to mention one who’s only just about to turn 31 years old — is a huge distinction and draw. Late night as it’s traditionally been done for decades has become less relevant as platforms like YouTube and new streaming services give comedians different ways to express themselves. (As Singh says to those watching who may not know her: “Television is dying and the internet is thriving … I guarantee your kids know who I am.”) On top of its being historic, Singh coming into the most traditional of late night spaces, even at 1:30 a.m., reveals a new network tactic. So it’s fitting that Singh’s first week of shows emphasized her singularity, both for who she is and what she does.
Singh is better known to her longtime fans as “Superwoman,” the name of her wildly popular YouTube channel where she’s been uploading comedic skits, commentary, and collaborations for almost a decade. She’s brash, blunt, and completely herself — a combination that’s served well on YouTube, where grabbing people’s attention is half the battle. In hosting her own late-night show, though, Singh has to find a way to translate her online energy into TV gold, which, as other social media mavens like Grace Helbig and Busy Phillipps have learned the hard way, is trickier than it seems. There’s only so much someone can morph the talk show format, and for people who came up through platforms like YouTube or Instagram, not being able to edit themselves to create their own particular rhythms can be a huge disadvantage.
Singh seems to be taking that challenge in stride. “A Little Late” purposefully sidesteps politics (as she says in her opening rap: “I ain’t talking ‘bout Donald unless his last name is Glover”), and in fact, barely touches anything super topical at all. Dodging the constantly changing news cycle is no doubt a practical fix to help the show shoot evergreen segments, but it’s also a smart move for someone whose initial success hinged on making sure people could find and laugh at videos posted minutes or months before. Singh’s opening monologues operate more like abbreviated stand-up sets, tackling broad topics like marijuana legalization and not getting the sex talk from her parents. The rest of the half-hour episodes belong to extended celebrity interviews and videos that feel too much like saggy “SNL” sketches rather than Singh’s own.
In fact, what’s most interesting (and promising) about the first week of “A Little Late” is how much works because of Singh’s in the moment stage presence. She’s an engaged interviewer capable of steering the conversation where it needs to go, even when the occasional games she tries to play with guests mostly end up more confusing than entertaining. There are definitely times when her age and advanced knowledge of what it means to Be Online clash with celebrities who are so used to late night softballs from smiling forty-something men (it’s no coincidence that her best interview of the week is the one with Tracee Ellis Ross, an extraordinarily game guest and bona fide Instagram savant in her own right). But even when the show isn’t totally on point, Singh’s ability to adapt and crack spontaneous jokes should get “A Little Late” on a steadier track before too long.
“A Little Late with Lilly Singh” airs Monday through Thursday at 1:30 am on NBC.