Brown, Bisexual, and Bold: What Lilly Singh Means for Late Night TV

Pop Culture

Brown, Bisexual, and Bold: What Lilly Singh Means for Late Night TV

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

“Is your perspective not my perspective?” a white male executive at an imaginary network meeting quizzes YouTube sensation Lilly Singh in a pre-taped segment in the debut episode of her late night show, A Little Late With Lilly Singh. Although the male executives who are supposed to be helping her plan the show invite her to sit with them, she has to push two men aside to sit at the table. To me, this brief moment encapsulates the change that Lilly Singh brings to the prestige of the “late night show” with her own on NBC: After decades of straight, old, white men ruling this spot, 30-year-old Singh brings with her a brand new perspective, making room for a woman who is brown, immigrant, and bisexual.

In a sea of late night TV hosts in drab blue and black suits, Singh stands out during her opening monologue in a bright maroon suit, presumably inspired by her YouTube avatar of “Superwoman”. Her monologue touches upon the issue of the commodification of diversity in a way only she can, taking a dig at how news outlets have primed her as the standard for diversity in late night. “The media has mentioned that I’m a “bisexual woman of colour” so often I’m thinking about changing my name to Bisexual Woman of Colour,” she jokes. In “Hello, My Name is Lilly”, the sensational rap that follows, Singh furthers that thought: She – the only woman hosting a late night show on a broadcast network and the first woman of colour to ever do so – isn’t here to appease the majority.

“Because I’m turning off the AC and turning up the heat ‘cos I’ve been cold at my 9 to 5 since I was a teen,” goes one line of her rap. It might seem like a harmless detail at first, but for every woman who has ever had to bring along a designated “office sweater, jacket, or blanket” to keep up with the chilly AC temperatures at work, it’s a detail worth noting. What is really the difference when a woman is at the helm of anything? It’s the fact that small nuances like this, that have been otherwise neglected by a set of people who are only concerned with highlighting the same things, are finally discussed. From breaking the glass ceiling to the wage gap and creating a diverse writers’ room, Singh touches several issues in her opening rap but her infectious energy is undercut by an assertive message: She is willing to lead the way for more diversity, but that she also refuses to be pigeonholed as a “flagbearer for representation”, wanting to do things her way.

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Despite being an NBC show, A Little Late With Lilly Singh premiered on YouTube first, a fitting salute to Singh’s origins as “Superwoman” on a channel which now has over 14 million subscribers.

Unicorn Island Productions/ Irwin Entertainment/ NBC

Singh’s first guest was actor-writer-creator Mindy Kaling, which is almost poetic, given that in the recent Late Night, Kaling played a “diversity hire” in the writer’s room of a late night show. She is aware of the implications of having both her and Kaling in the same frame and delightfully quips, “Has any show ever had this many Indian women on at a time?” Yet it’s also in this segment, that stuck to the classic late night sit-down interview format, that the chinks in the armour started showing. During the interview, Singh frequently cuts Kaling off or rides off her sentences, that can at times feel distracting. While Singh might be used to running a one-woman show on YouTube that thrived on her commanding all the attention, the challenge in a format like this will be her learning to engage with her speaks in a slightly more diffused manner. Rainn Wilson, another almuna of The Office joined her as her second guest, which involved an entertaining skit and an endearing camaraderie. 

Her choice of guests aside, perhaps the biggest touch that Singh brought on board is getting TV out of its snobbish rut when it comes to figuring out a roadmap for reaching out to a wider set of young, diverse audiences. Despite being an NBC show, A Little Late With Lilly Singh premiered on YouTube first, a fitting salute to Singh’s origins as “Superwoman” on a channel which now has over 14 million subscribers. It’s a marriage that late night TV could gain from, and it is also proof that Singh isn’t concerned with crafting a whole new image on TV, instead demanding that her new TV audience be accustomed to her roots. 

One of the greatest advantages of having Lilly Singh on late night TV, is perhaps the fact that she isn’t a classic choice, which by extension means that she wouldn’t be bothered with doing things the way they have always been done. In the past, even when late night hosts have crafted gags, sketches, and videos tailored for YouTube consumption, they treat the internet audience as an afterthought, catering foremost to the needs of a TV audience despite declining viewership. That’s the gap that Singh, who boasts of a dedicated online fanbase, will undeniably bridge. Going by the looks of it, Singh seems to already have a strategy to appease the appetite of her audience on YouTube: Barely 24 hours after her debut, there already exists behind-the-scenes footage of the making of her rap as well as the cold open. Like every other late night host, she isn’t only repackaging her show and putting it up on another medium, but actually speaking the language of the internet.

One of the greatest advantages of having Lilly Singh on late night TV, is perhaps the fact that she isn’t a classic choice.

Like me, her biggest supporters initially were the desi immigrants who thronged to her videos because it created a community of sorts where everyone had experienced the things she was poking fun at. She helped people recognise toxic behaviours that existed in the South Asian community, while also teaching them that it’s okay to laugh at yourself. It was that sense of shared experience that kept me hooked to her videos. As she diversified and evolved from YouTuber to a multi-hyphenate entertainer, she taught me that it was okay to constantly reinvent yourself as long as you stay true to your roots.

In more ways than one, the very fact that Singh is now a late night show host is possibly the biggest argument against inexperience, that has been long peddled around to sustain the format as exclusive male bastions. It has taken us until 2019 to have a young, female late night show host only because the show places an unnecessary amount of prestige on the concept of ageism. But Singh, the youngest late night show host on TV right now, is a counter to those ideals; a representation of a world that has long moved on from assuming that brilliance only comes from decades of experience. 

Perhaps in the future when little brown girls are asked what they want to be when they grow up, maybe we’ll hear a few more of them answer “late night talk show host”. The good thing is, they won’t have to wait until 40 to realise those dreams any longer.

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