In March 2019, Lilly Singh, one of YouTube’s biggest stars, appeared on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon for a surprise announcement. “Ya girl,” she said looking straight at the audience and emphasizing every word, “is getting her own NBC late-night show!”
A Little Late With Lilly Singh would be, she said, “kind of like my YouTube channel” – the one with 15 million subscribers – “but, you know, now I have more than three staff members.” Fallon’s only advice for her was to “just be you”.
Six months later, Singh’s show has arrived with “ya girl” fully formed, one whose “just be you” mantra differentiates her from Fallon or fellow NBC host Seth Meyers – or, for that matter, any other host on network television.
“Hello my name is Lilly, and I ain’t a white man / My skin’s got some color and it ain’t a spray tan,” she rapped in the first segment of her premiere, a sketch in which she overturns an all-white and male writers’ room while wearing a colorfully striped suit. In the world of late-night, Singh stands out: she’s the first queer woman of color to host a network late-night show (Singh, the daughter of Indian immigrants to Canada, came out publicly as bisexual earlier this year), and the first YouTuber to land a network hosting gig.
At 30, she’s the youngest host on a late-night show on one of America’s major networks, and the only woman (Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal airs on cable channel TBS).
In other words, if anyone on late-night is going to rap about offering equal paid parental leave to staff, hiring a racially diverse team that’s over 50% women (“This is the new standard – take notes, Hollywood!”) and being interested in Sansa Stark and her brother, it’s Singh, with the promise to “throw some melanin up in your late night”.
Although it airs late late-night at 1.35am, A Little Laterepresents an inflection point in entertainment: the ascent of a woman of color and the child of immigrants fluent in internet-speak to a platform notoriously resistant to change; and YouTube’s arrival into one of network television’s most hallowed and entrenched grounds. It’s been a long time coming: at this point, YouTube celebrity can be more encompassing and global than traditional Hollywood celebrity, and Singh’s popularity is undeniable. Since she first started posting videos, as a confused postgraduate living with her parents in suburban Ontario, Singh has cultivated a following of 15 million people, written a bestselling book (How to Be a Bawse) interviewed Michelle Obama, and collaborated with her idol, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Though YouTube celebrities often exist outside the traditional spheres of fame – not on magazine covers or in Hollywood films (“You may not know who I am, but I assure you that your kids do,” Singh said in her NBC primetime special) – network late-night has increasingly relied on the site for relevance. As ratings have fallen, despite the “Trump bump”, hosts have moved toward moments built for viral potential – celebrity games, carpool karaoke or explosive political monologues that could blow up online. In 2019, YouTube and late-night TV feed a mutually beneficial loop; 7% of content on the site’s “trending” page is dedicated to late-night, according to a study on 18 months of data cited by the Verge, and the best videos from Fallon or Colbert can generate a couple of million views apiece.
That positions Singh to capitalize on a younger, more online audience than those tuned into, say, Stephen Colbert. Already in her first week, Singh has indicated that she’s less concerned with finding viewers after 1am than reaching a global audience online. So far, her show has mostly stuck to what drew her an audience in the first place: self-deprecating, self-loving positive vibes, sketches and monologues playing on her ability to whip on and off dramatic facial expressions, genuinely earnest interviews, talk that steers clear of bait-y politics (“I ain’t talking bout Donald unless his last name is Glover,” she rapped) while also speaking frankly from her perspective of a bisexual woman of color.
In her first week, Singh has acknowledged that the narrative of difference is itself already a box. “The media has mentioned that I’m a bisexual woman of color so much that I feel like I could just change my name,” she joked in her opening monologue. And though she has avoided the circus of American politics, her first episodes have leaned unabashedly into the politics of her presence, speaking with a millennial frankness about race that comes straight from her “say really ratchet things” days on YouTube.
So far, there’s been a segment on the “White Noise Machine”, a gift delivered by the Office star Rainn Wilson that plays background noise such as Birkenstocks skirting the floor, craft beer being poured into a pre-chilled, imported stein, and brunch at a farm-to-table restaurant in Brooklyn. A biting digital short called “Wage Gap Workout” posits 80s-style grin-and-bear-it aerobics as the cure to entrenched workplace sexism. (What can you do about sexual harassment? “Absolutely nothing. Use a hashtag!”)
Singh’s overall mood, though, is one of positive trailblazing, consistent with her internet persona. Guests so far have included Mindy Kaling and Tracee Ellis-Ross, who chat breezily through issues of racism in beauty products, dog videos, new motherhood and working the cellphone self-timer, often in the same bit.
It’s too soon to tell, of course, whether Singh’s bridge between network late-night and playing the YouTube game will hold. She’s aware of the stakes; no woman has ever made it past a single season of hosting a network late-night show. Michelle Wolf promised the same political wariness for her Netflix show The Break, which was also cancelled after one season. One promising sign: on Thursday, NBC appointed a woman, Katie Hockmeyer, to oversee all of its late-night talkshows.
Singh told PBS the number of people chipping at the ceiling for so many years is “a lot to think about”. But “regardless of what the outcome is, if I’m being super candid with you, it’s kind of not going to matter because it’s going to help continue to pave that path. And that’s what my priority is.”