A Little Late with Lilly Singh has big stakes. A YouTube sensation from Scarborough, Ont., who (until now) was better known as Superwoman, Lilly Singh the only woman, person of colour and openly bisexual late-night host on a major network. It’s groundbreaking—and that’s exactly how the show has been advertised. Promos for A Little Late show Singh behind a desk holding a sledgehammer with the tagline: Breaking the norm.
That’s a lot to put on a new host’s shoulders, but Singh has leaned into it.
“This is bigger than me. This is bigger than you. This one is for the culture!!” Singh wrote on Instagram the day of her premiere. The show debuted on Sept. 16, first streaming for free on YouTube and later taking over Carson Daily’s 1:30 a.m. weekday slot on NBC. One week in, it’s clear that A Little Late with Lilly Singh isn’t perfect, but it’s also undeniably powerful.
When Singh came out as bisexual in February, she tweeted three checked boxes: Female, coloured and bisexual. “Throughout my life these have proven to be obstacles from time to time. But now I’m fully embracing them as my superpowers,” she wrote. A Little Late seems to be the embodiment of that tweet.
Throughout my life these have proven to be obstacles from time to time. But now I’m fully embracing them as my superpowers.
No matter how many “boxes” you check, I encourage you to do the same x
— Lilly // #LateWithLilly (@Lilly) February 25, 2019
Let’s go down that list, shall we? When crafting A Little Late, Singh could’ve downplayed her differences, sticking to generic jokes about current events or pop culture like her late night colleagues and predecessors. Instead, she chose to share aspects of her identity in the way she has since the inception of her YouTube channel, attracting an audience of nearly 15 million subscribers. “I was thinking I could actually share my perspective, especially being a woman and all,” Singh said in her opening video. This was followed by bits about controlling the thermostat, the importance of paid parental leave (complete with dancers wearing breast pumps) and repeated references to the unspoken bond of women sharing hair ties. Plus, her wage gap skit was seriously on-point.
Next up: Singh’s Indo-Canadian identity. For me, seeing Indian representation on late night TV used to evoke images of Priyanka Chopra talking about Holi with Jimmy Fallon or Deepika Padukone doing the “Lungi Dance” with James Corden. These appearances often felt like Brown celebs trying to translate aspects of Indianness to a white host. But in A Little Late’s first episode alone, Singh described her red suit as “the closest to a wedding lengha I’m gonna get,” referred to her first guest, Mindy Kaling, as her “didi,” and when Kaling put sparkly stickers on her face, Singh joked that she was “upgrading the bindi.” (And did I mention she said a Tamil shout out to fellow Indo-Canadian Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, the new star of Mindy Kaling’s upcoming Netflix series?) These lines were said without explanation, the way I would when speak with other desis. It’s one thing to see a late night host who looks like me, but hearing what felt like Indian inside jokes on national television is a whole new level of representation.
Rounding out Singh’s checklist: her sexuality. When Singh first came out earlier this year, she was applauded for representing the South Asian LGBTQ community, which has largely been absent from mainstream media. Bollywood had its first mainstream LGBTQ film this year, and gay sex was only decriminalized in India last year. And Hollywood hasn’t been much better, lacking in intersectional representations of people of colour. But as Singh rapped in her debut video, she puts “the B in LGBT,” and bisexual representation appears to be a pillar of her new show. She mocked “straight pride parade,” pretended to send her phone number to both Liam Hemsworth and Miley Cyrus, and made out with Chelsea Handler. Her show also happened to premiere during Bisexual Visibility Week. (As a cis straight Indo-Canadian, I’ve seen how stigmatized the LGBTQ2 community is in our community—but I can only imagine what representation like this must feel like for queer viewers.)
While Singh’s A Little Late certainly ticks a lot of boxes, it has its faults. Singh joked that in the lead up to her premiere, the media was so focused on her identity that she considered renaming the show A Little Late with a Bisexual Woman of Colour. “Come on, I’m more than a bisexual woman of colour,” she stated. But the first few episodes relied heavily on mining aspects of her identity for comedy—and it didn’t always work. See: the cringy “white noise machine” segment with Rainn Wilson, featuring the sounds of white stereotypes like Birkenstocks and “brunch at a farm-to-table restaurant in Brooklyn,” and the moment when she mocked white women for getting braids despite being criticized for that herself. There were also moments when it felt like aspects of Singh’s unique perspective were missing: In the second episode, for instance, her opening monologue discussed how Indian families need to be more open about sex—but all of her examples and the skit that followed, featuring Utkarsh Ambudkar, were heteronormative. It was a confusing, and glaring, omission.
That said—and as Singh has made amply clear—she isn’t like other hosts. She doesn’t have the privilege of walking on stage and playing it safe. Being the first bisexual woman of colour in late-night television means representing a lot of diverse communities, and that’s an added job requirement that her predecessors were never expected to meet. (This additional labour has been recognized as an “emotional tax” for people of colour in the workplace.)
Add that to the fact that Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was set to be a guest on Singh’s Sept. 18 primetime special. Hours before the episode was set to air, Time magazine dropped the bombshell report that Trudeau wore brownface makeup to an “Arabian Nights” party in 2001 at the high school where he taught. The leader was subsequently deleted from the A Little Late guest list and did not appear on the special.
Even without the pressure of being the only “bisexual woman of colour”—or the last-minute Trudeau drama—it’s a late-night right of passage to start off shaky before eventually finding your footing. The Hollywood Reporter roasted Jimmy Kimmel’s debut in 2003 as aimless, disorganized and overall lacking “anything remotely resembling humour.” When Jimmy Fallon took over The Tonight Show, he was characterized as overly eager to please by Variety. And when Seth Meyers stepped behind the Late Night desk, EW questioned whether he offered anything original or whether he was another Fallon. Singh deserves the same opportunity to figure things out and find out who she is in the late-night space, including but not limited to her checklist.
When Singh first sat at her late-night desk, she said that she wanted to begin her show with gratitude. “This is not just my show, this is our show and we are on this ride together,” she said. And while she started off a bit rocky, I’m excited to see where she takes us.