On Oct. 15, Lilly Singh, the Canadian YouTube sensation who’s become a late-night TV host, bounded onto the stage of A Little Late with Lilly Singh (NBC, Global) wearing one of her trademark oversized suits – this one mustard-coloured – and began her monologue. “Usually I talk about what’s on my mind, but tonight I’m going to try something different,” she said, with her typically bouncy energy. “I’m going to talk about what’s in the news.”
That caught my attention. Since beginning her historic turn on A Little Late on Sept. 16 – historic because she’s the first bisexual woman of colour to host a U.S. network talk show – Singh, 31, has declared that while she will “show her perspective” on topics, and “touch on social issues that are important” to her, she won’t do politics. (“I ain’t talking about Donald unless his last name is Glover,” she rapped in an early bit.)
It’s a tricky position, because it’s hard to separate the social issues Singh purportedly cares about (women’s rights, racial equality, LGBTQ rights) from the politics that do or don’t support them. So here, a month into her gig, was she trying out something more risky than the breezy skate across the surface of a subject she’d established?
Nope. “I don’t relate to the news, I straight-up think it’s boring,” she said. “So I’m going to make it less boring.”
The headlines she brought her perspective to involved a $17 luxury Kit Kat bar, and how the actor Jon Cryer didn’t lose his virginity to Demi Moore. For viewers, it was another missed opportunity.
Obviously, NBC knew who they were getting when they hired Singh: a Toronto-born Sikh who began making YouTube videos to assuage her depression; whose channel now has 14 million subscribers and three billion views, thanks to videos such as How Girls Get Ready; who reportedly earned US$10.5-million in 2017, landing her at No. 10 on Forbes’s list of highest-paid YouTube stars.
The network wants the youthful demographic she draws and their unclaimed disposable income. Her show begins and ends with a list of social media on which she can be followed, and she works that: “If you’re not following me yet, what are you doing?”
Her exuberance is infectious – she’s forever dancing, widening her eyes, playing to her audience. She’s quick with a quip: When her line about how rap has become sad – too many lyrics about “my daddy didn’t love me enough” – earned a burst of applause, she shot back, “The sound of neglected children, all right!”
And she’s a natural interviewer. She pumps up her guests’ achievements, whether they’re generally famous (the writer/actor Mindy Kaling), famous within a certain cohort (the sister wrestlers Nikki and Brie Bella), or just breaking out (the Euphoria actresses Barbie Ferreira and Alexa Demie).
Although too many of her questions are tepid – “Did you have a hot girl summer?” she asked America Ferrera – her curiosity is genuine. “I need to hear this, tell me,” she’ll say. She asked Natalie Portman, who was talking up her astronaut film Lucy in the Sky, “What other cool crap is at NASA? Keep talking.”
And she picks up on her guests’ nuances. “Is this the first time you’re hearing this?” she asked Paula Abdul, about a story Nicole Scherzinger was relating. As a result, her guests are chatty and at ease, and the interviews feel like conversations.
The majority of her guests have been women, and moments arise that feel they could only come from two women sharing an experience. Tracee Ellis Ross, for example, may tell other interviewers that developing her line of beauty products for women of colour was a form of activism, but Singh made it hit home.
Now for the “but.” I’m not suggesting that Singh shouldn’t be Singh. There is a difference, though, between youthful and juvenile. Sentiments that scroll across the opening credits – “Don’t just try to pass your classes, try to ace them … That’s the difference between settling like a survivor and conquering like a bawse” – may play on Instagram, but they look awfully hokey on late-night TV.
Same with her guest games: having the wrestlers play Twister, dressing up Ferrera for the quinceanera she never had, making Portman scroll through her texts (check out the mild panic on Portman’s face). They’re terrible, and that’s surprising, because you would expect Singh to know her way around going viral.
Her monologues are the biggest disappointment. She calls them “deep dives,” but her subjects –vegetarianism, America’s bougieness, parents using social media – are about as deep as a puddle. Her jokes are rarely funny, but she repeatedly cracks herself up as if they’re hilarious, pursing her lips in faux shock, doubling over.
Her sexual innuendos are pitched at the 14-year-olds who made her a YouTube star, but how many 14-year-olds are watching TV at 1:30 a.m.? What is the point of being, as Singh often reminds us, the first bisexual woman of South Asian descent if she’s not going to be original?
If I were producing Singh’s show, I would double down on her strengths. She’s not a kid anymore, nor is her audience. She’s not on YouTube, trying to be PG rated; she’s on late night, the perfect place to be daring.
I would revamp her monologues and push her to take risks, to be radically honest about her life. So she’s the first bisexual, etc. – what does that feel like? What uncomfortable experiences shaped her? What are the invisible barriers she encounters, the everyday slights she endures? Shy away from party politics, fine, but give us a take on contemporary pop culture that is more substantial than confetti and French fries. Don’t give us the beginning of an admission such as, “I’m a feminist but I’ll pop my bootie.” Follow through, into the discomfort that makes you feel. When discussing internet trolls, don’t just make a joke about dolls – convey the damage trolls have done to you.
As for Singh’s interviews, I would be counterintuitive: Jettison the stupid games that other hosts use as clickbait, and concentrate on the click-worthy things she gets people to say. I’d use her natural conversational ease to warm up her guests, and then nudge them to more revelatory, meaningful stuff.
Let Ellis Ross show us some of her vacation selfies, sure – but when that leads her to talk about her strategies for living as a single woman, dig deeper into that. When Anna Faris says that her parents wanted her to be a virgin, don’t merely reply, “Every brown person can relate to this” – say more about how. I want to see Singh become a true disruptor: Invite people to a party, but send them home with something to think about. Don’t just say you’re different from late-night hosts – be different.
North American culture is more than a little late in elevating people like Singh to a top job. Which is why A Little Late shouldn’t squander its chance to be a lot more.