September 16 was a big day (*ahem* night) for late-night TV. No, Jimmy Fallon wasn’t finally told to stop talking over his guests, and, no, Jimmy Kimmel didn’t send Guillermo to another red carpet. Instead, we were introduced to the new superwoman of late-night TV: comedian Lilly Singh.
The Toronto-born YouTuber was already making waves before the debut of her show, A Little Late With Lilly Singh, and is now making history as only the second woman to host a late-night show on a network (shout-out to Joan Rivers!) and the first woman of colour to do so. Which, in a world of navy-suited white men named Jimmy, is a pretty big freakin’ deal. And, TBQH, the first episode was entirely worth the 1:35am wake-up call.
It was exciting to see myself reflected on TV
From the start of Singh’s premiere episode, the comedian made it *very* clear that her foray into late-night is going to be like no other, kicking off the show with a hilarious monologue that shaded the very distinct lack of shade in the late-night sphere and made references to her background as a South Asian LGBTQ woman. And IT. WAS. THRILLING!! To hear someone who looks like me make references and use terms that actually resonate with my own experience and upbringing was so exciting.
I don't want to make this about colour
There's a brown woman hosting a late night TV show.
You have no idea how excited I used to get seeing a brown face on TV as a child. It happened once every 2 years. 😂#LateWithLilly
— Aagy (@ItsAagy) September 17, 2019
When Singh lamented about the nonsensicality of “chai tea,” I felt that. When she opened her monologue by predicting the thoughts of most Middle American viewers—”Why are they playing Slumdog Millionaire after Seth Meyers?”—I LOL’d, hard. And when she talked with uber-didi Mindy Kaling about being mistaken for Priyanka Chopra and Hasan Minhaj (i.e., the only other visible South Asian celebrities in Hollywood), I could 100% relate.
No, no one has ever mistaken *me* for Chopra, but they have mistaken me for one of the handful of other South Asian women in the room.
I was also kind of scared
While it was amazing to feel like we were in on the joke instead of being the joke, somewhere between Singh’s opening skit and her interview with Kaling, I also started getting a little nervous. After comedian Rainn Wilson “surprised” her on-stage, he gifted her with a “white-noise machine,” a device that, instead of the usual patter of rain or babbling streams, played noises associated with white people—think Birkenstocks slapping against the floor of a Mountain Equipment Co-op or a man droning on in a podcast. Was it hilarious to see a group that’s largely represented and catered to be (good-naturedly) ridiculed? Of course. Were most of the noises that emitted from the machine accurate? Uh, yes. But does that mean people who aren’t in a minority group won’t be put off by it? Not necessarily. As Singh and Wilson did their bit, I couldn’t help but feel a growing sense of panic, wondering: Is this too much? Are people (i.e., white people) still going to want to watch the show?
Freelance writer and former FLARE senior editor Ishani Nath had a similar feeling. “I think for me, I definitely had that moment where I thought, ‘Oh, this is a lot of “I’m this thing and not this other thing,”‘” she says of Singh’s debut. “I did have that moment afterwards where I [thought], ‘This is a lot of jokes about race and white men or women.'”
While Nath’s concern largely comes from a fear that Singh will get caught up in differentiating herself from other hosts, inherent in my initial panic was the assumption that for Singh to succeed in her new role, she’d have to have a similar appeal to that of her white, male peers. I wasn’t seeing that on-screen (for good reason) and I was feeling frantic. And that’s pretty messed up. We’ve seen the same type of person in the late-night chair for so long that seeing something different, even if it’s more relatable to me and other people from minority communities, feels wrong.
But it’s not. Because this show isn’t going to be like what we’ve always seen in the genre—and that’s kind of the point, says pop-culture expert Meera Estrada. “For all this time, we haven’t been able to be part of the narrative or the conversation,” she says. “And I don’t feel like we need to be apologetic about being us. Being us is not too much. Being authentic is not too much. Wanting to talk about our true selves is not too much. And if people don’t like it, that’s too bad.”
But it’s going to be great
The fact remains that the show is great for so many reasons beyond the cultural (although that’s pretty big). In a mere half-hour, Singh touched on everything from pay inequity to breastfeeding in public to her own sexuality (with a witty AF Game of Thrones reference). In the first few minutes alone, she shook up the late-night sphere with her SNL-esque rap. (But, TBH, she did it better.) And behind the scenes, Singh is making sure to be inclusive AF, with a writers room that boasts over 50% female writers and 50% writers of colour.
These are a few of the many reasons people will be drawn to the show. “Maybe every single thing won’t be [relatable], maybe everybody didn’t understand what the word ‘didi’ means, but there will be other things in there that they can relate to,” says Estrada. As an LGBTQ South-Asian Canadian woman, Singh is seriously nuanced, so it makes sense that she’d appeal to a diverse audience and their varied experiences. And it’s a draw that late-night needs. Pointing to the current late-night hosts Singh mentioned in her monologue, Nath says: “It really says a lot. [Singh] just brings a perspective that is completely lacking from all of late-night.”
And that’s super-exciting. “Overall, I’m really excited to see where this goes,” says Nath. Referring to the inside jokes throughout Singh’s first episode—like the references to lenghas and “chai tea”—Nath says: “I feel like those are kind of a secret language, like the inside jokes among us and our community. So it feels amazing to hear them relayed on TV and not explained. [Singh] called Mindy her ‘didi’ and she spoke Tamil on national TV. It’s crazy that she [has this freedom and the opportunity] to really represent people in an authentic way.”
In a single episode, I saw so many things I have never seen before in the late night space, heard jokes that used to be inside jokes among me and my Brown friends and heard @Lilly refer to @mindykaling as her didi.
— Ishani Nath (@ishaninath) September 17, 2019
Moving forward, “I hope that she just leans into who she is and what she wants to say rather than constantly trying to differentiate [herself] from the other hosts,” says Nath. “And I hope that doesn’t become a crutch, because she’s better than that.”
During her interview with Kaling, The Mindy Project actor and creator talked about her own experience growing up watching late-night TV, telling Singh: “I was already obsessed with late-night TV, but it was like loving something that didn’t love me back.” And that’s what makes Singh’s show so great. For those of us who grew up never seeing ourselves represented on the small screen, it’s refreshing to turn on the TV and unapologetically love something that *finally* loves us back.
We’re rooting for you.
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