Last month, Canadian YouTuber Lilly Singh dropped by The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon to announce that she was taking Carson Daly’s slot on the NBC late-night lineup. Many a childless adult saw Singh take a family portrait with Fallon and Late Night’s Seth Meyers and thought, Who? YouTube fame is such that someone can be wildly successful and completely unknown to oldheads. Malls must be hell for famous YouTubers. Lilly Singh could walk into a Talbots unmolested, but be positively swarmed at the Forever 21 two stores down. NBC and Singh are entering a mutually beneficial demo swap with A Little Late With Lilly Singh. Singh will not only get the Talbots crowd with her new gig but will also be the first queer woman of color to ever host a network late-night show and the first woman to host a network late-night show since Joan Rivers. And NBC needs those Forever 21 shoppers’ views. TV is dying, streaming is the future, and by hiring Singh, NBC is trying to secure its place in that future.
But back to the question the oldheads asked while watching Singh on The Tonight Show: Who is Lilly Singh? Singh started making YouTube videos after falling into a deep bout of depression in college. “I was doing my psych degree and was following in my sister’s footsteps. My parents wanted me to do my master’s and I was in this phase where I was going through the motions of life and doing what my family wanted me to do. I was a sad person,” she told the Cut. Singh saw a Jenna Marbles video and it changed everything. “I thought, You’re telling me this girl is making videos in her room and people are watching it? I got sucked into the vortex of YouTube until one day, quite spontaneously, I was just like, I’m going to throw up a spoken-word piece just because.”
From there, Singh expanded her brand to a rainbow-colored onslaught of positivity and productivity. Singh created her sketch-comedy channel, IISuperwomanII, in 2010. She named it Superwoman because she feels like she can do anything, and over 14 million subscribers believe her. Her second channel, SuperwomanVlogs, is like a bullet journal on angel dust. Singh takes almost 3 million subscribers through her hectic schedule like it’s a video game. She gets points for completing tasks, clearing her in-box, and remembering to drink water. Singh also has a tour documentary, A Trip to Unicorn Island, and a self-help book titled How to Be a Bawse.
Singh first came to internet attention in 2013 with “How Girls Get Ready,” a frenetically cut sketch that went into the laborious process of going to Da Club. Singh returned to Da Club in “What Clubbing Is Actually Like,” only things had gotten a lot YouTubier. Singh is joined by fellow YouTuber Liza Koshy, the production values are way higher, and she acknowledges that the video will most likely be viewed by kids who are possibly a decade away from their first legal clubbing experience. Singh is always angling herself as family-friendly, and this younger/family audience must be what NBC wants. Most Last Call With Carson Daly videos have YouTube views in the hundreds. “What Clubbing Is Actually Like” has, at the time of publication, over 30 million views. The blooper reel on Singh’s vlog channel has 4 million.
Let’s look a little closer at these vlogs. Singh has an auxiliary YouTube channel with her unscripted content, li’l peeks into her world. These videos are often focused on productivity in a very new-media-start-up way: One must hustle; the grind is a biological imperative; always be hustling. This is a major theme in Singh’s book, too. Being a “bawse” means being productive, amassing capital, and asserting your will onto the globe. The book puts Singh’s psych degree to good use, adding a YouTuber shine on some fundamentals of cognitive behavioral therapy. One of the first chapters is about how to treat your life like a video game — specifically that you can only control your player character. Singh visualizes this in her vlogs, showing her goals as having point values. One of the tasks is always something extremely YouTubey — reaction videos, ASMR, or any number of “challenges.” In the above video, Singh tries other YouTubers’ favorite foods, outsize reactions to the food being a YouTube genre of its own.
Singh posts at least one vlog per week, something that might be strained once she’s running and hosting her own show. Or maybe not. Nickelodeon went all-in on Jojo Siwa, attaining exclusive licensing rights for her brand as well as giving her hosting duties on Lip Sync Battle Shorties. As the podcast Eating for Free pointed out, this barely changed Siwa’s posting schedule on her multiple YouTube channels. It just meant that her vlogs were recorded backstage at Nickelodeon. Siwa’s vlogs became de facto sponcon for Nick, which also gets a cut of that bow money. If Siwa is any indication, the move to terrestrial TV will slightly alter the content of Singh’s vlogs, not their frequency. And other late-night hosts are branching out into behind-the-scenes content, so NBC is probably counting on Singh to keep up with the vlogs.
The last thing Singh will be bringing to NBC is raps! Many, many raps. Also impressions of her Punjabi parents. As evidenced by the word bawse in her book title, Singh does a certain amount of Awkwafina-like blaccent work in her videos. She slips in and out of African-American Vernacular English and a Punjabi accent in almost every sentence. Both seem to be at the core of her style, and both have been criticized in other performers.
But I hope Singh keeps making rap videos on NBC. Her breakdown of how to make a Migos song or video was super-fun, deep parody. She cared about what she was skewering, and really, that matters. There are so many rappers with iconic styles that sometimes veer into self-parody. Do I smell a recurring bit?
A Little Late With Lilly Singh will truly be a litmus test for the future of late night. Can the big networks adapt to YouTube? Can YouTubers adapt to TV? For starters, the volume at which YouTubers talk is exponentially louder than late-night talk-show hosts. And Lilly Singh doesn’t produce explicitly political content right now, her very existence as a bisexual South Asian woman in the arts notwithstanding. That’s the majority of what late night is doing currently. What will a Lilly Singh monologue look like? Will there even be one? Will it be rapped as her mom? It will be interesting to see whether the outrage machine comes for Lilly Singh, or whether she tones down some of the more presentational aspects of her delivery for TV. When confronted by racist commenters, Singh made comedy out of it. What would happen if hate came from the other side of the sociopolitical spectrum? Although Singh has avoided some of the major gaffes of her fellow YouTubers, there will almost certainly be a learning curve when the newest type of celebrity joins the oldest broadcast network.