It’s hard to know much of anything about a brand-new late-night show only one week into its run, but there are a few suggestive takeaways from the first week of NBC newcomer A Little Late With Lilly Singh. Like almost every late-night show ever launched, it will need some time to settle into itself, but the first week suggests that Singh is charismatic and original enough to pull it off.
The task of launching a new late-night show is both impossible and straightforward: Singh had to introduce herself to a new audience while also making it seem as though she’d always been there. Hosts need to define what their new show will be, and definitions are tough because the act of defining something always feels like pointing out all the other things it could be, and is trying hard not to be. Starting a new late-night show, especially for a woman of color in a business almost entirely dominated by white men, seems to require a demonstration of effort and self-consciousness — a bi woman of color, in late night! A person not named Jimmy sitting behind an interview desk! — while also coming off as unselfconsciously effortless. It is impossible.
So it’s not surprising that when faced with an impossible task, the first week of Lilly Singh’s A Little Late did have some bumpy moments. The least impressive segments were the ones that felt most directly aimed at introducing Singh to the audience. There was an opening sketch about who Singh is, and the fact that viewers should not change the channel when confronted with a woman sitting behind a late-night desk. There was a bit from an imaginary game of Truth or Dare, where Singh was dared to host her own NBC late-night talk show. There was an old-timey introductory segment where Singh, dressed as a ’50s sitcom housewife, told her viewers what to expect from the show. “If you hear something you think is funny, an appropriate response would be to laugh!” Singh says, before adding that it’s less appropriate to slide into her DMs and comment “kinda funny, could be hotter.”
It’s hard to blame Singh and A Little Late for all the overdetermined introduction material. She is different than the usual late-night host, and yes, there will certainly be some viewers who do exactly the things those segments are meant to either prevent or mock. They will fall asleep some time during Seth Meyers’s show, wake up to see a Punjabi-Canadian woman hosting a late-night show, make a snort of disapproval, and turn the TV off. Or, just as Singh predicts, they will comment relentlessly on her physical appearance.
Maybe those segments will go some ways toward stopping that reaction. Maybe they will tell new viewers a little about who Singh is, and make them think twice about dismissing her out of hand. But if the intent is to persuade new viewers to seek out Singh’s A Little Late, the less explicitly introductory stuff from Singh’s first week makes a much, much stronger argument for the show.
Singh’s opening monologues do not feel especially practiced, but her story about being afraid of pot and then getting way too high one time was a much better introduction to Singh’s sense of humor than anything you could glean from the stuff meant to tell the audience who she is. It’s a self-deprecating story, the kind of thing that can be a sneakily effective way to communicate self-confidence while also seeming not to. It is closer to the elusive “effort without seeming effortful” impression that the occasion demands: Singh was awkward, enthusiastic, open, anxious, excited, laughing at herself, laughing at everyone else, and fully in command of the arc of the story. I would happily watch more of that sort of thing than another rap segment where someone gets on a table and rhymes “I know you’re used to only Jimmys in your spotlight / but I’m gonna throw some melanin in your late night.”
Even better and more promising for Singh’s show in the long run is that within the first week she demonstrates that she’s a funny, fast, and magnetic interviewer. Her conversation with Mindy Kaling is great; her interview with Tracee Ellis Ross is perfect. She pushes Ross on the kinds of things that feel human and funny and is absolutely the kind of conversation that’s more likely to happen between two women. Ross gives specifics about how she takes amazing photos of herself while going on solo vacations, and when Singh shares one of her own selfies, it miraculously does not feel like an obvious stunt photo (which is absolutely how it would’ve felt on Fallon or Kimmel). Singh pushes Ross to talk about how she’s tested all of her own hair-care products in the shower. They both come off as hilarious and impressive.
Based on the glimpses of A Little Late that came through during the first week — the moments that did not have This is the first week of this show! stamped all over them — A Little Late may have a chance of finally puncturing the Big Three networks’ late-night boys’ club. But there’s one additional thing to watch for the future. In the past year, Fallon’s ratings have dipped while Colbert’s have risen, and that pendulum swing is often attributed (at least partly) to Colbert’s willingness to take on political news that Fallon often avoids. At least for now, Singh appears to be trying to walk a middle ground. In her opening rap she says outright that she will not be talking about Trump, and in the ’50s housewife segment, she again states that although A Little Late will not be a show about politics, “we may touch on social issues that are important to me.”
Taking on “social issues” while declaring politics a no-go zone is a curious and fuzzy line to draw. I understand wanting to make the distinction. “Social issues,” in this construction, are about daily life, and “politics” are the abstract ideas that make everyone mad. Singh may be able to walk that line, bringing up things like abortion access and marijuana legalization without touching the third rail by connecting that thought to “politics.” It’s a disingenuous line to draw, though, and it will be curious to watch how it plays out in the long term. For now, A Little Late looks like it could be exactly the sort of thing late night needs: a new voice in a medium that’s long overdue for an overhaul.