On her wrist is tattooed the words nirbhau, meaning “without fear”, and nirvair meaning “without hate.”
These mantras are admirable in the world of comedy, where courage is tested on stage and strength of character is needed to rise above hecklers and critics. So as the first and youngest-ever female late-night talk show host, raise a glass to Lilly Singh who must be doing something right.
I’m thrilled for Lilly but must admit I want to be cautious about celebrating this milestone. Not because she isn’t wildly talented or lacking as a comedian. She’s young and full of proven potential. But I can’t help but wonder if her shiny new television stardom will add detract from her success and tattooed mantras.
Lilly’s NBC debut happened in September of 2019, and seemed to start strong with a star-studded cast of guests. People like Christina Aguilera, Mandy Moore, Rainn Wilson, Mindy Kalig and Chelsea Handler filled her first week’s roster. Mindy’s appearance was also a timely one, given her recent debut as the writer and co-star of Late Night; a Hollywood movie about a burnt out, first ever Late Show type host played by Emma Thompson.
In Kalig’s 2019 summer flick, some critics slammed her for having stereotyped characters. In the story-line, Thompson’s character has lost touch with her audience and the network is threatening to cancel her show. I hope this isn’t in the cards for Lilly, who is definitely a trailblazing woman but I fear some of Lilly’s fanfare has dulled. I don’t hear any news about how her show is doing and worry its a harbinger of its demise.
Of course, there’s certainly pressure riding on NBC and Lilly’s show, A Little Late With Lilly Singh. NBC is desperate for Lilly’s 14 million YouTube followers.
Watching the comedy skits Lilly has written and starred in, make it easy to see why. She’s funny. She’s creative. And, she’s blossomed since she took to YouTube in 2010.
I also love that Lilly is a fellow Canadian who’s grateful for women like Ellen DeGeneres and Wanda Sykes. She knows they built a path for queer women and women of color in comedy. It’s easy to see how many of Lilly’s followers would identify with her challenges and the generational gap with her parents, who talk and think differently as Punjabi Indians transplanted in Canada.
Born in Canada in 1988, Lilly grew up in Scarborough, a suburb in the East-end of Metro Toronto. I too spent most of my childhood in this very culturally-diverse part of Toronto and never tire of praising three of its funniest Scarberians turned stars; Mike Myers (aka Austin Powers), the incomparable Jim Carrey and funny-man actor Eric McCormick from the hit series, Will & Grace.
As a Fine Arts graduate from York University, Lilly didn’t know what she wanted to do after graduation so she started talking to the camera as a way to vent her anxiety. It helped soothe her depression and people loved her quirky, spunky, entertaining style. She weaves different cultural personas into her routines, and 14 million people loved her Superwoman YouTube channel and Vblogs.
Lilly’s impersonations and honest sharing, whether struggles with dating or navigating permanent eyebrow tattoos, is real and people like real. Sadly, this is one of the strengths that NBC may lose in her more choreographed late night show. Past jokes were silly and simple and, while not always my cup of tea (I guess I’m showing my age!), challenged social issues. Lilly’s “real things white people have said to me” are a great example of how addresses values and respect with a comic but probing lens.
As a late night host, you won’t catch Lilly sitting on the toilet anymore given her pay raise, which must be good considering her stunning $10.7 million earned on YouTube in 2017.
The road is still open with lots of years ahead, but the big question is whether or not NBC will keep Lilly on air if the YouTubers don’t follow. Will Lilly be happy doing mainstream work that requires someone else’s approval and how will she handle critics who suggest her humor might not transfer? Times are tough for comedians doing late night shows with the overwhelming popularity of streaming channels and the declining interest in late night shows even for big names like Jimmy Fallon.
Sadly, some critics have even suggested that Lilly’s heritage as a Canadian of Indian descent is not quite “brown enough” for her to take on the black personas or language she’s using on the show. I’m not sure what others think, but this certainly raises additional questions like “who decides what’s black, brown or blue enough?” and “why go there” at all if we really want to stamp out racism and stereotypes?
As we look to cheer more women in comedy and watch the impact they have on equality and other social issues, I will keep cheering for artists like Lilly who push fear aside and make us laugh about our shared struggles.
If you want to learn more about Lilly, she’s made it easy with her How to be a Bawse book. In it she shares her lessons about how to be fearless and not just live life – be a bawse and conquer it!