With last night’s debut of NBC’s A Little Late with Lilly Singh, Lilly Singh has become the highest-profile woman to host her own regular late night network talk show since Joan Rivers on Fox in the ‘80s. She’s also one of two to get her own network late night show in that time—three if you want to count Wanda Sykes’ short-lived weekly Saturday night show on Fox.
It’s safe to say that the history of late night talk show hosts on broadcast TV is almost entirely white and male. The last woman to get a real opportunity, Rivers, was an already world-famous comedian who had been Johnny Carson’s primary guest host on The Tonight Show, and who pretty much was only able to get the opportunity because Fox was a brand new, upstart network trying to establish itself against its long-entrenched competition. That was over 30 years ago, and she was fired after only seven months. Cynthia Garrett briefly hosted Later in the same NBC time slot as Singh’s show in 2000, but was canned in just about a year to make room for Carson Daly—who kept a firm grip on it until Singh’s premiere last night.
Other women have hosted late night talk shows on cable networks, of course. We’re exclusively talking about the classic broadcast networks—NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox—which, even despite decades of steady viewership erosion, still provide a larger and more mainstream national platform than pretty much any cable channel. They don’t have a better track record with hosts of color, either—Arsenio Hall briefly hosted Fox’s show after Rivers was fired in 1987, but his own self-titled show that premiered in 1988 was syndicated and not on a network. Before last night there were five traditional late night talk shows on the broadcast networks, and all five are hosted by white men: Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers and James Corden. And former network star Conan O’Brien didn’t go away after getting fired by NBC in 2010, launching another traditional late night talk show on TBS the next year. These hosts all have different styles and different preoccupations, but they’re all broadly from the same culture and offer similar, if not roughly identical, perspectives. If you somehow don’t understand the increasingly vocal criticism of late night’s staunchly white and male lineup, maybe these facts will clue you in a little bit.
So Lilly Singh is here to change the look and tone of late night to whatever extent the network allows her to. Of course she’s only been given a half-hour a night to make that possible, and in the dead-of-night time slot of 1:35 a.m. It’s better than nothing, of course. Singh kicked off the first episode of her show with a musical number that evoked the YouTube work that made her famous while also recognizing the historical impact of her getting her own network show. You can watch that below, and catch A Little Late with Lilly Singh on NBC every weeknight at 1:35 a.m. ET/PT.