late night

Samantha Bee Has Proven Why Late-Night Needed Full Frontal

Samantha Bee. Photo: TBS

Most of the conversation before Full Frontal premiered was about how exciting it was that we were finally going to have a woman hosting a late-night show. It was a fair thing to focus on, as it was a clearly bullshit situation that needed to be remedied. But lost in this conversation was how exciting it was that the woman hosting the show was going to be Samantha Bee in particular. This focus on her as a woman entering a boys’ club over her own specific comedy track record is something Bee herself noted and mocked in the show’s first episode. I think before we aired, before we launched the show, we got asked the question so many times,” Bee told Katie Couric this week, with visible frustration. “We kept saying, ‘Oh, our show’s gonna be different … not just because it’s being hosted by a woman, but because it’s being hosted by a different human being. It’s being hosted by me, and I have a different point of view.’” In those journalists’ defense, it’s hard to comment on a show that hasn’t started yet, whereas the lack of female representation in late-night is more concrete. However, now that we are two months in, I think it’s time to talk about Bee’s “point of view” and what Full Frontal turned out to be. Simply: Full Frontal is a formidable force of political satire. It demands your attention.

“I’m not sure I can really define our voice, but it comes from a very gut level, a very visceral place,” Bee said in Rolling Stone. “We always wanted to do the show from a really authentic place deep down inside our bellies, and we are 100 percent doing that.” If Jon Stewart made his name with a brand of righteous indignation, Bee offers vicious indignation. Take how she ended a segment about how the government is failing to help poor families buy diapers in a way that felt like a more brutal version of Stewart:

“Oh my God, conservatives, make up your minds about poor babies. We thought you wanted them to be born. Why else would you oppose free contraception, wage jihad against Planned Parenthood, fight the FDA on Plan B, and make abortion as unattainable for poor women as a ticket to Hamilton. Well, like it or not, there are a lot of poor babies, and it seems all you got for them is the same useless advice you’re giving their mothers: Keep your legs crossed.”

The distinction between Bee and her late-night counterparts is exhibited in the way I’ve regularly found myself reacting while watching Full Frontal: When Rolling Stone asked if she identified with Secretary Hillary Clinton, since they’re both “breaking up the boys’ club,” Bee responded “not really,” jokingly adding, “I do compare myself to Jesus, though.” It’s a fair comparison, if only because when watching Full Frontal, I often find myself saying “Jesus.”  While there is a line that her counterparts will not cross — whether it’s because earnestness or irony prevents them from going that far — Bee doesn’t just cross the line, she picks it up and uses it as a sword to gut her targets until the blood runs down her hand like ice cream in the summertime. Examples!

• In that diaper segment (which included an image accompanying the punch line “human centipede their pets and babies”), Bee says she had her fact-checker see if diapers are even that important. Cut to her fact-checker visibly covered in shit.

Bee tries to buy a costume of the NRA mascot, Eddie Eagle — a task that proves strangely difficult. There aren’t any used ones online, because you aren’t allowed to resell the costume. But what is resold online? Guns. It’s a point Bee showed by requesting a meet-up with stranger on, to which Bee sent one of her employees, who actually bought a freaking used shotgun out of the trunk of a stranger’s car in the parking lot of a suburban Atlanta Target.

• In a particularly brutal segment on unchecked rape kits (maybe the show’s hardest-hitting thus far), after showing a clip of a sheriff who suggests most instances of rape are the result of young women having consensual sex with their boyfriends and not knowing how to tell her parents, Bee says this: “Listen, you giant pink hamster fetus of a man. I’m sure the idea of actually heaving your ass out of that chair and chasing a criminal is exhausting. You can believe women are lying whores all you want when you’re off the clock, but when you’re the sheriff you have to listen to rape victims. Otherwise, when the women in your county rise up and strangle you with your own stupid monogram shirt, it’s going to be consensual assisted suicide, because you’re definitely asking for it.”

Parodying Trump rallies, Bee requests her security remove “protesters,” which in this case means people quietly wearing Conan O’Brien T-shirts. The bit ends, graphically, in Trump-rally fashion.

• After showing the infamous clip of Trump implying that his dick was big, the show cuts back to vomit being on the camera lens. Bee then attempts to squeegee the puke off, leaving behind a white residue and making the bit even grosser.

Structurally, Full Frontal most closely resembles Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. (Though tonally the show most closely resembles Adult Swim’s gonzo late-night parody The Eric Andre Show.) They’re both mirror images and a Sunday night—Monday night one-two punch (cutely enough, the former co-workers share a studio): Oliver, the good student, with his book report filled with so much information presented calmly (read: Britishly); Bee did all the reading, too, but was too angry about it to worry about the teacher’s opinion. The truth is, if anyone “eviscerates” or “destroys” topics, it’s Bee.

As was the case with Oliver before her, I’ve heard people say her show proves she should’ve gotten The Daily Show, but when I watch, I thank God and Justin Trudeau she didn’t. Trevor Noah might be struggling because he’s still a square peg trying to jam himself into a round hole, but Bee is a peg on fire. The first noticeable change from The Daily Show format is that Bee stands rather than sits behind a desk. Full Frontal doesn’t play with the vocabulary of fake news, in which there’s a certain newsmenlike stateliness to the setups; instead, it’s a manic onslaught of comedy and point of view. There are also no interviews. Bee’s perspective never has to bend to accommodate a guest, and the tone of the show stays consistent. (By comparison, Stephen Colbert’s Late Show is still suffering from tonal fluctuations when he bounces from bits to interviews.)

Not needing to incorporate other perspectives is something Bee, with her staff, revels in. “On this show, because it’s coming directly from the source, I don’t have to couch things in the way that I maybe once did,” she told Rolling Stone. “I’m not filtering my point of view through someone else’s point of view, which is incredibly liberating. I’m not having to pussyfoot around things that I don’t feel like pussyfooting around.” A Bee-fronted Daily Show would’ve been great, insofar as it would’ve starred the Bee we saw over her 12 years as a correspondent, but it’s nothing compared to the pure voice we’re getting now. For example, watch her segment on Texas abortion laws, below, which on its surface looks exactly like one of The Daily Show’s produced segments. Gone is The Daily Show method of tricking or trapping the interviewee with faux sympathy; in its place is utter contempt:

If there was one thing accurately predicted in the lead-up to Full Frontal, it’s that, like the above, the show covers stories not covered by the men in late-night. Take this excerpt from New York’s January profile of Bee: “I think there’s a lack of those stories. And I love to tell those stories.’ And so, while not all the pieces on Full Frontal will be about women or gender or misogyny, it’s fair to say that plenty of them will be. ‘Those are just the stories I’m interested in.’” Like some of the stories I’ve already highlighted, Full Frontal is undeniably more open to feminist topics and women’s issues. But, beyond that, in a campaign filled with unequivocal misogyny and old-school condescension, Bee offers a visceral reactive voice for women that otherwise would be lacking.

But what’s the point? It’s just a TV show. People who prefer politics to comedy often say, “How can you parody politics when politics has becomes a parody of itself? LOL.” Or there is the argument made by The Atlantic a couple of days ago, that late-night shows’ “segments don’t change policy outcomes and that interest in these bits is pretty ephemeral.” (Yeah, and what’s up with cooking shows!? I watch them, but I’m still hungry afterward!)

In response, I will offer an answer — Samantha Bee’s: “People who watch the show are concerned that I’m very angry all the time! And I’m actually not. The show channels my frustrations into a nice 21-minute catharsis, and then I’m pretty chill the rest of the time.” In a time of toxic discourse, Full Frontal is a weekly purge. Samantha Bee throws up on our television screens, so we don’t have to.

Samantha Bee Has Proven Late-Night Needed Her