Before she even told a joke on Saturday, Samantha Bee had won. When I told the director of my alma mater’s journalism program, a veteran Washington, D.C., reporter, that I would be in town for Bee’s Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he responded, “Wow! That’s the hottest ticket in town.” See, “hottest” means something different in D.C. In L.A., it means wherever the cast members of Pretty Little Liars go on a Tuesday, and in New York, it’s like wherever Stefon goes. In D.C., “hottest” tends to mean proximity to power. Traditionally, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner fashioned itself a “nerd prom,” with a predetermined prom king and queen — the president and the First Lady. Well, President Trump is out of town, so all hail Queen Bee.
Going into the evening, it seemed that Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner would focus on Trump, but in many ways, the focus was Bee herself, as became clear when the golden curtain dropped at the beginning of the show to reveal her face, giant and all-seeing, on the large screen above the DAR Constitutional Hall stage. With an hourlong time slot, compared to Full Frontal’s usual 30 minutes, Bee unleashed her entire arsenal of comedic talents. I’ve written before about the speed of her monologues, but it is another thing entirely to see it in person. The sort of kinetic energy she creates blitzing through a thorough takedown of Jeff Zucker or Rupert Murdoch is stunning, the audience’s laughs unable to catch up until she takes a breath every three punch lines or so. The same goes for Bee’s impressive physicality and range as an actress, which is on display during a series of pre-taped bits about White House Correspondents’ Dinners of the past, in which she embodies comedic personas from different eras, like Phyllis Diller and Paula Poundstone.
Bee is at her absolute best — arguably the best she’s been anywhere since starting Full Frontal – during a segment in which she imagines giving the WHCD monologue in an alternate dimension where Hillary Clinton is president. She performs it with honesty to the scene, but also an undercurrent of genuine pathos rooted in the universe we unfortunately find ourselves in. While rehearsing the sequence on Friday, Bee got choked up toward the end, to the point that she had to stop herself. She made it through without a tear during the actual taping, as she promised her writers she would the day before, but that same feeling was still there. Watching Melissa Harris-Perry, Pat Kiernan, our own Bee profile writer Rebecca Traister, and the hundreds of others journalists watching it, I could feel comedy history being written.
This is not to say Bee proved something that she hasn’t already proved time and time again on Full Frontal. But a late-night show, with its inherent repetitiveness, is like a hum. Sometimes it takes a loud shout to break through. In that sense, the specific jokes and bits don’t matter as much as the fact that the event exists. Everyone knows Colbert’s infamous WHCD appearance, where he performed as his conservative blowhard character, mercilessly satirizing President George W. Bush to his face. But over the years, the jokes he made aren’t what we remember — it’s the fact that he did it at all. It’s hard to see history in the moment, but as a person who has done some comedy-historian work, I will venture a guess at the story we’ll remember:
Samantha Bee, in the very early days of the Trump presidency, challenged the former reality-show host to a game of chicken and won. By upstreaming Trump’s announcement of what he was going to do about the WHCD, did she actually cause Trump to ditch the event? Probably not, but it feels that way, if only because the order in which it all went down. Bee announced Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner days after the inauguration, a month before Trump decided to back out of the WHCD and three months before he decided he wouldn’t even be in town when it happened. (Instead, he’s holding another one of his ego-boosting pep rallies in Pennsylvania.) This might be an alternative fact, but, with her white tuxedo and swagger, it sure seemed like Bee believed it, pointing out in the show that Trump ran away from fighting in Vietnam, two Republican debates, and now this, speculating, “I guess we know why he wears those lumpy, ill-fitting, old man pants: It’s because he’s constantly shitting himself.”
Here’s the thing about speaking truth to power: The comedian is inherently positioned as less than “the power.” The impact of Colbert’s WHCD monologue, or even Will Rogers’s “Bacon, Beans, and Limousines” address before President Hoover, is linked to its proximity to the power. With Saturday’s show, Bee is saying, Fuck that: I — and the people I represent — are the real power. Who cares about speaking truth to power when the person in power can’t comprehend negative opinions about himself? What he does understand is schoolyard posturing. From that perspective, Trump is an all-talk bully who, when challenged to a fight, decided to run away.
Beyond being funny or not, political comedians are great communicators. They can boil down multi-faceted issues in a digestible and entertaining manner. Samantha Bee has always been exceptional at this, and she’s currently unparalleled at it in the late-night arena. So, unsurprisingly, the message of Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was clear: This is what power looks like.