How Samantha Bee Is Making Late-Night TV Great Again Like No One Else Could
The expectations for Samantha Bee’s late night talk show couldn’t have been any higher. The debut of Full Frontal on TBS earlier this year made Samantha Bee the sole woman in late night, a fact the former Daily Show correspondent immediately lampooned during the program’s premiere. In a pre-taped segment, Bee fielded softball questions on shattering the glass ceiling: “What’s it like being a woman in late night?” “What’s it like to be a female woman?” After responding that it took “hard work, a great team, and maybe just a little bit of magic,” the segment cuts to reveal what it really takes to make it as a woman in show business: witchcraft. Bee is shown at the center of her own coven, selling her soul to the devil.
But in addition to being the only female in a television sub-genre dominated by Jimmys and Jameses, Full Frontal debuted at a time when The Daily Show was without a spiritual successor, as Trevor Noah has struggled to find his footing as a host. Since Jon Stewart announced that he was stepping down from the program last February, the current election cycle has lacked his distinctive satirical voice to shape an increasingly chaotic race. As Slate’s Willa Paskin argued, “it’s our first election since 2000 where The Daily Show might as well not exist.” But Samantha Bee doesn’t just recall the best of that program, she’s arguably doing late night even better than Stewart did.
The Daily Show began its life under the tenure of Craig Kilborn, a host who was the exact opposite of passionate. Kilborn, previously an anchor for ESPN Sportscenter, delivered his material with a ironic smarminess. In its early years, The Daily Show was intended to mock lightweight entertainment programs like Entertainment Tonight and Extra just as much as its “fake news show” style took on Rupert Murdoch’s cable empire—a favorite target of Stewart. On a typical Kilborn broadcast, viewers would be treated to segments like “This Day in Hasselhoff History” and “Trivial Compromise,” a Jeopardy!-style parody.
Samantha Bee doesn’t just recall the best of [The Daily Show] — she’s arguably doing late night even better than Jon Stewart did.
If Kilbourn’s style had more in common with Talk Soup than Walter Cronkite, Stewart built trust among his viewers by giving them the qualities Kilbourn was sorely deficient in: honesty, integrity, and transparency. The Daily Show found its footing in the shadow of 9/11, and his first broadcast after the attacks would mark the figure Stewart would become. In his opening monologue, Stewart was reflective, earnest, and self-effacing. “I’m sorry to do this to you,” he said. “It’s another entertainment show beginning with an overwrought speech of a shaken host. And television is nothing if not redundant.” What Stewart targeted was hypocrisy in all of its forms, refusing to even spare himself from criticism.
Jon Stewart would develop his voice as a political commentator by critiquing a political era defined by doublespeak, duplicity, and what Stephen Colbert, his protége, would later call “truthiness.” In a review for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani presciently wrote that Jon Stewart provided a measure of sanity during a time when little about the world made sense. “Mr. Stewart’s frequent exclamation ‘Are you insane?!’ seems a fitting refrain for a post-M*A*S*H, post-Catch-22 reality, where the surreal and outrageous have become commonplace,” the critic said. Watching The Daily Show made viewers feel normal.
But Jon Stewart’s best trait is that his Daily Show dared to get uncomfortable. It asked difficult questions, often making its audience and guests squirm. One of the show’s finest, and most painful moments, is when Samantha Bee herself made it onto the floor of the Republican National Convention. “Is tonight the night they exploit 9/11 or is tonight inspired empty promises for the future?” she asked an RNC attendee. In another signature moment, Stewart took CNBC’s Jim Cramer, host of Mad Money, to task for his own role in the 2008 financial crash. It was everything Jon Stewart did best: speaking truth to power.
This segment showcased an important (and little-appreciated) fact about The Daily Show: Whereas Craig Kilborn’s program was smugness for the sake of smugness, Stewart’s comic veneer was a facade, as much an affectation as the Republican character Stephen Colbert played. As The Daily Show aged, Stewart would slowly strip away the pretense to comedy, as his commentary became increasingly angry and outraged. This is something that his successors have widely misunderstood: Jon Stewart may have insisted that he was a comedian, but really he only played on on TV. In truth, Stewart was a moral crusader cut from Upton Sinclair’s cloth.
Trevor Noah, to put it lightly, is no Upton Sinclair. Today’s late-night landscape is far, far different from the one Jon Stewart inherited 16 years ago. On The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon became Entertainment Weekly’s Entertainer of the Year for a program in which he attempts to be everyone’s best friend, even playing footsies with noted racist demagogue Donald Trump. Fallon’s show is intended to create the good feelings that generate easy viral segments — where everyone is laughing and having a good time — and Trevor Noah appears to be based off the same template. When Noah says he’s an entertainer first, you know he means it.
Trevor Noah, to put it lightly, is no Upton Sinclair.
Trevor Noah has got charisma and great screen presence, with an appealingly handsome mug that’s easy on the eyes, but his show is like warm milk: It goes down easy. If Stewart was routinely shaken by the horrors of modern America — forever 10 seconds away from reenacting Network — Noah never seems particularly stirred. His January segment on the rise of Bernie Sanders, which reimagined the Vermont Senator’s life as a storybook, was endearing but safe. Trevor Noah discusses Sanders’ New York upbringing: “born in Brooklyn in 1941 and raised by his parents: a Che Guevara poster and a scratchy wool sweater.” For all of Noah’s cherubic cuteness, you rarely get a sense of what he really thinks about Sanders (or much else).
If there’s a certain uncanny valley aspect to Trevor Noah’s Daily Show, Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal is pulled straight from that program’s DNA. Full Frontal lifts many of the trademark features of The Daily Show — mixing filmed sketches with live monologues — but it abandons the news desk to allow Bee to wander the set. Each episode moves at an exhilarating, breakneck clip as she races to hit her targets. When she debuted three months ago, Bee acknowledged that she had months of “all-you-can-eat crazy” to get caught up on. She remarked, “For months, I’ve been sitting here with no show, just yelling at the wall, while the most deranged electoral shitshow in a generation passed me by, and it has been killing me.”
Viewers may tuning to Full Frontal hoping to hear Bee skewer the 2016 race with maniacal glee are unlikely to be disappointed. In a memorable episode, the host took on an infamous debate in which Donald Trump defended the size of his penis. After running the clip, Samantha Bee wiped vomit off the camera. But if that’s low-hanging fruit, Bee saved her greatest ire for former GOP nominee John McCain, who has recently called Trump “uninformed” and “dangerous.” She then blamed McCain for the Trump debacle by choosing Sarah Palin as his nominee in 2008. “Don’t you even dare,” she said. “The guy who gave us Trump 1.0 does not get to complain about the latest upgrade.”
Her most recent installment (at the time of writing this) is a master class in dead-on satire. After dropping out of the race, Sen. Ted Cruz noted that the character of Biff in Back to the Future was based on Donald Trump “a caricature of a braggadocios, arrogant buffoon.” Bee responds, “Great scott! When you put it in Back to the Future terms, this whole crazy election makes sense.” She, however, extends his metaphor to compare all the nominees to characters from the film, pointing out that Bernie Sanders is basically Doc Brown: “the elderly lunatic who hangs out with teenagers and whose well-intentioned meddling screws up everything else.” It ends in a farewell to Cruz’s campaign, set to Michelle Branch singing “Goodbye Ted Cruz.”
But like Stewart before her, she’s more than a comic. She’s an astute social critic, particularly of hypocrisy. Her most salient critiques are saved for the right-wing “War on Women,” in which male politicians legislate women’s reproductive health. In March, Bee spoke to Rep. Dan Flynn, one of these legislators involved in shutting down most of the abortion clinics still left in Texas. Flynn was behind a draconian law to restrict access to health by placing absurd regulations on providers. “So the intention of the law was not to do away with abortions, it was just to make them impossible?” she asked him. Bee later pointed out that he seems to know nothing about women’s reproductive health at all. He barely argues with that assertion.
If this savage segment recalled the best of The Daily Show, there’s a reason for that: After joining in 2003, Bee spent 12 years on the program — longer than any other correspondent. From her decade on set, Samantha Bee understands better than anyone what always made the show tick: The Daily Show cared deeply about the state of the world and the people who live in it. So does Full Frontal. In one segment, Bee targets an archbishop in St. Louis who worked to shut down local Girl Scout troops because of the national organization’s stance on contraception. In response, the show purchased hundreds of boxes of cookies to support those chapters.
Samantha Bee understands better than anyone what always made the show tick: The Daily Show cared deeply about the state of the world and the people who live in it. So does Full Frontal.
But if Jon Stewart was incensed and hopeful about the state of America, it’s clear that Bee is doing something her former boss too rarely did: consider a woman’s place in the current political landscape. Stewart’s show was mired by a key blind spot: When Olivia Munn was brought onto the show in 2010, The Daily Show hadn’t hired a female correspondent in seven years, since Bee was brought on the show. While late-period additions like Kristen Schaal and Jessica Williams helped improve gender diversity in front of the camera, the story remained the same behind it, with reports of a work environment that was hostile to female voices. When Stewart wrapped his stint on The Daily Show, just four of its writers were women.
If Stewart’s career was shaped by September 11, Samantha Bee’s satire will likely be defined by the climate she’s inheriting now. She may be the only woman in late night, but women experience sexism and abuse in nearly every workplace. As a February episode pointed out, we tell young women that they can be “anything [they] want.” But whether you’re a stand-up comedian, a pop singer, or even a forest ranger, you inherit an industry where men “get away with assault over and over and over again.” One female cruise ship employee told her that it was the “most sexual harassment [she’d] ever seen in any workplace.” Another called the profession “Rapetown U.S.A.”
If Stewart’s career was shaped by September 11, Samantha Bee’s satire will likely be defined by the climate she’s inheriting now … Women experience sexism and abuse in nearly every workplace.
In Jon Stewart’s farewell speech last year, the host argued that “bullshit is everywhere” — from “organic all-natural” cupcakes to the PATRIOT Act, or as Stewart calls it, the “are you scared enough to let me look at all your phone records” act. But as he explains, “the best defense against bullshit is vigilance.” During an election cycle that’s been surprisingly free of sharp critiques of current affairs, in which Saturday Night Live can’t figure out what to say about Bernie Sanders except that he looks like Larry David, this is what Samantha Bee offers in spades: vigilance. After all, as the smartest — and only — woman in late night, she knows a thing or two about bullshit.