The commentariat has decided that Samantha Bee is angry. Vulture labeled her style “vicious indignation,” a step up from Jon Stewart’s trademark righteous indignation; Jezebel readers remarked appreciatively on her “unabashed anger” and “deliciously incendiary” commentary; and the Los Angeles Times commended her for being an unapologetic “angry white female.”
Sure, as the host of the newly launched late-night show Full Frontal, Bee has called Ted Cruz a “terrifying, fundamentalist swamp-Reagan” and a “half-melted Reagan dummy” in some of her nicer descriptions of the former GOP candidate, and she’s been similarly scathing to an assortment of elected politicians. But are those outbursts of anger, or just good comedy?
In fact, one could argue that Bee, the longtime Daily Show correspondent, comes across as the reasonable one, who by virtue of maintaining her sanity exposes absurdity.
There’s no shortage of absurdity this election season, and no surplus of reason, which makes 2016 an ideal time for Full Frontal to enter the mediasphere. Absent a certain baseline of reason, traditional media is crippled, since it relies on the premise that we’re all rational people in search of the truth. Comedy news, on the other hand, can highlight the kind of visceral truth that all the fact-checking in the world can’t illuminate. As Bee says in one of her early episodes: “How do you fact-check bluster?” Full Frontal, with its hard-hitting satire, is a welcome addition to the lineup of comedic political commentators and complements the political press at a critical moment.
Full Frontal launched in February on TBS and has since been renewed through the end of the year. Airing every Monday, the half-hour show shares what has become the standard comedy-news format of monologues, video clips of politicians at their worst, and a carefully calibrated tone balanced between ridicule and outrage. But on Full Frontal, there’s no desk, no mug, and no guests; video clips appear on a wall-sized screen behind Bee instead of in the classic overlaid, left-hand corner; and there’s a lot more talk about reproductive rights.
The show arrives at a time when late-night has become increasingly satirical and less, well, goofy. And despite the Jon-sized hole in many liberal hearts, late-night remains a go-to news source for younger viewers. According to a 2016 Pew survey, late-night comedy is a source of election news for a quarter of Americans, and the rate goes up to 34 percent for those aged 18-29. People under 50 were also more likely to choose late-night as their “most-helpful news source” on the election than a national print newspaper.
Bee’s style builds on that of her predecessors and contemporaries, while making some noteworthy departures. Without guests, or lip-sync battles, Bee’s show is almost entirely political commentary. Dressed in a blazer and sneakers, out on the open stage, Bee is scripted but comfortable, and she doesn’t hold back. When she takes up an issue like rape kits, superdelegates, or gun control, it’s an onslaught. Take one of her more popular pieces online, about the backlog of untested rape kits in police departments across the country. “And now for more comedy,” begins Bee. “Rape kits!”
During the segment, Bee rips into a Georgia legislator who opposed a bill that would require the testing of all kits, and then turns her sights on an Idaho sheriff who dismisses rape altogether. According to the sheriff, most reported rapes are when “things just went too far and someone got scared” or when teenagers have consensual sex and don’t know how to tell their parents. Bee launches into a tirade reminding the estimable sheriff of his job description, ending with this pointed prediction: “When the women of the town rise up to strangle you with your own stupid monogrammed shirt, it will be consensual assisted suicide–because you’re definitely asking for it!”
In her most popular online sketch, with 1.7 million views on YouTube, Bee interviews a group of college-educated Trump supporters (one of whom uses limbic in an actual sentence) to try and understand them. The dark comedy is in simply listening to the supporters talk as Bee goads them into saying how they really feel.
Despite the fertile election season, Bee hasn’t limited herself to it, choosing instead to highlight state politics. She repeatedly admonishes the liberal base for sleeping through the 2010 midterm elections that gave the House to Republicans. In a recurring segment called “Elected Paperweight of the Month,” she eviscerates politicians for something they’ve done or said. Her first victim was State Senator Mitch Holmes, who suggested a dress code specifically for the women in the legislature, “because the men already know how to dress.” When Bee addresses big issues like abortion or rape investigations, she highlights individual state legislators who, while easy to ridicule, are drafting and signing laws with real consequences.
In a seven-minute segment about the Texas bill that could shut down all but 10 abortion clinics in the state, down from 41 clinics in 2012, Bee spoke with Dan Flynn, one of the bill’s co-authors. HB2, as the bill is known, contains 90 pages of prohibitive building regulations and is being debated in the Supreme Court. In the segment, after Flynn admits to not understanding how abortions work, Bee asks him, “Have you considered regulating the safety of back alleys? Because that’s where a lot of women are going to be getting their abortions now.”
“I don’t believe that,” Flynn responds.
“It’s true,” says Bee.
“Where are you getting those numbers?”
Much has been made out of Bee being the only female host in late-night news-comedy. But four months in, Bee is distinguishing herself from the other hosts, not by virtue of being a woman, but by virtue of being herself. She certainly focuses more on reproductive rights, but coming from her, it seems obvious that these are simply issues of major importance, not women’s issues.
While branding the show, Bee played up the woman factor. The marketing tagline in promotions for Full Frontal before the show aired was: “Watch or you’re sexist,” and the theme song includes the line, “Boys wanna be her.” Several months before the show launched, after Vanity Fair published a conspicuously all-male photo spread with nine spiffily dressed late-night hosts, Bee photoshopped herself into the photo, as the head on a male-breasted centaur with light sabers for eyes. She posted the photo with a one-worded tweet: “BETTER.”
— Samantha Bee (@iamsambee) September 14, 2015
Yael Kohen, author of the book We Killed It, about women in comedy, says it was a smart move for Bee to confront the obvious fact that she was a woman entering an almost all-male space. “When I first started writing my book, female comedians didn’t like talking about the fact that they were female comedians,” but that’s changed, says Kohen. “The emergence of identity politics has changed the ability to joke about your particular identity.”
But as Bee has continues to solidify her voice and style, what makes viewers continue watching will be less about her gender, and more about her emergence as an astute political satirist at a time when it’s desperately needed.
As for whether Bee is angry, a quote from a college-aged Trump supporter might provide some insight. In an interview with a blond young man, Bee asks him what Trump would have to do to lose his vote.
“Murder?” she suggests.
“Now, that’s just illogical,” he answers, as the conversation starts to get heated.
“You’re getting all fired up now,” says Bee. “Like, you’re smiling, but there’s anger in your eyes.”
“That’s not anger,” he responds. “That’s passion. Don’t mistake that! It’s passion.”