It’s hard not to notice the gaping Jon Stewart-sized hole in this year’s election coverage. With every millennial’s favorite political comedian off the air and Trevor Noah not quite able to fill Stewart’s shoes on “The Daily Show” (1996-present), Gen Y-ers are left wondering what late-night political satire talk show they can watch instead of reading the newspaper. Many have turned to John Oliver, who does top-notch work over on HBO as the host of “Last Week Tonight” (2014-present), but on basic cable, only TBS’s “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” is able to deliver the brand of biting satire Stewart became known for.
Bee’s new show — the first episode of which premiered on Feb. 8 — finds the former correspondent for “The Daily Show” relishing the limelight as the host of her own not-quite late-night program (it airs at 10:30 EST — still technically primetime). “Full Frontal” is a mix of monologue and Bee’s signature field pieces, and, thankfully, she has chosen to forgo banal guest (read: celebrity) interviews — often the weakest link on Stewart’s “The Daily Show.” Instead, clad in smart blazers and dark pants, Bee delivers an unabashedly feminist take on politics and more likely than not leaves Comedy Central executives wondering why they never asked her to be Stewart’s replacement.
It’s also worth noting that Bee is the only woman currently hosting a late-night talk show, a fact she lampoons during the opening segment of the pilot — a mock press conference at which a team of reporters pelt her with questions: “What’s it like being a woman in late night?” “What’s it like being a female woman?” It’s easy to make fun of these kinds of tone-deaf queries, but the challenges facing Bee are not insignificant. As Rebecca Traister writes in a Jan. 26 article for New York Magazine, “She must be two things that women are not always embraced for being — very funny and a little angry — and she must be those things while exuding a quality almost never afforded women: authority.”
It’s clear, though, that whatever her barrier-busting status, Bee enjoys the opportunity to talk about women’s issues and to point to instances of latent sexism her male counterparts can fail to notice. Her impressive takedowns have included lambasting the Kansas state senator who instituted a dress code for female colleagues and skewering the anti-Girl Scouts archbishop of St. Louis who “wasn’t sure” if child molestation was illegal. “Is child molestation a crime?” Bee asked in a scathingly impersonation of the bishop. “Who knows? But I’m positive Jesus hates your diaphragm.” The rapid fire barbs she launches at politicians are no less cutting — “I dislike Ted Cruz as much as the next everybody,” she proclaimed in one episode. Donald Trump, meanwhile, was fittingly characterized as a “sentient caps lock button.”
Crucially, Bee has also used her newfound head honcho status to build a remarkably diverse writing team — half women and 30 percent nonwhite. Though “Full Frontal” has not yet really dealt with issues that disproportionately affect women of color, Bee does seem to be working towards incorporating more diverse voices into the program. A recent bit featured “Full Frontal” writer Ashley Black delivering a scorching explanation of how white people have ruined Black History Month. “Stop pretending you would’ve marched with Martin Luther King when you haven’t liked anyone who has marched since,” she said. In a clever twist, Black announced a new way to commemorate black Americans — Black Now Month “where you stand up for black people who are alive now in real life and not just in your imagination of the ‘60s.” Black nailed her appearance, which hopefully marks the first of many from the show’s behind-the-scenes talent. And though “Full Frontal” is by no means a perfect example of inclusive comedy, it gets a heck of a lot closer than other programs do, probably thanks, in no small part, to the team of writers Bee has hired.
Meanwhile, Bee’s field pieces remain as delightfully silly as ever while still offering gratifyingly sharp political insights. A segment in which Bee teaches Syrian refugees important American phrases — e.g. “Can I have your HBO GO login?” — could have come off as more condescending than clever, but Bee’s ability to poke fun at white Americans, including herself, saves pieces like these from becoming more problematic than they are funny. Her biting commentary about privilege and prejudice instead takes center stage, reminding us that Bee’s self-awareness may be one of her greatest assets. And, as an increasingly nutty election season continues, Bee will be an ever more valuable voice in the late-night comedy landscape. Jon Stewart should be proud.