It’s been just about six months since Jon Stewart left The Daily Show, departing with a promise that his grand and necessary tradition of political satire would live on proudly.
Finally, his successor has arrived. And she’s got a mean set of lady balls.
With Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show making only a muted impact on the most ludicrous and terrifying election in recent memory, and the rest of late-night’s punny pundits competing for their voices to be heard amid the banshee cries of Donald Trump supporters, Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal finally premiered Monday night on TBS, brimming with the keen, brutal sense of satire that made her mentor Jon Stewart the most trusted man in news.
“For months I’ve been just sitting here with no show just yelling at a wall while the most deranged electoral shitshow in a generation passed me by, and it has been killing me,” Bee says. Little did we know, it’s been killing us, too.
Making fun of the coven of crazies bewitching America on the campaign trail is certainly rampant practice in late-night. How could it not be, with such easy targets? What’s been missing, however, is some bullseye precision—a point of view.
What’s been missing is Samantha Bee. Also, a woman. But mostly just Samantha Bee.
Addressing the audience from her studio that very conspicuously does not have a late-night desk, Bee addresses the elephant in the room within the first few seconds.
At a mock press conference, she fields questions from reporters: “Is it hard breaking into the boys’ club?” “What’s it like being a woman in late night?” “What’s it like being a female woman?”
She’s both celebrating and mocking the fact that not only is she now the sole woman in late-night, but that the topic has also been such an obsession of the media—hell, we’re guilty, too. Bee hasn’t shied away from that conversation at all, graciously acknowledging its importance while power-blasting it with the same turbocharged sense of satire that fuels every other tenet of her comedy.
The tagline for Full Frontal, for example? “Watch or you’re sexist.” The theme song? Peaches’ “Boys Wanna Be Her.”
She’s said that her show will lean into important issues from a unique, personal perspective, and that means it’s steeped in her “woman-ness,” as she says. That doesn’t mean that it’s “for women only.” Anyone who surmises that is more dated and exhausting than this conversation itself. The show takes on a perspective that is so rich and and ripe for exploration that the material is sharper and, because of that, funnier.
“You know what it took?” Bee says in the mock press conference. “Hard work. A great team. And maybe a little bit of magic.” Flashback to Bee howling in the middle of some Satanic ritual, convincing us that a woman is capable of manning a late-night show. “It’s true. We’re all witches.”
Bee’s 12 years on The Daily Show, the longest of any of the series’ rotating cast of correspondents, was characterized by her scorching field segments—reported pieces that pointedly popped and deflated airhead delusions, all while showcasing an unhinged battiness that complemented her studied eviscerations of the news’ lunatics.
Full Frontal comes alive when that goofiness explodes, setting Bee apart from her stuffier late-night colleagues strait-jacketed behind their desks perhaps even more than her femaleness does.
No one but Kate McKinnon has better lampooned Hillary Clinton’s faux humility about the fact that she’s running for president and has to be vetted and prove her qualifications… again. Bee’s reaction to such manufactured humbleness: “Oh, fuck off!”
No one’s critique of Bernie Sanders’s reflexively misogynistic finger-wagging at Clinton has packed as much bite—because none of the men covering it have lived the at the receiving end of the patronizing finger wag.
And while her female perspective helps in those realms, it’s her machete-like humor, willing to go for blood—poor Marco Rubio, the casualty of Bee’s best takedowns in the premiere—that is her greatest asset.
Those two things came together for the night’s most successful segment, labeled “Elected Paperweight of the Month.” The honor went to Kansas Senator Mitch Hess, who created a dress code for women testifying in front of legislators. It was a mad-as-hell dressing down that would’ve made Jon Stewart proud, the type we’ve been mad-as-hell about missing on our TV screens.
The best part of Bee’s show is that it is truly her own.
The decision to eschew the desk is just one way she’s bucking tradition. Guests will only be invited sparingly, if ever, saving us all from the tonal whiplash of going from political satire to celebrity interview, and the banality of Samantha Bee nodding along while Kate Hudson talks about the “true family” she built with her castmates on the set of her latest film.
Those cutesy sketches manufactured for the sheer sake of going next-day viral, the late-night trick du jour by some competitors who have transformed the genre into more of a variety show, are also nonexistent. Instead, Bee treads in the realm that John Oliver has planted his flag in, the kind of topical comedy that doubles as some serious journalism.
Bee’s field segments were the highlight of her time at The Daily Show, and the pieces she’s put together that premiered Monday night—a mini-doc on Jeb Bush’s mystical appeal to his sparse batch of supporters—and have been previewed for critics up the ante as far as the visceral reaction they should stir in those who watch her show.
They don’t just elucidate wonky news conversations in stark, digestible terms, but they do so with a laugh and, more importantly, a point. A point that we need to hear but, in the clusterfuck of the cable news cycle, gets lost in the talking-head cacophony.
Oliver has always been a bit uneasy at the suggestion that what he does is a form of journalism—we’d venture it most definitely is—and Bee echoes his sentiments.
“Our process is similar [to journalists’], but it’s different,” she told me last week, during rehearsals for the premiere.
“I didn’t go to journalism school,” she said. “The truth is that we rely on people’s actual journalism to tell our stories. So I don’t want to claim that hard work. We find our stories because we read ProPublica. We find our stories because we read longform New Yorker stories. We rely on others to do the heavy lifting, and then we just come in with the jokes after.”
The “we” Bee is referring to is her staff of writers, the most diverse in late-night, boasting equal gender division as well thanks to a revolutionary blind submission process she used to hire them. The result is a show that is shinier, looser, and a bit more thrilling than the other topical news series in late-night, all carbon copies of each other when it comes to format and tone. It feels fresh.
They say that it’s bad form to judge a new late-night series based on the first show. That at least a month of shows need to air before you get a proper sense of who the host is and what the show will be.
That’s certainly true, and yet there’s a sense watching the premiere of Full Frontal that it has arrived fully realized. That Bee’s singular, pointed perspective is chiseling through some sort of glass ceiling and her voice is bellowing through it, full-throated and clear. That this is already the show that she wants it to be.
Or maybe that’s just because it so clearly is the show we need.