The months and weeks leading up to a television premiere are a time of hype, hyperbole, and hyperawareness, a stressful time for any creator. But the lead-up to Full Frontal With Samantha Bee has been not just months but years in the making. As more and more men have taken a seat behind the host's desk while their female counterparts continue to hustle without the kind of stable platform that late night can provide, the calls for women in comedy to get this kind of opportunity have become more insistent. Regardless of Vanity Fair covers seeming reserved only for the men who take on the hot seat, the debut of Bee’s weekly TBS show last night was a major event in the talk-show landscape.
And if there were any questions about what Bee’s lady voice would do to balance out the (admittedly very earnest) torrent of dude energy wafting off the late-night TV waves, Bee wasted no time in answering them.
Full Frontal began with a mock press conference.
"Is it hard breaking into the boy’s club?"
"What’s it like being a woman in late night?"
"What did you have to do differently to make this show a reality … as a woman?"
Mock Samantha responds, "It took hard work, a great team, and just a little bit of magic," winks to close her perfectly press-appropriate answer … and we immediately cut to a fantasy sequence of the true Bee, no longer polite, now the demonic center of a Satanic ritual. She’s just gone not figurative witch, but full witch, ecstatic witch, and it’s only once we’ve had a taste of Bee’s unholy potential that we're sent back to the media room.
Samantha Bee might be a sister of the cause, but she’s a Weird Sister, prone to witchcraft, cynicism, flights of fancy, and hairpin twists into the realm of the surreal. Pigeonhole her comedy as female at your own risk — both politically and creatively, Bee has a whole lot more than gender on her mind.
Bee is the latest in a series of Daily Show correspondents to receive their own series, all of which use TDS as at least a partial jumping-off point for the individual personalities of their hosts. The Daily Show flagship lives on with Trevor Noah, though Noah’s laissez-faire politics have yet to make an impression in the wake of Jon Stewart’s earnest passion. John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight is basically the weekly version of his 2013 stint covering for Stewart, and it has proven to be a successful redux. For his part, Larry Wilmore remains a stalwart at Comedy Central with his laid-back version of the format, The Nightly Show.
But Bee’s charisma is closer to that of Stephen Colbert, still the most successful of the Daily Show alums, though it has been tough for his stint on the creatively more restrained Late Show to match the vitality of the faux-conservative Colbert Report. As with Colbert, there is a sense watching Bee’s new series that you are watching a comedian who is not only here to say something, but who has a desire to say it from a particular point of view — no small feat in the generally stuffy air of late night.
For every joke on Full Frontal that felt like it might have been carried over from the good old days of The Daily Show, like the early and very solid riff on Bernie Sanders’s Chevy-driving grandpa persona, there was a bit that felt completely unique to Bee. Hillary Clinton’s protests that she never thought she’d be standing on the campaign trail asking to become president were met by Bee’s authoritative fuck-off, a welcome knife through the awkward tension that is the sometimes result of male pundits’ desire to appear respectful while criticizing a qualified female candidate.
Bee’s political commentary maintained that cool air of authority throughout, and in an election year that more resembles a circus sideshow than a political forum, it’s a relief to have a figure point out the ridiculousness without waffling.
If John Oliver sometimes indulges in a kind of breathless faux-shocked "Can you believe this!?" act —- taking on the earnest, but maybe a little patronizing, air of a cool history teacher trying to engage an unruly class on current events — the first episode of Full Frontal held the promise of coverage that assumes its audience is already aware of the dangers of today’s political chaos. I don’t need someone to tell me why Rubio’s statement about delivery-day abortions is stupid, I need someone who can tell him publicly to go fuck himself, and on that count Samantha Bee delivered in spades, and with style.
But maybe nowhere was that style more apparent than in Full Frontal’s closing segment on Jeb Bush.
Recalling the time Bee spent as Jon Stewart’s correspondent on all things bizarre-Americana, Bee sends her own correspondent into Jeb Bush’s waning voter base. A Team Jeb! mother and son are asked what beverage Bush would be. There is an awkward pause long enough for our thoughts to fill in the space. The answer seems inevitable, and finally the boy gives it: Jeb is milk. The narrator's Herzogian voice-over resumes over what might have been a two-second insert of a man drinking milk if this were one of the anodyne CNN segments it parodies. But as the voice-over drones on, the close-up of the man drinking milk doesn’t cut. Milk starts to pour from the side of his mouth, and what was once mundane slowly morphs into the grotesque.
Welcome to the 2016 election, America. Samantha Bee reporting.