When Full Frontal With Samantha Bee debuted on TBS in February, after months of speculation about what it might mean for Bee to be the lone woman anchoring a late-night news show, its snarling theme song quickly made the host's intentions clear:
You've got them all by the balls, causing waterfalls,
Stone walls, bar brawls, common stalls that cause 'em all.
To you they crawl (body sprawl, smokin' Pall Malls, close calls, stand tall),
Doll, you make them feel so small — and they love it.
These "fuck you if you don't like it" lyrics come courtesy of "Boys Wanna Be Her," from Peaches's 2006 album Impeach My Bush. The song is explicit and defiant, straightforward and smirking as it dares you to blink. When paired with Full Frontal's title sequence — in which the comedian stomps into an arena to do battle — it's intimidating as hell.
In other words, "Boys Wanna Be Her" is a perfect fit for Full Frontal — not to mention a perfect description of how Bee has set herself apart in a crowded field.
Full Frontal has hit a potent combination that makes the show more primed now than ever to become a go-to for fans of political satire. Bee's unflinching attitude and unique perspective in an overwhelmingly male field would already set her apart — but premiering in a particularly bizarre election year makes Full Frontal more prescient than it would've been even just a year ago.
Samantha Bee launched her late-night show at the exact right time
Full Frontal's timing was perfect. The show premiered right on the heels of the Iowa caucuses, and every week since has only yielded more and more bizarre pieces of election ephemera for the show to tear apart.
Additionally, Bee's status as late-night television's lone female voice in a year where Hillary Clinton is running for president certainly works to the host's advantage when discussing the Democratic primaries. When Bee talks about Clinton's attempts to seem more chill and appeal to voters, it's less about Clinton's awkward attempts to relate to people than it is about women having to walk a tightrope when it comes to cultivating their public perception — something Bee undoubtedly knows better than her male colleagues.
TBS had never launched a show quite like Full Frontal before, and its other late-night series, Conan, draws consistently low ratings. But Full Frontal's February 8 premiere still brought in 2.2 million viewers across four networks (TBS, TNT, truTV, and Adult Swim) — an impressive number for a 10:30 pm cable program, and one that holds up when compared with Trevor Noah nabbing 3.5 million viewers across 12(!) networks in his first outing on The Daily Show in September 2015.
Full Frontal's internet presence is also impressive; it doesn't quite have the same reach as John Oliver's Last Week Tonight, but the episode clips that TBS posts online each week quickly rack up hundreds of thousands of views. One segment that featured Bee traveling to Texas to confront state Rep. Dan Flynn about his restrictive abortion clinic laws reached almost a million views in the week after it aired. Perhaps most telling is the fact that Bee is rapidly gaining the kind of status that leads many people (and news outlets, including Vox) to post her clips and just say, "This," as if she's said everything they've been thinking but couldn't quite articulate themselves.
There are some basic factors that have contributed to Full Frontal's early success. It's a weekly show, so Bee and her staff can home in on the issues that speak the loudest to them without the pressure of filling airtime that daily programs face. Bee also opted not to bother doing interviews with celebrities and other famous guests in order to make time for longer field pieces, her favorite format from 12 years of reporting on The Daily Show. And, yes, it helps that Bee isn't just another man in a suit, so she can speak from a different (and sorely needed) perspective in a way that makes the boys wanna be her.
But even more than that, the reason Full Frontal has made such an indelible mark within weeks of its debut is that Bee is mad as hell, and she's not going to take it anymore.
Bee has emerged as a clear voice amid the muddled landscape of late-night TV
As this increasingly mind-boggling election cycle sinks even further into the weeds, a sense of exasperation has spread throughout late-night comedy. Hosts walk out to greet their crowds and almost throw up their hands, such is their overwhelming confusion.
On Last Week Tonight, Bee's fellow Daily Show expat John Oliver deals with it by delivering long monologues that delve deep into bureaucratic and societal dysfunction, with the host growing more and more bewildered by all the ineptitude he's uncovered. On The Daily Show, Noah opts for bemusement, rolling whatever clips happened to land on his desk that day while largely chuckling on the sidelines. On Saturday Night Live's March 5 episode, Colin Jost opened "Weekend Update" with a perplexed, "Where do we even start?"
But Full Frontal With Samantha Bee knew exactly where it wanted to start, and so it came roaring out of the gate with so much energy, fire, and righteous fury that it was almost startling to witness.
Sure, other late-night comedians have their opinions. It's always clear when Oliver finds something so stupid that it renders him nearly speechless, and The Nightly Show's Larry Wilmore is frequently just as frank as Bee. But where Oliver tries to inspect issues from several different angles and Wilmore enlists a panel of experts and guests to broaden and civilize each discussion, Bee and Full Frontal hurtle full-speed at their targets without pulling a single punch.
Bee's focused rage would be significant in its own right, but in the context of the increasingly bizarre 2016 election it becomes much more vital to our national political conversation. For example, she's not concerned with digging for any real merit in the Republican presidential field, because she just doesn't believe there's much to find. Indeed, Bee's approach to the current state of the GOP harks back to when Bill Maher's Real Time openly sneered at George W. Bush without apology in 2003. Both shows stormed onscreen at a time when furious liberals craved a space to be unapologetically pissed off at the conservative status quo.
But Maher and Bee are very different comedians, and so their anger expresses itself in completely different ways. While Maher rails against weak wills and "political correctness," Bee is using her platform to attack entrenched bias, lazy governance, and sexist policymaking. It's a different kind of outrage that's more cognizant of feminism and social justice — which makes her even more relevant in 2016, when those issues are more at the forefront than ever before.
Full Frontal attacks issues Bee and her team care about, without mercy
For example: In Full Frontal's first episode, Bee delivered a searing monologue at the expense of Kansas state Sen. Mitch Holmes, whose proposal to enforce a dress code for women who work with him in the state Senate earned him special disdain:
The takedown — which even included Bee dry-heaving — was blistering. When Bee presented Holmes's defense of just wanting to make sure everyone was "respecting the wives" of the men who work in his legislature, Bee's voice dripped with contempt. "That means you know your colleagues are so hypnotized by our cleavage that they can't hear female testimony over the sound of their own boners popping," she declared.
Later, she drove the point home by ripping Kansas's questionable budgetary practices with enthusiastic fury:
No wonder your state had to raid a billion dollars from the highway fund just to keep the lights on. How can senators balance a budget when all the blood is rushing from their heads to their engorged ding-dongs because Shelly wore skinny jeans on Arbor Day?!
Bee spit out these attacks rapid-fire, even pausing afterward to catch her breath. It's not just that she felt so strongly that she could barely contain her anger. It's also that she clearly felt a sense of catharsis in being so openly, unreservedly blunt — and even downright mean:
Senator Holmes, let's talk. Your state's got 99 problems, but a bitch ain't one. You don't get to regulate what other people wear to work. I mean, I wouldn't try to regulate your finger-painted tie, or your skeevy facial hair. And if I get distracted wondering whether that yellow stain around your mouth is whiskers or just the lingering impression of a gloryhole, that's my problem, not yours.
After a rant like that, it wouldn't have been at all surprising if Bee had thrown a lit match over her shoulder, set Holmes's face ablaze, and walked away from the explosion with a satisfied grin.
This segment didn't enjoy as much attention as some of the others Full Frontal aired in its first week — everyone was justifiably distracted by the premiere's truly show-stopping short film about the existential despair of Jeb Bush's presidential campaign — but it was the best indication of Bee's approach to her show.
As a woman who doesn't particularly want her clothes regulated by some crusty legislator, not only was Bee speaking from a more personal place of fury than any of the male late-night hosts could, she was also overtly furious. This wasn't just a segment about one bad piece of legislation, but the overwhelming frustration of countless others like it — and Bee wasn't pretending she was anything but enraged.
Full Frontal's immediate confidence has led some people to give Comedy Central grief for offering The Daily Show to Noah instead of to Bee, and it's true that her comedy has teeth where Noah's favors gentle ribbing. But in making her own show, Bee has found her own groove, and gets to forge ahead on issues that matter to her and her staff without any of the baggage that comes with taking over an institution like The Daily Show.
More importantly, making a show on her own terms means she has relatively more freedom to be as mad as she wants to be. In this historically weird and uniquely infuriating election cycle, Bee's honest disdain is her greatest asset — and what could make Full Frontal a crucial voice in late night.