clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Samantha Bee is going where Jon Stewart and John Oliver never did

Here’s how she’s breaking the mold that Stewart set up and Oliver perfected.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for June 26 through July 2 is the latest installment of TBS’s Full Frontal With Samantha Bee.

The most remarkable moment of the latest episode of Full Frontal With Samantha Bee wasn’t when Bee ripped into Brexit. It wasn’t when David Tennant, the former Doctor Who star, read tweets excoriating Donald Trump in his thick Scottish accent. It wasn’t even when Bee’s graphics team pasted Trump’s face onto that of a Weeping Angel, one of Doctor Who’s most dreaded monsters.

No, it was when Bee asked her viewers to visit the website for their state’s board of elections and make sure their voter registration was up to date. "Take this election seriously!" Bee implored, and it was as forceful as anything else she said during the episode.

It also marked a substantial break from tradition, even if it didn’t seem like it. For the most part, The Daily Show and its children (a family tree Full Frontal belongs to, along with HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver) have done their best to appear at least slightly objective.

When former Daily Show host Jon Stewart endorsed John Kerry in 2004, he didn’t come out and encourage his viewers to vote for Kerry. Instead, he noted that George W. Bush had made it really easy to do his job as a comedian poking fun at politics, and said he would prefer it if, in the next four years, said job was really hard. He just toed the line when it came to outright endorsement.

But Bee doesn’t see political discussion as a semi-polite fight, where the most reasonable voice in the room will carry the day. No, she sees it as war.

Who’s better: John Oliver or Samantha Bee?

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
In case you’ve forgotten what John Oliver looks like, here is a photo of him.


Bee’s call to action crystallized something I’ve been thinking about since her show debuted back in February and "Who do you think is better, John Oliver or Samantha Bee?" became a topic of debate among TV fans. (It should go without saying that the question persists only because both hosts have launched such terrific shows.)

I’ve always preferred Bee. I find her jokes funnier, I find her material more invigorating, and I find her show’s point of view more exciting. It’s not that I dislike Oliver — whose show is sometimes the very best on television — but that something in Full Frontal’s DNA just speaks to me on a primal level.

And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that my preference for Bee stems directly from how frequently she essentially declares that the only way anybody will ever succeed in making this world a better place is by fighting for it.

Full Frontal is angry, as my colleague Caroline Framke has pointed out, but so was Stewart’s Daily Show. The difference is that Stewart’s Daily Show seemed to believe that much of what makes us angry is, in some ways, intractable. We can’t fix the world, but we can make jokes about it.

Bee, however, will frequently lash out at her audience of presumably young, presumably hip, presumably progressive viewers and say that we can’t blame all of the world’s problems on some horrible political system — Republican, Democrat, or otherwise. Instead, she proposes that all of us are at fault, even you, and that if we don’t do something, things are only going to get worse.

Bee avoids the comedy of flattery so many of her peers fall into

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee
She’s mad when you don’t vote in elections, too.

This sets Bee apart from pretty much everyone else — including Oliver, whose comedy is by and large designed to flatter the audience. The implication of any given Last Week Tonight segment is that even if you don’t know already know what Oliver is talking about, you will be a better person for learning it, and because you are receptive to what he is talking about, you will be able to absorb important information and carry it forth to be more knowledgeable about the world around you.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach, especially since Oliver usually turns his spotlight on issues that get about one-thousandth of the attention reserved for the political horse race (something Bee covers extensively). But I can never escape the sense that Last Week Tonight’s default position is that if you know this stuff, you are a better human being, and that by simply becoming better informed, you are superior to those who hear Oliver’s message and reject it.

The reason for this is simple: Oliver rarely draws the connection between the horrible injustices he’s reporting on and how we at home either profit from or indirectly support them.

When he discusses, say, medical debt, it’s with the implication that medical debt is just one of the world’s many ills, one that we should probably get around to fixing someday, but also one that will require sustained political action, probably from somebody else, to truly solve.

This approach — that knowing about stuff is more important, ultimately, than doing stuff — is very much in keeping with the traditional role of the comedian as a detached, amused observer. But it’s also a recipe for viewer ego stroking, especially in an era when TV audiences are self-selected niches who seek out programs that will speak to their partisan opinions.

And that creates the kind of world where pieces like this Jimmy Kimmel sketch (which asks the audience to gawk and laugh at random passersby who hate Hillary Clinton but keep getting tripped up in their own ignorance and hypocrisy) are greeted as hilarious instead of cruel. Because we’re on the "right" team, and we know all the "right" information, we can feel comfortable in our righteousness.

Oliver, of course, doesn’t stoop that low. His show is still adventurous, ambitious, and frequently very funny. But it exists on the same continuum of suggesting to the audience that signaling you’re on the side of the good guys is more important than trying to understand why somebody else might disagree with you.

And don’t get me wrong. Samantha Bee thinks everybody who disagrees with her is completely and totally incorrect — if not utterly idiotic. She frequently presents those who oppose her own political positions as enemies in the grinding trench war she’s waging.

But because she also views them as actual opponents, rather than uneducated folks who only need to hear the right information (laced with jokes!) to see the light, she weirdly grants them more respect. The only way to defeat them is to overturn the system itself.

Thus, she’s not terribly interested in coddling her audience. This is the world all of us have built, she posits, and if we’re going to make it better, it will be together.

How gender affects all of this

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee
Bee’s satirical swipes at the Bernie Sanders campaign were also somewhat unusual from late-night hosts.

I should probably mention the detail that most people usually open with when talking about Full Frontal: Samantha Bee is the only current late-night talk show host who is a woman. (We’re going to pretend Netflix’s Chelsea doesn’t exist, because the idea of a "late-night show" existing on a platform that doesn’t have time slots is madness.)

And where most of the ensuing conversations treat this as a welcome change, or an intriguing novelty, or even a strike back against industry sexism, I think her gender is intrinsic to why she’s been able to so radically push past the usual Stewart/Oliver playbook.

Put simply, the effects of institutional sexism — something especially noticeable for women in theoretically progressive realms like the entertainment industry — affect all women in one way or another. Their political leanings, the level of education they have, how feminist their male bosses claim to be — none of that matters. They all have to deal with it sooner or later.

Stewart and Oliver can say to their viewers, "Well, hey, if you have this information, you might be able to understand how the world is filled with problems and issues, and that might be helpful for you," because to a real degree, as rich, white male comedians, they don’t have to deal with it. It’s interesting, but it’s not vital.

Bee, however, is constructing the first season of Full Frontal to serve as a blanket condemnation of an entire political system where everybody is lazily comfortable with their privilege.

Some of the topics she covers are clearly of less interest to her than others; you can tell when she really comes alive (early episodes dealing with Texas’s restrictive abortion laws — recently struck down by the Supreme Court — snarled with sharp teeth). Her segments on race and class, especially, occasionally suffer from "Well, that’s unfortunate!" syndrome, just a bit. But she doesn’t just feign concern for most of this stuff abstractly; she feels like she has skin in the game.

Of course, that means those who disagree with Bee politically are going to find something else to watch. But in an environment of political and cultural niches, she seems fine with that (and her ratings are solid, so she doesn’t need them anyway).

The days when a Walter Cronkite could sway national opinion on the Vietnam War, or even when a Jon Stewart could take a Jim Cramer to task, are pretty much over. What’s left behind, Bee suggests, is a kind of endless, grinding battle, one that will outlive all of us but one that is necessary if we’re ever going to live in a better world.

She doesn’t want to make her job harder, as Stewart famously did when he semi-endorsed Kerry. She wants to make her job unnecessary, impossible as that might seem.

Full Frontal With Samantha Bee airs Mondays at 10:30 pm Eastern on TBS.