On February 8, 2016, The Daily Show alumnus Samantha Bee launched her half-hour satirical program Full Frontal with Samantha Bee on TBS. There was — and is — both a great opportunity and a great risk for the show. Bee enters a landscape with several established satire programs on the air: The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Real Time with Bill Maher, and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Next Sunday, CNN is going to enter the fray with United Shades of America, a new vehicle for W. Kamau Bell, an immensely talented comedian whose Totally Biased on FXX was flawed but had moments of greatness.
Bee will survive and thrive on how quickly she can find her niche, and how much people will like it. From its inception, it’s clear that Bee and director Paul Pennolino made some astute decisions on which she’s found her footing.
The intro song is “Boys Wanna Be Her” from Peaches 2016 album Impeach My Bush. Bee comes bouncing out in front of a large monitor. She does a short monologue and then introduces her segment. The format is very much like that used by Michael Moore for his brilliant but short-lived series The Awful Truth. There’s one major difference: Moore staged his shows in a conventional theatre walking out to a microphone on a stand in the middle of the stage, as if he was doing a stand-up routine. Bee uses a TV audience, has neither a desk nor microphone stand. She’s essentially ungrounded, and free to move around her stage.
While it takes some time to get used to, being a free-floating host suits Bee’s comedy style. In the April 18 episode, she plays a highlight of Trump’s talking about how much he is going to win. In the highlight clip Trump says:
“We’re gonna win economically. We’re gonna win with the economy. We’re gonna win with military. We’re going to win with health care and for our Veterans. We’re gonna win with every single facet. We are going to win so much, you may even get tired of winning. And you’ll say please, please it’s too much winning. We can’t take it any more. Mr. President — it’s too much. And I’ll say — ‘No it isn’t’.”
The shot cuts to Bee wearing a make-shift blindfold and saying “Win me harder, yeah — win all over me, just try not to win in my hair.” The joke’s funny as written, but hilarious when augmented by Bee’s geeky mannerisms. There are times when she does seem a bit small and nervous without a desk or microphone stand, but these slight oddities are far outbalanced by allowing Bee to show off her impressive physical comedy skills.
Like Moore, Bee faces problems with the long-term viability of her show. First, the series need to maintain some semblance of being a neutral arbitrator. Second, it must find the balance between being funny and being unrelentingly jerky. In both challenges, Bee takes a slightly different approach than Moore.
Moore never really asserted neutrality. Bee seems far more aware of a need to at least periodically turn her acerbic wit onto the Democrats. Her critic of Hillary Clinton are mostly funny, harsh, and incredibly insightful. Even Bernie Sanders — whose supporters seemingly view as a cross between Wilfred Brimley and Mr. Rodgers — takes some blows.
The fact is, however, that the GOP is just easier to make fun of. Bee addressed this in her first episode stating: “Look people, I have to be honest with you, we wrote like two hours about Democrats but we had to throw them all out because then the Republicans laid out a banquet of all you can eat crazy.”
She then transitioned into a full segment on the Republican debate. While funny, there seems to be a hint of bias. To some, it’s a hard argument to make that either Ted Cruz or Donald Trump are considerably less likable than Hillary Clinton. (I have several conservative friends who think of Clinton as a modern Svengali, exercising mass control over the minds of all of her followers.)
While Bee seems to be succeeding at balancing the objects of her wrath — every minute lampooning Cruz was offset by a minute of ridiculing Clinton — Bee does have a bias. On reproductive choice, gun control, equal rights and gay marriage, Bee’s decidedly on the left.
The other problem she faces is the same one that Moore did. They’re both at their comedic best when they are pure unapologetic assholes. The Awful Truth was at its funniest when it forewent any convention of decency or civility. In 1999, Moore decided to follow the Westboro Baptist Church with a counter-protest group in what he called “The Sodomobile”: a bright pink RV carrying 12 militant gay and lesbian protestors.
While Bee hasn’t hit this level of satire, she ‘s had some terrific moments. The closest may have been her attempts to purchase an Eddie the Eagle mascot for the National Rife Association (NRA). The NRA places many restrictions on the purchase or lease of the outfit. Spliced in between Bee’s attempts was footage of some of her staffers being able to buy guns with ease. Both bits were extremely funny. Still, that level of sharp satire is hard to maintain and still be likable.
Bee has a very difficult path to navigate. On The Daily Show, Bee did several great over-the-top interviews and segments. With Jon Stewart as the show’s figurehead, Bee had license to throw bombs at anything or anyone. Now, Bee has to be both the subversive jester and the likable host. Not an easy job, but thus far she seems to be up to the task.