At a time when you can count the number of female late-night talk-show hosts on one hand — with fingers to spare — Samantha Bee is doing something some would’ve previously thought impossible. Not only is she running a show that continues to amass viewers, churn out weekly viral video clips and earn Emmy nominations, she’s doing it on TBS… at 10:30 ET.
Almost every thinkpiece or Rolling Stone profile on Bee and her Full Frontal phenomenon centers on the fact that she’s a woman living in a man’s world. And make no mistake: Late-night television belongs to the men. Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Corden — sorry, don’t know what happened there, James Corden, it’s James Corden — Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers, Conan O’Brian… you get the picture. Late night has been a bros-only club for a long time and though the Chelsea Handlers of the world have tried to push their way in, putting a woman behind a desk has always seemed a bit too revolutionary for the old cods in suits, sitting around, smoking cigars, chugging expensive scotch and musing on their complete domination of late night television — just painting an exaggerated visual here, there’s no definitive proof all older white males enjoy scotch.
When TBS offered Bee her own show, headlines soon followed: “Smirking in the Boys Room With Samantha Bee,” “Finally A Late-Night Show With Lady Balls,” “Samantha Bee Is Crashing Late-Night Comedy’s Sausage Fest.” Most of the talk was centered on how Bee, with her fierce feminism and commitment to covering women’s issues, was going where no woman had gone before. She was exploring the final, penis-populated frontier.
But then the first episode of the show aired and suddenly, making it a “her-against-them” narrative didn’t seem to paint the entire picture anymore. Though Bee is “female as f*ck,” she’s also funny and incredibly passionate and those two things, more than her gender, are what’s fueling her late-night ascension.
Full Frontal’s premiere episode was seen by 2.2 million viewers. The show has gone on to average 620,000 viewers per episode, handily beating both The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore and Conan. Even more impressive — Full Frontal is performing just as well as Corden and The Daily Show in the coveted 18-49 age demographic.
Critics might look at those numbers as proof a woman can actually do the job of hosting a late-night talk show. No sh*t a woman can do the job. A woman can do any job. By confining Bee’s success to her gender we’re taking away another incredibly important facet to her unique brand of comedy.
Bee isn’t beating the boys just because she’s a girl, she’s beating the boys because she’s a girl and she’s pissed off. Compare her to Oliver, who employs his British sarcasm to great effect with segments like “Make Donald Drumpf Again” or Trevor Noah, who pokes fun at American politics from an outsider’s point of view. Both men are successful — Oliver can take a topic, break it down then build it up again for viewers to understand and laugh at like no other while Noah’s able to approach from an angle that’s both critical and unbiased — but, despite letting a few curse words slip every now and then and seeming to be perpetually exasperated at how the Land of the Free operates, neither of them have tapped into the pure rage Bee’s able to access every time she arms herself with a stylish blazer and hurls lethal barbs at the racist, sexist, homophobic bigots of the world.
Some of her best segments are built on that impressive blend of satirical wrath and unforgiving comedy Bee’s become known for.
Take her popular “Rape Kit Backlog” segment. At a time when rape culture on college campus is disturbingly prominent and when incidents of sexual assault keep making the news thanks to our judicial system’s inability to properly prosecute and punish convicted rapists, Bee put her spin on the issue — focusing on the thousands of backlogged rape kits around the country. Not only were rape kits just sitting on evidence shelves collecting dust, some were even being destroyed. Bee wasn’t having it. Not only did she effectively put a congresswoman from Georgia on blast for failing to pass a law that would find and count untested sexual assault evidence, she also singled out an Idaho sheriff who, in the year 2016, was still unsure if rape really existed.
Which is the pickle, Bee explained while labeling the lawman a “giant pink hamster fetus of a man” and explaining what consensual assisted suicide is — something he’ll probably become familiar with when the women in his county rise up against him. Rape is such a problem in America because, for some reason, people are still confused about what consent actually is. Bee’s segment might not have solved the issue, but we’d like to think it’s not a coincidence that that Georgia rape bill did end up passing just a couple of days after her show aired.
Because we can hear the trolls typing furiously about “feminist comedy” and “angry white women problems” let’s focus on another segment — one more gender-neutral. (We’d argue that rape is gender-neutral because it can happen to both men and women. But since that backwoods Idaho sheriff’s only example of “false rape” claims centered on a hypothetical involving a young teen accusing her boyfriend of rape because she was ashamed to admit it was consensual to her parents, it seems some people think women might be to blame for this whole “rape mess.”)
One of Bee’s comedy sweet spots is dragging ignorant politicians. Bee spends a lot of her time airing the GOP’s dirty laundry, crafting insulting monikers for the Ted Cruzes of the world and pointing out the sheer idiocy and arrogance of men like Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
The segment “From Their Cold, Dead Hands” investigated the Republican Party’s troubling relationship with the National Rifle Association. After a Democratic filibuster that attempted to force Republicans to pass better gun control laws, conservatives like Cruz and Speaker Paul Ryan tried to reverse the blame. America doesn’t have a gun problem, they said, we have a terrorism problem. Bee called bullsh*t on that, providing stats that prove most Americans, even gun-owners, want better gun control laws.
As fun as it was to watch Bee pull Ted Cruz insults from a plastic fish-bowl and listen as she labeled Trump a “screaming carrot demon” what made the segment standout was Bee’s unrelenting assault on the NRA and their muddled, political history on Capitol Hill. She was informed, she was prepared and she was ready to bust their balls.
Hopefully Bee’s career and success won’t be defined by whether she can “hang with the boys” of late night. (She can and she is — that’s not really a question.) Hopefully her brand of funny won’t just be written off as “righteous fury” or “venomous comedy.” (Yes she’s pissed. Yes, watching her completely obliterate entitled a**holes using her impressive dictionary of derogatory terms is both inspiring and hilarious. Yes we do want to steal her collection of blazers.)
Hopefully, Bee’s tenure on Full Frontal will be defined by her passion. Every time she steps in front of the camera, she’s talking about issues she’s invested in. That investment shows in everything she does — from detailing the rise of the religious right to trekking across Cleveland for the Republican National Convention, coming up with clever insults for politicians and shaming lawmakers for contributing to tragedies like the Orlando nightclub shooting.
While many of the men in her field are content to pal around with celebrities and build their shows around online viral videos of lip syncing, karaoke in the car or tricking your kids into thinking you’ve eaten their Halloween candy, Bee’s doing something else. She’s standing up and saying what a lot of us are thinking — she’s just better at articulating it than the rest of us. And funnier. Have we said she’s funny yet?