During its 16-year run, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart launched more brilliant comedy careers than any TV series besides Saturday Night Live. Steve Carell was its first breakout star, jumping straight from late-night cable news satire to starring roles in The Office and Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin in 2005. Later that year, veteran correspondent Stephen Colbert left to host The Colbert Report, which only ended when CBS hired him to replace David Letterman. By the time Stewart named Trevor Noah as his successor, the list of alums who’d graduated to hosting similar shows also included John Oliver, Larry Wilmore, and Michael Che.
As those names suggest, for all the catharsis it provided, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show had what Jezebel famously identified as a “woman problem.” A few female contributors — Kristen Schaal, Olivia Munn, Jessica Williams — have carved out impressive acting careers after quitting the boys’ club. But none had become a Stewart-level political satirist until the show’s longest-serving correspondent, Samantha Bee, defected to TBS to anchor Full Frontal.
Since its debut last February, Bee has proven she isn’t just Stewart’s only female successor; of all his acolytes, she’s also the one whose persona and point of view most closely align with his. While Colbert played a Bill O’Reilly character on the Report before revealing himself to be an avuncular, principled sweetheart, Noah plays up his bewilderment at the absurdity of American politics. The self-deprecating Oliver does geeky deep dives into newsworthy issues on Last Week Tonight. Wilmore was like a charismatic professor leading a lively class discussion in his excellent-but-canceled Nightly Show. Che and his Weekend Update co-anchor, Colin Jost, have a buddy-comedy vibe. But, for better and worse, Bee is a left-of-center firebrand like Stewart.
That’s often a great thing. Stewart’s indignant rants helped so many of us survive George W. Bush’s right-wing regime, the Tea Party’s constant temper tantrums, and a cable-news landscape that increasingly resembled professional wrestling. Now, Bee’s righteous monologues give voice to what sane humans are thinking anytime Donald Trump parts his obscenely puckered lips to speak. For the nearly 60 percent of Americans who are hating every minute of his presidency, it’s a relief to hear him tarred with ingenious epithets like “swollen scrotum of angry hornets” and “Dauphin of Breitbartistan.” And it’s especially thrilling to watch a funny woman mock a misogynist who was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault years before he won the power to dismantle abortion rights, birth control coverage and equal pay legislation.
With the possible exception of Oliver’s team, Bee’s diverse writing staff is the sharpest on late-night TV. Their one-liners are deadly: In a recent segment on Harvey Weinstein, Bee appropriated Trump’s own words to note that, after the story broke, hypocritical Republicans thirsty for Democratic-donor blood “popped a few Tic Tacs and moved on the Weinstein scandal like a bitch.” (Trevor Noah’s flat monologue on the same topic hinged on the thinkpiece cliché, “This isn’t a Hollywood problem — this is a men problem.”) Her writers also take advantage of the weekly show’s relatively luxurious schedule to craft memorable features, from the Jeb Bush x Werner Herzog mini-doc that was the centerpiece of Full Frontal’s premiere to a recent animated history of the long, shameful relationship between the US and Puerto Rico.
Like Stewart, Bee positions herself as the voice of common sense — and a lot of the time, she is. She was right about the overwhelming evidence that refugees don’t pose a threat to America and CNN boss Jeff Zucker’s role in eroding the political discourse and Steve Bannon’s history as “the milkshake that brings all the deplorables to the yard.” None of these insights are novel, but part of what’s great about Full Frontal and Stewart’s Daily Show is the same thing that was great about Gawker: It can be so infuriating to watch journalistic euphemisms obscure political chaos that sometimes you just need to see someone who is clearly a sociopathic Nazi get called a sociopathic Nazi, in public.
The problem is that Bee and Stewart don’t differentiate between genuine common sense, instinctive centrism and their own personal opinions. He crossed over from satire to sanctimony with his 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear, a half-serious march on Washington with the stated aim of uniting the 70-80 percent of the American public he estimated held few strong opinions on politics in a rejection of right- and left-wing extremism. Seven years later, the argument that socialists are just as dangerous as authoritarians doesn’t seem so obvious.
Bee’s version of that rally was April’s Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, an event scheduled for the same time as DC’s annual “Nerd Prom,” its existence justified by the fact that it raised over $200,000 for the Committee to Protect Journalists. The special’s surprise guest was Will Ferrell, whose energetic reprisal of his George W. Bush impression both reflected and reinforced some liberals’ sudden nostalgia for his presidency. The live audience roared when he unveiled a “Portrait in Not Courage” of Trump and advised 45 to “eat a salad.” It was strange to watch Bee facilitate the image rehabilitation of a president whose phony WMDs and virulently anti-abortion policies she used to rage against, simply because we now have one who’s worse.
The lack of perspective is particularly puzzling considering how much ire she’s directed at Bernie Sanders, a politician whose views are presumably much closer to hers than Bush’s. The problem isn’t that she stanned for Hillary Clinton throughout the primaries; it’s that she became so invested in painting her opponent as misogynistic and deluded. Last April, before Clinton clinched the nomination, she assembled a diverse group of Sanders voters to answer condescending questions like, “Do you think [Hillary is] too much in the pocket of big, realistic expectations?” After a debate, she went in on him for his entirely rational fixation on Wall Street and habit of talking with his hands: “If Hillary becomes president and any man tries to shut her up with a finger in her face again, I hope she takes it off with a fucking drone strike.” But when Clinton went on record with some bizarre, unearned praise for the Reagans’ (atrocious) handling of the AIDS crisis, all Bee could muster was a reluctant pep talk: “I know you’re tired, but get it together, woman.” Over a year after the DNC, Bee was still needling so-called Bernie Bros.
There’s an opinion at the heart of every joke, and if there even is such a thing as objective political comedy, it probably isn’t very funny. But Stewart and Bee take polemical humor to an extreme by framing anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs — whether they’re socialists, antifa or actual Nazis — as stupid, crazy, evil or self-evidently wrong. Meanwhile, everyone who doesn’t threaten their current loyalties gets a pass.
Entertainment that pushes a single point of view while marginalizing all others is propaganda, and propaganda rarely makes for intelligent discourse or effective comedy. Even worse, it mirrors the pundit-driven cable news conversation that make Stewart and Bee so mad. “With so much excellent reporting out there, why do 96 percent of Americans believe the media should be strung up by its own bowels?” she wondered while roasting CNN’s Zucker at Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Then she answered her own question: “Maybe because when they turn on the TV looking for news, all they can find are journalists trying to referee a pack of well-coiffed message robots?”
On her best days, Bee is one of the smartest, funniest voices in late night; on her worst, the only difference between her and those message robots is the jokes.