The 'Daily Show' alum comes out swinging

By Darren Franich
Updated February 08, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST
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Peter Yang

No one questions the fact that Samantha Bee had one of the all-time great Daily Show runs. She was on the show for 12 years, the longest tenure of anycorrespondent. And she was one of the satirical newsfest’s finest actors. You got the sense that Bee always held onto the inceptive Daily Show notion that the correspondents should be believable as genuine serious newscasters. So even though she could radiate loud deadpan alarmism and bewildered bemusement, Bee-as-Correspondent also projected professionalism above all else. It was a subtle joke. She wasn’t an egotist goofus like Steves Carell and Colbert, nor a befuddled brainiac like John Oliver or Jessica Williams, nor a befuddled goofus like Aasif Mandvi or Rob Riggle. She was Daily Show‘s Phil Hartman: A brilliant comedy presence, with a persona that defied easy definition.

Throughout the last decade-plus, the Daily Show alumni have spread their wings to fly. Colbert got one late-night show, then another. Carell was a movie star, then a TV institution, now an Oscar nominee. John Oliver went to HBO. Trevor Noah is The Daily Show. This week, Bee finally got her own showcase. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee is a not-too-late late-night show, currently airing once a week at 10:30.

I would point out that Bee is currently the only woman host in late night television, but that designation might bug her. The opening sketch jabbed at the media’s obsession with Bee-as-Female, with the host fielding various questions that all sounded the same. “Is it hard breaking into the boys’ club?” “What’s it like to be a female woman?” “What did you have to do differently?”

Bee’s response: “Hard work, a great team, maybe just a little bit of magic.” Smash-cut to Bee, in the midst of a coven fire ceremony straight out of the American Horror Story opening credits. “We’re all witches,” she smiled. “Any questions?”

What followed was one of the most confident premieres in this suddenly never-ending phase of late-night debuts. Standing onstage in a smart red jacket, Bee unleashed a pent-up broadside on what she described as “the most deranged electoral s—show in a generation.” The zingers flew fast. Donald Trump is a “sentient Caps Lock button” and “an oddly tinted compilation of psychiatric symptoms.” Ted Cruz is “a man who seems like he would lecture a starving kitten on personal responsibility, and then deport that kitten and its family.” The Huffington Post is “almost like a journalistic organization.”

She showed a video of Hillary Clinton onstage in Derry. Clinton, with mock amazement: “You know, I never thought I’d be standing on a stage here asking for people to vote for me of president.” Cut to Bee, rolling her eyes: “Oh, f— off.” Then, on a dime, Bee imitated Clinton’s demure shock: “Who, me? PRESIDENT? Oh, golly gum drops! I don’t know if little ol’ me could ever …” Then, on another dime, she stared into the camera, and the lights turned red, and her voice echoed with a low bass through her studio: “YES. ANOINT ME YOUR GOD. WHAT MORE DO YOU PEOPLE WANT FROM MEEEE?” For a moment, she looked and sounded like Tim Curry as the Lord of Darkness in Legend. But there was real resonance was in that last line: You admire how Bee can make Demonic Lust for Power sound frustratingly poignant.

News-based comedy is a crowded field now, not least because the actual facts of the news keep getting more absurd. Bee did her own “Please clap” joke, her own Ben Carson pile-up joke, a gag about Christie vs. Rubio that doubled as a gag about The Revenant. Some of this was funny, but it was also unmistakably a late arrival to the Internet’s meme party.

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But as with Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, Bee can turn her show’s non-Daily-ness into a feature. The short Act 2 introduced Bee’s new segment, “Elected Paperweight of the Month” singled out Senator Mitch Holmes, who recently unveiled a state committee dress code targeted exclusively at women. But Bee dug into Holmes’ legislative history: Commending the holy men of Kansas, the Boy Scouts, and the Wichita State University basketball team, all while restricting abortion. “Basically,” said a smiling Bee, “an entire legislative career spent controlling women, and celebrating the groups that exclude them!”

Bee doesn’t have a desk, which vaguely counts as revolutionary and also vaguely gives you bad acid flashbacks to that moment when CNN decided that John King’s Magic Wall was the future of TV journalism. If there’s a big knock against the Full Frontal premiere, it’s that the new show follows the Daily Show format to millisecond: Opening news-rush monologue, short segment 2, filmed segment 3.

But that final segment tweaked the format. Bee declared that she’d sent her “Foreign Exchange Producer” to New Hampshire. What followed was essentially an extended Werner Herzog parody, with the unseen heavily accented narrator pondering the decline of the Jeb Bush campaign. It mixed on-site man-on-the-street interviews (“If Jeb were a drink, what drink would he be?”) with sequences of Bush on the campaign trail. At one point, a young Jeb fan showed off the small toy turtle he received at a Bush rally, with “Slow and Steady Wins the Race” printed on the back. “Perhaps it does,” said the narrator. “Or perhaps this turtle is helpless on its back in the mouth of a f—ing alligator.” CUT TO: An actual alligator, eating an actual turtle.

The key to this segment’s majesty is how it used the goofiness of a Herzog parody to make a genuine sharp point about the candidate. “As we follow this Jeb and get closer to him, he paradoxically seems to recede ever further into the distance.” At one point, the film crew actually got to ask Bush a question. The “question” was: “The campaign process is like the brilliant night sky, whose beauty obscures the fact that it is a terrifying endless void.”

It was hard to tell what was more depressing: That statement, or the moment that followed, when Bush shook his head, smiled, and said, “Campaigning is the greatest blast in the world.”

Can Full Frontal stand out from the late-night pack? On the strength of this premiere, yes. The mono-focus on the election makes it a bit hard to pass a final verdict — what will Bee do when there aren’t a dozen insane Presidential candidates to make fun of? But consider how a throwaway reference to Hillary as “Hermione Clinton” counts as both a lacerating putdown of Clinton’s ambition and high praise for Clinton’s studious workaholism.

Full Frontal already feels like an essential voice in this political year. We’ve been needing someone who’s this smart and this wacky, someone with the well-honed ability to fire a chaingun array of zingers that can all hit their marks with sniper precision. And she happens to be a female woman? That’s cool, too.

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