Sharp, influential and smutty, Canadian Samantha Bee may be liberal America's best weapon in the war against Donald Trump's lying, equally dirty mouth. Ellen Vanstone reports from New York
It was a funny segment about rape kits that really made me sit up and take notice of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.
The show had already garnered a lot of press when Samantha Bee debuted last year as the "only woman in late-night," bouncing around the stage in a colourful blazer instead of sitting behind a desk and lacing her rapid-fire commentaries with breathtaking profanity. When Donald Trump boasted about groping women and newscasters groped for P-word euphemisms, Bee cheerfully rattled off 25 synonyms for female genitalia that rivalled Carol Shields's poetical penis paragraph in Larry's Party.
But the rape-kit segment was a particular highlight.
It opens with news clips about untested kits across the United States, including more than 20,000 in Texas ("Omigod, we get it, Texas, everything's bigger there"), then shows untested kits being tossed to save space ("You guys are taking the Marie Kondo method a little too far"), followed by news of a bill requiring rape-kit testing that passed unanimously in Georgia – only to be blocked by Republican Senator Renee Unterman. Bee consults a Feminist Rule Book ("No rape jokes. And don't be mean to other women"). She tosses the book ("Thank you for your service") and addresses Unterman directly: "Woman, have you lost your [effing] mind? If the Confederate clown car that is the Georgia House can come together on this bill, who are you to block it?"
By the end of the segment, both Bee and her audience are slightly breathless, but many rewatch online for the novelty of what Full Frontal offers: authoritative reporting on important issues, delivered with unapologetic emotion, overlaid with the kind of sharp comedy that obviates disempowering female victimhood. Bonus gift: The rape-kit segment had an impact, inciting so much media backlash that political insiders credited Full Frontal for helping the requirement finally pass, folded into a different bill that squeaked into law one minute before a midnight deadline.
As Full Frontal went from strength to strength – ratings to rival The Daily Show, where Bee, 47, had been a correspondent for 12 years; U.S. cable channel TBS ordering a second season (it returns Jan. 11 on the Comedy Network in Canada); multiple awards and an Emmy nomination – and as Bee, along with the rest of us, excitedly anticipated a Hillary Clinton presidency, a lot seemed right in the world of comedy and politics.
Then Trump happened. And things weren't so funny any more. Whatever the reason for the election upset – e-mails, xenophobia, Jimmy Fallon and the Donald practically braiding each other's hair on NBC – he won, the reality paradigm shifted, and suddenly comedy felt different, too.
For liberals raised on the feel-good (or at least superior) political satire of Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Bill Maher et al., the clever jokes of late-night suddenly felt beside the point, verging on tasteless in an uncertain world. Yes, Full Frontal's approach was qualitatively different.
But would it hold up in a Trump presidency?
Could Samantha Bee's smart, dirty, non-patriarchal mouth save us from a man who will soon be the most powerful, lying, race-baiting misogynist in the world?
Reinventing late-night on her own terms
Samantha Bee is sitting in her corner office on West 57th in Manhattan, across the street from the CBS studios where her show is taped. The room is tastefully appointed, except maybe for the large framed photo of Burt Reynolds. Bee exhibits that combination of friendly openness and polite reserve which, since she's from Toronto, I'll describe as typically Canadian (she also has U.S. citizenship). She has a calmness that's at odds with her onstage persona. In performance mode, she never stops moving – swaying, bobbing, with an intense, unconscious facial expression, even when she's off-camera, that reminds me of a pro athlete in the zone.
She laughs when I tell her this. "I'm the most unathletic person in the world."
But she takes the "what now with Trump?" question very seriously.
"I've been thinking about that since he won. On the night of the election, we were all here until the middle of the night, watching the results come in and slowly retreating into our blankets. All I could think was: What is this going to mean for the show?" She laughs. " 'Fuck the world!' No, I mean, I care about the world, too. But that's a separate conversation."
The question, she says, is "how to give the office some level of respect, because it is the highest office in the land. Do we have to? Or do we go in harder?
"The main thing we have," she says, "is that we are very honest." From the second TBS offered her a late-night slot, she says, she knew she wanted to do a show that came from a visceral, instinctual place: "I call it my 'inner swamp,' which is what we called it in theatre school, which sounds really disgusting, but I really like it."
Bee wasn't asked to replace Jon Stewart when he left The Daily Show, and whatever she may have felt at the time, she's grateful to have created her own show. In the world of late-night, following in Stewart's footsteps would have locked her into a traditional format: the desk, the guest interviews, the inevitable comparisons with hosts who preceded her. With Full Frontal, Bee has been able to reinvent the genre on her own terms. The closest any other host comes to her passionate, rabble-rousing style is John Oliver, but Bee takes the profanity beyond his mere A-holes and F-bombs.
In a patriarchy that has conditioned all of us to struggle with sexist preconceptions, it may appear as a contradiction – how can this respectably married (to former Daily Show correspondent, Full Frontal executive producer and fellow Canuck Jason Jones), cake-baking, erstwhile mommy-blogger with three children under 12 go off to work and shamelessly turn the air blue on national TV? It tends not to be the kind of question that John Oliver, also married (to a war vet), also a parent, also fond of spluttering expletives, gets asked. It helps if you realize that, by using language traditionally meant to demean and intimidate women, Bee is co-opting and neutralizing its destructive power.
When I ask Bee how she'd define the difference between other late-night shows and Full Frontal, she offers an example: "On The Daily Show, I did a piece about rape victims who have to fight for custody if a child was born. Even if their rapist was in prison, he could make a case for custody and visitation. I thought it was 100-per-cent worth telling, but there were a lot of goofy jokes in it to lighten the mood, and in the end, I think we pulled it back from the edge in a way I wouldn't choose to do on my own show. I don't fault Jon – it was his sensibility and his show, and he cared deeply about the story. But it was a really great lesson in what you can do when you're not telling the story through someone else's editorial point of view."
With her own show, she gets to dictate tone and content. "I will say, I think it's really refreshing to talk about abortion. It's actually more challenging for people than anyone would think."
As for whether Full Frontal with Samantha Bee can save the world from Trumpism, it's the kind of question she's possibly tired of answering. The night before, when an audience member asked, "Do you feel your show has a responsibility to the world, and not just to make funny jokes?" Bee got a laugh with her one-word answer – "no." Asked to elaborate, she says, "I'll never, never, never go there. There's a really fine line between the comedy we do and activism. If you step over that line for 'good,' your comedy show is dead."
And yet, you can see where viewers might get confused. For one thing, she exhorts. At the end of the rape-kit piece, she wishes someone would run against "ding-dongs" like Unterman. She buys a "shit ton" of Girl Scout cookies after the Archbishop of St. Louis, Mo., asks parishes to cut ties with the Girl Scouts, citing conflicts over contraception and abortion. Her website provides donor info for refugee causes and Syria's White Helmets, and she raises money for Planned Parenthood by selling T-shirts featuring an obscene epithet taken from one of the misogynistic tweets that she, like all opinionated women, must endure in this business. After the mass shooting in Orlando in June, Bee and her staff revamped the entire show overnight to address gun violence. Bee, her voice shaking with anger, began with: "Hey, is it okay if instead of making jokes, I just scream for seven minutes?"
The sense of mission is felt behind the scenes as well. Full Frontal's diverse staff is setting a new standard for late-night, and even crew members see Bee as a crusader. Head utility technician Kevin Whitfield tells me he's been at CBS for 43 years, his uncle was the first black cameraman at CBS, and his feminist wife is appalled at his postelection optimism. But he's confident Full Frontal will make a difference: "This show is one of the vehicles that's going to help people get together."
In the Full Frontal offices, serious political discussions are constant. Supervising producer Pat King is mulling over an idea about how the word "conservative" has lost all meaning. "You go back to the birth of conservatism with Edmund Burke and he supported the American Revolution because, yeah, these people aren't being represented well but they basically want to keep the structure of government they have in place. But he didn't support the French Revolution because those people just wanted to burn everything to the ground. You look at conservativism now, and it's burn everything to the ground – privatize Medicare, get rid of Obamacare. These things are radical. They're not conservative in any way."
In the next office, showrunner Jo Miller, who worked with Bee at The Daily Show (and was the first person Bee called when she got her own late-night slot), rails about the left: "We are just completely fed up with the term 'identity politics' being thrown around and the panicked Democratic response to loss being to throw black people under the bus and everybody move to Wisconsin and hold hands with a farmer."
But there's no mistaking this is a workplace also committed to having fun. On Miller's wall is a poster of Woodrow Wilson labelled with the same epithet Bee gets called on Twitter, overlooking 50 bottles of bourbon Miller received from fellow producer Tony Hernandez for her 50th birthday.
As we're talking, executive producer Miles Kahn sticks his head in the door to discuss a cartoon for that night's show: the Statue of Liberty setting New York Harbor on fire in 1939 to block an incoming boat of Jewish refugees fleeing the Third Reich. But the fact-checkers are saying their boat didn't actually enter the harbour. Miller says she doesn't think there was actual fire in the torch either. It's a metaphor. Kahn dryly answers, "Look, I wasn't there. That was a pre-post-truth society, so we don't know what happened."
Over two days of formal interviews and many casual conversations with Bee's staff, no one would agree with me that Full Frontal leans more toward journalism and advocacy than humour.
"My job is to make a comedy show," writer and correspondent Ashley Nicole Black says. "If I focus too much on the changing-the-world aspect, the comedy suffers." If anything, the show has changed her, she says. As a black person trying to get white Republicans to say "black lives matter" in one segment, she says, "I had so many people put their arms around me and very kindly say some of the most racist things I've ever heard in my life. My conclusion is they're good people, but they've been fed a steady, non-stop Fox News diet of hateful information, and they're trying to square off in their head, 'How can I love this person who's in front of my face, because I'm a loving person, when I have all this information about how terrible black people are?' " Getting out to meet those people, "and connect with them and talk to them," she says, "has just really expanded my idea of what America is."
Kahn, whose 92-year-old grandmother appears in a samanthabee.com video wearing a T-shirt with – yep – the ever-popular obscene epithet ("My grandson Miles tricked me into wearing this T-shirt on his fakakta show!"), says they're always "striving to come up with new ways to tell complex stories, and then somehow make them funny. We really want to hear people out – have good arguments and then make a dumb joke too."
Miller will go so far as to say, "I think being funny is a necessary part of changing the world." She cites the Kabarettists of 1930s Germany. "I was reading the first-person account of a man who went to see Werner Finck" – an anti-Nazi comedian – "with his girlfriend, and they emerged with the feeling of courage for the first time. Now, we are not living under Chancellor Hitler, and free expression has not been outlawed, and I'm not making an equivalence. But the role of laughing, of showing people how to laugh, not just in the darkness, but at the darkness, I think is helpful to people."
Ultimately though, "comedy and satire has very little effect on the world," she says. "If that was our aim, we'd probably all kill ourselves."
'It's all of us against Trumpism'
Bee's final show of 2016 was classic Full Frontal: a focus on local politics, exhortations to action and small encounters between unlikely characters.
The local politics are in North Carolina. After chastising whiny liberals who wanted to subvert the U.S. Electoral College, Bee shows how state Republicans gerrymandered districts to gain power, then abused that power to kneecap an incoming Democratic governor.
Bee delivers a Rick Mercer-style rant: "While Democrats are busy signing petitions and frantically googling the word 'emoluments,' savvy Republicans get elected to the state house, shut the door and go hog-wild, until one day you wake up and wonder, 'Hey where'd the Planned Parenthood go?' and 'Why is my tap water so thick?' So if you're looking for a place to put your energies, stop trying to overturn a national election and start working on a local election. They matter."
The unlikely combination of characters are Veterans for American Ideals and Syrian refugees. Full Frontal correspondent (and Bee's long-time friend and fellow Torontonian) Allana Harkin cites charges that refugees are draining resources from homeless vets. Then, animated love hearts float around her head as former marine Phil Klay explains media are falsely pitting the two groups against each other: "It's absolutely important to take care of veterans. It's also pretty important to take care of refugees."
The capper is a segment with Bee interviewing Glenn Beck at his radio studio in Dallas. After years of hateful right-wing rhetoric, the talk-radio host has apologized for dividing America and helping Trump get elected; he's also contributed clothes, toys and $2-million (U.S.) in food to undocumented immigrants on the U.S. southern border. But Beck's still an arch-conservative, so it's funny but tense as he and Bee warily eye each other and trade a few insults. Then he asks why she invited him on her show. "I think our future is going to require a broad coalition of non-partisan decency. It's not just individual people against Donald Trump. It's all of us against Trumpism," Bee says.
"I agree," Beck says.
Later, I ask Bee how having Beck on her show is different from Jimmy Fallon messing up Trump's hair on his show during the election campaign – which Full Frontal attacked as the endorsement of a "race-baiting demagogue."
"I absolutely think there's a difference," she says. "Glenn Beck has something to say. He's apologetic for the damage he did. He's putting goodness back in the world."
The idea first came up, she says, when they thought Clinton would win. "I'm not even kidding. And because we're such amazing people, we wanted to make this magnanimous gesture to the 'losing' side, reach across the aisle and find a way to heal the country."
After the election, they decided to pursue Beck anyway. "I think it was us kind of desperately reaching out to someone we thought we might have a similarity with. He owns the role that he played in dividing the country, in a way that is so refreshing and that I really respected. He's done more for humanity at this point than I have ever done, so I take a lesson from that."
Samantha Bee is not going to save the world. It's the kind of silly proposition one uses to frame an article such as this, while trying to figure out what exactly she is doing.
Which now seems obvious: She's making a comedy show with a strong point of view that suggests we save ourselves. Get involved in local politics. Start building bridges with unlikely one-on-one connections. Stop seeing aggressive, opinionated women as a contradiction in terms.
As I leave the building, Bee walks out with me, and we chat about non-late-night stuff. She and Jones have another show on TBS, a half-hour sitcom called The Detour (season two returns on the Comedy Network in February), which Jones also stars in, and is the kind of show Bee would be happy to go to if the late-night thing blows up.
As she walks down West 57th, unrecognizable inside a giant down parka, she talks about keeping things in perspective. "I don't take all of it too seriously, maybe because I'm Canadian," she says. "I have a life outside of this. I have my kids. I was a waiter before. I can go back to it."