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John Doyle: Samantha Bee shifts late-night comedic reporting to Full Frontal

Samantha Bee arrives and immediately shows a clip from her new show.

It's what they call a field report. Bee reports on how the U.S. Veterans Administration is ready to deal with the needs of female military personnel, now that all combat roles are open to women. Or not ready, as it turns out.

She discovers that the VA computer system has no words for female body parts, such as "vagina" and "cervix." She talks to a woman injured in combat who needed a prosthetic leg and was given one designed for a man. The toes of the foot had to be cut off. The woman jokes that the VA just isn't ready for women. "Not unlike the world of late-night television," Bee wisecracks.

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The clip is uncanny. You could be watching The Daily Show a year ago. Bee's reporting style – deadpan, feigning surprise and ending with a sharp wisecrack – is the same as ever. And watching it, one remembers how Jon Stewart relentlessly mocked the VA.

The Canadian Bee, who was The Daily Show's longest-serving correspondent, was not approached about hosting the show when Stewart announced he was leaving. But that's not what she's here to discuss. Except to say in passing that the show is a machine that could run without her or other long-time staff. She does, however, keep making jokes about all-male late-night TV.

Bee jumped at the chance to have her own show, Full Frontal, a once-a-week comedic take on news and social issues on TBS, a channel being revitalized and getting a major makeover from its new head, former Fox executive Kevin Reilly.

She introduces Jo Miller, the woman who is running the show, and who was one of her producers on The Daily Show. Miller is sitting there knitting, as if knitting were her top priority. The show will start on Feb. 8 (on Comedy in Canada), mere weeks away, but Miller acknowledges that they haven't settled on a format or finished designing the studio. But it definitely won't have Bee sitting at a fake news desk.

Told the piece about the VA and women looked a lot like a Daily Show bit, Bee simply said: "Uh-huh. Well, I think it's natural that it would. That's the type of show Full Frontal is going to be, having a pretty heavy field element, because that was work that I loved doing so much. I'm really passionate about it, and I thought it would be a really interesting and unique thing to keep going. And we definitely are expanding that world, and we are definitely going to mix up the styles of things, and we are definitely going to evolve the medium. That's the plan."

And evolving the medium means a lot more field pieces that are more political and less about skewering an institution.

"We have a bunch of stories in the works. We have a story about the rise of Islamophobia during election cycles in particular that's very, very interesting. And I went to Jordan. We are going to do a cultural orientation for Americans in order to better receive the Syrian refugees who are coming to this country, as they have to do an American cultural orientation in Jordan in order to be resettled. We just did a thing on the Oregon freedom fighters who have taken over a bird sanctuary, and we just did it from the point of view of the animals at the sanctuary."

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Miller is more succinct than Bee about the tone and themes of Full Frontal and what will distinguish it from other late-night shows with male hosts. "We're not that interested in puncturing hypocrisy and, saying: 'You said that, but then you did this!' Yeah, people are hypocrites, whatever, but that's boring. Hypocrisy isn't as interesting to us as injustice."

Bee adds: "Yes. Really, at the show, what we want to do is take stories that we don't think receive enough attention and stab them with the hot poker of comedy."

When asked if she will be bringing something to Full Frontal that she wouldn't have been able to bring to The Daily Show, Bee says: "Absolutely, yeah." And she explains, without naming names, that some of her pieces had to be retooled to fit someone else's preordained vision of the piece. She admits to frustration, but has no ill feeling about Jon Stewart. None, she is at pains to point out.

"I learned a lot from Jon. I have to say I learned an awful lot from Jon. I worked with him for 12 years, and I learned a lot about what goes into a healthy and robust work ethic, that's for sure, and how to steer a ship. So I would say Jon is a role model."

She didn't get The Daily Show job, as some fans of the show wanted, wasn't asked to apply, but is it fair to see Full Frontal mainly in the context of the dearth of female late-night show hosts? "It makes complete sense to me that would be part of the conversation," Bee stressed. "There are not a wealth of women in late night and women's issues are extremely important to me."

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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