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.
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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.
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