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Can ‘Full Frontal’ Host Samantha Bee Break into the Emmys Boys Club?

Can 'Full Frontal' Host Samantha Bee Break into the Emmys Boys Club?


The first episode of “Full Frontal with Samantha
Bee” begins with a press conference, and the premise of this piece is the
butt of the joke. (Mea culpa.) Fielding questions about being a woman in late
night TV, being a woman with male viewers, and being a “female
woman,” full stop, Bee purses her lips and tilts her head, baffled, but no
one pauses to let her respond — to ask after her gender in such stale terms, it
seems, is to presume to know the answer. By the time Bee cashes in on her
initial silence, however, practicing witchcraft and advising Hillary Clinton to
“fuck off,” the opening gag turns out to be the perfect setup: No
shrinking violet, “Full Frontal” is the swarmer in the boxing ring,
holding gendered expectations close enough to land a barrage of comic punches.

Such swift changes of key, acknowledging, embracing, and
skewering Bee’s status as late night’s lone female host, require an agile talent at the helm, and for all the clever winks and nods at the subject — the
series’ “sausage party”-themed promotional campaign; Peaches’ punk-inflected,
gender-bending theme
, “Boys Wanna Be Her” — it’s “The Daily
Show” alumna’s deft performance that lends “Full Frontal” this
bristle of self-awareness. At once satire and stand-up routine, Bee’s monologues
are flecked with lacerating insults (she describes Ted Cruz, perfectly, as
“the junior senator from the uncanny valley”), but it’s her body
language that speaks most clearly. “Full Frontal” is political comedy
as it might be rendered in emoji, a sublime, hilarious collision between ironic
mugging and actual disgust.

Liberated from the format’s moth-eaten furnishings, Bee
frequently tenses, crumples, or contorts as if she were in pain, biting back
her barely suppressed rage at a society in which, to cite one example, the “moderate” Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is a leader
in the anti-choice movement. (After playing a clip of Donald
Drumpf discussing his penis size during a GOP debate, she scrapes vomit from the
camera lens, unable to hold down her bile.) The result — neither as broad as
Jon Stewart and Comedy Central-era Stephen Colbert, nor as sunny as Trevor Noah
and John Oliver — is a rather remarkable high-wire act, one that sends up the stereotype of the female comedian as harridan, engages the viewer as
confidant, and refuses to shy away from criticism of other women. That the
third episode’s razor-sharp segment “Samantha Bee’s #Roar, You-Go-Girl Job
Fair for Future Women Lean In!” manages to draw attention to harassment
and sexual assault in the workplace while throwing shade at Sheryl Sandberg’s
up-by-the-bootstraps privilege is a kind of tonal miracle: “Full
Frontal” has so many layers it might be described as metafeminism.

Aided, I suspect, by gender parity in the writers’ room, the
series thus succeeds in treating issues that affect women — dress codes,
abortion rights, untested rape kits — without cordoning them off as
“women’s issues,” allowing sex and gender to color its approach to
the importance of midterm elections (which installed “Benghazi Queen Trey
Gowdy”) or Islamophobia (“It’s like a NuvaRing of bigotry!” Bee
says of a graph showing broad Republican support for Drumpf’s proposed Muslim ban).
Indeed, more than any of her current late-night colleagues, buttoned-up behind their sprawling desks, Bee ventures into the world herself,
interviewing Syrian refugees and Drumpf supporters at the risk of becoming the
subject of her own comedy. “So, in the big bukkake of media,” she
asks a member of the latter group, uttering the funniest line I’ve heard on
television so far this year, “I’m the one at the bottom of the fuck
pile?”

At a moment of unprecedented flux in the late night
landscape, with Stewart off the air, Noah suffering by comparison, and
Colbert’s “Late Show” flagging in the ratings, the fact that I’m
still laughing at Bee’s blue joke even as I write bodes well for her Emmy
chances. It’s high time: Before the split into Variety Talk and Variety
Sketch — the latter won by another unabashedly feminist comedy, “Inside
Amy Schumer” — the last series starring a woman to win the Emmy in this
category was “Tracey Takes On” in 1997. (“Saturday Night
Live” won for Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music, or Comedy Series
under head writer Tina Fey in 2002.) “Last Week Tonight with John
Oliver” remains essential viewing — and might well have emerged victorious last year, had Stewart and David Letterman not chosen to end their impressive runs — but
“Full Frontal” is the late night program whose laughs seem to hit the hardest.

Whether fetishes, NuvaRings, “Rapetown, U.S.A.,” and
“sexy Braille” will pass muster with the TV Academy is an open
question, but Bee appears mercifully unwilling to steer “Full
Frontal” in any direction besides her own. This is, in the end, what
distinguishes it from the inherited institutions of her brethren, bound to
traditions and expectations rather than determined to blow them to bits. In the
big bukkake of late night, Bee may now find herself on the bottom rung of the
ladder, but when it comes to shaping the format’s future, she’s the loudest
voice in the room.  

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” airs Mondays at 10:30pm on TBS. 

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