With all the controversy, conversation, and indelible memes, it’s hard to say that we don’t pay enough attention to diversity in late night. (“We,” of course, meaning viewers and critics, not the executives and producers who actually make hiring decisions — otherwise said conversations wouldn’t need to happen in the first place.) But even with so much attention on who’s delivering monologues or sitting behind the desk, it’s easy to lose sight of what diversity or representation actually means. We can talk about varying perspectives or hold up negative examples until we’re blue in the face, but sometimes it’s hard to know what’s missing until it’s not missing anymore.
Judging by the first-ever cold open of Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, late night’s newest host is ready to stop talking and start showing off. While, in real life, Bee has been happy to answer questions about What It Means to be a woman with her own show, the filmed short reflects a frustration with that particular line of inquiry that’s as predictable as it is justified. Why talk, once again, about “what it’s like to be a female woman” when she can finally just go ahead and tell us — and throw in a good ol’ witchcraft scene for good measure?
After an uncommonly strong premiere for a genre where careers are often evaluated in decades rather than individual episodes, it seems that Bee is here to move the conversation forward from asking for a different kind of late night to simply showing how it’s done. While she’s discussed diversity in the press, in terms of her and executive producer Jo Miller’s gender as well as the makeup of the writers’ room they carefully put together, not much of Full Frontal‘s premiere took an explicitly feminist angle. Instead, Bee dove right into the topic she’s clearly eager to return to after a months-long hiatus: the weird, wild world of American elections.
Not all of Bee’s one-liners had the freshest angles, though the world can always use more epithets for Donald Trump (“sentient caps-lock button”; “an oddly tinted compilation of psychiatric symptoms”) and Ted Cruz (“fist-faced horseshit salesman”). Yet it’s hard to imagine any other political comic treating Hillary Clinton as not just a power-hungry insider doing a poor job of hiding it, à la SNL‘s Kate McKinnon, but also someone forced to sit and watch as young women reject her despite “the breast-pump rooms and maiden names I won them with my pain.”
The edge, unsurprisingly, came out when Bee was confronted with the sheer ignorance of Republicans’ feelings, not to mention laws, about women. It turns out the missing perspective she’s promised to provide might be sheer, scathing exasperation with the ignorance of Marco Rubio or “Elected Paperweight of the Month” Mitch Holmes; I can’t remember any political joke in recent memory that felt as cathartic as Bee explaining, with the condescending patience of a kindergarten teacher, that “removing a fetus on the due date isn’t an abortion — it’s called a Caesarean.”
These cracks are all the more effective for how smoothly they’re integrated into the show, and how they opt for amusement and something approaching pity over straightforward anger. Bee’s jokes cut deeper by virtue of their refusal to take male idiocy seriously, channeling a set of emotions I encounter all the time in conversations with friends but haven’t quite seen replicated on television.
Full Frontal‘s final demonstration of its skill set, however, was something Bee had both emphasized in the run-up to the premiere and specialized in during her time at The Daily Show.
This week’s field report follows a “foreign-exchange producer,” rather than Bee herself, to the frozen tundra of New Hampshire. Its subject? The “question mark of a man with an exclamation point” Jeb Bush, whose tragic campaign Full Frontal documents with all the self-seriousness and gloriously accurate accent work of Werner Herzog.
Though future episodes will explore weightier issues like the Syrian refugee crisis and restrictive abortion laws, Full Frontal‘s first outing is defined by the complete and utter glee that only schadenfreude can give. A supporter earnestly compares Jeb! to milk; the candidate himself insists he loves campaigning even as we watch him fight through 100-person town halls; and in the most poetic shot of the night, an abandoned campaign headquarters is now occupied by a lone sack of garbage. It’s harsh, it’s silly, and it’s as different an approach to news satire as Bee’s point of view is to feminism. Rather than reacting to disastrously produced cable news in the vein of her old boss, Bee plans to go out and make it herself.